By Janis Fontaine
On three-quarters of an acre just a block from the Delray Beach courthouse and active Atlantic Avenue is a tiny garden just for kids. In the Delray Beach Children’s Garden, kids can climb trees and rope-ladders, plant and harvest vegetables, make mud pies and mud soup, find friends in a colony of worms, and learn about the importance of green space.
To its founders, the garden is a place to nurture eco-consciousness in children because kids who love nature will want to protect it. It’s their legacy.
But it’s also about having good, clean fun, being a kid and getting wet and dirty. On Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the garden is open to the public for playtime. The garden is closed on Sundays through August but will reopen for play on Sundays too in September. A donation of $5 is requested.
Playgrounds are nice, program manager Veronica Green said, but some have hard surfaces or rubber mulch. Nothing compares to real dirt under your feet, the sweet fragrance of the plants and herbs thriving in the South Florida sun and access to nature everywhere you look.
Green says the garden is about “unstructured play. We added a lot of features to encourage free play.”
A water table with bins and buckets is popular. A wash-away art board with bright tempura paints is ready for creative moments. The worm farm, where delicate red wigglers (Eisenia foetida) make the world’s best fertilizer by eating your nasty old banana peels, is a marvel.
Nooks and crannies throughout the garden provide comfy seating where parents can mingle and enjoy the shade — there’s plenty — while kids make new friends with beetles and butterflies, lady bugs and goldfish. A repurposed rowboat allows for imaginary voyages, and fruit trees yield delicacies such as cotton candy berries and chocolate pudding fruit.
The garden was founded by Jeannie Fernsworth, a horticulturist, and Shelly Zacks, a retired preschool teacher, in 2015. Green is a certified educator through the Eastern Regional Association of Forest and Nature Schools and keeps the trains running on time. She and Executive Director Christina Nicodemou facilitate the classes the garden offers.
Mother Nature & Me, offered every Thursday, is designed for ages 1-5 years. In addition to unstructured playtime, kids have time for arts and crafts and to listen to Ms. Veronica’s story time under the Simon Grass River Chickee Hut. Registration for the class is required and a donation of $10 per child is requested.
Green is also a children’s book author, and her series The Adventures of Veggie Vero features a vegan superhero who rescues animals and teaches children about compassionate living. The books also teach the importance of a plant-based diet, and at the end of each book Green includes a recipe kids can make.
In fall and spring, the garden offers an extensive Nature Education Cooperative for home-schoolers. The 10-week program, for ages 3 to 8, meets weekly for three hours of science, cooking, art, math, language, mindfulness activities, and gardening. The September program is full but registration opens in November for the spring session, which begins in January.
The coronavirus pandemic hit the garden hard, Green said. For almost a year, no children could visit. The garden, which leases its space from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, recently started a Sponsor of the Month campaign.
By paying the garden’s monthly rent ($1,000), sponsors get a beautiful sign in the garden, acknowledgment in the garden’s monthly newsletter, on its website and on social media, and the appreciation of the community.
The Delray Dunes Garden Club sponsored the garden in July. A sponsor is still needed for December. Check the children’s garden website for other ways to help.
Delray Beach Children’s Garden is at 137 SW Second Ave. Visit www.delraybeachchildrensgarden.org.