Visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago offers a chance to stimulate baby’s sense of smell and touch. Here’s why you should take your baby to some kind of botanic garden and why you should dress in layers.

Feeding a baby at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago

It can be tough to find a place to feed baby in the tight quarters of a conservatory, but a botanic garden will offer more options. Photo courtesy of Jackie Gibson

I love plants. Most of them smell pretty good, they wave gently in the wind bringing a sense of calm, and they help generate air which is nice for us humans. As a girl my mom planted beautiful geraniums and marigolds around the house every spring, and my dad would tend to the tomatoes or green beans in the garden. I was lucky enough to grow up around a lot of teachers who made a to-do of my leaf collection project and taught me all about the different varieties of trees. (I still have my pressed leaf book to this day.)

With the exception of one tree that I grew from a seed (thanks to my father who made sure it grew and avoided it when mowing), I’m not very good at raising up plants by myself. I kind of forget to water them. But I can enjoy them in other ways. The husband and I like to hike in state parks or drive around the local arboretum. We stop in conservatories and botanic gardens in our own city and in other cities. And we always take our cameras, attempting to capture the beauty of each flower or leaf.

I want to pass that love down to baby but it’s not like she can garden or hike on her own just yet.

Feast for the Senses

Find a sense of calm in the fern room of the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago.

Walking through lush plants brings a sense of calm for mom and dad and a sense of wonder for baby. Photo courtesy of Jackie Gibson

One day when she was about 3 months old, my Baby Center app noted that she should be less overwhelmed by smells now and more into them. It suggested an activity of having her smell a few flowers. A month later she was busy grasping at everything, and even short walks around the yard or neighborhood would result in her having to touch every leaf she could see.

So it seemed like a good idea to plan a trip to a botanic garden or greenhouse. We decided on one of our favorite places—the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, a 108-year-old glass greenhouse with 10,000 varieties of plants. The Conservatory website confirmed that it would be OK to touch the plants so long as she did not tear them apart (fingers crossed).

Prepping for a Visit to the Garfield Park Conservatory

One rainy Sunday afternoon we decided to go for it. Tropical plants and waterfalls sounded much better than another round of keep the cat away from the baby. So we packed up the car with her stroller, a couple bottles, and some toys just in case the whole outing backfired. We let her nap in the car while we drove so she was awake and alert when we arrived.

We’ve been to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago before so we knew admission is free, though there is a suggested donation. Typically we would spend 2-3 hours meandering through the towering palms and just relaxing on the many benches. But we figured with baby we probably had one hour, maybe a little longer, to get through the exhibits. So we weren’t too sad when we realized our favorite Lily Pool outside wasn’t up and running yet—less time we needed to keep her entertained.

Finding the Baby-Friendly Parts of the Conservatory

Touching moss at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago.

Moss is perfect for babies to touch, as it is tough to rip apart and has a pleasant, furry texture. Photo courtesy of Jackie Gibson

The Conservatory is broken up into rooms according to the types of plants, and some rooms went better than others. The cactus room didn’t help us with touch or smell so we moved quickly past it. The fruit room was just busy and there weren’t any low-hanging fruits to touch. So we spent most of our time in the main fern room, surrounded by lush plant life, trickling waterfalls, and a koi pond.

Baby loved petting the leaves—gentle, gentle—and I don’t know if she smelled everything but we certainly encouraged it. She lit up when she saw moss, and there was plenty to go around. We didn’t have to worry about her ripping it out and it had a furry texture like a stuffed animal which she clearly enjoyed.

At one point she started talking to the moss, making cute little gahs and lalas to tell the moss how much she loved it. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed an older couple staring intently at us. When we got closer the woman hollered, “You’ve got a future botanist on your hand!” It made my day. I’m all for raising a future scientist who researches plants and saves the world and buys mommy and daddy a yacht.

Coulda Shoulda

Touching is OK at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago.

Plants in conservatories and botanic gardens are generally marked as ok to touch. Just help baby avoid pulling or tearing. Photo courtesy of Jackie Gibson

A few lessons learned, for anyone visiting botanic gardens or conservatories with kids:

  1. If you’re going into a greenhouse or inside a conservatory, you’re walking into a potential sweat fest. The humidity is high to keep the tropical plants happy. Of course I dressed baby in tights and a sweater that day. We should’ve layered.
  2. Strollers can be awkward indoors. If you’re going on a long walk through botanic gardens, it probably makes sense. But on the tight, winding walkways of the conservatory—which sometimes stopped so you could cross over little creeks—our stroller looked and functioned like a semi trying to turn a tight corner. Eep. Should’ve packed the carrier.
  3. There wasn’t a convenient place to nurse or offer a bottle. Larger botanic gardens often have visitors’ centers where you could likely find a quiet corner. But here there was no quiet, private place to keep her focused. We ended up feeding her under a tree while sitting on the edge of a rock on the main path, which made for some cute photos but was super uncomfortable and very public. I don’t have a solution for this one. I just wish I had fed her more before we left the house.
  4. All that moss is fun to touch but my baby thinks her hands belong in her mouth. I should’ve brought more hand wipes.

All that aside, the Conservatory seemed to offer all the sensory stimulation we were seeking. I would take her back in a heartbeat. But this time we will all wear tank tops.

Have you taken your baby to a garden? How did it go for you?Why you should take a baby to a garden.