I often want to spend time outdoors with my son, to let him poke around the leaves, jump, run, climb and get dirty – but without the crowds and without a big production. One of my favorites spots in Los Angeles is the Audubon Center at Debs Park (4700 North Griffin Ave.; 323-221-2255; www.debspark.audubon.org). It is small enough that you can keep an eye on your child, and wild enough for kids to feel they are roaming free.
The Audubon Center is a children’s garden, education center and meeting place. A small uphill driveway leads directly into the Audubon’s parking lot, which has ample parking. As you walk through the entrance, you are greeted by a small square fountain with tiny fish and plants. The walls and fountain are inscribed with quotes about nature.
The building, the first certified green building in the U.S., is fascinating for adults and probably for teens as well. It is completely solar powered, so off the grid. Most parts are made out of recycled and organic building materials. Native plants complete the landscaping.
Inside are a few reptiles in terrariums and information about the center. However, the real treat for parents is the stock of art supplies, binoculars, pails and shovels, bird watching kit and numerous other items you can borrow for free, including baby carriers for hiking. Families can check out as many items as they like just by depositing their driver’s license or car keys with a staff member at the front desk.
On this particularly lucky day, a naturalist was onsite and brought Fluffy, a snake, out of her terrarium. She told us all about Fluffy’s life, explaining how snakes use smell to sense others, how to touch them, how they move, why they curl up around people’s arms when being held (they are afraid of falling!) and how to hold them. She even put Fluffy on the ground to slither around the children a bit. I noticed the parents were equally, if not more, intrigued by Fluffy than the children.
After the entryway, there is a second courtyard surrounded by the administrative buildings, meeting rooms and restrooms. At one end is a large stone fountain that kids like to walk on. At the other end is a natural looking fountain made up of large rocks and a small waterfall. This is part of the entrance to the children’s garden.
The children’s garden is separated from the rest of Debs Park by a fence. A few hiking trails from the Audubon lead in and out of Debs Park, but there is only one entrance to the children’s garden, and that is through the Audubon courtyard. I especially like this feature because my son can play freely around the garden and I don’t have to worry about him going too far. Also, there is no poison oak in the children’s garden, but there is in Debs Park. Once inside, you usually see groups of school children or three to five other families.
There are two short hikes we sometimes go on adjacent to the Audubon. One is the Hummingbird Trail and the other is the Butterfly Loop. These are particularly nice for older kids. However, families with little ones can borrow the baby carrier and be on their way.
Through the arched entryway and past the bridge is a small hummingbird garden and shaded table-and-bench area. It is a comfortable place to have lunch. If your child is particularly adventurous or athletic, she can climb up the rocks on the waterfall (which is dry unless someone pumps water from the pump station above) to the upper level of the garden. You can also check out pails and shovels and spend time digging at the “river” bed.
Otherwise, walk up the path and you will be delighted by the child-size house and large trees that provide ample shade and lots of climbing opportunities. There are also several benches and tables. This is where we parked ourselves and had snacks. We got water from the water fountain and began painting at the tables. Beyond this area is a path that brings you to a bridge that overlooks the rocks, to a small tent-fort, to the water pump, to more plants and views and back to the grove of trees.
There is plenty to do here, and every time we visit we do something different. We easily spend two hours climbing trees, pumping water, climbing rocks, painting or digging. The staff is tremendously friendly and helpful.
You can reserve meeting rooms, have birthday parties there or participate in Tai Chi, outdoor film screenings or art activities. There are lectures, hiking and music events as well as volunteer opportunities.
Admission is free. Check out their website before visiting, as their hours are different from those of Debs Park.
May Jong is a Los Angeles-based artist, educator and mother.