CHILDREN AT SERIOUS PLAY: Connecting to the Natural World in an Interactive Nature Space

About the Author

A former middle school teacher, Katherine Somerville is member programs associate for the American Horticultural Society.

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For kids, play is serious business.

It’s not “just about having fun, but taking risks, experimenting, and testing boundaries,” states the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in a recent clinical report called The Power of Play. According to the AAP, play yields all sorts of benefits in relation to a child’s brain development, learning, and stress reduction.

And when a garden is designed to encourage play, something truly magical happens. We see that magic every day at Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG) in upstate New York. Here, young visitors find limitless opportunities to engage in interactive explorations of the natural world.

By providing a safe place for children to connect to abundant and diverse life forms right in the city, “ICG is about wonder and curiosity,” says Erin Marteal, ICG’s executive director. Marteal says it’s important for kids to slow down during a time when all the visual chatter and data can overwhelm and dull the senses. “It’s about connecting with what’s real, here, and now, and educating the senses of the whole person, beyond what any screen can provide,” she adds.

Learning happens here, but, unlike in a heavily structured learning environment, it happens more organically, on each individual child’s terms. “While most children’s gardens invite a level of engagement,” explains Marteal, “they are typically highly curated and controlled.” In contrast, every space within ICG is designed to connect with children’s developmental needs and interests in open-ended ways. 

“It is much more memorable for a child to pick weeds to feed to the chickens, smell freshly picked mint, and climb trees to experience what the bark feels like than it is to read a sign,” says Marteal.

And this is where ICG’s mission of cultivating environmental stewardship comes into play. When children have fun, memorable outdoor experiences, they are more likely to become adults who will prioritize nature and the environment.

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During the July 2018 American Horticultural Society’s National Children & Youth Garden symposium (NCYGs) in Ithaca, participants experienced ICG for themselves. As these educators, garden designers, and program leaders began to wander through the Garden and observe kids at play there, they were hesitant at first, especially when encountering the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone (HoNAZ). This space is an adventure playground modeled after nature-based learning and play settings in Germany, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom. Here, the culture of play reigns and children can take complete ownership of how they interact with their space.

The unconventional Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone allows children to freely explore and interact with their environment.

Picture an area with dirt-covered terrain featuring a series of mounds and pits, some filled with water. Strewn about are “loose parts”—straw bales, stumps, cardboard, rope, large tubes, and other detritus. Now, add kids to this scene. Under the watchful eye of an adult playworker, trained to constantly monitor and assess risk, kids build forts, climb trees, and create their own entertainment. In the process, some will get muddy and wet, most will get dirty, but all will tap into their imagination and ingenuity while exploring the natural world.

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Not surprised by the initial reaction of the NCYGs visitors, Marteal notes that adventure play can look very different than typical playground play. “Often it is much more creative, expansive, and socially complex than what we allow for in typical settings. There’s usually a learning curve for adults to understand what they’re looking at and reframe how to interpret and respond to what’s happening.” But once adults get past that curve, “the benefits to child development become so obvious,” Marteal adds

And sure enough, a few NCYGs attendees soon began swinging from a tree in HoNAZ, experiencing the space as a child might. Others climbed on Gaia, the larger-than-life snapping turtle sculpture that inspired ICG’s logo.  One or two even rolled around in a giant plastic pipe on the open expanse of the Village Green. “It was refreshing to see a garden where children have greater freedom in manipulating their surroundings during their exploration and discovery,” observes NCYGs attendee Joshua Beblo, a landscape designer based near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

NCYGs attendee Secethia Boardley-Davis, who is director of a preschool in Virginia, notes that she was “struck by how engaged each child was. That engagement contributes to the ICG philosophy of honoring the whole child, fostering environmental stewardship with hands-on sensory experiences, which is how we all, in the natural world, best establish, maintain, and sustain relationships with and in that environment.”


With Gaia as the anchor on the south side of  ICG’s three-acre property tucked into a corner of city-owned Cass Park, other spaces have been added on as resources became available since the Garden’s ground-breaking in 2005. It now includes a wildflower meadow, bioswale, and green-roofed troll house. A child-sized nest and mural-adorned birdhouse are focal points of the Bird Garden whose diverse plantings attract, feed, and provide habitat. in the

Kitchen Garden, raised beds are planted with fragrant herbs, colorful flowers, and delicious vegetables, inviting children to engage in a multisensory experience. Colonies of bees and the chickens that reside in Cluckingham Palace lend further biodiversity to the space.

More recent additions include Woven Tunnel Huts designed by master willow sculptor Patrick Dougherty, the Bulb Labyrinth Memorial Garden, and the Rice Paddy Pond with myriad amphibian and insect inhabitants. The Kids’ Kitchen, built in 2013, is newly reliant on solar energy to power the cooking, eating, art, and other special events that happen there.

Each of the garden’ features is designed to be engaging and creative for visitors, while also being durable, rugged, and reasonable to maintain.


At ICG, kids are not only given permission but are also encouraged to actively explore and discover the natural world through play. These playful, positive experiences foster greater environmental awareness in addition to yielding numerous other benefits to children related to “mitigating stress, improving academic skills, and helping to build the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress and build social-emotional resilience,” explains pediatrician Michael Yogman, lead author of the recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

No wonder ICG is beloved by the Ithaca community, welcoming 70,000 visitors annually. Marteal often receives inquiries about how to start similar spaces elsewhere in the United States, but to her knowledge, there’s nothing else quite like it yet. After their own memorable experiences there, perhaps a few of the NCYGs attendees who visited this summer will start experimenting with play in their own garden spaces.

Photo credit: Ithaca Children’s Garden

Additional Reading & Resources 

Ithaca Children’s Garden
Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Students With Vitamin N
The Real Nature Channel: Time for Kids to Tune In

WATCH THE GARDENS GROW: In Southern California, New School Gardens Help Children Learn, Connect, and Thrive
Children & Nature Network’s Green Schoolyards Initiative
C&NN’s Research Library, including a report on research on nature and learning

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1 Comment

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