The Regenstein Learning Campus is an environmental discovery center and nature playground at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This six-acre horticultural center serves a vibrant community of families, offering an interactive experience with the natural world while advancing the institution’s influence as a science and horticultural center as it serves more than 125,000 people each year. The design immerses families and children of all ages in a variety of outdoor experiences that include inquiry-focused learning and play, engendering a deep understanding of ecological systems. The campus weaves together multiple landscape typologies: from an upland play mound area to a lowland fountain fed from the adjacent lake. Diversity defines the experiences within this garden as visitors weave through the grassy mounds, water-play runnel, a woody and herbaceous plant selection that expanded the Garden’s collection, natural boulders, and willow tunnels. This regenerative project is envisioned as a gateway to the natural world; one that highlights creative discovery in all seasons.
Diversity, discovery, and imagination are emphasized in the vision of this design, offering visitors fertile ground for the expansion of the mind and body. The concept of the Regenstein Learning Campus emerged from a shared concern about the increasingly distant relationship of children to nature as they are further plugged into the digital world. As an educational landscape, the garden has many engaging elements that naturally bridge the transition between play and intuitive experiential learning. Sculptural landforms define the character of the central space and reinforce the concept of “dignity of risk” where children, of all ages and abilities, are safe and can play and discover in active ways.
The design of the campus demonstrates nature education and ecological stewardship through various landscape destinations and outdoor classroom opportunities. The organization of the spaces link the interior with the surrounding landscape, creating an environment that is a tangible and dynamic part of the environmental curriculum. The garden includes active elements such as a willow tunnel, an arborvitae contemplative room, a hornbeam council ring and hollowed out climbable logs, as well as an apiary, a butterfly garden, and an outdoor classroom space for art and gardening classes. The garden’s outdoor classrooms create opportunities for nature education and ecological stewardship. Programming includes classes on botany, the culinary arts, garden design, horticulture, photography, bird watching, even overnight camping for nocturnal curriculum. Open exploration through the Nature Play Garden and the Multi-sensory Discovery Garden allows for visitors to develop a greater understanding of ecological systems as well as the diverse plant palette of the region. Kids of all ages are considered in these various types of discovery from fossilized imprints of seeds and leaf structures in the stones and wood planking to the various landscape typologies that transform over the seasons. The garden invites explorers to touch and feel by climbing on stone boulders, crawl through hollowed out wood logs, or splash through a stream water feature. These multisensory experiences challenge visitors to engage the garden through the seasons, during the day and night.
The overall concept is guided by strategically located elements that focus on natural materials and systems. Sustainability drove the design of the runnels, the stone bridges, the fire pit and the upper paved terrace. Local and regional materials from the Midwest were sourced for the play tunnel, providing a cooling oasis during the summer months. A central boulder fountain within the runnel offers children of all abilities to engage the water. Reclaimed logs were carved to create moments of play for children to crawl and hide and seek. Regionally sourced boulders offer moments of discovery throughout the landscape. Rain gardens provide additional opportunities for discovery and learning while addressing important stormwater management issues. The hardest creative challenge for the Regenstein Learning Campus was managing the design of the grading. The site, at its lowest point, was prone to flooding so the site strategies had to include mitigation of this condition.
The campus links to two previously existing amenities to create a larger learning environment: The Grunsfeld Growing Garden, an herb and culinary garden, to the Northeast; and the Kleinman Family Cove, an aquatic learning center for families and children, to the West. Together these three distinct learning environments now read as one experience providing a rich and highly programmed learning center for the Chicago Botanic Garden; one that is as much about touching, smelling, and feeling as it is about visual beauty.
Architecture offices involved in the design: Jacobs/Ryan Associates- Partner Landscape Architects
Location: 1000 Lake cook Rd, Glencoe, IL 60022, USA
Design year: 2012/2013
Year Completed: 2016