Day Trips

by Gerald E. McLeod

photograph by Gerald E. McLeod

The H.E.B. Science Treehouse at the Witte Museum in San Antonio makes learning fun. For the under-12-years-old crowd, the building is a giant playhouse. For the 12-and-over visitors, the playhouse is a discovery zone of experiments and illustrations of the amazing world of science.

Most of us go about our business without asking questions like whether magnetic fields can be controlled and how levers and gears work. At the Science Treehouse these and other questions become games. Even though the participants may not think about what is happening, they learn valuable lessons in the use of pulleys, the organization of music, and other things that often are taken for granted.

Opened in February 1997, the Science Treehouse is a separate, four-story building behind the Witte Museum. On the banks of the San Antonio River, the museum shares Brackenridge Park with the San Antonio Zoo, the Pioneer Museum, the Sunken Gardens, and other recreation facilities. The park is northwest of downtown at 3801 Broadway, off the McAllister Freeway (US281).

Unlike the stuffiness of ordinary museums, the exhibits at the Science Treehouse are all hands-on. There are no "don't touch" signs here. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibits to experience the wonders of science and maybe get a better understanding of how things around them work.

An afternoon can pass as quickly as the animated video created at one of the play stations. Visitors can shoot a tennis ball 30 feet into the air with a simple pull of a rope, lift themselves with a pulley-and-rope contraption or play with games and puzzles.

One of the most popular areas is the Internet surfing station with nine computer terminals that have access to the World Wide Web. As is the case in all of the areas, young interns are ready to help answer questions or provide explanations.

The rooftop level of the Science Treehouse provides a beautiful view of the park and the river below, but also has exhibits. A small greenhouse is stocked with native plants. A maze on the floor is patterned after a Navajo rug in the Witte's permanent collection.

In the building's basement is an exhibit of artifacts found during an archaeological excavation along the San Antonio River. There kids can try digging for treasures.

And, of course, there really is a treehouse at the museum. Attached to the Science Treehouse by elevated walkways is a dual-level treehouse with binoculars to search the trees for wildlife. The smaller treehouse is the handiwork of San Antonio sculptor Carlos Cortes, who created two full-size concrete oak trees that look real.

After the fun and excitement of the Science Treehouse, it's a little difficult exploring the rest of the Witte's interesting, but more stoic, displays. For young hands, it is hard to distinguish what you can and can't touch. Still, since you already have the tykes at the musem, make them explore the Witte's interesting collection.

Founded in 1926 by a San Antonio school teacher, the museum survived the Depression by adding a snake charmer show to its archaeological and botany displays.

The museum's focus on history and science results in a strange juxtaposing of stuffed native animals with elaborate sequined gowns from the Fiesta parades. The museum's permanent collection includes a short film narrated by the late Texas humorist John Henry Faulk on Texas' ecological diversity. It also has artifacts from archaeologial expeditions in Texas, dinosaurs, mummies, and a unique collection of paintings of Texas.

On the grounds of the museum are three restored historic homes, and Austin sculptor Charles Umlauf created a fountain and two other sculptures in front of the museum.

The Witte Museum and the H.E.B. Treehouse are among Texas' learning treasures. One ticket gets you into both facilities. The museum is open Monday-Saturday from 10am-5pm, Sunday from noon-5pm. Everyone is admitted free on Tuesdays from 3-9pm. Admission is $5.95 for adults, $4.95 for seniors, $3.95 for children, and children three years old and under are admitted free. For more information, call the Witte at 210/357-1900 or

Coming up this weekend...

Carnival-Mardi Gras in San Marcos gives a regional flavor to a traditional celebration with Tejano music, local foods, and children's carnival, Jan. 20-22. 512/353-1103.

Polka Parties and Sing-alongs in Caldwell provides family entertainment every fourth Saturday of the month, Jan. 24. 409/535-8187.

Sea Saturdays at Galveston's Moody Gardens present marine conservation-oriented activities highlighting native Texas coast dolphins, and visitors help in painting a giant mural, Jan. 24 & 31. 800/582-4673.

Cactus Jazz Series continues at the historic Cactus Hotel in San Angelo. 915/653-6793.

Coming up...

Sam Bass Treasure Hunt/Mystery Game has participants searching Longhorn Caverns State Park for clues and money bags, Jan. 30-31. 512/756-4680.

Barn to Yarn in McKinney shows the path of fibers from animals to the stores with weavers demonstrating their art at Woolenworks Studio, Jan. 31. 972/542-2805.

Valentine Dinner & Musical Show at the Bastrop Opera House is taking reservations for the Feb. 13 & 14 shows, 512/321-6283.

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