Spring Under Glass: Longwood's Kids Garden

Kids can play among the many water features in Longwood's Indoor Children's Garden. (By L. Albee -- Longwood Gardens)
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By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; Page C02

That voice -- when did I first hear it? Wait, I remember now. Strolling through Longwood Gardens on a bleak January Saturday, he suddenly came to me. That guy. The one who narrates the "Frontline" reports on PBS. In my very own head.

Throughout human history, parents have employed myriad strategies to fight wintertime cabin fever, as well as the attendant boredom and incessant bickering that can overwhelm an entire family. Unfortunately, even today, despite the known risks, most of these strategies involve electronic sedatives of one kind or another. Ancient peoples, not anticipating the catatonia and obesity that lay in wait, can be forgiven for marveling at the anodyne properties of VHS tapes and, later, the Internet and PlayStations.

But what is our excuse? And what are the risks of January claustrophobia for our kids?

You gotta hand it to "Frontline" guy. Nobody's better at shaming a TV viewer off the couch. But why, I wondered, couldn't he propose a few healthy alternatives?

I mean, when you think about it, there are plenty of less pernicious antidotes out there, among them Longwood's Indoor Children's Garden, a 4,000-square-foot terrarium that opened in October. It's just one of the attractions at the horticultural amusement park that is Longwood, located a few miles north of Wilmington, Del., just over the Pennsylvania border.

This is a generation of children more at home in a virtual world than a real one, and what are the consequences. . .

Yeah, yeah, we know. We also know that there's a lot of tsk-tsking going on, and no one's doing very much in the way of solutions. But here's the thing: If you build it, they will come. Boy, will they come.

The glass-encased garden may have been misted over with the breath of laughing children, but even from afar, there was no mistaking the popularity of Longwood's decade-in-the-making project. As we got closer, a Tudor castle lined with red and white begonias emerged from the fog, and then a smiling stained-glass sun, and then a few whimsical bronze castings. And then: dozens of children darting in and out of the scene at top speed, followed by their coat racks, er, parents, who appeared to hardly believe their luck.

Inside the conservatory -- four acres of steamy warmth composed of 20 distinct gardens, of which the Children's Garden is one -- grapefruits hung from the trees, and rooms with such names as Acacia Passage and Palm House beckoned. Older children delighted in the creative displays of these, chief among them the Living Wall of Orchids (a name that, while apt, does little justice to the floral profusion) and the jungle overgrowth of the Tropical Terrace. But the younger ones made a beeline for the "Stroller Parking" sign and the garden-of-their-own just beyond it.

What about the need for physical exercise? Today's children spend, on average, 73 hours a day in front of a television. . .

Again, if you build it, they will come. And if you build your children's garden with paths that wind through archway fountains, that descend into thickets of bamboo and catacombish tunnels -- if you do all that, inactivity as we know it will cease to exist.

"Watch me. I'm gonna beat it, Mom," squealed one young boy as he struggled mightily to keep up with the "glow worm," a series of water jets that gave the appearance of leaping up the side of a tower. "You can't find me. You can not find me," screamed another as he slipped into a cave lined with mosaic fish. "I'm over here," shrieked a third, waving from behind a curtain of water.

"Let's get out of this place," yelled one senior citizen to another, the pair having wandered into this cacophony by mistake.

Yes, a veritable feast for the eyes and/or ears it was, depending on your point of view. But the Children's Garden hardly neglected the other senses. Exotic-smelling herbs lined the road to a pool shrouded in fog, while some nearby bushes, clearly chosen for their texture, welcomed the hands-on attitude discouraged elsewhere in the conservatory.

But if the electronic, passive remedies are to be frowned upon, what should our children be given instead?

Well, mushroom soup, for one. Or rather Chester County Mushroom Soup, as it's officially termed at Longwood's Terrace Cafe, one building over from the conservatory. Surely the first soup ever named for a county (or someone named Chester, for that matter), the epiphanic concoction of button, oyster and shiitake mushrooms might be the healthiest, least problematic antidote to winter, a bowl of unmitigated optimism like you've never tasted. After slurping a few spoonfuls I was convinced that 1) spring will indeed come, 2) there's nothing wrong with our kids that a good garden can't cure, and 3) "Frontline" guy had to try this soup.

Here, have a spoon.

Robust, hearty, ambrosial even. But what are the consequences -- Aw, shut up and eat, will ya?

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