Broadlands Nature Center

Where: 21907 Claiborne Pkwy., Ashburn, VA
When: Monday-Friday, 9 am- 5 pm, three Saturdays a month 10 am- 2 pm

Like any other witch, I lose my mojo when it rains. I become unmoored; what are we supposed to do NOW? I find going to the mall and playing on the mall playground categorically unacceptable, which means on rainy days I’m left scrambling for a good indoor activity. That’s how I ended up one drizzly afternoon earlier this summer at an HOA office in Ashburn and discovered one of my best rainy day spots. I keep this one in my back pocket for days when the weather just isn’t on our side, and I’m going to share it with you even though you’re undoubtedly thinking “There is no way this girl is fixing to send me to some HOA office in Ashburn with my kids.” Oh but I AM.

I fully agree with you that when I’m thinking of fun places to take my kids, the HOA office does not top the list. But that’s because my HOA office is boring and yours probably is as well. The Broadlands HOA office is a different animal completely. Inside the Broadlands HOA office is a small town gem- the Broadlands Nature Center.

I have known about Broadlands Nature Center for years yet never went until this summer because I didn’t think it would be particularly entertaining for my kids, and also because I assumed it was only open and accessible to Broadlands residents. Both of these beliefs were untrue; this nature center is so much more than it appears to be and the kind residents of Broadlands not only pay their HOA fees and volunteer to maintain it but graciously allow the rest of us to visit as well.

I took my girls here for the first time this summer and figured we would kill 15-20 minutes. We stayed for nearly two hours. I can’t explain what we find so special about this cozy little nature center- it’s small and inviting, the burbling bathtub turtle tanks act as soothing white noise, and there’s stuff to do in every single corner of the room. It welcomes you in and makes you want to stay awhile.

Broadlands Nature Center is run by volunteers and the first time we went, the elementary-aged son of the head volunteer was there to fulfill his afternoon duties. If I knew this kid’s name I would be compelled to write someone a letter to tell them what a great job they’ve done with him. He was just a neat kid- so patient and kind with my daughters and the other kids who were there that afternoon, so informative about the animals he was caring for. When it was time to feed Zoe, the resident rabbit, he very sweetly asked my girls if they wanted to stock her hay basket. He took me to the dove cage and showed me where one dove had been sitting on two eggs! He told me we were just in time to see Ziggy the corn snake be fed his weekly frozen mouse, and then informed me in a conspiratorial tone that one boy who was there came every week to see this.

In addition to Zoe the rabbit and Ziggy the corn snake, there’s two different species of turtle, a fish tank, and a wall of reptile cages with various small lizards and salamanders. Our most recent visit revealed a new citizen of the nature center- Kelso, the bearded dragon:

Cut into one wall is a hidden playroom for children, made to look like it’s carved out of the inside of a tree, filled to the brim with books and stuffed animals to play with. It’s like a tiny clubhouse hideaway where kids can just be small in a small space. They sit in there and from outside the room you hear the sounds of their voices making up storylines for the animals, or reading books. It is the sweetest little place, and I guess now that I think about it, this is why children seem to love the nature center: it doesn’t overwhelm. It doesn’t overstimulate. There is just enough there for them to be constantly engaged, but it’s a comfortable engagement, where they don’t feel a panic that they won’t squeeze it all in, or they’ll miss something crucial and exciting. They enter the nature center and run back and forth between animals and play room and back to the animals, absorbing it, taking it all in, and thoroughly enjoying the immersion in a small environment that just… allows them to be small.

The love and dedication of the nature center volunteers is evident in every inch of this space. Local children are just as involved in the upkeep and care of the nature center as adults- I have seen young children, the kind who most likely would leave their clothes all over their room in their own home, lovingly sweep up rabbit pellets and refill the box with clean litter, chatting happily while doing so. I have seen them toss handfuls of lettuce into the turtle tubs, then ask “What’s next on the list?” This little nature center is a labor of love, and it shows. I think that’s probably another reason why it is so inviting and pleasant. It is abundantly cared for.

Right inside the small bridge that you cross to enter the nature center is a Little Free Library; if you’ve got a few books lying around that no one reads anymore, consider bringing them to stock the library and possibly trade for other books left inside.

I tend to bring my kids to Broadlands Nature Center on rainy days, but it would be just as pleasant on a sunny day. There’s a covered porch out back with Adirondack chairs and right across the parking area is a small tot lot for children to play on.

In addition to the everyday operations of the nature center, the volunteers also lead special nature programs. I signed myself and my oldest up for a Snape’s Potions Class recently (we unfortunately had to miss because she woke up with a stomach bug- I mean, I tried not to let her know I was bummed but I was bummed) but they’ve also recently held programs about edible flowers and wild animal rehabilitation. If you’re interested in nature programs run through the center, bookmark their community events page. The classes are inexpensive and, if anything like the center itself, surely well done. And just look at this sense of humor:

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.

If you aren’t from Ashburn but I’ve successfully enticed you into taking your kids to Ashburn to visit what I really hope you’ll tell them is an HOA office and nothing more, just to mess with them, here’s some more ideas for how you can fill your day:

The W&OD Trail runs right through Old Ashburn. A parking lot is located right next to the phenomenal Carolina Brothers BBQ. You can park in the lot, hop on the W&OD and walk as long as you like, then pop into Carolina Bros on your way out for either a BBQ plate lunch or, if you just need a snack, old fashioned treats like peach Nehi and Moon Pies.

Right down the road from the W&OD jump on point is a local favorite playground known as Dinosaur Park (43465 Partlow Rd.) with four different play structures and a walking path down by a stream and into the woods. Kids LOVE this playground and it will keep them busy as long as you let them stay.

There’s so many big, historical, beautiful, exciting things to see where we live, but Broadlands Nature Center proves that sometimes, slowing down and just being small can be the best way to spend the day. I truly hope you’ll consider visiting this sweet little nature center and taking the time to… enjoy smallness.

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Leesburg Animal Park

Where: 19270 Monroe-Madison Memorial Hwy., Leesburg, VA
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am- 5 pm (Closed Mondays)

Over the winter, in the midst of a seemingly neverending string of snow days, I purchased a Certifikid deal for a visit to Leesburg Animal Park on a weekday to play in their new indoor play area. I thought this would be a great idea for something to do the next time school was canceled. However, I never used it, because it turns out, if the weather is bad enough to cancel school, I’m not particularly inclined to go out and drive in it. Go figure.

All that is to say when my neighbor and I took our kids to Leesburg Animal Park last week, it was the first time I have been there since the remodel and expansion that now includes the indoor play area, discovery room, indoor small animal exhibits, Lemur Island, and so much more. What used to be a small barnyard with a ticket shack is now a rather impressive little animal park.

Admission for my two kids and myself came to something like $37. I want to unpack this amount a bit, though. My toddler, under 2 years old, was free. My 5 year old was $14.95 because I bought the VIP pass that includes a pink souvenir cup with a bag of food to feed the animals tucked inside. (In theory, you get a free drinking cup to use at home! In reality, I haven’t seen it since we left the park. Whoops.) My admission as an adult was $11.95. Rounding out the total is a stuffed cockatoo my 5 year old saw in the gift shop area that is (conveniently!) located right at the entrance where you wait in line to pay admission. She’s currently very into birds and I’m a chump, so I bought it, but if you aren’t like me and are not a chump, your total would be considerably less once you subtract the cost of a stuffed cockatoo and/or a plastic cup with animal food in it. If you’re trying to avoid the allure of the gift shop, buy your tickets online and bring your confirmation email to the counter.

In any case, all four kids on the trip that day (who ranged in ages from 1.5-8) had a blast at the park for the two hours we were there and I do believe had we not made them leave they could have easily played well for another hour at least, so I considered $37 money well spent. If this is a bit steep for you, consider subscribing to Certifikid, which frequently offers discounted tickets or special admission rates.

Animals at the park include a variety of small mammals in indoor exhibits (chinchilla, sloth, lemur), several reptiles, and outdoors, a variety of animals you can feed and pet.

Lemur Island is accessible via a small bridge that crosses a pond filled to the BRIM with carp and bass. They teem at the edge, trained to expect a shower of kibble from the nearby gumball machine to rain down into their mouths. I have zero doubts some kid has reached down and picked one up straight out of the water with their bare hands. (I didn’t. But I could have.) (It seems there is actually a fishing tournament coming up where visitors are welcome to bring their own poles and compete to see who can catch the largest fish from the pond!)

After crossing the bridge you arrive on Lemur Island. You’re going to look at lemurs in their pen and sing “I like to move it move it” a few times. The lemurs will pay you zero attention.

In the original barnyard area of the park there are still various animals you can pet- alpaca, goats, ox; and a few you just admire- porcupine, kookaburra bird, and a giant tortoise. Various play structures are scattered around the main lawn of the park- several small playhouses, a wooden pirate ship, your traditional tot lot structures to climb and slide down, a castle, a bounce house, and two tube slides built into the hill (which are currently closed until fall). Outside food is permitted and if you pack a lunch, there are picnic tables and umbrellas scattered about.  If it gets too hot outdoors, the indoor play area is fabulous- there’s a smaller area for toddlers and babies to play in, and a large foam-padded climbing structure for the bigger kids.

Make a day of it:

My friend and I had packed a lunch planning to eat at the park, but decided instead to head up the road to Stone Tower Winery, which I have mentioned before but can’t recommend enough. Before leaving Leesburg Animal Park we swung through the produce stand in the parking lot and grabbed a bag of fresh peaches to eat at lunch, then drove two miles up the road to Stone Tower to eat lunch and drink a glass of wine. Here at NOVAdventuring we believe in keeping things entertaining for not just the kids, but the parents as well, which is why you’ll see us recommending not only kid-specific activities, but various places the whole family can enjoy. I can attest after several trips there that not only do the adults love Stone Tower Winery, so do the kids. There’s an open field to run in, cornhole, and if you’re there on a weekday, the place is uncrowded and peaceful. And you just can’t beat the scenery.

If you’ve already visited Stone Tower or are looking for a change of pace, Willowcroft Winery is also near Leesburg Animal Park. Previously reviewed Oatlands Plantation is just five miles up the road as well.

In the fall, Leesburg Animal Park hosts Pumpkin Village, a festival that runs from September 20- November 4. Admission grants you access to the regular sites and activities available at Leesburg Animal Park as well as some additional seasonal activities such as a maze, a spider web crawl, and a pumpkin patch from which you can select one free pumpkin per child. If you don’t make it out this summer, be sure to set aside a day in the fall to attend this festival!