At the Crossroads: Art, Science and the Garfield Park Conservatory

Although the month of June and Leave No Child Inside month activities are winding down, many Chicago Wilderness member organizations offer year-round programs and events that encourage children, youth, and families to spend time exploring and learning about nature. Read more to learn about the opportunities at Garfield Park Conservatory that encourage connections between art, science, and nature. 

The Fern Room at Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo credit: Garfield Park Conservatory.

By Audrey Sherer, Early Childhood and Family Programs Coordinator 

In our society art and science are often put in opposition, with some pushing for more arts education and creative opportunities for children and others advocating for increased exposure and experiences in science. As a living museum, the Garfield Park Conservatory sits at the intersection of these two disciplines. At our core we are a facility filled with scientists, following procedures, utilizing horticultural and botanical expertise, experimenting with propagation and manipulating the environment for optimal growth and also artists, creating shapes and patterns with plantings, designing interesting and thought-provoking views, attending to color, line and size in plant placement and pruning. From the original designer, Jens Jensen, and through to our current horticulturists and curators, creativity and artistic vision have been paired with botanical knowledge to lead the design and care of our plant collection. It is this seamless union – between the science of plants and artistic creativity – that make the Conservatory so unique and a visit here so magical.  It is also what makes our family programming so dynamic.

Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden. Photo credit: Garfield Park Conservatory.

As the Early Childhood and Family Programs Coordinator at the Garfield Park Conservatory, I utilize this intersection in activities to encourage children and families to spend time learning and exploring nature. Just as one feels the deep impact of this blend while walking through the delicately designed Fern Room or taking in the somewhat alien beauty of the Desert House, some of the most meaningful and engaging children’s activities we provide are those that comprise elements of both creativity and science. For example, in our “Cactus Practice” activity, children learn about how succulents adapted to living in a place with little water (spongy interiors that hold water) as they capitalize on this attribute by using pieces of Aloe, Mexican Blue Haze and other succulents as stamps to create bookmarks. In pairing this scientific knowledge with artistic expression children process the information in meaningful and authentic ways, creating connections and activating multiple parts of their brains.

Nature Play Space at Garfield Park Conservatory. Photo credit: Laura Brown.

Throughout the summer this type of activity translates to our outdoor children’s garden and nature play space, the Play and Grow Garden, as well.  Whether staff-led or not, children are given multiple opportunities to interact with nature through the combined lens of art and science.  For example, children are invited to create sculptures and other three dimensional structures using natural materials such as logs, palm fronds, and sticks. In participating in this activity children gather scientific knowledge about the touch and feel of natural materials, experiment with physics as they balance and move materials and activate their sense of design and develop an aesthetic, and perhaps even a narrative, around their creation. This multi-faceted approach is both alluring to children and powerful, for as children play and build they simultaneously learn and explore in nature.

Although Leave No Child Inside month is coming to a close at the end of June, at the Garfield Park Conservatory families are always able to spend time learning and exploring in nature. Whether inside in our tropical Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden or outside in our Play and Grow Garden, our weekly staff-led, free family programming provides multiple opportunities for children to engage in and with nature, both artistically and scientifically.

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