LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 20, 2023) — Audrey Wathen scampers between the yarn-covered “wishing tree” and the spot where giddy toddlers gleefully make billowing bubbles in large orange vats. She’s trailed closely by her younger sister, Eleanor, and her best friend, Ransom Corso. A distinctive squish-squish sound follows them as they run, their rubber shoes still soggy from wading in the nearby stream. They make their way to a scuffed white plastic pail that contains fat, slippery tadpoles. Audrey gamely plunges her hands into the bucket, gently holds the developing amphibian and discovers that it will take at least two years for it to transform into an American bullfrog. She looks up, incredulous.
It’s Audrey’s 8th birthday, and, according to her mother, Alison Wathen, the Kentucky Children’s Garden at The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, topped her list of destinations where to celebrate.
Audrey and her friends are not unlike the other 15,000 children who visited the Kentucky Children’s Garden in 2022 — preadolescents who come to enjoy the great outdoors through experimental play. The two-acre garden is situated amidst The Arboretum’s verdant beauty and is more than just a place to play; it’s a haven of learning, creativity and boundless imagination that showcases the wonder of nature.
“In the modern world, children often have limited exposure to nature, face nutritional challenges and spend excessive time engaged with screens,” said Hannah E. Wells, program coordinator at The Arboretum. “We aim to address these issues by offering a unique environment where children can learn through firsthand experiences while having a great time.”
As Audrey and her friends continue to marvel at the bullfrog lifecycle, a father and his two sons look on. The father grimaces at the sight of the tar-hued tadpole. A staff member breaks his gaze by asking if he would like to touch it. He reluctantly acquiesces, offering up his index finger.
“It feels like … like …” — the father struggles for a simile with which to compare — “… like Jell-O!” he exclaims, recoiling and covertly attempting to wipe the digit on his crisply pressed chino shorts.
Wells believes that early interactions with unfamiliar species can shape how children view the world and may contribute to a reduced aversion later in life.
“Children are inherently open-minded and learn through the culture they’re raised in as to what’s considered ‘gross’ or ‘icky,’” she said. “Children are often more willing to touch worms, bugs and snakes, while their parents may display apprehension, disgust or even fear. By encouraging children to interact with these creatures and teaching them about their importance in the ecosystem, we’re not only educating them but instilling a sense of respect for them.”
A recent grant from the MacAdam Early Childhood and Literacy Fund has allowed the Kentucky Children's Garden to expand its menagerie of residents that buzz, click or hiss — including the acquisition of millipedes and cockroaches — as well as significantly augment crucial supplies and bolster learning opportunities available to guests.
Unlike other educational experiences that often leave children standing behind a velvet rope, the garden has encouraged guests to leave with soiled hands and damp socks for more than a decade. Visitors are invited to explore all corners of the garden and touch kid-friendly flowers that leave hands momentarily smelling like fresh popcorn or fern-like plants that demonstrate defensive properties of withering at the slightest touch before recovering.
Audrey, Eleanor and Ransom make their way to a nearby table, where they create artwork using the MacAdam-funded rubber molds of various species’ feet while they learn about animal tracks. Steps away, 21-month-old Addison DeMuth attempts to pour the contents of a sun-faded, blue and green watering can onto a thirsty poblano pepper plant. The toddler grins broadly as she maneuvers the Fisher-Price can over the raised bed and finally gets the water to flow.
On any given day, children can participate in similar horticulture- or nature-themed activities and explore new worlds that celebrate the rich biodiversity of the Commonwealth. Guests may explore a replica of a pre-agrarian wigwam built onsite by volunteers with native grass grown at The Arboretum or visit an authentic Colonial-era cabin — a structure explicitly downsized for kids. Children have the chance to hold nature in their hands, whether it is a Madagascar hissing cockroach named Mary or seeds planted at the beginning of the growing season whose fruit will be shared upon harvest.
“Gardening can serve as a physical activity that motivates kids to spend time outdoors and stay active, and the garden provides a haven for them to connect with nature and witness the fascinating cycles of life,” Wells said. “It acts as a catalyst for encouraging children to try fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, thereby promoting positive attitudes and behaviors toward nutrition.”
Although the garden is geared toward an audience aged 2 to 10, Wells adds that parents often find themselves learning right along with their kids.
In addition to the permanent installations, during the garden’s operating season — early April to late October — engaging education programming supplements visitors’ opportunities to learn about botany, entomology, the origins of food, aqueducts and irrigation, motor skills and numerous other subjects. Recent activities include an avian scavenger hunt, discussions about the importance of plants for bees and pollinators and a lesson on identifying native trees by their leaves. And, of course, there’s the perpetual favorite — “Bubbl-ology,” science experiments with bubbles.
Wells says the garden allows families to temporarily escape the urban sprawl and foster connections, both with nature as well as with one another. She’s witnessed both. She recounts a euphoric grandmother who was able to photograph her autistic grandson smiling for the first time while playing atop the in-ground misting system at the garden’s entrance.
“The sheer joyfulness was infectious,” Wells recalls. “I take pride in the fact that we offer a space that profoundly impacts families. It’s a place where children can freely run, get their hands dirty, unleash their creativity and take risks. The garden is an accessible and secure environment — an ideal space for children with cognitive, social or physical disabilities.”
“Teaching in outdoor spaces, like the Kentucky Children’s Garden, is a wonderful way to encourage children to communicate with you,” said Associate Professor Justin D. Lane of the UK College of Education, an expert in designing and evaluating individualized cognitive interventions for young children. “There are so many terrific plants, animals and insects for children to learn about in the Kentucky Children’s Garden — parents can point out the sights and sounds of nature. This type of parent input highlights new vocabulary children can learn and use in conversation.”
Lane says that because learning can happen anywhere, whenever children — especially those with learning disabilities — express interest in areas or activities in the garden, parents should be able to capitalize on this opportunity by discussing with them what they see, hear or smell.
The curriculum at the garden meets multiple Kentucky Academic Standards and is designed to be accessible for all children, Wells says.
“By fostering curiosity at an early age through our games, STEM activities and crafts, we may inspire future scientists, botanists, entomologists or herpetologists, and pave the way for potential career paths in the field of science," she said.
The garden has also become a favored spot for field trips for thousands of Fayette County kindergarten, first and second grade pupils. The garden hosts numerous field trips each year, many at no cost to low-income or “Title 1” schools.
“My students love the Children’s Garden,” said Russell Cave Elementary kindergarten teacher Melissa Collins. “It’s very engaging to students and is aligned to core content. My students have a great time learning!”
Operated by the UK Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and maintained by UK Facilities Management, the Kentucky Children’s Garden and The Arboretum are enjoying ever-increasing popularity. Last year saw a 20% increase in garden attendance over pre-pandemic figures. A near-capacity parking lot — populated with vehicles with license plates from Kentucky and more than a half-dozen neighboring states — suggests that the garden’s upward trajectory as a premier regional family destination could shatter attendance records in 2023.
As for the future of the garden, Wells looks forward to broadening the educational opportunities for Central Kentucky children.
“I’m really confident that the garden will continue to flourish,” Wells said. “I envision expanding our programming to offer even more enriching experiences to the community. With our deep commitment to inclusivity, we aim to open the garden’s gates wider, ensuring accessibility for all and welcoming those who have yet to experience the wonders it holds.”
The Kentucky Children’s Garden locks its gates on the 2023 season on Oct. 27, 2023. Details about programming, admission and hours are available on The Arboretum’s website, arboretum.ca.uky.edu.
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