Blog – Ithaca Children's Garden You Belong Here Fri, 18 Aug 2023 17:37:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blog – Ithaca Children's Garden 32 32 Exploring 3 Lessons from ICG’s Summer Camp Sun, 20 Aug 2023 09:00:00 +0000 Each summer, ICG welcomes enthusiastic seasonal staff members, each with a fresh perspective and a commitment to the transformative potential of child-led play.

To better understand summer staff experiences, we interviewed Kel, Calvin, and Claire. In their stories, we found three fundamental guiding principles common to all three outstanding ICG staff members: empowering children, balancing risk and safety, and creating an inclusive environment. As those interviewed noted, these principles extend beyond summer camp to various educational and community settings. Learn what makes Summer Camp training at ICG unique!

(Find out more about what campers have done this summer by exploring ICG’s blog and social media.) 

Lesson 1: Empowering Child-Led Play

Kel (they/he) is a new addition to the Summer Camp team this year (2023)

“Play looks differently for everyone.” Kel, a new addition to the Summer Camp team this year, learned this lesson early on in their ICG experience. “That’s a really important shift from the previous roles I’ve been in with children and young people. I’m here trying to guide them through their experience and let them be a leader of it . . . let them do what they’re interested in and find engaging.” Kel joined ICG after learning about the camp–and bolstered by ICG’s positive reputation among their friends– they joined the Garden for the summer. “So here I am,” Kel said, smiling.

The Playwork Primer, a manual on practicing ICG’s main philosophy for child-led play, prepares new and seasoned education staff with the essentials for interacting with children in ICG’s outdoor play space. One of the most significant takeaways from the Playwork Primer and Summer Camp experience is the value of empowering child-led exploration and play. Staff members have learned that providing children with the agency to guide their experiences fosters curiosity, creativity, and personal growth.

In using this approach, Kel witnessed how allowing children to take the lead in their play experiences encourages them to solve problems, think critically, and engage their imaginations.

“I’ve seen zip lines, chair swings . . . mud spas, the development of entire businesses,” Kel said, describing the kinds of play they witnessed in ICG’s second best-known feature: The Anarchy Zone. “I feel grateful to witness it.”

Lesson 2: Balancing Risk and Safety

“A lot of the time, when kids ask for help, I try not to,” Calvin said, recounting how staff approaches risk management and safety among campers. 

Calvin (he/him) has worked at the Garden for 9 summers, starting his first few years as a Teen Urban Farmer (TUF).

Calvin has worked at the Garden for 9 summers, starting in ICG’s Teen Urban Farmer (TUF) program in his 8th grade year. And he returned every summer. “I really enjoyed TUF and wanted to keep on going.” In TUF, Calvin rarely directly interacted with the public as he maintained the Garden grounds. Still, he had plenty of opportunities to observe playwork in action. So, when Calvin aged out of TUF at 18, he joined the ICG Summer Camp staff, intrigued by child-led play and eager to step up and make a difference. “It was exciting to make that shift. It made what I saw before as a kid make sense. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s why they were doing that! I get it now.'”

Calvin has since then learned many lessons regarding balancing risk and safety in child-led play. “Like climbing on a tube or something else risky. Suppose a child can’t get themselves in that situation without my help. In that case, they won’t be able to get themselves out of that situation. They have to do it on their own and take that risk – so, if they can’t, they can’t do it.”

Risks are calculated choices kids make that lead to opportunities for self-discovery and building resilience. Hazards present uncontrollable dangers (e.g., broken glass and rusty nails), and staff manage these to create an environment that prioritizes safety and encourages growth through risk-taking.

Calvin concludes: “Risk allows kids to find their boundaries, what they are capable of doing and not capable of doing.” 

Risk during play is not only in a physical sense, however. ICG education staff quickly understand that play can entail social risk. For instance, kids risk hearing “no” when they ask to join a game.

Kel’s approach to guiding children reflects this lesson. “I try to be intentional about saying ‘yes’ to the kids as much as possible, but within reason,” Kel said, reflecting on how little they have to say no at ICG. “I want the kids to do what they find fun . . . and [staff] is going to do as much as they can to give them what they need to have fun.” Staff at Summer Camp encourage children to interact and explore by providing a safe (limited hazards), expressive space where risks are expected and fun is plentiful. By supporting children in taking calculated risks, staff members foster growth, help children understand their limits, build resilience, and provide valuable opportunities to explore and learn outdoors that contribute to their personal development.

 “We want kids to take those risks and support them when it doesn’t go as they intended,” Calvin said. 

Lesson 3: Creating an Inclusive and Expressive Space

Creating an inclusive and expressive space for children to play, be imaginative, and be receptive to learning is crucial. ICG staff continue to learn and practice this lesson daily.

 “It is important to me to honor kids’ feelings and spaces.” Having worked at ICG a few years ago, Claire Volk has had many opportunities to apply this concept to her personal and professional life.

Claire (she/her) worked at ICG in the summer of 2015 on the Summer Camp team.

“I remember running this game with my group about an imaginary dragon and a child coming up to me crying. The dragon became real for this child . . . those emotions came from a space of truly believing and putting stock in this activity.” 

As Claire suggested, Calvin and Kel echoed creating space for children to feel and express their emotions is a technique called mirroring. Mirroring helps children perceive themselves positively and can be used in various scenarios and at multiple ages. 

(Learn more about mirroring and how to practice it here.) 

On mirroring during play, Claire said, “Play with kids instead of asking them questions about what they’re doing and what they have–actually mirroring them. It’s like improv; you’re building off each other.” 

After her brief time at the Garden, Claire described how using mirroring has positively impacted her and others. “It’s been instrumental for me in every community space I’ve walked in, for children and anyone experiencing strong emotions. Our brains are made for connections and mirroring. I learned that first through stepping into kid’s games.”

Claire’s emphasis on mirroring children’s actions, Calvin’s approach of letting children navigate social interactions, and Kel’s commitment to allowing children to explore their interests and not making assumptions about their decision-making have all contributed to creating an environment where children feel valued and supported. In line with ICG’s mission to promote positive growth for children and the community, the lesson is relevant at camp and beyond.

Lessons Summary: 

The Ithaca Children’s Garden Summer Camp experience has imparted valuable lessons to staff members that revolve around empowering child-led exploration, balancing support and risk, and creating an inclusive and expressive space. These lessons resonate within the camp’s vibrant environment and extend to staff members’ interactions with children in various settings. By embracing these lessons, staff members contribute to fostering resilience, creativity, and a love for nature in the children they guide.

Join ICG as a Development Associate: Ignite Change and Create Magic! Thu, 10 Aug 2023 14:36:21 +0000
Children playing outside at a shallow pond, seated on a deck, laughing and enjoying themselves.
As Development Associate, you empower kids with ICG’s magic, helping them create a lifelong connection with nature and helping us create a better world.

Ithaca Children’s Garden is adding to its team.

Suppose you’re interested in making a real impact and have the skills to turn numbers into narratives: In that case, ICG wants to meet you. We’re hiring a Development Associate!

The Development Associate supports ICG’s donor and constituent records, provides key support for other fundraising activities, and works closely with the Development, Finance, and Education Departments. Compensation starts at $19/hour, 35 to 40 hours per week, and is based on experience.

To Apply

Applications will be reviewed starting September 8 and will be accepted until the position is filled. Please take a look at our Benefits Policy!

Please email your resume and cover letter to with “Development Associate” in the subject line. Cover letters can be addressed to Richard Lansdowne, Operations Manager.

Learn more about ICG’s open Development Associate role and cover letter requirements.

If you require any assistance or accommodations to successfully submit your application, please contact us as soon as possible so that we may have the opportunity to assist you.

If you know anyone with collaboration and leading, administration, grant writing, or management skills, why not share this blog post with them? Your support is greatly appreciated.
The 5 magical ‘whys’ to support ICG’s Scholarship Fund Sun, 06 Aug 2023 09:00:00 +0000

As a part of Ithaca Children’s Garden’s community , YOU envision a world where EVERY child has the ability to get outside and play!

From muddy feet and hands, to bright eyes and belly laughs, experiences in nature are essential for children to grow into strong, confident adults and develop life-long relationships with the living world. ICG’s Scholarship Fund opens doors for every child to fill their lives with days of laughter, outdoor adventure, and lasting memories regardless of financial circumstances.

5 reasons to support ICG’s Scholarship Fund:

1. Nurture Children’s Growth in Nature

Research supports the benefits of outdoor nature play for children. Nature sparks curiosity, encourages learning, and nurtures physical and emotional development. By supporting ICG’s Scholarship Fund, you provide children with the vital ingredients they need to thrive.

2. Fuel Belly Laughs and Unforgettable Outdoor Experiences

The joy and happiness children experience during outdoor adventures is truly magical. Your donations directly fund these experiences.

3. Remove Barriers for Families

ICG’s camps and programs offer two-in-one advantages: supplying childcare and unbridled play in nature. The Scholarship Fund ensures equitable and inclusive access for all children, empowering families by removing financial obstacles and providing peace of mind to caregivers.

4. Make Magic Potions Possible

Supporting ICG’s Scholarship Fund means making a real difference in a child’s life. Your contributions bring smiles to their faces, fostering an environment where happiness multiplies and spreads throughout the community.

5. Create a Bright Future for children

One minute is all it takes to make a difference for children. Your support promotes nature access for children, fostering growth, curiosity, and well-being. Let’s work together to support children’s access to quality outdoor programs.

ICG’s Scholarship Fund is dedicated to empowering children’s nature access, ensuring every child can explore and learn through outdoor adventures. By supporting this cause, you become part of a movement that fosters strong, confident, and happy individuals. Let’s come together and impact children’s lives, ensuring that the joy of playing outdoors with friends is a cherished memory for everyone.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Sun, 23 Jul 2023 09:00:00 +0000

In summer, the Garden comes alive: Popping colors and verdant greens, busily buzzing bees, and birds twittering in the treetops. Some of these sights persist year-round; others come only once a year. 

We asked Jason McClevish, ICG’s dedicated Playful Nature Explorers teacher and Facilities Manager, about what’s growing in the Garden. We hope you enjoy Jason’s homage to the Garden’s vibrancy and the energy, curiosity, and excitement of the folks who make it so:

When I think of the life that ICG supports, I feel humbled and deeply appreciative of its willingness to hold so much.

With linear mechanical time blasting by at a breakneck pace, we at the Garden relish in the special moments that pile up into the treasures of a day. Summer campers crafting, field trippers squeezing it all in, and TUFers elevating. And every other type of participant experiencing is welcomed with vitality and abundance here at ICG – and this is ever encouraging and exciting. Whether you seek a peaceful stroll through the continually blooming Bulb Labyrinth, a mud-covered revel playing till you fall down, or some thoughtful grazing through the available delectable, it is all fair game. We each come hunting our own treasures: quietly discovering berries (black currants, soon blackberries), hunting for the hidden carrots, trying new strong flavors in the kitchen garden (stevia, shiso, fennel, dill, chives), appreciating any number of the daily floral performers that entertain pollinators and people alike. 

TUFers working hard in the Garden!

Each day, filled with surprises and discoveries, we support the place while being held in a safe and fun magical bubble that provides and excites in endless ways. With the diligent works of TUF, the imagination and energy of summer staff, and the consistent awareness and efforts of the dedicated year-round team, all fueled by the immense joy and vitality of the children, the organic play of the year is ever lively and rooted in the rhythms of a welcoming place that is safe and welcoming to those present.   

So, come seeking a new flavor, new experience, new favorite place in the Garden, or have a classic lie in the grass (or mud) and take it all in as so many children and adults in the know are inclined to do. The Garden has a place for you.

Fresh & Local: Friday Farmstand with the Maples Sun, 23 Jul 2023 09:00:00 +0000 Maples

The Maples Farmstand is open to the public for shopping every Friday from 10 AM to 2 PM. Treat yourself to freshly baked cookies and bread (with vegan options!), refreshing lemonade, and unique handcrafted items like tie-dyed bandannas and washcloths, candles, and herb bundles. And guess what? With every purchase, you’ll receive a free ICG sticker to spice up your bike, car, water bottle, or anywhere you like to add shine.

The Friday Farmstand at Ithaca Children’s Garden has become a weekly source of excitement and anticipation for the Maples campers (ages 10-12). Kenley, ICG’s Youth Program Educator and the Maples camp leader, understands the value of giving them free rein, allowing the Maples to explore their entrepreneurial spirit and learn essential skills in business management. While few restrictions exist, the campers revel in this newfound freedom and use it to explore their interests. All the campers find their place and actively take on roles, from decorating the board and writing the menu to becoming advertising maestros; the Maples collaborate and collectively contribute to running the Farmstand. 

A few of the Maples had this to say about their experience interacting with customers and younger campers: 

“I enjoy how free it is; you can do what you want. There are a few restrictions, but not many. And like so many people can come here, and I’ve made so many friends here. It’s a very nice place, and I enjoy it.”

Maple Camper

“I really like the Farmstand. You become part of the Maples and bond with the people in your group. Like yesterday, I didn’t talk with many people in my group, but now I’m talking with more people. 

Maple Camper

“We have more freedom, but we must still follow the rules. At other camps I’ve been to, it feels like school. But here, you’re working with the counselors to help the farm. It feels really good. You’re showing people this is a really good place to visit. Like, come to look at the pond, the flowers, the pond, and, of course, the giant stone turtle.”

Maple Camper

When asked about the skills they developed at the Farmstand, it became apparent there was a common theme regarding leadership: Many of the campers felt that Kenley’s leadership and their experience at the Farmstand were vital in shaping the kind of leader they want to be, especially when they join ICG next year as Counselors in Training (CIT). 

“We actually work with Kenley and not just do what he tells us,” said Renna, a first-time Maple camper and the Farmstand’s primary voice person for advertising to passersby this week. Renna explained what a leader should be: “You can’t force people to listen to you, so to be a leader, you must be nice to people and gain their trust. Which is not easy to do, but leading is not just ‘bossing people around’; it’s working with them.” 

Phoenix, a camper attending their seventh year at ICG and a potential CIT next summer, had a unique experience with Kenley as their Maple leader, describing how Kenley gave them an example of how they want to lead. “​​He makes activities fun, especially with his energy. If we don’t want to do something, we have options, and he asks us, ‘What do you want to do?’ which makes things more fun.”

Overall, the Farmstand is a unique platform that has proven to be a transformative experience for the Maples, uniting them through collaborative efforts and instilling valuable leadership skills. As the campers look forward to becoming future CITs, they are determined to carry Kenley’s inspiring leadership example forward.

Meet Weikai: A short story of nature play at work Thu, 08 Jun 2023 15:31:04 +0000 by Grace Heath

Weikai’s love for the garden was infectious and when his family learned they were moving this past May, they expressed that one of the hardest parts for Weikai would be leaving the garden.

In the fall of 2021, ICG restarted After School @ ICG, previously closed due to COVID. After School @ ICG serves students ages 5-11 from every school across the Ithaca City School District, and aims to engage children in the outdoors and grow their connection with the natural world.

In September of 2021, we welcomed many new faces at After School @ ICG, including Northeast elementary school kindergartener Weikai. Weikai’s parents had enrolled Weikai at ICG with hopes that he would become more comfortable with the outdoors and build connections to not just his peers but with the natural world.

When Weikai first started coming to ICG, he was quite concerned with ‘getting dirty,’ which can significantly limit the type of play and learning available to a child while outdoors. Interested in inventing and building useful “tools” with loose parts around the garden, Weikai started off with a more “tools” based play, which over time led to him becoming more comfortable in exploring the natural space he was in. He began using garden tools create and to do things around the garden, like raking, watering plants, and helping tend bonfires.

By observing how adults care for the garden and how other children interact in the garden, Weikai became more interested in exploring. Between digging for worms, setting up ‘worm races,’ and building giant nests, Weikai was finding more ways to explore without as much concern for ‘getting dirty’.

One of Weikai’s pinnacle moments was when he climbed a tree all on his own. As he made it up the tree, he reveled in his accomplishment just as his parents arrived to pick him up. 

Having never done this before, the joy and pride radiated from him. Both parents were so excited to see Weikai’s delight and pride, and quite surprised to learn he did this all on his own. 

Over the past two years with After School @ ICG, Weikai became proud and passionate about the garden, always greeting visitors and acting as a spokesperson for the garden on many occasions. Weikai’s love for the garden was infectious and when his family learned they were moving this past May, they expressed that one of the hardest parts for Weikai would be leaving the garden.

Weikai will be greatly missed, yet watching his growth in the garden is a sweet reminder of ICG’s purpose. The unique place and programming affords children the time and space to build their own very special and unique relationship. This sets them up for developing and enjoying that relationship throughout their lifetime.

Two of our summer Playworkers are off on new adventures! Mon, 15 Aug 2022 12:22:46 +0000 Two of our fantastic summer playworkers are moving on to new opportunities! Miriam (she/her) and Jonah (he/him) have made great additions to our crew and helped provide many wonderful memories for our summer campers.
The team sends a huge thank you to them both for their persistence, good work, and for sharing their reflections on summer at ICG with all of us.
Best of luck, Jonah and Miriam!

I wanted to work for ICG because I was intrigued by their mission — playwork was a completely new concept to me, and I really wanted to learn what it was all about and see it in practice.
I also appreciated ICG’s dedication to inclusivity. Seeing summer camps that are explicit in their stance on truly being a place for all is something that I know I appreciated as a kid, and immediately I knew that I wanted to get involved.
Being a mentor at ICG provided me a great opportunity to learn how to meet kids where they are. I learned how to be more purposeful in my actions and words so that I could truly empathize with and learn a child’s needs. At times, it was a challenge, but I feel more confident in my abilities to work with a wider range of children.
Though I have a lot of meaningful memories from working with ICG, one of my favorites was watching two sisters go from incredibly shy and reserved to open and playful by the end of the summer. As someone who used to be in their shoes at summer camps as a kid, it was incredibly rewarding knowing that they felt safe enough to express themselves to me.

Everyone in Ithaca knows and loves Ithaca Children’s Garden. And as a Public Garden Leadership Fellow at Cornell, I got to learn some of the lore of this seminal institution of nature-based learning and play over the course of my program.
My interest in public horticulture started with work in youth garden programming, so I made it a goal of mine to work with ICG and learn some of their secrets before I left Ithaca.
However, the magic of ICG is no secret; it’s right there in front of us. It comes from hard work and dedication that are rooted in a deep love of our world and the people in it. My time as an ICG summer educator/playworker expanded my knowledge of both the intense demands and rich rewards of this work. As I seek new opportunities in garden education and outreach, I will have much to draw upon from this experience.
A favorite ICG memory that comes to mind is sitting against a tree in the bioswale, with children on both sides of me rapt as I simply read from a field guide to the garden’s flora and fauna. With the commodification of attention, the privatization and commercialization of public space, and the transformation of childhood into something which occurs indoors in front of a screen, it gives me hope that we can still share moments like this.
I am grateful to all of the ICG staff for letting me be a part of the magic. Thank you!
International Mud Day 2022 Recap Mon, 04 Jul 2022 16:41:25 +0000

2022 has been an exciting year for Ithaca Children’s Garden, and the return of our community events is one of the best parts!

And what a turnout there was for International Mud Day!

From near and far you joined us to celebrate International Mud Day at the Garden and with Mud Day @ Home — and it was a splashing success!

We have many to thank for their in-kind donations and their time and dedication to making Mud Day joyous.

BIG shout-outs to Tompkins County Tourism, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ithaca Fire Department, Downtown Ithaca Alliance, Wegmans, ICG Board member Dan Krall, and our awesome volunteers Nancy, Katie, and Bridget. To our performers Regi Carpenter and Jeremy Betterley of Rot N’ Roll, exceptional thanks for entertaining the crowd with your talents. And thanks to YOU for celebrating with us.

If you celebrated Mud Day @ Home and want to share your photos with us, please email them to our Communications Coordinator, Monique (she/her)

This program was made possible in part by a grant from the Tompkins County Tourism Program.

Tori’s Garden Story Thu, 10 Mar 2022 17:04:15 +0000 It was a sunny spring day and the Garden was bursting with color and new life. I was privileged to be joining ICG Afterschool for my work as the ICG Americorps VISTA member, and I was so excited to play with the kids.

When I arrived, I was swept off to the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone. I was buried in the dirt with small shovels and excited laughs. A few kids picked flowers and put them in my hair, and another child gave me branches to hold. The kids stepped back, satisfied with their work, and told me that I was a tree in the Garden. As a tree, I would be another home for birds to nest and life to grow. The kids lost interest and moved on to their next project. I stood there with my feet buried and thought, yes, I will be another tree in this Garden for life to grow. I wiggled my toes in the dirt and felt my roots taking hold. 

I came from a background in environmental education. After college, I fell chronically ill and didn’t have the stamina and mobility to keep up with kids. I felt at a loss for how to move forward. I applied to be a VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) member at ICG in 2018, really not knowing how an office job would go. I needed to get back into the world of supporting kids’ discovery of the natural world. Finding the position felt serendipitous. I could use my skills, learn more about working with a nonprofit, and be a part of a team whose mission aligned so closely with my passions. 

Fast forward almost 4 years and I could never have imagined how transformative of an experience working with ICG would be. 

I was always encouraged to jump in if I had an interest in learning a new task. I learned skills not only in my position focused on fundraising and development but in marketing and communications, event planning, education planning, staff recruitment, accounting… you name it! To say ICG has helped me grow my resume significantly feels like an understatement. 

Most importantly to me, I was supported in my personal growth. It was challenging for me to learn to balance the needs of my chronic illness with what drove me to keep doing more to make an impact. I felt seen as a member of the team and was often reminded that my work was impactful. 

The relationships I’ve made with the staff, volunteers, and greater community mean a lot to me. These uplifting relationships supported me when I needed to step away from my position on short-term disability leave and when I had to make the difficult choice not to return. I am sad to be leaving the staff, but I will always feel a part of the ICG family.

Thank you to all who made my past four years with ICG such a sweet experience. 

2022 Festival of Fire & Ice and Haudenosaunee Songs & Stories Recap Wed, 16 Feb 2022 18:01:50 +0000 We did it, ICG Community! With the help of your patience and support, the ICG Team presented our Festival of Fire & Ice and Haudenosaunee Songs & Stories to the Garden earlier this month.

Over 300 folks bundled up at home and in the Garden to celebrate winter and the triumphant return of our signature events!

We loved bringing a community event to each of you in a new way this year. Our hybrid model offered a shared experienced online and off; bringing traditional stories and songs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, activities and crafts, fire dancing, and so much more to everyone. As ICG continues to grow as an inclusive organization, we’ll be holding events that follow a hybrid model whenever it’s possible, and better understanding best practices for accessibility, in order to bring these spectacular Garden delights to more families and children. We’re all so excited for what’s next!

You can still craft Fire & Ice Twirlers, Fire & Ice Tea Lanterns, and catch all of the incredible Haudenosaunee Songs & Stories, told and performed by Perry Ground, Bear Fox, Kay Olan, and Kelly Cullen.

If you have pictures of how you participated at home that we could share on our website or social media, please email them to our Communications Coordinator, Monique

Check out some of the images of Perry Ground’s visit to After School @ ICG for Haudenosaunee Songs & Stories and the Festival of Fire & Ice at the Garden, in the gallery below.

This project is made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrants Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County.