The arboretums of today

PHOTO PROVIDED The cave at Penn State’s Arboretum allows kids to explore an underappreciated part of Pennsylvania’s landscape.

There are plenty of books and articles written about the changing nature of children and outdoor play. Today’s youth don’t interact as much with their outdoor environment compared to other generations and some have hypothesized that it may be linked to a rise in various health issues such as obesity and depression. One way to generate interest in nature is to have them interact with plants. But plants just stand there. How exciting is that?

Could a visit to an arboretum change the perception that plants are boring? Historically, many arboretums were just plant collections organized in groupings, based on their taxonomy.

While informative, they were not very attractive displays, especially to children. One way that arboretums have opened up the plant world to the younger generation has been to develop fun discovery areas. Areas that entice kids to interact with plants and the outside environment.

This can be seen in our own backyard with The Arboretum at Penn State.

A large section of the grounds is devoted to children activities and displays. The layout is designed to showcase the geology of central Pennsylvania with plenty of water and rock features. One of the more interesting areas is Limestone Cave, a cave that has secret passages, stalactites, and bat sculptures.

Travel outside of central Pennsylvania to some of the more established public gardens can lead to some really great opportunities for families. The best bet is southeast Pennsylvania which contains over a dozen arboretums.

Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pa. has a collection of tree houses that allow kids to climb and explore. They all have themes, ranging from a human-scale bird house to a fort (the kind many of us use to build in the backyard). And of course, there are plenty of plants associated with these treehouses, so the interaction occurs subtly.

Nearby Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, Pa., has an element that takes kids (and adults too) 50 feet into the forest canopy. A child can pretend to be a squirrel and role around in a hammock-like net (yes, still 50 feet above ground) or walk into a human-scale bird’s nest.

Instead of an amusement park or a day shopping, try an arboretum. Even adults can get excited about these children’s gardens. Not only can they see their kids (or grandkids) interacting with the plant world, but it brings back memories of their youth and the role that plants played in their childhood.


Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at