Arboretum News

Kids Activity: Magic Gardens

Cultivate a creative place to play and imagine outdoors.

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Magic Gardens, by Nancy Guldberg and Lisa George, inspired us to create a world of magical creatures in our own backyard. Photo by Liz Potasek.

By Liz Potasek

A pumpkin patch became Jurassic Park with the addition of a few plastic dinosaurs in Lisa George’s garden, and fairies from a small fairy bowl planting started turning up all over Nancy Guldberg’s garden. As they watched their grandchildren’s creativity blossom through play in their gardens, Nancy and Lisa, who are mother and daughter, developed the idea for Magic Gardens, an inspirational book and website that helps children grow their imagination outdoors. 

Guldberg, a former teacher and master gardener who has worked in the Arboretum’s Green Play Yard, knew the importance of nurturing creativity and curiosity through play, and both women wanted to facilitate ways for adults and children to connect and engage.

The book and website are full of ideas for different theme gardens (from Birds and Bees to Zombies), as well as fun craft projects, like colored pencil paths and landmark rocks, to get children (and adults) engaged in the garden. Each themed garden has an accompanying video to give gardeners an idea of how to put the garden together. “Kids need to see it before they think it’s fun,” George says.

Maggie Potasek painted rocks to add to her fairy garden. Photo by Liz Potasek.

Inspired by the book, but lacking the motivation to pull off something like the beautiful Frozen garden, I encouraged my girls (ages 3, 6 and 8) to paint some rocks, and I repurposed a few old bird houses into fairy houses with a fresh coat of paint. (If you’re feeling stuck, check out this list of Magic Garden prompts to get you started.)

We gathered up an assortment of plastic figurines we’d collected from birthday parties and carnivals, and nestled everything into an abandoned fairy village in our backyard. Before I knew it, a new world had been created. 

Nora Potasek gathered some alliums that had gone to seed to make trees for the garden. We also like collecting acorns, beautiful rocks and other items of interest from the yard and garden. Photo by Liz Potasek.

The delightful part about Magic Gardens is they can be taken in so many different directions. They can be as easy as bringing some plastic dinosaurs outside or as intricate as a Unicorn Magic Garden.

Children can get involved with developing the theme, crafting items for the garden and selecting plants that make perfect backdrops for their play. When the play becomes stale, add a new element or change the location or rotate new toys into the mix. “Creative spirit is what makes it special,” Guldberg says.

The Magic Gardens book is available at the Arboretum Gift & Garden Store and at

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