The Museum of Life and Science in Durham opened its new Gateway Park with little fanfare this month, but that's not because it won't make a big impact on visitors' experiences.
The park is the first thing visitors will see when they head out of the museum's main building to go to the museum's other popular exhibits - the butterfly house, Dinosaur Trail, train rides, Into the Mist and more. And that's why the park is called Gateway Park - it serves as a gateway between the indoor and outdoor areas.
This isn't a brightly colored playground. Instead, the structures focus primarily on natural materials, fitting in with the museum's emphasis on natural play.
A long climbing piece is mostly made out of wood and rope. Depending on their ability, kids can climb from one end to the other or focus on particular sections. My five-year-old, for instance, climbed across wood logs suspended underneath a wooden beam. Meanwhile, her 10-year-old sister pulled herself on top of the beam to hang out, holding on to a rope.
"It's a lot of really using your body and exercising your mind to get from point A to point B," said Elizabeth Fleming, the museum's director for learning environments.
The park also features a large sand area with some trucks and diggers. A small hillside slide is perfect for little ones. The park is surrounded by benches and tall trees for shade. As museum staff find more areas that need shade (for instance, that metal hillside slide), they'll add sun shades, Fleming said.
When I was there last week, families were using the park as it was intended - a gathering and resting spot as they moved from one exhibit to the next. Parents parked themselves on the benches and were able to keep an eye on their kids.
The space replaces the aging Loblolly Park, the often bustling space with sand and water play, drums and a wooden play structure that kids would climb up and slide down. It closed in November.
Don't consider Gateway Park as a full replacement for the Loblolly experience. A much bigger replacement will come at the end of this summer when Hideaway Woods, complete with water play, multiple tree houses and more, opens. And, as Fleming noted, the kids and parents at the museum last week didn't seem to mind.
"It's been exciting to see it get so much use, so fast," she said.
Gateway Park is free with admission to the Museum of Life and Science, which is $14.50 for adults and $10 for kids ages 3 to 12.