Within Reach – Ithaca Children’s Garden

I’ve gone past that huge turtle in Cass Park since 2005, but I didn’t know until yesterday she had a name.

Gaia. GUY-ya.Gaia the Turtle-0600

You haven’t seen the turtle? You haven’t been paying attention! At 40-50’ long (and 11 years old), she’s hard to miss.

Gaya was the first major piece of the Ithaca Children’s Garden which has developed into a 3 acre park of play, education and exploration, directed by Erin Marteal whose enthusiasm for the park is contagious.

Sign-0576The staff reflect Ms. Marteal’s attitude. Even in the midst of weeding and otherwise taking care of the park, all had ever present and genuine smiles.

The Children’s Garden is far more than a garden; it’s a playground, a center for programs from preschool to high school and generally a place for growing things. The produce grown in the garden by TUF or “Teen Urban Farmers” is for sale through July and August at the TUF Farm stand right on the parking lot. All proceeds go right back to the operation of the garden.

I couldn’t help but think of Mr McGregor’s Garden from Peter Rabbit. Preschoolers – thoseThe Garden-0602 energetic miniature human beings – see the beautifully growing onions, tomatoes, beets, carrots and lettuce as huge – but down the path is the Troll House, just their size. Built with straw and featuring a living roof, it’s the perfect place for make-believe.

Walking to the other end of the garden is an area called the “Anarchy Zone”, filled with tires, blocks, swings and all the stuff that kids don’t get to play with in real life. I saw a pair of 5 year olds pop out of a stack of big tires (like daisies) with the biggest grins I’ve ever seen.A Zone

There is a section of pipe – maybe 4’ in diameter that kids can either roll in, walk in and through or just slide. A portable funhouse. I’m told that it moves every day from place to place via kid power.Pipe-0585

Add to this a bulb garden and wildflowers and of course Gaia the Turtle, a jungle gym like no other.

Although this is called the Ithaca Children’s Garden, it is so much more, and a place that even adults (like me) can come, enjoy the flowers, listen to the children’s squeals of delight and maybe even take home some fresh onions.

A little history. The Ithaca Children’s garden secured a lease for a 3-acre parcel of Ithaca’s Cass Park in 2004. Gaia, the Turtle was built in 2005 and from there it has grown to the lush, vibrant place it is now. The garden is on city land, but is entirely independently run. Working with NYS Fish and Wildlife and Cooperative extension – and a cadre of volunteers and donors, the garden is self-sustaining and meets the needs of the community’s children “where they are”, as Ms Marteal explains.

Whether the children are raised in the city or the rural regions, the garden has fun and engaging activities for all, and for all ages.

Ok, my favorite place? The Anarchy Zone. When I was a zillion years younger, this would have been the place I’d choose to play; in a place where imagination was king, and nature was queen.

The intent of the Children’s garden was to be educational, but why not have fun in the process? Actually, “fun” makes the learning “stick”, and the kids who visit the Ithaca Children’s Garden will have an experience and appreciation of growing things that they’ll never forget.

And somehow, I’ll bet their parents will remember too.

For more information, go to http://www.ithacachildrensgarden.org. Maybe we’ll meet there and compare notes.

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