Interact with Plants in the Deer Creek Discovery Children's Play Area

November 9, 2023 Shea Elstein , Horticulturist at Chatfield Farms

Many visitors to the Deer Creek Discovery Children’s Play Area at Chatfield Farms flock to the climbable tractor, treehouse structure and wading pond. But a careful observer will notice play elements beyond these structural pieces. Below are some of the horticultural practices and applications that transform this play area into a discovery-focused nature play space.

While other gardens at Chatfield Farms have a “look but please don’t touch” policy, the garden beds in the Children’s Play Area include signage welcoming patrons to touch, smell and interact with the plants. Visitors are encouraged to run their fingers through the little bluestem grasses (Schizachyrium scoparium). This can be a dramatically different experience depending on the time of year. The blue-green coarse blades of summer give way to wispy seed heads and dramatic color in fall.

Indulging some curiosity to poke the smooth, slightly pointy sedums prompts questions about their unique texture. And taking notice of the unusual rounded yellow blooms of cotton-lavender (Santolina chamaecyparissus) sparks wonder about flower shapes in nature.

Recognizable fragrant herbs like thyme, lavender and oregano add to the sensory experience and allow visitors to connect to a familiar plant. The experience of recognizing a plant is enhanced by adding a layer of the unusual. For example, a cultivated sunflower such as Helianthus annuus ‘Ruby Eclipse’ allows a viewer to first recognize the familiar bloom of a sunflower while engaging their sense of curiosity about the unusual coloring.

A newer element to the play area is the winding pathway through a patch of chokecherries (Prunus virginiana). Along this meandering path are stumps covered in beetle trails, logs chewed by beavers, skin shed from snakes and much more waiting to be discovered. In addition to creating a space for unstructured exploration, these trails have become a popular space for natural art and imaginative play. Fairy houses/gnome homes frequently appear on these hidden paths throughout the season.

After emerging from the chokecherry trails, visitors may discover leftover branches from seasonal pruning, intentionally left behind as available building materials. Visitors regularly construct shelters and have been known to creatively source additional fallen limbs and roofing materials from leaves or small twigs.

Throughout the Children’s Play Area, opportunities to connect with nature through imagination and exploration abound. On your next visit keep an eye out for the plants and natural elements added to spark curiosity, discovery and play in a natural setting.



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