The instant you step inside Morton Arboretum’s new Children’s Garden, you are immersed in the trees of the Midwest, the focus of this four-acre "wanderland" set to open Sept. 10.
"What we’re trying to establish here is making a strong message about the variety and diversity of trees, but in a fun way," says Kathy Johnson, manager of the garden, which is geared toward kids ages 2 to 10.
Because the garden is so big, Johnson says it will take several visits to explore it all. She recommends that parents let their kids take the lead in this stroller- and wheelchair-friendly area. Her daughter, Emma, 5½, thinks the treehouses that dot the garden are the best part.
Visitors enter the garden at the Kid’s Tree Walk, which leads to Tree Finder Grove. Each lane that branches off the walk is named for a tree, and the concrete lane is imprinted with that tree’s leaf pattern. The centerpiece of the grove is a one-ton movable granite ball held up by jets of water. Kids can spin the ball and match the leaf imprints in the granite to imprints on the walk.
From the grove, families can venture into various gardens, each with a different theme. Several of the garden areas include water play areas and play equipment to climb, so Johnson recommends kids wear sturdy shoes and clothes that can get dirty. She also suggests bringing extra clothes, sunscreen, insect repellent and water bottles.
One garden highlights backyard nature, another encourages kids to look, listen, feel and smell different plants. There’s a garden that explains the plant life cycle and another that offers a taste of farm life, complete with a corn crop where kids can play. Yet another garden explores tree anatomy and features a sand and water play area.
The Adventure Woods area highlights the plants and sights families might find trekking through wetlands, prairie and forest settings. Kids can hop across a shallow pond on stepping stones or cross a kid-sized bridge leading to a tiny island.
"We feel strongly that kids learn through play," says Johnson, the mother of three young girls. "If children are playing in settings rich in plants, [an appreciation for] nature is going to sink in."
Play equipment, treehouses and netted bridges turn one garden into a climbing adventure. It leads to a secret stream where kids can play, then crawl along a net crawl just above the ground to get a bug’s eye view of prairie grasses. The prairie flows into another garden that gives kids access to a rope bridge nestled in the treetops.
The Children’s Garden is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The arboretum is at 4100 Illinois Route 53 (just north of Interstate 88) in Lisle. Admission is $7, adults; $4, ages 3 to 11, free for 2 and under. The gardens’ opening week includes a host of special events. For a list, see page 111, call (630) 968-0074 or visit www.mortonarb.org.