Landscape & Play: Natural Curiosity

The Children's Garden at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill.


Since 2005, children of all ages have had the opportunity to learn more about nature, discover how plants grow and challenge their imagination amidst the beautiful foliage and hands-on nature activities in the Children's Garden at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill.

"The Children's Garden is designed to spark children's curiosity about the natural world, with our focus, of course, being trees," said Lesley Kolaya, manager of youth and family programs at the Morton Arboretum.

A variety of activities and settings are offered, with the goal of stimulating natural play through sensory exploration. The structures located throughout the 4-acre garden encourage children to develop physical, cognitive and social skills.

"Our visitors can manipulate loose parts in the garden, developing their sense of risk assessment. And best of all, our visitors can play and learn together, while at the same time developing a relationship to the trees, plants and animals that surround them," Kolaya said.

Stemming from the Arboretum's "Branching Out" campaign, the garden was part of a major expansion to the property in 2006 that increased visitor attendance significantly. Over the years, continued enhancements have been made.

"The project success brought about unique use challenges as well as anticipated wear that needed to be addressed over the years," said Eric Hornig, principal at Hitchcock Design Group, a Naperville, Ill.-based company that specializes in planning and landscape architecture services and has been working with educators and designers at the Arboretum since the garden was built to help enhance the space and improve programming.


"Many of the signs/sign-like exhibits have been changed to keep the messaging fresh. And, some of the sensitive features like fountains and delicate plants have been upgraded, tweaked, relocated or refined over the years. They have done much of the work themselves, utilizing our team for advice and general consultation," Hornig said.

Every year the Children's Garden is enhanced with new programs and updates to exhibits.

"Our most recent addition to the garden is a giant watering can mister, which helps children experience one of the things trees and plants need to grow—water—firsthand," Kolaya said.

Upon entering the Children's Garden, one of the first things you see is a "colorful child-sized arbor that welcomes you in along a tree-themed, braided entry walk to the Tree Finder Grove, an orientation plaza, for your group to chart their next steps while they try to line up leaf shapes on the floating granite ball fountain," Hornig described.

Central Plaza is the entrance to the garden and serves as a space for orientation, gathering, public events and making connections to other areas of the Children's Garden. The main pathway is embellished with smaller sidewalks that are each named for a tree genus and labeled with leaves of that tree pressed into the concrete.

Two main garden areas make up the Children's Garden: Backyard Discovery Gardens and Adventure Woods.

The Backyard Discovery Garden is the introductory garden, and is intended to be familiar.


"You will see plants that you recognize from your neighborhood or maybe from your grandmother's garden," Hornig said. "Chairs, arbors, benches, picket fences, garden sheds, and the plant palette are intended to invite you to experience gardens that you are familiar with, but may have never stopped to explore before."

Within the Backyard Discovery Garden are the Curiosity Garden, the Bloom Zoom and Sprout Garden (which focuses on pollination and seed dispersal with hands-on gardening opportunities), as well as the Every Which Way Garden (which showcases plants that grow in different ways on stems and roots).

Meanwhile, Adventure Woods features a more naturalized unstructured environment.

"As you approach Adventure Woods," Hornig explained, "you are greeted by Wonder Pond, a wildly successful area, best known for its tadpoles. This rich aquatic environment, complete with reeds, rushes, lilies, tadpoles, and an occasional turtle is teeming with activity both natural and manmade. Crossing over a rustic boardwalk, you encounter the Under the Trees area encouraging climbing in and around larch and redbud trees to gain a new perspective on your surroundings."

A secret stream lets you dip your feet in the water and learn about how streams and rivers flow by moving stones and pebbles to redirect water. And, at the Evergreen Lookout area, you can climb high to get a better view of tree branches as well as the entire garden. "Views to the overall garden below highlight activities you may have missed and ones you want to return to," Hornig added.


Back in 2015, families shared their stories about their experience at the Children's Garden and the influence it's had during a celebration of its 10th anniversary.

"Our 10th birthday was a time to celebrate and reflect on the growth of the garden, both in terms of the plants and programming," Kolaya said. "We had a big party to celebrate with our members and visitors. But I think the most fun we had was talking with some of our families that had grown up in the Children's Garden, and hearing about the impact the garden made on their lives."

As for the future of the Children's Garden, Kolaya added, some upgrades are being planned. "In the coming year," she said, "we will begin construction on three important projects: a new picnic area shelter, an expansion of our staff building to support programming, and a large boardwalk around Wonder Pond to enhance the experience for our visitors."



Morton Arboretum:
Hitchcock Design Group: