Five years old! How quickly the time has passed.
Do you remember your fifth birthday? Meeting new friends from school, growing taller, exploring the wide world around you. So, too, has the Morton Arboretum's Children Garden matured into a regional destination.
Believe it or not, the Children's Garden recently celebrated its own fifth birthday. This youthful addition to the arboretum's more venerable acreage has attracted visitors young and old.
"Since 2005, more than 1.8 million visitors have played, learned, discovered and explored in the Children's Garden," says Lesley Kolaya, the arboretum's Children's Garden supervisor. "This past Columbus Day was a record-breaker with over 6,700 visitors in the Children's Garden."
More than 15,000 plants thrive in four acres amid 10 charming themed areas, such as the Windmill Garden, Grotto and Secret Stream, Grassy Meadow, Evergreen Walk and Lookout.
But plants are not the only attractions.
"We saw a huge praying mantis," reports preschool teacher Diane Schoenheider of a recent field trip.
Schoenheider typically makes a yearly pilgrimage to the Children's Garden with her preschool class from Lindop School in Broadview. Critters like the praying mantis are just some of the favorites her class remembers.
"They love the 'spider web,'" Schoenheider says, referring to the climbing rope structure that resembles a web.
With her students ranging in age from 3 to 5, Schoenheider appreciates the variety of activities offered.
"My class is pretty adventurous," she said. "The older kids can do some things on their own."
Even so, this spunky teacher reveals that initially she shows the youngsters how it's done.
"I'll go up with the kids rope climbing," she said.
Asked what's most popular in the Children's Garden, Kolaya has a ready answer.
"I immediately think Wonder Pond and tadpoles," she said. "Wonder Pond is an interactive feature in the Children's Garden where kids can explore the plants and animals that live in water."
Each spring, toads lay eggs in the pond. Children come back throughout the summer to watch the progress as eggs turn into tadpoles and then adults.
Indeed, Schoenheider says that, on a recent trip, a dad chaperoning the trip saw a toad. Garden volunteers let the children touch the toad, and when the class returned to school, they talked about how it felt.
Water features abound in the garden. Along with Wonder Pond, Schoenheider's class loves the waterfalls, stream and fountains.
While the water does not flow in the winter months, there are still plenty of outdoor activities for youth. Kids can hunt for gnomes and fairies from November through February as the Children's Garden is transformed into the Magical Winter Garden.
During a drop-in program Thanksgiving weekend, children can make special treats for the animals that stick around during winter. Breakfast with Santa is in the Ginkgo Restaurant just steps from the Children's Garden during December weekends. Kids also enjoy the Enchanted Railroad, a model railroad set up in the adjacent Visitor Center.
Most events are free with membership or admission, but Breakfast with Santa requires registration and a fee. See the arboretum's website, mortonarb.org, for details.
Think all this is just kid stuff? Kolaya suggests otherwise. With five years of history now to its credit, the Children's Garden has proved that it's not just for kids.
"What we have learned is that adults are just as engaged as children when they are in the garden," Kolaya says. "In the Children's Garden, adults can raise their confidence in nature and the outdoors, and become their child's partner in nature learning experiences."
• Cathy Jean Maloney is a writer for the Morton Arboretum.