The Children’s Garden, in the northeast part of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, is flush with visitors in the summer months. This natural wonderland for children of all ages welcomes guests with the chimes of musical instruments, cacophony of laughter and fast-paced footsteps, and the faint echo of a loon or chickadee from the tree house.
CMBG’s manager of youth and family programs, Erika Huber, said: I like to say it becomes the center of the Gardens because even though it isn’t located in the center, it is the busiest part with so many families staying in one place for longer than any other part of the Gardens.” Here, parents can bask in both sun and shade, overlooking their children as they wander to and fro observing frogs and tadpoles in the pond or building castles in the sand pit. Huber continued, “I see a lot of relaxing. Parents can kind of sit and enjoy the Gardens while their children are playing.”
She said another value is “providing a place for kids to be kids and giving them the opportunity to learn about nature in an informal setting and a self-guided way.” The emphasis on letting children experience things outdoors, such as seeing the different stages of a frog’s growth, listening to different bird sounds and playing outdoor instruments, creates an educational, fun adventure.
Maggie Curtis, 10, on a Hope Elementary class field trip to the Gardens exclaimed, “I like the treehouse because there’s a net to walk across that’s high up the ground. It is scary but I feel proud I have the courage to get to the other side.”
Three activities the Gardens does each day to support this cause are story time at 10:30, a puppet show at 11, and chicken feeding at 1. Due to COVID-19, story time and the puppet show take place under the grape arbor near the Story Barn. Otherwise, the activities would happen in the Story Barn, where the books and stuffed animals are.
Story time lasts as long as children stay interested, and all books in the Story Barn somehow connect to nature, or are by Maine authors. The puppet show happens once and lasts around five minutes, with topics ranging from bird songs to plant growth to animal relationships. All shows have discussion questions at the end, to help kids reflect on what they learned about nature and science. A favorite is "The Blue Jay and the Owl," a funny skit on the differences between the two birds’ diets.
The most popular of the three activities is chicken feeding. The coop beside the Story Barn houses three chickens from 2 to 4 years old, in three breeds: Welsummer, which produces a brown egg; Buff Orpington, a light brown egg; and a Splash Andalusian, a white egg. These hens are yet to be named, so suggestions are welcome. Children can offer them a pellet feed of cracked corn, as well as greens and weeds from the garden waste or worms and slugs if they dare find them. As the summer season continues, Swiss chard, kale and lettuce will also be available for the hens.
Zoe Curtis, 13, a youth education steward, describes chicken feeding. “The kids love chicken feeding. Those chickens get fed so much – they have a good life. Sometimes kids are afraid to feed the chickens because they peck at their hands. But after seeing others do it, they get more confident.”
Other than delivering educational nature experiences, the Children’s Garden also has beautiful interpretive features that share Maine’s culture and history with guests. As visitors wander through the Garden, they see signs showcasing Maine children’s books along with a signature book feature. Two books by Ethel Pochoki are represented. "The Gazebo" is paired with a willow branch gazebo children can sit in, and children can pretend they are in “Rosebud and Red Flannel” by playing with the washtub and clothesline. "Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee" by Chris Van Dusen is shown through the whale fountains: rock whales spout water periodically, a fun attraction on a hot day. These novels, in the Story Barn and often read during story time, connect children to Maine’s natural world.
Lilly Curtis is also a youth education steward at CMBG.