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Children's Garden Enhancements Now Underway

Rendering shows new boardwalk to be constructed around Wonder Pond at The Morton Arboretum

Parts of the Children's Garden are in the process of getting a makeover that began in October. The stepping stones area of Wonder Pond will be revamped with a new walkway around the pond, as well as more seating and shade. The space will reopen around Arbor Day.

Additionally, the staff and volunteer support building in the Children’s Garden is undergoing expansion at the same time. Its impact will be felt through the high-quality family programming that visitors enjoy in the Children’s Garden during every season.

This is good news for the thousands of visitors to the space each year—young people such as Addison LaManna and her family. 

Addison has been a regular in the Children’s Garden since it opened in 2005. First in a stroller and later on foot, Addison, of Batavia, has explored the garden frequently with her grandparents, parents, and younger sister. The family has observed tadpoles, watched the seasons change, and even celebrated friends’ birthdays.

In May, Addison, now a seventh grader, began a new role in the garden—that of volunteer naturalist, a job in which she will introduce more kids to the wonder of trees, plants, and nature.

“Going camping or on an overnight hiking trip takes a lot of planning and equipment,” says Addison’s mother, Brittany. “The Arboretum has been a great place to have our kids experience the outdoors in a more controlled and easily accessed environment.”

During the past 11 years, the Children’s Garden has shaped a generation of Chicago-area kids. These frequent visitors, many from cities or suburbs, grew up exploring and playing in nature because of the Children’s Garden. For many, it has enriched their lives in unimagined ways.

“The idea behind the Children’s Garden was to create a safe, natural space where kids could have fun using their senses to explore trees, plants, and ecosystems, and take risks in the outdoors in ways that previous generations took for granted,” says Sue Wagner, vice president of education and information at the Arboretum.

“We had great hopes for the garden before it opened,” she says. “In reality, it’s been even more successful than we anticipated. Kids who explore the garden have fun making discoveries about plants and nature, and they leave with a new awareness and curiosity about the natural world.”

Donors to the $63 million Growing Brilliantly campaign are supporting improvements that will make the garden even more welcoming for future visitors (see box).

‘Passionate stewards’
All of Fernando and Margaret Ereneta’s five children, now ages 9 through 16, have shared the experience of frequent Children’s Garden visits.

“During our trips to the Children’s Garden, the kids always seem to use their senses to smell and touch things,” Margaret Ereneta says. “They enjoy just being one with nature. It’s really productive time for them.”

This affinity for nature is now a big part of all the children’s lives, the couple says.

At home, favorite activities involve trees, such as relaxing in hammocks under tree branches. In fact, hammocks are in such short supply at the Ereneta house that the family is now creating a “hammock garden” with enough for everyone to enjoy.

Fostering this sort of close connection with nature was the intent of the garden, Wagner explains. “The aim is that by providing opportunities for city and suburban kids to explore nature they will become passionate stewards of our planet.”

Henry Cilley, now 24, has always felt tied to the outdoors. As a third grader in Crystal Lake, he became aware of the plight of rare Blanding’s turtles, whose nesting site was slated for commercial development.

“I thought I could just move the turtles to my basement,” Cilley recalls with laughter. When his mom vetoed that idea, Cilley decided to begin a letter-writing campaign and petition drive that resulted in protection for the turtles’ site.

After moving to Glen Ellyn a few years later, Cilley became a middle school youth volunteer at the Arboretum, and later, a high school summer science camp counselor.

A recent college graduate, his goal now is to one day open an outdoor adventure camp for youngsters from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Not just for kids
For kids like Henry Cilley, an interest in science and the outdoors took root in the garden. But children aren’t the only ones impacted by the four-acre outdoor space.

LaVora Singleton, a former physical education teacher from Aurora, and spouse Lynn Dieter, a recently retired nurse, have been volunteering in the Children’s Garden since the year it opened, working during special events and providing a helpful presence in various areas of the garden. They also support the Children’s Garden with charitable gifts.

You may spot them at the garden’s entrance, where they frequently greet guests and answer questions.

At the entrance, “Some adults tentatively ask, ‘Can I come in?’” Singleton says. But adults who bypass the Children’s Garden are missing out on one of the best parts of the Arboretum, she believes—a place filled with bright colors, playful spirits, and plenty of ideas for at-home gardens.

Dieter agrees, adding that her favorite part of the garden is observing kids and caregivers spending quality time together.

“I love watching families interact as they learn things,” she says. “It’s a place where caregivers know kids can play freely and they will be safe. You can just see people relax.”

Through their years of service, they’ve watched not only the plants and trees in the garden mature, but also a generation of children.