Go Ask Mom

Destination: Museum of Life and Science's Hideaway Woods

This impressive new exhibit features a tree house village, a man-made stream, trails, a giant twig and sapling structure and much more.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Maybe it was the foggy air that streaked a misty look across the new outdoor nature exhibit at the Museum of Life and Science. Or the rain that made the vivid greens and browns of the tree-filled space really pop. Or maybe it's just that this new exhibit at the Durham museum is breathtaking.

But as my family and I walked into Hideaway Woods, the massive new exhibit that opens to the public Tuesday, Sept. 29, we all stopped for a moment to take it in.

In front of us were massive tree trunks for climbing and a man-made stream for wading. To our left was an impressive tree house village where kids and parents scrambled across rope bridges and viewed the world from high up. To our right was a 1,500-square-foot twig and sapling structure with little coves and hideaways, a perfect spot for hide-and-seek.

And then, my kids shot off, sprinting to the tree houses and running, climbing, wading and hiding for the next two hours. Note to all adults who bring kids to Hideaway Woods: Bring a full change of clothes. An old towel is probably a good idea too.

Hideaway Woods is part of a multi-phase plan to add new outdoor play spaces to the popular Durham museum. Gateway Park opened earlier this year, replacing the former Loblolly Park. Earth Moves now is slated to open in 2018.

Hideaway Woods stretches out across two acres of formerly undeveloped land inside the museum's train tracks. The new space is accessed through a tunnel under the tracks right next to Gateway Park. (Be sure to yell something as you walk through the tunnel. There's an echo!).

The goal here is nature play and exploration. Museum leaders hope to see kids getting messy, running, hiding, playing and exploring the outdoors. And they'd like to see parents get in on the action too.

"This is a great way for parents to engage with their kids outside, without screens," said Elizabeth Fleming, the museum's director for learning environments.

She hopes families embrace this kind of open-ended outdoor play. "It's really good for kids' development," she said.

The exhibit has several sections.

The centerpiece, probably, is that tree house village where eight tree houses rise as high as about 25 feet from the ground. Visitors access the tree houses from the lower four structures through a ramp, spiral staircase, stairs made from a single tree trunk or a cargo net.

From there, they can climb to the other four, which are accessed through a single rope bridge. (There was a bit of a traffic jam at that rope bridge on Saturday as dozens of kids and parents all climbed up to the top. I suspect those lines, which really weren't that long, to get up and down won't be as long once the newness has worn of and not every single adult and young child climbs to the top each time).

Rope bridges, which are a little intimidating for some at first, connect the higher structures to each other. My kids and I had a great time climbing between the buildings and checking it all out. You can get back down to the ground by one of two slides or going back down the way you went up.

For younger kids, who might be too young for the big tree houses, the museum added the Young Explorers section for kids 6 and under. Here, kids can explore a building that looks just like the tree houses in the main area, but is lower to the ground and built just for them. There's also a slide, an imaginative play area and a big hollow log that little ones can crawl on top of or in.

A man-made stream flows through the middle of the property. The water is recycled and treated. Here, kids are invited to play just as they would in a natural stream - splashing, wading, sitting and moving sticks and rocks to change the flow of water. My six-year-old was completely soaked from the waist down after playing in here.

Chapel Hill artist Patrick Dougherty, known around the world for his impressive twig and sapling structures, has built one here in Hideaway Woods - his 259th. You may have seen similar structures at the N.C. Zoo. and the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. Kids can run through and hide in the nooks and crannies of this piece, which covers about 1,500 square feet.

Three giant tree trunks, each weighing about 16,000 pounds sit at the entrance and are designed for climbing. (Two came from a tree that fell at E.K. Poe Elementary School in Durham, two of many exhibit pieces culled from trees and sites across Durham).

And there are trails, including a sensory trail, which is fully accessible, where kids are invited to gently shake trees (and find some hidden bells) and trample over logs and other surfaces, including some smooth surfaces for wheelchairs. The trail leads to a collection of hammocks, where visitors are invited to look up into the trees and sky. (My husband refers to this area as the "Dad Zone.").

"The idea back here," said Michele Kloda, the museum's exhibit designer, "is we wanted people to look up."

The key throughout the exhibit is to just let kids wander and have fun. Museum staff want parents to be involved with their kids, but also give them some space. If they pick up a stick to play, let them. If they dam up the stream with rocks, let them. If they run for hours, creating elaborating stores in the tree houses, let them.

"We want things out here that are very open-ended, very creative," Kloda said.

Museum staff definitely did their job, giving kids and families plenty of opportunities for creative outdoor play. Now it's time for kids and their adults to do theirs.

Some important details:

  • Hideaway Woods is free with admission to the museum, which is $14.50 for adults and $10 for kids ages 3 to 12. It is free for members. (Especially with Hideaway Woods, I could see spending an entire day at the museum).
  • There are no weight or age limits. (So, no excuses, adults!).
  • There is only one way in and out of the exhibit. It is bounded by a fence. The Young Explorers area has another fence.
  • There are restrooms and a changing area within the exhibit. A foot wash is coming soon.
  • Museum leaders are working on regular programs and events for Hideaway Woods.
Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday, but we're switching it up this week because Hideaway Woods opens Tuesday. For more ideas, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations.


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