What's Shakin' in the Maker Garden

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The Maker Garden is a small open-ended play space for all ages, located just outside the library’s front door. It’s a reclaimed planter where we install a new activity each month. We invite patrons to build or design using simple materials such as bamboo hoops, sticks, rocks, or willow branches.

I was inspired during a family vacation to Door County in 2021, when my daughter was 5. We visited the sculpture garden at Edgewood Orchard Galleries. Every 100 yards or so, there was a box of rocks: “What can you create today with a few stackable stones?” My daughter kept stopping to stack, build, and make patterns with the rocks. Later, my parents pointed out stacked rocks at the beaches and parks. My daughter, as well as her parents and grandparents, paused to create and play. We all felt invigorated.

When I got back to work, I started thinking about how we could provide opportunities for kids and adults to play at the library. At the time, we didn’t have toys out in the library. And everyone was stressed out. We were having lots of outdoor programs--outside was the safest place to be. How can we provide toys, de-stress kids and adults, and encourage everyone to play outside?

And so the Maker Garden was born. My Youth Services colleague Ruth helped me find a spot for it—a planter box outside the front door. The plants weren’t growing well, so admin was fairly easily convinced to turn it over to us. Facilities staff helped us dig out the soil and add lots of sand to the planter.

We started with a Zen garden, in the hopes that adults in addition to kids would play there. Sure enough, they did.  

Since then, we’ve kept the Maker Garden up and running year round. When it’s too cold to play in the sand, we cover it with burlap. In late December, when staffing is thin, we put out a fake yule log, in homage to the burning log on TV. We experiment with freezing and thawing and ice and snow decorations. When the weather warms up, the sand goes back in the garden. Sand provides a strong sensory experience, plus it’s a helpful base for building with things like sticks and rocks. Favorite installations include “tree cookie” poetry, wooden geometric shapes, and a communal weaving display.

I’ve found that simple materials work best in the Maker Garden. I aim for weatherproof items made of natural materials. If it’s plastic I make sure it’s reusable.

I’m consistently impressed by the creations I find in the Maker Garden: a stick village, a tile hut, a string bridge. Patrons young and old are clearly taking time out of their day to play; it’s a small way to help busy people relax and encourage their minds to frolic.

When tending the garden (that is, sweeping up and raking the sand and reorganizing the supplies), I often chat with patrons of all ages. “WOW!” exclaimed one preschooler. An adult commented, “If I were five, this would be my favorite place!” I told him that no matter what his age, the Maker Garden can be his favorite place. Whether you’re five or fifty-five, you are welcome to imagine, create, and play in the Maker Garden!


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Janet Piehl
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