Grow, Baby, Grow: Great Preschools With Gardens


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Those of us without the space or time to grow our own gardens can enjoy them in other places — including school. The horticulture movement is sweeping preschools and childcare centers across the city and ‘burbs. With lush backyard and rooftop gardens, harvesting fruits and veggies and exploring the outdoors is an important part of the curriculum. Here’s where to enroll your flower child now.


Smartlove Preschool
The Dirt: Housed in a historic mansion in Uptown, this campus includes a main building, coach house and garden surrounded by a wrought iron fence. The school’s philosophy, outlined by its founders Martha and William Pieper, starts with self-love, which they believe is nurtured and developed in the very early years.

The Draw: Well designed and groomed, Smartlove’s children’s garden distinguishes itself with a striking layout. A walking stone path leads you toward potted plants, while a grassy plot gives kids room to roam. Nearby, raised beds have trellises for sprouting beans and herbs. Maintained by gardener-in-residence Billy Burdett, the space is also home to a greenhouse, which the kids can visit year ’round.

800 W. Buena Ave.

Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center
The Dirt: Following a Montessori curriculum with multi-aged classrooms, this regional archdiocese school’s foundation starts with family — its belief that parents and the home environment play a key role in the early stages of education. With six Montessori classes at varying levels, children start as early as four months with the infant and toddler program, or three years for the preschool.

The Draw: With an award-winning interactive garden recognized by the National Wildlife Association, the school is known for its interactive approach. Its expansive outdoor learning environment includes edibles, seasonal flowers like butterfly bushes and tulips, a mock wetland with a rowboat and pier, a jungle gym, a story circle and even a sand box.

1651 W. Diversey Pkwy.


Little Green Tree House
The Dirt: Established in July 2009, this early learning center welcomes kids ages six weeks to five years. Focusing on environmental consciousness, it adheres to the belief that you can grow conservationists at a young age, and they’ll pay their knowledge forward.

The Draw: With skyline views and an organic slant, its rooftop garden is a true urban sanctuary. Teachers help the children help plant, tend and pick vegetables (recently they harvested ripe tomatoes and zucchini), providing lessons in responsibility. Kids even learn to compost.

118 S. Ashland Ave.
West Loop
3111 N. Ashland Ave

City Garden School
The Dirt: This Waldorf curriculum-following early childhood center (for ages three to six years) has a play-based, mixed-age format that centers on imagination and imitation. Nature is a huge influence. The changing seasons have a role in the teachings, and creativity is sparked doing everything from building snowmen to identifying bugs.

The Draw: The garden is a prominent tool here. Students spend ample time weeding, watering, planting and picking. It brims with huge containers of flowers and vegetation like watermelons and pumpkins. Often, the ingredients harvested are turned into kid-prepared snacks.

920 W. 19th St.


Mary Meyer School
The Dirt: Serving kids ages three to four years, this not-for-profit puts creative play and learning at the forefront, teaching toddlers that surprise and spontaneity is just as important as structure and organization. Daily activities include storytelling, singing, dramatic play, art and environmental studies, which happens via the backyard garden.

The Draw: The garden is an oasis of blossoming flowers and edibles like squash, apples, zucchini and tomatoes. Built in the back of the school’s row house, its bounty is used to help cultivate togetherness (recently students participated in their own farmer’s market complete with homemade berry jam and pickles from their own selection of produce). Teachers also use the garden to illustrate cause and effect; students made miniature scarecrows to ward off lettuce-eating vagrants.

2817 N. Pine Grove Ave.

Children’s Circle: Glencoe Park District at the Takiff Center
The Dirt: With a full-day preschool program designed for toddlers aged 15 months to six years, the Children’s Circle’s philosophy is that kids learn best through meaningful interactions with the world around them. The curriculum embraces a mix of teacher-guided classes and free-choice play.

The Draw: A Takiff Center renovation, the school’s adjacent garden includes flowers and edibles planted by the children, for the children. Classes include taste tests of picked produce, lessons on the life cycle and even an introduction to garden-friendly insects.

999 Green Bay Rd.


Rosehill Montessori School
The Dirt: This Lisle favorite encourages an approach that gives children (ages three to five) an understanding of community, problem solving and independence. Founded in 1975 by a group of parents, its signature wraparound garden and green space offer an alternative to the usual pint-sized playground, with dirt to dig and beds to groom.

The Draw: The school’s garden makes a bold and colorful statement; the various sizes, shapes and dramatic hues of each plant represent the diverse population of the school’s families and staff. In addition to the signature flora, they also grow a sampling of fruits and vegetables, which are picked for snacks and lunchtime.

1203 Lisle Pl.

Do you know a preschool or childcare center with a garden that didn’t make our list? Let us know in the Comments section below.

— Taryn Bickley

Photos: Courtesy of Smartlove Preschool, Little Green Tree House, Mary Meyer School, Rosehill Montessori School

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