Connecting Kids to Nature

Hazel MacCarald of Trumansburg heads for one of several entrances to the Ithaca Children's Garden, ready to play.

“Miss Lady, watch this!” The 5-year-old boy, dressed for athletics, slid down the giant turtle head and into the mulch. “Do you want me to do it with you?” he asked my daughter.

My daughter and I were playing on Gaia, the clay snapping turtle that watches over the southern entrance to the Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG). When the boy discovered my daughter is 3, he declared, “You have to be 5 to do this.” After clambering over Gaia some more, he asked, “Want to go help those people pick up sticks?” before scampering over to join a group of garden apprentices clearing debris from a gravel path.

At the ICG, play and work naturally flow together, just as the manmade and living elements complement each other. “Our mission is to inspire environmental stewardship among our community’s youth,” says Erin Marteal, the director of ICG. “Research shows that the more kids have access to play in the natural world, the more likely they are to care about the environment when they become adults.”

ICG is open to the public from dawn to dusk every day of the year, and offers classes, summer camps and events for a range of ages. Marteal says that, last year, ICG served 17,480 people, about 52 percent of which were casual visitors. If you do find an appropriate program in progress, Kara Cusolito, the garden manager, says, “Feel free to participate in anything going on.”

Junk transformed to joy 

ICG was founded in 1997, but the physical site, previously a junk pile, was first leased in 2004. Staff and volunteers have developed several themed gardens over the years, but kids are also drawn to informal features. Open-grown trees provide climbable canopies or curve over secret hideaways. A gravel-ringed pool, which will become a rain garden this year, provided endless entertainment last year as toddlers and preschoolers tossed in rocks and watched the ripples play about on the water surface. “These are my favorite rocks,” one girl told her mother. Parents too are made welcome by an abundance of benches, many tucked into the shade. The benches are there to encourage people to stay, says Cusolito.

For kids’ nibbling pleasure

The fencing around the edible garden was designed to keep deer out, but visitors are welcome to nibble. One day, my daughter and I found Cusolito working on a new gravel path through an herb patch in the edible garden. She gave us each a puckery sorrel leaf to try and sent us to search for peas and strawberries. “Finders keepers,” she told us.

Playful signs identify crops in the edible garden for those with less garden experience. “It’s a spot for tasting and for showing your kids what the plant their food is coming from looks like,” says Cusolito. Kids are excited to sample vegetables from a plant they might otherwise ignore if found on their dinner plate. While Cusolito plans most of the plantings, one bed is dedicated to an ICG program for child gardeners who plan, tend and harvest their plot.

A new perimeter fence will keep deer out of the entire garden and wandering children in, but a small section of the edible garden fencing will stay to protect plots from a new garden feature: free-range chickens. When in the edible garden, the chickens will be constrained by movable enclosures. “We’ll be rotating those chickens throughout the garden to fertilize and till the soil as well as to produce eggs,” says Marteal.

Turtles, anarchy and meditation

The wetland habitat garden curves around Gaia, who was built in 2005 with the help of about 400 volunteers. The top of her shell is a welcoming place for parents to chat while they watch their children play. The view overlooks the inlet and the nearby native plants where Gaia’s live brethren feel at home. Trails move through the underbrush and over a bioswale, where visitors can surprise a snake or frog. Tucked into the vegetation are a spacious sand pit and two play houses: the bird house and the troll house.

The Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, or HONA, opened in 2012, even though “the concept of an anarchy zone has been part of the Children Garden’s plans for years,” explains Marteal. It was finally brought to life through help from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Earthplay. ICG provides the raw material and a space where free play can run wild, providing an attraction for all ages, but especially for older kids who may be less interested in other parts of ICG.

The Bulb Labyrinth Memorial Garden, which bloomed for the first time last spring, is the most formal and contemplative space. It is a remembrance for children lost in the community created through collaboration between ICG and the Ithaca Perinatal Loss Support Group. The labyrinth curves around three-season plantings and several graceful sculptures donated by local artisans. A bench draped over by sycamore branches provides a quiet spot to listen to the white noises of traffic, the sounds of distant shovel work, red-winged blackbirds clucking and goldfinch twittering. Even here, the twisting path draws kids to run along it or jerk through the gravel on a bike.

There is always something new to discover, thanks both to the ICG staff and to the surrounding community. “There are so many talented artists and carpenters and other people in Ithaca, so we figured the more community input the better,” says Cusolito, speaking of a new carrot-shaped mini library going into the edible garden, although she could have been speaking of the garden as a whole. Last year, more than 300 volunteers put in 2,365 volunteer hours.

Plenty of parking is available, and the site is within walking or biking distance of downtown Ithaca. Its location on the Cayuga Waterfront Trail makes it easy to integrate a visit to the garden with a trip to Cass Park. Schedules of classes and events can be found at the ICG website (, or on a board near the entrance to the edible garden.

by Clara MacCarald

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