Room to Grow

A Chicago garden evolves with the children it was designed for.

By Shirley Remes


Designing a garden for growing childrenWhenever Sheridan Prior took her young children to a playground, they pretty much ignored the play sets there. Instead, they would go behind the plantings and dig a hole, or gravitate to a puddle they could float leaves on, or find secret spaces. It was what she had done as a child.

So when it came time to fit a play area for her two daughters in the 45-by-120-foot side yard of her Lincoln Park home, Prior and her husband, Michael, wanted something out of the ordinary.

“She told me a story of kids running through a garden, but not necessarily sticking to a path, so that they can climb among the bushes,” says Tony Butterworth of Christy Webber Landscapes, who did the design. Prior told Butterworth she didn’t care much about a lawn but wanted water for the children to play in, a place for contemplation, secret spaces, color and seasonal interest, and a kitchen garden. Some of the wants were for the adults. A big order for a small site.

“She wanted a very diverse and fully planted garden and didn’t want to wait 7 to 10 years for it to grow in. She wanted it to be cool while the children were still young kids,” he says.

Young Adventures

At that time, the children were 8 and 11. The younger, Isobel, is now 12 and still finds wonder in the simple things in the garden. One of her favorite places to play is a space between the gardening shed and the inside corner of the fence. It’s a tricky area to get into, and it has space for only a couple of children.

“I moved chairs back there and a broken pot,” says Isobel. “We sit and build a fire in the pot so it won’t spread, and roast marshmallows. I can sit out of the wind with a friend for hours talking.”

The small pond is another favorite place where Isobel says she can sit, watch, and play with the animals. “I have stare-downs with the frogs,” she says. This summer, she discovered a long-lost crawfish. “We hadn’t seen it for 2 years, and suddenly it just reappeared.”