Horticulture devotees, tree buffs, home gardeners, and everyday nature lovers of all ages are thrilled by the many treasures to be found at Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA). But especially for the very youngest visitors, the lush West Tisbury property is a captivating wonderland, with surprises around every corner.
Throughout the year, PHA offers programs and attractions to involve children from toddlers through school age. An array of hands-on nature education opportunities aim to spark the youngsters’ interest and lay the groundwork for a lifetime of environmental awareness and outdoor enjoyment.
Summertime’s specialty is the Family Book Hour that draws youngsters from toddlers to 8-year-olds with their parents. The free morning sessions held weekly throughout July and August are rich with nature exploration and learning through captivating stories, meandering walks, and imaginative crafts.
The enchantment begins as families stroll through a winding pathway, with flowers blooming on every side. Youngsters are awestruck by the huge stone walk-in fireplace that years ago was the centerpiece for Hill family picnics, the dim old barn where baby owls hide away high above in a nesting box.
The children receive a warm welcome, whether regulars or first-time visitors. Volunteer Kathy Kinsman fills out name tags for the youngsters, encourages them to settle down on the lawn while parents take chairs close by.
Kinsman and PHA youth educational coordinator Kendra Buresch collaborate on the programs, reviewing the books, deciding on a theme. A retired teacher and longtime arboretum volunteer, Kinsman reads with expression, and has a gift for engaging even the shyest child. The youngsters are attentive, move closer to see the pictures, ask and answer questions, share their outdoor experiences.
The stories tell of huge trees filled with birds and animals, children determined to fill their worlds with trees and flowers, tiny acorns, clever woodland creatures.
Every book is inspiring, delivers a message about respecting and taking care of nature, that all of us — even children — can make a difference.
Magic continues as families follow Buresch and Kinsman leading Pied Piper–style through meadows and woods, pointing out trees, grasses, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and insects.
There are discoveries everywhere. Beyond the barn a tall black walnut tree drops its round, rough fruit. Examining a branch, children spy a tent caterpillar, a nest hidden far within.
Every walk includes a visit to the monkey puzzle tree, its prickly branches evolved to deter dinosaurs, and the big leaf magnolia named for Polly’s husband, Dr. Julian Hill.
There’s magic in the woods. There are trees with faces, eyebrows, and a mustache!
The youngsters join hands, give one massive tree a group hug. Then to the stone swing where several children can sit in a row.
There are even castles among the trees, whimsical sculptures by Bill O’Callaghan. Colorful photos and paintings appear, the “Art in the Arboretum” exhibit.
Nor is any morning complete without stories of the legendary Polly Hill herself. The children gaze around in wonder when they learn that Polly planted these towering trees, lived in that comfy farmhouse, traveled the world, and brought home plants never seen on the Vineyard that still thrive. They are fascinated by Polly’s Playpen, a fenced garden where she kept young, delicate plants safe.
At the barn, Buresch has set out an array of craft materials on wooden worktables. Every project relates to the week’s book. The crafts are simple enough for toddlers to enjoy, but sufficiently interesting for the grade-school crowd. Buresch and Kinsman circulate, admiring, suggesting, lending a helping hand.
The children hang photos of birds on delicate branches, fashion bird nests with yarn and grass, decorate a larger-than-life caterpillar drawing, glue seed pods on construction paper. They mold soft balls filled with seeds to take home and grow, perhaps the start of a backyard meadow.
Proudly grasping handiwork and filled with stories of all they saw, children join parents. Often families wander the grounds or share a picnic for a peaceful change of pace in the midst of busy summer schedules.
The Visitor Center is child-friendly too. A gift shop features nature-themed picture books and games, T shirts, small garden gloves, and other fun, educational items. A low table is set for little visitors with books and art supplies.
Also available are Family Explorer Backpacks for self-guided tours. Complete with arboretum map, field guides, magnifying glasses, sketch pads and more, there’s everything needed for a perfect visit.
Learning lab for schoolchildren
When summer winds down and visitors head home, the arboretum becomes a learning lab for fortunate Vineyard schoolchildren. Kendra Buresch and nature educator Elliott Bennett offer programs to Island youngsters from kindergarten through grade four, and are adding middle school courses.
Courses that include classroom sessions and field trips are available free to every K through 4 classroom during fall and spring. Volunteers help facilitate field trips. Buresch, who volunteered with the school program for years before becoming education coordinator, estimates some 700 schoolchildren participate in each season.
Kindergarteners explore flowers and seeds, while first graders focus on leaves and trees. “How Seeds Get Around” is the second grade topic, fitting with Polly Hill’s work. “Children look at how giant a tree is, and realize Polly planted it from a seed,” said Buresch.
Third graders are introduced to environmental and wildlife conservation, and what they can do to help. Fourth grade students become “Tree Detectives,” following a single tree through changing seasons.
“The kids get really excited to come here,” Buresch reported. “They love walking around, being outside, and they get really interested in the classroom too.”
New this year are offerings for middle school students developed by Bennett, whose experience includes 20 years teaching biology. Teachers may sign students up for one or more courses. More intensive than the elementary program, they comprise two-hour sessions at PHA with field and classroom work. Topics are Evolution of Plants, Biomimicry, and Geo-Mapping.
Buresch is also developing more afterschool programs to bring more students. A Youth Photography Workshop for grades 4 through 7, with eight classes led by photographer Melissa Knowles begins Sept. 24. She promises more to come.
Buresch said PHA staff is delighted to have students at the arboretum and participating in such a variety of activities. “It’s nice to see young people here,” she said. “We want them to have a natural space where they can come and learn.”