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Sunken Gardens seeking ways to cater to children

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Start looking for Sunken Gardens to be more kid friendly.

Since the city took over the ailing attraction in late 1999, we have seen a lot of improvements in the facility and slashed ticket prices. But now a program supervisor has just been hired and one of his main goals is to attract more children to Sunken Gardens. To start with, the city will be offering day camp throughout the summer at the gardens.

"This is like a treasure that's tucked away. We want every mom and dad to bring their kids and walk through," said Charles Boehme. "It's not just somewhere to take the grandparents." He even has a personal bond with the gardens: He got married there in 1992.

In the 18 years Boehme has worked for the city, he's been a recreation and programs supervisor at the Northwest Center, Lake Vista, Shore Acres and Willis S. Johns recreation centers. Now he is charged with developing programs for all ages at Sunken Gardens but comes armed with ideas for making it into a place children want to go on a regular basis.

"Horticulture is a big word, but for kids it means: "How do you make these neat plants grow?' " Boehme said. "We have people who have the skills and knowledge to bring everything down to their level."

A year from June, Great Explorations, the Hands-On Museum will move from 5,000 square feet at the Pier into 24,000 square feet in Sunken Garden's former gift shop on Fourth Street. There will be 12,000 square feet of gallery space while offices and classrooms will take up another 12,000. A string of new exhibits are planned for school-age children, but there will be emphasis on offering more for those 6 and under as well, said museum director Bob Patterson. (Full disclosure: I volunteer a little for the museum.)

Until next June, however, Sunken Gardens will be doing all it can to cater more to children and families. There are already bird and wildlife shows with a Saturday program called Kids' Fun from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. In April for example, the Kids' Fun show will feature Florida reptiles, including turtles and a ball python. There also will be a cane toad, a millipede and a tarantula. Doug Scull, a former science teacher and favorite local nature enthusiast, is a frequent host and has a great way with kids and animals.

Parents, neighborhood groups, play groups, clubs, church groups are all welcome to request a personal tour or show at the gardens geared to certain ages. A tour guide will be provided at no charge. Boehme hopes Sunken Gardens could become a meeting place for such groups to gather on a regular monthly basis. He's also talking about programs as simple as handing out sketch pads and pencils to kids and holding nature photo contests.

Birthday parties with butterflies and wildlife are already available at a cost of $5 a child and $2 per adult. I went to one myself on a hot Saturday afternoon last June. We were all surprised, however, by the cooling shade in the gardens, especially under the canopy of palms where we enjoyed birthday cake and butterfly crafts.

The gardens will gain their biggest exposure to children this June when summer camp starts up. Boehme hopes to offer one-week camp for seven weeks. In three or four hours a day, kids will learn about how gardens grow, the life of a butterfly and how to care for animals such as eagles and alligators. They will take in a daily show and even come up on stage and help with the entertainment if they like. Each day will end with a picnic.

One of the biggest keys to offering an affordable summer camp program will be teenage volunteers. Sunken Gardens staff will teach and facilitate programs, but he is planning on high school and college students 17 and over to help as counselors.

"We will put together a team of individuals carefully selected that have an interest in children and the outdoors," Boehme said. "We want to make this a fun, creative, educational time for youngsters. If we get turned-on, excited teenagers that will make it really special."

The camp will enroll children who have completed kindergarten through eighth grade, who will be divided into age appropriate groups. Rates aren't set yet, but the Sunken Gardens camps will be priced economically like other city camps. Look for registration information at the gardens soon.

Daily admission to Sunken Gardens is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and $1 for children 3 to 11. Kids under 3 are free. Family passes cost $36 a year. The garden is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Sunken Gardens' second annual Butterfly Festival will be March 31 and April 1. Along with the obvious butterflies, there will be a plant show -- including plants that attract butterflies -- a petting zoo, storytelling, birds and bat shows, crafts, face painting, steel drums and other live music. Regular admission covers the cost of the festival.

Children and Sunken Gardens are a natural fit because kids can get hands-on experiences they can't get at school or other parks.

"We hear so much about the rain forest, for example, how it's being destroyed and not protected. But do we really know why a rain forest is so important?" Boehme said. "Children learn about it in school, and it's discussed in textbooks. But to come here and actually see it is a great way to get a real understanding of it."

The setting already has many enticements for kids such as the butterfly aviary, bridges over rushing streams, flamingos sunning in a beach, an American bald eagle and a wishing well made of rocks. Just a mile of trails winding in and out of trees and wildlife thrills any child. But more may be added. There is outdoor space between the gardens and gift shop that isn't used for anything right now. Many uses have been thrown out such as a mock excavation sand pit for children to dig in or a hands-on touch tank or petting area.

"The support of the community in coming here and enjoying this facility on a regular basis will be the biggest factor in future development," Boehme said.

He is urging parents to call with any ideas for making Sunken Gardens a place they and their kids can enjoy more.

I quickly obliged. The excavation pit sounds great, I told him. And how about putting changing tables in the bathrooms -- women's and men's? I'd also like to see some milk and juice for sale at the concession stand.

Boehme quickly scribbled notes and promised to work on my requests. He was pleased to report that a handicap bathroom has already been added.

"This is just the kind of stuff I want to hear," he said. "I really want parents to tell me what they would like to see here."

Hear that, folks. Call Boehme at 551-3103 and help shape a pretty neat place to take our kids.

- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or call (727) 822-7225.

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