Ever since we realized our daughter Olive was a "sensory seeker," we've been on the constant lookout for sensory experiences for her. Sensory experiences stimulate her sensory stimuli - so we've been on the lookout for pretty much anything that she can see, touch, feel, smell, and taste.

To our surprise, one of the best sensory experiences we've found has been our local botanical garden. It's almost like it's designed to stimulate all of her senses! She just loves to "stop and smell the roses" while she's there.

At first we thought a botanical garden was just about the flower gardens and the annual cherry blossom festival. But there's so much more to botanical gardens - the more we go, the more fun we discover! Here's what we've learned.

1. Sign up for the kid gardening classes

I didn't know this, but a lot of botanic gardens have classes to introduce kids to gardening! Our local botanic garden has a great Children's Garden, where kids can plant seeds, dig in the dirt, water plants and learn how to garden. I couldn't believe that these classes are available for kids as young as two!

We visited the local Children's Garden yesterday, and the kids had a blast.  I think Olive's mind was blown by all the colors, textures and smells:

The kids picked some lettuce and herbs from the garden, and washed them in cold water (talk about a sensory experience!).

Then the kids ate their salads with dressing (the botanic garden made dressing with olive oil, vinegar, and honey to make it extra sweet for kids - smart!).

As you can see in the last pic, Olive didn't like her salad...  but I'm sure she loved the sensory stimulation!

2. Get a membership and go to all the events

We were always reluctant to pay for one-off events at the botanical garden, like the annual "Ghouls and Gourds" Halloween event. But this year we bit the bullet, and forced ourselves to go to all their major events. Sometimes they even let us have a picnic:

It's been so great! The kids have had a ball at all the events, and they usually have lots of sensory booths. Charlie absolutely loved smelling all the herbs and guessing what they were. That's actually something we could easily do at home - and come to think of it!

3. Get a magnifying glass!

Olive first discovered magnifying glasses at the butterfly conservatory at the Museum of Natural History.

Well this week we finally bought both kids their own magnifying glasses, and they had such a blast with them at the garden!

Olive doesn't really have the hang of magnifying glasses just yet (she likes to hold them over every plant, rather than bring her face close to the glass)... but it brings her such joy!  Charlie's a bit older (4 1/2), and he seems to have gotten the hang of them.

4. Don't forget the conservatory

We used to think that the Botanic Garden was closed in the colder months. But that was before we discovered that almost every garden has an indoor conservatory/greenhouse that you can visit year-round!

We even went to the botanical gardens in the winter when most of the foliage was dead, but the kids still had a great time visiting the lake filled with koi fish.

5. Every time you go, check out one part of the garden you haven't been to

Two weeks ago, we discovered that there was a treehouse built from wood reclaimed from trees felled by Hurricane Sandy!

Charlie has had a lifelong obsession with treehouses, so he couldn't believe it! He loved to go up and down the stairs on both sides of the treehouse.

Here he is in the treehouse, so so happy that he's found his new favorite secret place.

6. If you can, garden at home!

Most botanic gardens will sell plants a few times a year - or even give them away! Our local garden gives away plants at every members-only events: so far, we've gotten two tomato plants, and two chocolate mints. The kids love to help me touch the dirt to see if it's dry enough to need watering, and then to water the plants until the water comes out of the holes on the bottom.  Now and then, we smell the chocolate mint plants together too!

Since we're city bees, we stick to potted plants - but if you have a backyard, you can garden there too! And if your kids are too young for gardening, it's always fun to start them off with weeding and watering.

7. Don't forget to turn over a few rocks

I've been amazed that with all the sensory stimulation the flowers have to offer, the kids' favorite part of the garden is often just lifting up rocks and rotting tree limbs and looking for bugs underneath. We found worms, slugs, beetle larvae and all kinds of bugs. It's even more fun with a magnifying glass!


Charlie holding a white worm in his hands.

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I have to admit: I never thought too much of botanic gardens, especially compared to zoos. How could mere plants compare to majestic animals?! But what I've realized over time is that at the botanic garden, kids can truly engage all seven of their senses! At the zoo, you can't really touch and feel most of the animals, alas. So even though zoos (and petting zoos) are awesome in their own ways, we've found that our kids have had the best sensory experiences at the botanic garden.

And as they've gotten more comfortable there, it's become one of their favorite places to hang out together.

Have you been to your local botanic garden?