A Children’s Music Garden in an Industrial Land

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Photo: Karen Burnham

The Gulf Coast of Texas is a blend of beautiful bayou and birding country and industrial wasteland. That was brought home to me as I visited the Baytown Nature Center not too far from my home near Houston. To get there from Highway 146, I drove over the Houston Ship channel (which goes to one of the busier ports in the world) and through a ginormous ExxonMobile chemical refinery (according to Wiki, one of the largest in the United States).

Baytown’s official motto is: “Where Oil and Water Really Do Mix.” It didn’t seem like a promising place to find a children’s playground, frankly.

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Image: Google Maps w/ additions by Karen Burnham

But once you enter the nature preserve, all of that changes. Through a trick of geography, the children’s area looks bucolic, not industrial at all. There are tons of birds soaring around and it gets a lovely breeze. You can see the impressive San Jacinto Monument from several vantage points. There’s a lot to love about this park, but I’m going to focus on the Music Garden, and specifically how it captures the spirit of Baytown by using recycled industrial welding canisters for many of its instruments.

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Photo: Karen Burnham

The Bayer Music Garden (almost every part of the park is sponsored by businesses or local families) has eight different stations, all of them fundamentally percussive. Four of them use brightly painted welding canisters, cut down to different sizes, to provide an array of drums, bells, or chimes. One series is stuck in the ground and topped with durable, flexible plastic, making a set of bongo drums just at kid height. Another four are strung up with the bottoms cut off and wooden clappers added to make bells.

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Photo: Karen Burnham

One of my favorites is two rounded domes set low, each with different patterns cut into them. One looks like whale tails, the other has a star. The way the patterns are cut, the different sections make different tones when struck with the attached rubber mallet. Other stations include welding canisters set on posts that can be spun or whacked, two sets of steel chimes, a large wooden xylophone, and a hollow wooden bench with carved out tonal areas. It’s such a creative idea and use of local material! I’m also impressed with the park’s upkeep and maintenance: when I had been there before, many of the rubber mallets and clappers had gone missing. This time they had all been freshly replaced.

Two caveats: one, the reason the park maintenance can be so good is that the park is fee-based. Unlike most of the free parks in the area, this one has a $3 per person charge, although kids under 12 get in free. We loved the center so much we decided to spring for a $40 family membership, and there’s also a $20 individual annual pass available. Another thing to remember is that Houston has the nickname “The Bayou City,” and bayou is just the fancy French word for swamp. So mosquitoes can be a problem. We went on a rare warm day after a string of cold days, and the little buggers were out for blood. Usually the breeze kept them away, but any instant it died down I was brushing them off my son and he still got bitten several times on his legs and neck. Given that mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue are making a resurgence, it’s probably best to consider bug spray.

Those concerns aside, I haven’t even mentioned the built-up hill and tunnel, the kid-sized animal statues for climbing on, the pirate ship, or the rope spider web. This is a park that offers a lot to explore, but I continue to be especially impressed with the way the Music Garden creatively blends the industrial and scenic characteristics of the area using recycled materials. Something that perhaps other parks can emulate!

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