A rendering of the layout of pathways and zones of the proposed children's garden, with buffered fence lines, and entry locations. | Garfield Park Conservatory

The Chicago Park District recently got a $749,500 Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) grant to build a new outdoor children’s garden on the northwestern portion of the outdoor section of the Garfield Park Conservatory. 

The grant is the latest development in the Conservatory’s larger effort to enhance the facility’s children’s spaces. Conservatory officials closed the 6,000-square-foot Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden late last year. The indoor garden will undergo roughly $6 million in renovations before reopening in 2023. 

According to the copy of the application document provided by IDNR, the roughly four-acre hilly area that currently only has a few walking trails would be divided into seven “activity zones,” including a Children’s Lodge shelter and areas specifically for toddlers and preschool children. 

But it is not clear how much money is still needed, and when the renovations might start. The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, a volunteer organization that advocates for the facility and organizes programming and events, declined to comment, directing Austin Weekly News to the park district. The park district hasn’t responded to a request for comment by deadline.

The Garfield Park Conservatory already has two children’s areas. The Play and Growth Garden on the south side of the outdoor garden area, which is geared toward kids ages 8 and younger, would normally be open during the warmer weather months, but it has been closed since the start of the pandemic. 

According to the application documents, the idea for the Children’s Exploration Garden came from a pair of stakeholder workshops held in the spring and fall of 2009. For the most part, the stakeholders were staff members and volunteers from the Park District and the Conservatory Alliance, but the workshops also included representatives from area schools and a professor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The participants agreed that they wanted to build a space that would encourage kids to learn about nature, relax, play and express their creativity. 

“Many urban children are limited in their experience of nature” the document added. “Adolescents do not have natural places to go, where they feel welcomed and comfortable. The Exploration Garden is a chance to engage them in nature in a different way.”

The Children’s Lodge would be located just beyond the entrance serving as “a base of operations for the Conservatory staff and volunteers,” and it would have a deck where parents can watch their kids run around and play.   

The “Council Ring,” a shaded outdoor sitting area located nearby, would host activities. The Early Childhood Zone will be located east of the entrance, with trees and natural materials kids can touch and play with. The Natural Building Adventure Zone will feature wooden shelter structures built from tree branches pruned from the conservatory, with the structures demolished and built from scratch every year. 

The Wild Adventure Zone on the south side of the hill will feature “dramatic mounds, large rocks, logs, and hardy shrub species” to facilitate exciting play. The North side of the hill will include areas where kids can play hide-and-seek and an amphitheater. 

Other features would include a clay pit, the mound-climbing area on the side of the hill, the lookout at the top of the hill and wetlands to the north to reduce flooding and provide a habitat for native plants.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (5th), whose respective legislative districts include the Conservatory, provided letters of support. Van Pelt wrote that the pandemic highlighted the importance of spending time in nature and said it could be “a prescription for combating loneliness, anxiety and fatigue.”

“Their plans to make [four acres] of outdoor space suitable and accessible for year-round use will create a valuable new asset for West Side families who are looking for safe places to enjoy the outdoors with their children,” Ervin wrote. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...