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All Images by Ruthie Abel

Interactive Learning at the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden

On the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan, rhymes and riddles summon visitors of all ages to stop and smell a popcorn plant, rub “pig squeak”, and launch a boat on a Great Lakes replica. These activities and countless more make the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden one of the largest interactive gardens in the country, and a fun slice of the 125-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

Visitors of the Children’s Garden are challenged to use all five senses while indulging in make-believe. “Welcoming the Sea,” a current theme that includes sea-like plants such as pink and green tropical vermilliads, challenges kids to imagine:

Walk past this shipwreck,
Now you’re under the sea!
Pretend you’re a fish.
Which fish will you be?

Spiny cardoon, from the artichoke family, is another example of the lead horticulturist Ian Warnock’s signature eye-popping foliage. “It’s big, it’s bold, it’s touchy-feely-in-your-face! Reminds me of Scotch thistle,” explained a nostalgic Warnock in his lilting Scottish accent.

Warnock also incorporates native foliage and creatures in the landscape and activities. “We didn’t have dinosaurs in Michigan but we did have prehistoric giant beavers.” Bucky, the resident giant beaver, is currently being refurbished but kids playing in the beaver house did not seem to notice.

Originally from western Scotland, Warnock has been at the gardens for twenty years. A jovial personality, plying unsuspecting visitors (such as this writer) with tongue-numbing plant leaves, he is clearly in his element. “In 2003 I was the grounds manager and I was interviewing candidates for the new children’s garden position when a voice went off in my head and said, ‘What are you doing, this is your position!’ And I’ve been at it for twelve years,” he said with a twinkle and a sigh.

After searching for buried fossils with hand-operated diggers in the Rock Quarry or navigating the Butterfly Maze, a rest may be due. Climb aboard the kids’ tram for a Tree-mendous Tree Tour. The tram traverses the sprawling sculpture park and riders may hop on or off at stops to learn about specific tree uses (for instruments, baseball bats, and popsicle sticks), to watch puppets identify tree-living creatures, and to discover why leaves change colors.

This Fall, the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden will host thousands of giant pumpkins (some of them weighing up to hundreds of pounds each!), as well as a Hallowee-ones costume parade and their annual Story Telling Series throughout September and October.

Find out more about the garden and its events here.

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