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The Discovery Center Opens in East Fairmount Park

See everything in store at this incredible new nature center reactivating Philadelphia’s historic Strawberry Mansion Reservoir.

A brand new destination has opened in Fairmount Park for kids and adults to learn and connect with nature. The Discovery Center—a collaboration between Audubon Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School—will serve as a place for conservation, education, and hands-on engagement with our natural world. This new nature-based educational facility is located at 3401 Reservoir Drive (across from Smith Memorial Playground) in Philadelphia, and will have free public hours this month Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 am—4 pm.


The Discovery Center reactivates the Strawberry Mansion Reservoir, which sat dormant for nearly 50 years. After its closure, the peaceful waterfront setting made it very attractive to both native and migratory birds, and the site is now a critical, protected habitat for over 150 species. Now, with a newly built Discovery Center, people can once again enjoy hiking, birding, paddling, and even zip lining at this beautiful reservoir.


“I am thrilled that children, families, and all Philadelphians will now have the opportunity to experience this divine public space,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner.


Step into the modern building that looks out onto the reservoir, and you’ll see graphics and models teaching you about the different species of birds you might encounter, as well as their migration—but it is much more exciting to see them for yourself, so you and your kids can borrow a backpack complete with a bird guide and binoculars from the desk, and set out on the trail for a self-guided bird walk. There is a free Audubon bird guide app as well, if you prefer. The Discovery Center will also host free Audubon-guided bird and nature walks around the reservoir every week—be sure to check their website as they add events.


Even if you’re not into birding, the trail around the reservoir is lovely for a family hike. The course is about 1.2 miles round trip (it dead-ends, so you need to turn around and come back) with several lookout stops, including one with a perfect view of the Philly skyline.

The Discovery Center will also be the site for educational and leadership activities, including through the Outward Bound School. Outward Bound leads outdoor experiential education programs for middle- and high-schoolers (as well as adults), which teach outdoor skills, problem-solving, teamwork, and more. They are currently partnered with many schools in Philadelphia School District, leading programs for ninth graders throughout the district.


At The Discovery Center, Outward Bound will host unique experiences like the impressive ropes course—with lookout towers and zip lines—outside the building. Team challenges on the course will encourage problem-solving, communication, leadership, and even some healthy competition!  And for indoor use, a climbing room is still being completed (they estimate it will be ready in five weeks), with two challenging sides—a traditional rock-climbing wall, and a bouldering wall.


While these experiences are intended for use in educational programming, kids (age 12 and up) were given a chance to try out the zip line and team challenges on the center’s grand opening Discovery Day. They plan to have free Discovery Days monthly, so hopefully you’ll get a chance to try for yourself. The next Discovery Day is scheduled for Saturday, October 27.


For younger kids, The Discovery Center is planning special programming reaching children as young as preschoolers. The center’s Education Manager Damien Ruffner previously worked at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and plans to bring similarly enriching activities to his new role. For example, Ruffner looks forward to introducing what he calls “Storybook Strolls,” where kids will read an outdoor environmental book and then take a nature walk to find something related to the story. Expect birds to be front and center– they even have a mascot: an osprey named Disco (short for Discovery).

While The Discovery Center is still firming up scheduling specifics, it is such a welcome addition to our city, and hopes to encourage generations to connect with the outdoors in both recreational and educational ways. Tonnetta Graham, Executive Director of Strawberry Mansion CDC, explained that re-opening and re-engaging this space means so much to her community, in particular. “The Discovery Center will allow us to introduce this space to the generations of residents who, for decades, grew up with a curiosity about what was behind those fences.”


The Discovery Center, located at 3401 Reservoir Drive, will have free open hours from 10 am—4 pm: Wednesdays through Sundays in October, and then Thursdays through Saturdays from November 1—April 30.


Photographs by Laura Swartz.

Contributing Writer