Horticultural Garden Notes: Creating the Children’s Activity Area

A family of sandhill cranes visits the children's activity area

A sandhill crane family visits the children's activity area (Photo: David Stevens)

Shortly after coming to the Arboretum in 2015, I recognized the potential in a roughly one-acre area bordering the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens that had long been used as a weed dump. Initially, I envisioned clearing and leveling the area to expand the collection. That concept changed after talking with Jennifer Mitchell, youth and community education coordinator, about the need for a vibrant children’s activity area at the Arboretum.

Over the next five years during the fall and winter months, I, along with Longenecker staff members Stephen Nystrand, Keith Phelps, and Zane Fuller, and volunteers, removed buckthorn and Asiatic honeysuckle, as well as dead trees, to expose an inviting hilly landscape created by years of composting plant material.

The site of the future children’s activity area, in 2015 (Photo: David Stevens)
A group of volunteers that helped clear invasive species

During the process, another delightful surprise was uncovered just west of the area: a long-hidden wall of large boulders. We think the wall was created by Civilian Conservation Corps members while clearing the land to develop the Longenecker collections in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Wall of bolders along the children's activity area
View of the stone wall, possibly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the frame of a ciporoke, “round dwelling” in the Ho-Chunk language, that was erected by staff in the activity area. (Photo: David Stevens)

With further input from Jennifer and UW–Madison landscape architect professor Sam Dennis, horticultural specialist Zane Fuller laid out paths through the area and we selectively pruned vegetation to create sight lines so parents could easily see their children throughout the area. Zane, with help from natural resource specialist Chelsea Camp, then mulched the paths with wood chips and lined them with logs, repurposing materials generated from other land care projects.

Children’s activity area, 2021 (Photo: David Stevens)

Jennifer and Zane also erected the frame of a Ciporoke (“chee-poe-doe-kay”) – “round dwelling” in the Ho-Chunk language. This structure increases interest and helps draw children to the area, and also pays homage to the lands’ original Ho-Chunk occupants before their forced removal by European settlers.

The children’s activity area opened in the summer of 2021. Jennifer sees the space as providing “an area where children can explore pathways, climb on logs, create nature art, build stick structures, and discover plants and animals. This space gives families a place to explore nature, refresh the mind, and learn and grow together.”

—David Stevens, Longenecker Horticultural Gardens curator