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Nora Rose Mueller

Cultivating Curiosity at Camden Children’s Garden

Camden Children’s Garden, a non-profit that encourages kids to discover the natural world through creative play, exists on an unassuming locale along the waterfront of New Jersey, looking out onto the historic shores of Philadelphia. The “horticultural playground” is full of outdoor activities for kids, as it features several different gardens designed with the playful spirit of a child in mind: the Dinosaur Garden, complete with dinosaur eggs you can crawl into; Red Oak Run, full of winding tunnels and alive with chirping birds; the Storybook Garden, with the Red Queen’s throne surrounded by roses and Jack’s climbing beanstalks; the Cityscapes Garden, which models a quaint urban farm; the Picnic Garden, where giant teacups and bowls sprout edible plants (that visitors are encouraged to snack on); the Plaza de Aibonito, where native Puerto Rican plants are featured in a greenhouse. There’s also a butterfly house and a number of other outdoor playgrounds for kids to scamper across.

Photo: Nora Rose Mueller

The garden is eclectic, and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun. Kids can race from a gurgling frog pond to a giant tree house surrounded by vines, or from the Jersey Devil’s lair to Alice’s rabbit hole. It’s also a haven for parents because it appeals to different interests– meaning every kid can find something to enjoy. (Dinosaurs? Check. Princesses? Check. Trains, trucks, and dragons? Check, check, and check.) The whole atmosphere of the park cultivates an innocent lawlessness, rife with possibility and with no limit to creativity. Like Fairyland in Oakland, Camden Children’s Garden focuses less on creating something specific and more on inspiring kids to make it whatever they want.

Photo: Nora Rose Mueller

The park is part of the larger Camden City Garden Club, which focuses on environmental education and community greening. In recent years, the club has also sought to redress the dire food situation the city faces: Camden is one of the nine worst food deserts in America, according to the USDA, and for a brief period during 2014 and 2015, there were no major supermarkets in the entire city.

On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the Children’s Garden hosts a farm stand, which sells produce from the Garden Club’s urban farm. Several of the employees at Camden Children’s Garden also double as educators, going out into the community to local public schools to teach students about how to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diet (a learning experience accompanied by tasty snacks).

Nora Rose Mueller

The spirit of community– and of healing the community– is felt throughout the garden. In addition to their food education, the children’s garden runs a number of other programs, aimed at building opportunities. They have a youth employment program and a senior employment program– which not only helps two vulnerable groups find stability and support, but also creates a space where generations can connect in a meaningful way. Camden Children’s Garden also offers a number of events that are open to the public, including a summer concert series and family festivals with themed educational and craft activities.

Nora Rose Mueller

With its holistic approach to the city’s current challenges, and with a weather eye towards preparing the future generations, Camden Children’s Garden and Camden Garden Club are achieving something truly incredible in a place with a troubled past and present. Community lies at the core of what they do– but so does a sense of wonder and play, in equal measure. The garden isn’t just about mending old wounds, it’s about making the city stronger, happier, and healthier, one kid’s imaginary world at a time.

To reach Camden Children’s Garden from NYC, take Megabus to the first stop in Philadelphia (6th & Market) and then take the PATCO to the first stop in Camden (City Hall).

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