By Allison Eatough
A bamboo maze, rows of sweet-smelling peppermint, a tree house with soaring views or giant sunflowers towering overhead, children’s gardens are hard to resist at any age.
Garden’s catering to children have become more and more popular over the past two decades according to David Ellis, editor and director of communications for the American Horticultural Society. Research shows the more children interact with nature and the outdoors, the better their physical and mental health is, Ellis says.
“I think one reason children’s gardens are so popular is that they offer children an early opportunity to become engaged with nature and outdoor activities,” Ellis says.
Children’s gardens also boost an arboretum or garden center’s visitation, says Steven Cohan, professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. When The Morton Arboretum in Illinois added a children’s garden, membership doubled, Cohan says.
“Everyone is looking for something for the kids, particularly to get them outdoors,” Cohan says.
Educational children’s gardens
Last summer, the Meinsler family of Odenton visited Brookside Gardens, a display garden in Montgomery County that Sara Meinsler says was both educational and interactive.
“My entire family, including my picky 9-year-old, thoroughly enjoyed our time spent there,” Meinsler says.
All of the flowers and trees were well marked with educational signs explaining the plants, she says. But the exhibit Samuel, 9, Camden, 7, and Claire, 3, enjoyed the most? Brookside’s Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit, which features hundreds of live butterflies.
“Their beauty and delicacy were fascinating,” Meinsler says. “The priceless part of the entire experience was watching the children react to the butterflies.”
Just throwing some playground equipment in the middle of some shrubs and calling the space a “children’s garden” is not enough to ensure success, Cohan says.
“There should be some component that not only entertains a child in an outdoor experience but also educates,” he says. “Discovery and interaction are essential.”
Six gardens to visit with kids
Originally published 2013; updated May 2017
If exploring nature is part of your family’s spring and summer plans, check out the following children’s gardens, all within a few hours of Annapolis.
Address: 5105 Kennett Pike, Wilmington, Del., 19807.
Hours and Admission: Museum and garden open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays. General admission tickets cost $5 for children ages 2 to 11 and $20 for adults. Free admission for children younger than 2.
With their first step into the Enchanted Woods at Winterthur (pronounced “winter-tour”) Museum, Garden and Library, children are transported into a magical landscape. The 3-acre plot is surrounded by a canopy of oak trees and home to a group of (imaginary) woodland fairies. These fairies welcome visitors throughout the spring and summer to places like the Tulip Tree House and the Faerie Cottage. Enchanted Woods also houses a Fairy Flower Labyrinth, a special walking and thinking pathway, and the Acorn Tearoom, where children hold their own tea party while finding acorn and oak leaf decorations carved into the table. There’s even a Troll Bridge.
Collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont opened Winterthur, his childhood home, to the public almost 60 years ago. In addition to Enchanted Woods, the 1,000-acre estate includes a massive garden filled with colorful blooms, a library dedicated to American decorative arts and a museum showing the du Pont family house, as well as furniture, textile, ceramic, print and painting exhibits.
Address: 12610 Eveland Road, Ridgley, 21660.
Hours and admission: The arboretum’s visitor center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Grounds are open daily from dawn to dusk. Admission is $2 for children ages 6-18 and $5 for adults. Children under 5 years old are free.
Children can test all their senses while visiting Adkins Arboretum’s Funshine Garden. They can taste a lettuce leaf in the Bunny Patch. They can smell the peppermint in the Sensory Herb Garden. They can hear bees as they buzz, gathering pollen in the Pollinator Garden. They can see purple eggplants, green peppers and red tomatoes growing in the Rainbow Garden. And they can lie down in the Sunflower House to see hummingbirds zip by for a bit of nectar. In the spring and summer, the Funshine Garden hosts educational programs for children of all ages. If children need a break from the garden, check out the Paw Paw Playground, a natural play space on the grounds that includes two wigwams, a turtle-shaped tree stump ring and a snake balance beam.
Address: 1800 Glenallen Avenue, Wheaton, 20902
Hours and admission: Gardens are open sunrise to sunset, every day. Visitor’s center open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Garden admission is free. “Wings of Fancy” exhibit is open April 26 to Sept. 17, 2017 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is $5 for ages 3-12 and $8 for adults.
For decades, families have flocked to Brookside Gardens for its colorful, fragrant and decorative gardens. The 50-acre site, located within Wheaton Regional Park, offers everything from azalea and butterfly gardens to conservatories and a visitor’s center. But the garden that draws the most attention from the little ones is Brookside’s Children’s Garden. Every three years, Brookside changes the garden’s theme. This year, the theme is “School’s Outside,” an outdoor experience where children can play in the school house (formerly the tree house) and sit at desks throughout the garden, all while using plants and the outdoors to learn about math, science, reading, art and music. Among the new features: alphabet plants, topiaries and a Little Library, where visitors can take or donate a book. Brookside also houses “Wings of Fancy,” an indoor live butterfly and caterpillar exhibit.
Address: 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pa. 19348
Hours and admission: April and May, gardens are open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Between May 27 and Sept. 30, gardens are open Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. From Oct. 1 through Nov. 22, the garden is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission costs $12 for children ages 5 to 18 and $23 for adults. Free admission for children age 4 and younger.
The Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens includes more than 30 water features, ranging from a spitting fish and a pond with rising steam to a cave with dripping walls and a drooling dragon. The 3,700 square foot garden, which opened in 2007, also includes The Square Maze, made up of moss and slate covered walls, and a bamboo maze. Outside, the Nature’s Castles exhibit includes three tree houses overlooking part of the gardens. In addition to the children’s garden and tree houses, Longwood offers almost 40 other indoor and outdoor gardens, as well as educational programs.
Address: 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, 21042
Hours and admission: Garden follows library hours. Admission is free.
With a small stream, seats made out of tree stumps and a “pizza” garden filled with herbs and vegetables, The Enchanted Garden adjacent to the Miller Branch Library building is designed to capture children’s attention. The garden, which spans across a quarter of an acre, hosts events throughout the year to teach children about the natural world around them. This spring, the garden will launch an after school garden club for children ages 9 to 11. Topics include “Enchanting Beans,” “Creative Container Gardens,” and “Let’s Plant a Pizza Garden.”
Address: River Farm, 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, Va. 22308
Hours and admission: April through September, garden is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free.
Initially developed by school groups and landscape designers, the Children’s Garden at the American Horticultural Society’s headquarters in Alexandria includes 13 small gardens with themes ranging from “Scratch and Sniff” to “Hide-n-Seek.” The “Little House on the Prairie” garden, one of the site’s most popular gardens, includes a tiny log cabin surrounded by prairie-style plantings like coneflowers and tall grasses. There’s even a “Bat Cave” garden, where children can crawl into a cave replica.