Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

New garden at Point Defiance

Kids can wander, explore, build, play and learn at the new Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Little Explorers Nature Play Garden. (Photo/Katie Cotterill)

New Nature Play Garden at Point Defiance Zoo is great for toddlers

This beautiful new space offers free play plus some great educational programs.

Climb, balance, hop, skip and jump around at the newest play space at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Opening April 1 (2022), the Little Explorers Nature Play Garden is a toddler’s dream! Designed for children ages 3-5, the activities at this kid-friendly area promote free and unstructured play in a natural woodsy environment.

Plants, bugs and pollinators

Surrounded by more than 60 plant species, children will use all their senses to observe free-range bees, butterflies, bugs and hummingbirds – some of the plant-pollinators that participate in flowering and food production in the garden.

[ While you’re there: 6 things to do with kids in Point Defiance Park ]

New garden at Point Defiance

Additional photos by Jasmin Thankachen

Bugs Alive is back

The garden hosts a stage for special presentations on the east side of the garden that anchors the woodsy setting. Surrounded by wooden benches, parents and children can have a seat to watch what’s playing on the screens. Beginning May 7, the popular Bugs Alive! program returns with the intention of giving smaller groups of kids an informal and intimate experience seeing and learning about different types of bugs. Why does the scorpion glow? What are those little hairs on a tarantula?

The stage will also be used for more formal presentations and keeper talks, scheduled at various times throughout the day.

Intimate bug experiences

Keepers will bring a variety of bugs to show the audience. Sharing information about these bugs helps children (and adults) become less scared of these many-legged creatures. The more we know about their purpose, the better and more respectful we feel about these insects that share our environment.

New garden at Point Defiance

Airplane arms!

Climb up on the balance beam and use the posts to keep from falling. A great space to practice gross motor skills, little ones will feel a sense of accomplishment, especially after sticking their landing! The equipment at the Nature Play Garden allows for safe risk-taking, a concept important for a child’s mental health and growth.

Imagination Station

The Builder’s Deck is made of locally sourced tree trunks and shaved-down pieces of wood. It blends right into the forest setting and offers toddlers another form of free play.

Build a tower and knock it down or be creative with all the pieces and make a masterpiece of art. Whatever kids decide to do at this station, they’ll have fun making a variety of things. And if a child walks off with a stick or a cone, don’t worry! Staff and volunteers restock materials often.

New garden at Point Defiance

Tunnel to the other side

Follow the path to the flower-covered trellis and discover what’s on the other side. When the white flowers are fully grown, it will be like kids travelling in and out of a magical tunnel. Imagination ensues as little ones begin to climb into the nest structure on the other side.

Baby bird

Interweaving branches create an intricate nest for more creative and imaginative play. Pretend to be a baby bird and wait for mama to bring you worms. Or pick up the fallen sticks and find spaces within the nest to make the structure stronger.

Garden senses

The sensory garden bustles with an edible assortment of plants. Use the senses to feel the leaves – some are soft to the touch, while others are bristly. Smell the distinct aroma of each plant. You may have to pinch a leaf to release the oils to really entice the olfactory – what do you smell? Is it sweet or savory? Listen for garden pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds! In the summer, the garden will bloom and bear fruit.

Don’t miss the wood chimes: Taller than a toddler, the apparatus is easy to grab and let go to make a special sound.

Take a break

Benches around the park provide a space to rest for children (adults too!) and/or a place to have a snack or picnic lunch. The park is small enough that you can keep track of your toddlers, but if you have children who like to wander beyond where their adult can see, then keep close. The entrances on either side of the play garden are not gated and are free for little legs to explore out of the park. Nearby the park, there are restrooms and a cafe for extra provisions. If you’re seeking tables, there is a seating area directly behind the park.

More things to do at the zoo for all ages

The zoo’s animal and aquarium exhibits are open with winter hours ending and spring and summer hours beginning in April.  In addition to the Bugs Alive! program making a comeback, the Budgie Birds experience will be open on May 7. My kids love to enter the exhibit and feed the birds seeds! Free-flying birds land on the feeding stick, some even on your head!

If you’ve seen the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theatre shows before, you’re in for a treat! New shows are scheduled to begin on May 7. So many animals are in the show, like the aardvark, dogs, parrots, a leopard, anteater, beaver, owl and even a DRAGON! It’s something you won’t want to miss.

The aquarium moved a few years ago into the new Pacific Seas building, where you’ll find an octopus camouflaged in its exhibit, plenty of jellyfish, and an opportunity to experience the touch pools.

There are so many options of fun at the Point Defiance Zoo for all ages. Explore the zoo and then take a break at the toddler-friendly Play Garden. Immerse them in nature and explore all the different activities at the park! I guarantee it won’t be a place they’ll want to leave quickly!

New garden at Point Defiance: Know before you go

  • The Little Explorers Nature Play Garden opens April 1
  • The Nature Play Garden is included with admission to the zoo
  • Play Garden is ADA and stroller-friendly
  • Stroller parking is available outside the Play Garden
  • Check the website for spring and summer hours
  • Timed-tickets are recommended
  • Free parking at the zoo


More animal and nature fun in Seattle’s Child:

Cougar Mountain Zoo: all of the animals, none of the crowds

Sammamish Animal Sanctuary: unplugged, outdoor family fun

These  public gardens make a great family outing

About the Author

Jasmin Thankachen

Jasmin is the Associate Publisher at Seattle's Child and an Eastside mom of two boys. She enjoys parenting with lots of love and laughter. Co-Founder of PopUp StoryWalk, she also loves children's picture books, essay writing, and community stories.