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History “Alive in the Present”

Historic estate gardens often fall victim to a divided constituency — visitors who love plants and spend all of their time visiting gardens and those individuals who are history buffs, mainly interested in family lineage, the mansion, and the historic buildings. In addition, it is often difficult to attract people into the world of early 20th Century American history when a significant number of them were not yet born, let alone have any familiarity with the way of life in the 1910’s and 1920s.

This past summer, Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park and Planting Field Foundation attempted a creative approach to education, launching its first children’s camp. The camp experiences were designed to interest young people (and their parents) in Gold Coast Estate History and our historically significant plant collections. Time Machine: Creative Writing and History was a week-long, four-hour-per-day summer camp for youth aged nine to twelve.

Creative writing was seen as the most promising way to make history more amusing and “alive in the present” for the campers. A local elementary school teacher helped the twenty-two children daily in developing writing and listening skills as Planting Fields and Foundation staff led tours in various historical buildings, greenhouses, and gardens.

As campers gained in-depth knowledge of what life was like for the Coe family on a large country estate in the early 1900’s, they began connecting with the estate’s historical significance. By writing down notes in a rough-draft journal, the children incorporated historical facts with a bit of their own imaginations. Tales about servants, the children’s riding horses, the exotic plants in the greenhouses, and hiding-spots all around the property were a few of the topics the kids wrote about. Poetry, short stories, obituaries, helpwanted ads, word finds, and mock newspaper interviews with family members were employed by the creative campers in their attempt to fill their final presentation journals.

A table of mixed art media (items already in stock in the Education Department) was available and supplemented the writing in each child’s journal. Photocopies of pictures of family members and buildings (we utilized our Historic Archives for retrieving pictures and documents), crayons, markers, flower magazines, yarn, fabric, ribbon, pipe cleaners, and pressed leaves from plants visited in the garden tours were included in the children’s work.

At the end of the week, a reception was held for parents and guardians. Each child chose one of his/her written creations and shared it with the audience. All journals were set out on display for curious eyes and minds to explore. Parents commented on how the camp had piqued their children’s interest in the Planting Fields estate. Other parents mentioned that they, themselves, were getting hooked on the camp as they heard of the tours and activities the children participated in each day. One mother pleaded to us to offer the camp for adults so they could also browse through historic documents, hear family stories, and get behind-the-scenes tours!

Our initial goals for the camp were met and surpassed. Not only was the response overwhelmingly positive, we managed to expand our youth education offerings and reach a new constituency. Perhaps we have even built a new crop of supporters for our institution. Best of all, both children and adults were exposed to fun ways of learning about and remembering historical and horticultural treasures.

James Burghardt served as Education Intern at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park from June 1995 to June 1996. Educational goals included expanding course offerings in the Planting Field’s adult lifelong learning brochures, reformatting and new design for the brochure, and increasing youth awareness and interest in plants and what is available at public historic garden institutions. Mr. Burghardt has a B.A. in biology and geography from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, and will begin graduate studies in environmental biology at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, in February 1997.

Burghardt, James. “History ‘Alive in the Present,'” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 9.


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