Conservatory Children's Garden Connects Kids with the Outdoors.

Melissa Kossler Dutton
Workers put finishing touches on the Children's Garden ahead of the grand opening.

While many members of the focus group convened to help the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens plan its latest addition had minimal life experience, they had no shortage of big ideas.

The youngsters who were part of the planning process for the new Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children's Garden asked for rainbows, water play and the opportunity to see the garden from above, said Jenn Wilson, director of marketing and visitor experience for the conservatory. Terra Design Studios took those ideas and incorporated glass and prisms, water features and elevated walkways into their plans.

The garden, which opened May 19, took more than a year to construct and cost $5.7 million. It's the largest horticultural project the conservatory has ever undertaken, Wilson said. The 2-acre plot is divided into multiple themed areas and pocket gardens—all intended to encourage interaction with nature and the outdoors. “We wanted more families to visit,” she said. “We want to help our youngest visitors to be students of nature.”

Designers incorporated many of the property's mature trees into the design to provide shade and educational opportunities. The garden—home to 19,000 plants and 150 trees—provides ample space to showcase flora native to the Buckeye State.

The exhibits are designed to help children grow their minds and their bodies, said Jenny Pope, the conservatory's director of community outreach and education. They will be encouraged to engage in imaginative play and to use their muscles and fine motor skills. “We're all about experiential learning,” she said. “I know we are going to help children with their developmental milestones—whether they know it or not.”

Rainbow Reception

Designed for ages 2-10, the Children's Garden will be open year-round, with staff members on hand from April to October. Families can easily spend 90 minutes exploring its offerings.

Visitors are welcomed by the Sunshine Celebration Arch, made of stained glass panels dotted with prisms that cast rainbows on the ground when light shines through them. Children may choose to access the garden through the “Kids Only” entrance—a tunnel made from arched willow plants. A must-see is the “teleidoscope,” a special kaleidoscope that uses objects outside of the instrument—in this case, flowers in a spinning pot—to form patterns. Nearby misting boulders create rainbows on sunny days and a chance to cool off when temperatures rise. Stroller parking is available.

Outdoor Experiences

Conservatory staffers wanted the children's garden to connect kids to the natural world, Pope said, so several areas are designed to promote those interactions. The Boulder Scramble on the Sunrise Lawn offers a chance to climb and play games among rocks of different shapes and sizes built into a small hill. Kids will find the Hocking Hills-inspired mini-waterfall and riverbed in the My Ohio Woods area irresistible. That's a good thing, because designers intend it to be a spot where kids peel off their socks and shoes and scamper through the water. They can look for fossils in the rock formations or float sticks and leaves in the pools of the Sandstone Creek.

The Sensory Garden entices children to touch and sniff herbs and other plants with distinct smells and textures.

Places to Play

The Nature Play Zone provides unexpected ways to get some physical activity. Kids can jump from one tree stump to another, navigate a balance beam, crawl through a hollow log and more. They also can use gardening tools to dig into the earth in search of pebbles, insects and other natural surprises.

Children can have an impromptu performance at the puppet show stage, or act like it's a lemonade stand and peddle pretend drinks. It's up to the kids and their imaginations, Pope said.

The Playhouse also offers opportunities for make-believe. Built from natural materials, the structure is likely to be a favorite spot for little ones.

The Bee Bop Corner features weatherproof musical instruments.

Aerial Views and Wetland Wonders

Children will gravitate to the Canopy Walk that permits a look at the garden from above. Within the walk, they can check out the human-sized bird nest and the Hammock Lounge, a large cargo net that dangles above native Ohio plants, where they can watch the clouds or get a bird's-eye view of the ground below. Adventurous youngsters will enjoy scurrying across a pair of rope bridges.

The Wetland Boardwalk and Floating Path introduce children to different natural environments. The paths lead to water-tolerant plants and the living creatures they attract.

See and Do

In every area of the garden, children are encouraged to touch, smell—and sometimes taste—the plants, Pope said. The hope is that they will get dirty, touch bugs and learn to love playing in nature, she said.

“We want to hear kids laughing, see them running and moving their bodies,” she said. “We want them to walk away with an appreciation for living things.”

Families can borrow backpacks full of activities and lessons, such as magnifying glasses and identification cards for the living things in the garden, to enhance their visit. The education teamplans to host regular story hours, themed craft projects and cooking demonstrations in the Children's Garden.

If You Go

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

1777 E. Broad St. (East Side), Columbus


The Children's Garden is included in the general admission rate, which is $18 adults, $15 seniors, $11 children ages 3-12 and free for ages 2 and younger.



FPC's Master Plan

The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children's Garden is the final phase of Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' Master Plan, which was developed nearly 20 years ago with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

Executed in two phases, the plan includes 10 major projects. The conservatory raised $45 million from the public and private sectors through two capital campaigns to fund the improvements, which included adding the Wells Barn for events and renovating the main entrance.

The Children's Garden and the enclosure of the Grand Mallway are the final projects in the plan. The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation signed on as the presenting sponsor of the garden in April 2017.

“The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children's Garden is a national benchmark in the botanical garden world for connecting children with nature,”said Bruce Harkey, president and CEO of the conservatory. “The generous financial support of Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation and all of our private and public donors brought our vision to life for the enjoyment of Columbus' children and visitors from across the country.”