2011-08-19 / Home & Garden

A Secret Play Garden opens at Riverbanks

Stopping to smell the flowers
By Arlene Marturano www.scga rdenlea rning.com

This July a new addition opened in the children’s discovery zone of Riverbanks Botanical Garden where families have been enjoying Mulberry Fort, the Doll House and Giant Chair, and Junior Master Gardener programs for years.

The newest garden, the Secret Play Garden, grows under a hexagonal shade tent. Jim Mosteller of Mosteller Design and Construction in Columbia planned and installed the 42’ x 32’ play garden as a cross between a traditional playground and a container garden for ages 2-5.

Mosteller, a former physical education teacher and student of exercise physiology, included features to encourage both gross and fine motor development during outdoor play among garden plants. Children can reach, crawl, climb, step, stretch, swing, jump, push, pull, balance, slide, and run without being aware of how much exercise is possible in a small area. Fine motor skills are developed when pouring and sifting sand, painting pots, plantings seeds in pots and troughs, snipping herbs, plucking tomatoes, shelling beans, and sorting seeds.


Mushroom stools become exercise tools. Mushroom stools become exercise tools. Mosteller believes that gardening is theraPE. He even included a fitness machine with planters of flowers and food at the top. Children and their parents must push their body weight to move the fitness seesaw.

Exploration and movement occur in play garden zones like the runner bean plant maze, sand box and wall, puppet show stage, porch swing, semicircular vegetable trough, and “interactive” play panels.

From the moment children enter the play garden, they give parents and teachers occasions to observe the ages and stages of physical and social development. Some imitate; others innovate. Rather than sitting on the mushroom stools, a pair of brothers used them as exercise tools. There are tyke- sized play panels including a finger maze flower walk, butterfly life cycle, and gear systems.


Runner beans climb fabric walls of bean maze. Runner beans climb fabric walls of bean maze. Multi- colored and multi- shaped containers are filled with familyfriendly fresh vegetables and herbs including okra, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and spearmint. Amanda Segura, garden education coordinator at Riverbanks, wanted the garden to plunge children in plants and encourage families with young children to eat and grow fresh garden food. Master Gardener volunteers helped with initial installation of plantings.

The play garden is edged in crumb rubber curbing. The playground surface is soft synthetic turf and accessible to wheelchairs.

A young child’s need for enclosed spaces, secret passageways, and hideouts is accommodated with the overhead tent, fabric walls of the bean maze, and play panel rooms. Parents are always visible.

Since the play garden is for free play rather than scheduled instruction, parents and teachers are requested to supervise children at all times. Entrance to the Secret Play Garden is free with regular zoo admission.



Toddler tests the turf. Toddler tests the turf.

Sisters pull their weight on the exercise seesaw. Sisters pull their weight on the exercise seesaw.

A tower of herbs brings scent and texture to the play garden. A tower of herbs brings scent and texture to the play garden.

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