The Children’s Discovery Museum of San José is opening a new outdoor exhibit this fall to give kids a place to play in nature.
Bill’s Backyard: Bridge to Nature is designed to be a hybrid between a playground and a nature park, where children can choose their own adventures, and parents can feel comfortable letting them. The half-acre exhibit includes large tree-shaped structures connected by sky bridges, a grassy hill and slide, a dig pit, and a fort-building area suitable for forts or fairy gardens.
“Today when kids are outside, they are with their parents at an outdoor playground or in structured sports,” says Children’s Discovery Museum Executive Director Marilee Jennings. “While those both are wonderful experiences, some of these things that we believe as an organization are really critical skills are best developed when the child gets to choose what he or she wants to do.”
Inspired in part by the work of Richard Louv on “nature deficit disorder,” the museum wanted to build a place for kids to safely develop risk-taking skills, creative thinking, and an appreciation for the natural resources.
The museum ran a pilot exhibit called “Sticks, Stones, and Mud,” and Education and Strategic Initiatives Director Jenni Martin said the CDM staff was thrilled to see kids and parents playing in the dirt.
“I find many people who are parents now had those type of experiences, and have a sort of nostalgia around the freedom of playing in the backyard or playing in the woods near their house, and that’s a part of what connects them to nature now,” Martin said. “There aren’t a lot of places for that free play anymore.”
Jennings and Martin hope the play space inspires kids and parents to become stewards of the natural world outside of the museum. The exhibit also includes elements of a traditional nature park, like a junior ranger station, and a large map in the style a visitor might find in a county park. A creek bed running the length of the backyard will fill with water only when it rains, mimicking the Guadalupe River, which is visible just past the Bill’s Backyard fence. During the drought, CDM staff watched the water level in the Guadalupe drop lower and lower. Jennings says this connection with the drought-affected river inspired the museum to think beyond just an outdoor play space to an experience that would teach children and parents about the natural systems that shape the South Bay, especially bodies of water and rain.
“We think the real educational lesson is to demonstrate that water is a precious natural resource,” she says. “The dry creek bed is only going to have water in it when Mother Nature provides it. The rest of the time it is an area for climbing, digging, stacking rocks, and discovering what insects live in that environment.”
The CDM had explored the idea of an outdoor exhibit for the past decade, but the project came together in 2015 after the Agilent Technologies Foundation donated seed funding in honor of CEO Bill Sullivan’s retirement. Bill’s Backyard is named after Sullivan, CDM’s largest individual donor during the last 10 years and a longtime board member.
Visit the Children’s Discovery Museum of San José at cdm.org.