(Click on photos to enlarge; all photos are from the Huntsville Botanic Children's Garden, except the last one, which is in our gardens at Long Creek Herb Farm).
I am an enthusiastic promoter and supporter of children's gardens. I think they are vitally important in teaching kids where food comes from and for teaching humanity's relationship to, and dependency on, nature.
A few years back I was invited to the Cleveland Botanical Garden to participate in a Children's Garden Conference. It was a remarkable and insightful event and brought children and their projects from many states. My part was to present a program on methods of promoting and marketing kids gardens, and a second program on making such gardens profitable (by creating products, events and creative marketing projects). Cleveland Botanical Garden has a magnificent kids garden (named the "Hershey Children's Garden" .....Mama, is that Hershey like Hershey bar??? Yes it is dear and they believe in kids and gardens..).
The Hershey Children's Garden, much like the kid's garden at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, PA, is created to give kids a little taste of flowers and activities. Some call these gardens, "Kids theme park gardens" because a lot of money is poured into things that look good and impress kids but that kids only look at, rather than participate in - little garden pathways that have gates where adults are too large to enter, for instance, fountains just for kids, doll houses and the like.
The flip side of this kind of kids garden are the gardens I found in San Antonio, TX and Philadelphia, PA. Gardens that were started by adults, but built, tended and worked on by kids (and "kids" is a broad term, ages 12 on up to adulthood are often included in these working-teaching gardens). I gave herb programs a few years back at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, also, and they have ongoing programs for teaching children about plants and gardening.
The Hershey Children's Garden has a lot of displays like plants growing in raised bed tables and kids are encouraged to open windows that show into the soil, show where the roots are and how earthworms are working. There are lots of activities and programs for kids, and for the teens, there's a working community garden. As I recall, Master Gardeners are the teachers and kids from anywhere in Cleveland can sign up for a summer of learning and garden work. Each teen is assigned a little garden plot and taught how to raise produce, which they sell. A big part of the ongoing project of the Children's Garden is the Salsa Project. The teens learn to raise tomatoes, basil, peppers and onions, and those are processed in a commercial kitchen under the guidance of a local chef into salsa. The salsa, mild, medium and hot varieties is then sold in the gift shop and in stores around Cleveland. We used to offer it through our catalog here at Long Creek Herbs, but not enough of our customers seemd to appreciate the idea of supporting children's gardens enough for us to keep offering it.
The kids community gardens in Philadelphia was founded by an elderly lady who lived in a very poor, rund0wn section of Phily. She saw lots of empty, abandoned lots growing up in weeds. She organized a few local teens and cleaned up a lot, took much of the trash, broken glass, ceramic tiles and such and enlisted a local college art class to help her teach the kids about art from trash. The artwork became a focal point in the garden. The gardens that have evolved out of her work now cover 30 or 40 lots with the assistance and permission of the Philadelphia government. She explained that on every block where a community garden is established, the crime rate goes down and there are less gangs. It's a remarkable project and continues to grow. I toured several of the gardens as part of the Garden Writers of America conference a few years back.
The Huntsville Botanic Garden's Children's Gardens incorporates a diversity of projects and displays to keep kids interested. Their approach is to make the gardens a place kids want to go, to show plants and their relationship to the environment, and to host lots of activities to keep kids coming back. There are displays of unusual plants, displays were kids can explore earthworms, soil, root structures, along with mazes of different kinds. One new maze that will be fun when it's farther along is the willow maze, made of rows of willow saplings planted, then tied together so as to make tunnels for kids to explore and find the way through. There are also displays that show how rainbows work, what a bee sees by looking through prisms and lenses.
I learned to garden from my parents. I kept pestering them to let me have my own garden and at age 5 they said ok. I was allowed to order seed of my own. My father spaded up a little spot about 6 x 6 ft and my parents allowed me to make the rows and plan and plant the seed. I made lots of mistakes that spring, planting corn too close to the peas, too many zinnias, too many crops total for the space. But the few things my garden produced were touted and featured in summer meals. I hated weeding, so my garden went to weeds, but my parents did not interfere. I learned a lot from my mistakes that year and am eternally grateful to my parents for letting me learn instead of doing it all for me. That's why I think children's gardens are so important. Kids, if given the opportunity, will develop an understanding of our relationship to nature.
Many kids who grow up without a garden or parents who garden, often don't even know that lettuce comes from anywhere other than the grocery store. Or that eggs come from chickens or milk from cows. I've had families visit my gardens here and the kids were amazed that tomatoes grow on vines, or that they might even be able to grow a potato, and that it can be turned into a french fry.
Children's gardens are important and regardless of whether they are mostly theme park or mostly working garden, both can make a lasting impression on kids.