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Wilmington, Delaware

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Photo credit: Bob Leitch

The imagination can run wild in this magical section of the garden at the Winterthur Estate. Set in a special section of the 60 acre garden, children can create their own fairy tales in this bucolic setting. They won’t find references to the Seven Dwarfs or Little Red Riding Hood here. Here, they are free to let their imagination create their own fairy tales. What child wouldn’t love playing in a real thatched roof cottage, with a pair of stone throne chairs indoors – just their size, and all set under a canopy of trees inside what just might be a magical forest?

“Fairie Folks are in Old Oakes”

It may look ancient, but this garden was created in the late 1990s by garden designer W. Gary Smith, hired by Winterthur Garden to create an area especially for children. Standard “children’s gardens” usually include crayola colored playground equipment, perhaps a tube to crawl through, and maybe a fountain. Not that those aren’t nice in their place, but Winterthur’s garden is more interested in creating a garden that can spark imagination in addition to letting children work off some of their unending amounts of energy.

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This beautiful area of the garden is on the grounds of Winterthur Estate – once the home of collector and horticulturalist Henry Francis duPont. Henry was part of the industrialist duPont family, was born at Winterthur, and after college spent the rest of his life managing the Winterthur estate, farm, and gardens. Over his lifetime he also collected pieces of art from all over the world, adding historic collections and decorative objects. Eventually, in 1951 he turned it all into one grand museum to be enjoyed by everyone.

Although he had two daughters, his garden plans never contained a specific children’s garden. Seeing a need, Winterthur set out to create one. Smith’s design needed to fit in seamlessly with existing gardens and incorporate the historic feel of the estate. Using objects he found on site – items collected but that had never found a home such as stone benches, millstones, columns from an old rose garden, and a feed trough from the Winterthur farm, he created a garden that feels ancient. You would never know by looking at it that it is just barely 20 years old.

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There is plenty in the area to keep children busy and happy. The tulip tree house is a magical fairy cottage created from an old hollow tulip tree stump. Nearby a small grove of tree stumps were laid out just waiting to be jumped on and climbed. A ring of mushrooms creates a mystical fog when you stand inside, delighting young and old alike. Hidden among the azaleas, the giant face of the Green Man emerges from the earth. Story Stones, a stone circle of Stonehenge-like architectural fragments makes a perfect obstacle course. A circle of columns forms the Acorn Tea Room, ready to play “house.” A small pond and footbridge hide dozens of green frogs, all combining to create a variety of areas to explore and for children to create their own fairy stories.

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Photo credit: JimthePhotographer on Flickr

What a thrill to run around the house towards the back and find a giant bird’s nest! Explore a bit further and find that you can actually climb up inside the bird’s nest which includes giant bird eggs. Just what do you think might hatch from that? Is it the bird that is big or is it you who are very very small?  Perhaps you are as small as a fairy, and this is how they would see the world.

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Photo credit: Bob Leitch

You don’t have to be a child to appreciate this amazing garden. Walk among the trees, wander in and out of the stone circle contemplating each stone’s unique story, and watch the children as you see the joy crosses their faces and their imagination takes flight. There are many more beautiful areas of the garden to explore, an entire mansion of artwork and collections to see, and more than enough to appreciate at this magnificent American legacy museum just outside Wilmington.

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