Children’s Gardens vs Children’s Playgrounds

I recently was in Chicago for a short vacation and got a chance to visit Millennium Park. What a wonderful experience for my inner landscape designer – – I enjoyed experiencing each phase of the design. The Play Garden was of particular interest to me. Many of you may not know, but in my former life I managed a children’s garden in Cleveland, so when I learned we were designing and building one at Wellfield, I was super excited to be a part of the building process.

Gertrude Jekyll, one of the greatest landscape designers England ever produced, once said in her book entitled Children and Gardens….

The fact is that the good planning and making of ever so simple and small a garden wants most of the qualities, the knowledge, and the technical ability that go to the making of a large one, and I think that to help children in the best way to love and value a garden is to give them a pretty one ready made.

There is a real danger in producing a playground, or an outdoor children’s museum, rather than a garden. One of the greatest challenges as a designer is over planning or overthinking a space for children. We adults tend to over-structure a child’s play experience. We think we need to endlessly engage children with novelty and provide everything for them to have the best play experiences, but the best times outdoors (for me, anyway) were not spent on a swing set or slide, but in the woods near my house or my neighbor’s grove of towering blue spruce. These spaces were not contrived spaces designed by adults trying to think like kids. They left much to the imagination. They were authentic spaces.

As it was designed to accomplish, the Play Garden in Millennium Park is an excellent park playground. The new Rex and Alice A. Martin Children’s Garden at Wellfield is different. It is a pretty garden, ready made. The difference between the two spaces is the end game. Wellfield’s children’s garden is designed to allow free, playful interaction with the natural world, especially plants. Even in Millennium’s Play Garden, plants and other natural elements are pushed to the edges, serving as screens and walls of play rooms (see photo below).

Chicago’s Millennium Park Play Garden

Not so at Wellfield. Here, natural elements are foreground, scaled to kid size. Here, every visitor interacts with plants, stone, water and the wildlife they might attract. Three separate archetype habitats are planned, including tall grass prairie, woodland, and wetland.

The best thing we can do is provide a real, kid-sized garden, and let them experience it on their own terms and in their own way. If we want the next generation to care for the earth, they must first learn to love it. We’re excited for all to experience it soon! The Children’s Garden will open mid-August, please stay tuned for details…

Josh Steffen
Horticulture and Facilities Manager

8 thoughts on “Children’s Gardens vs Children’s Playgrounds

  1. Emma

    Love the philosophy behind the Children’s Garden at WBG, I loved spending unstructured time messing about outdoors in our garden and its wild edges when I was a child. Looking forward to seeing the garden when I visit Elkhart next year.

  2. Norman W. Clairmont

    I visited the gardens last week. They are a masterpiece. One of the most joyous experiences of my life.
    Cant wait to share them with my family and friends. Many thanks for all you are doing.


  3. Deb Pulianas

    I visited the children’s playground with my seven-year-old granddaughter last week. It was a fascinating joy to watch her and children even younger explore and interact in this environment. They did not need directions or suggestions. Only occasional permission was requested to touch tools, dip watering cans and hands in the water, or move the small stones. If you only have time to do one thing special with the child in your life this week, I encourage you to make a visit to the children’s garden.

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