Learning to Save Water – and Love Nature – at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Growing up in Northbrook during the 1960s, I often took for granted the simple pleasures that many of us enjoyed during our childhood, such as running through the sprinklers and splashing around in our neighbor’s built-in pool, which was always filled to the brim. My parents were very mindful of the environment, but water conservation just wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t even know it was an environmental issue.

Riding our bikes east on Dundee Road, my friends and I would pass the mountains of mud that were just a vision of the magnificent living museum the Chicago Botanic Garden has become today. We’d glance at it quickly, then pedal our bikes onward to Glencoe Beach where we spent most summer days, swimming and crushing on the lifeguards. Summers were all about water play.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized my children and grandchildren might experience a water crisis.

Fast-forward to today: My two-year-old granddaughter Rylee and I are weekly explorers at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She loves to examine the tiny creatures living just below the surface of the Kleinman Family Cove, or run barefoot alongside the fountain in the rose garden.

She’s drawn to the water much like her Nana, but there also is a mission to the fun: The cove and other aquatic features at the garden are there to teach kids (and adults too) the critical role water plays in our natural world.

“By learning to appreciate the beauty of the cove, and to understand how so many living things depend upon high quality water systems to live, we hope to give children a reason to care about conserving water at home,” says Kathy Johnson, teacher and student programs director for the garden.

“We remind visitors that every time they turn on the faucet in the Chicago area, they are draining a little bit of water from Lake Michigan. When they dump trash in the street, water carries it to sewers that empty it into a habitat like our beautiful lake,” she explains. “With these messages, we hope to teach a generation of children that their personal behavior really does have an impact on the environment.”

Sure, it’s important that we undertake major preventative measures and water conservation efforts to rescue us from Mother Nature’s precarious situation.

But, what’s awesome is that the garden is helping kids like Rylee to make the connection early on. This summer, the garden is challenging its pint-sized visitors to start making their homes more water efficient.

The hope is that this hands-on experience will develop a conservation ethic in kids, which will also reach parents—or grandparents like me who had to learn to think about these things. Johnson offers these simple challenges for kids:

  • Think of ways your family can reduce the amount of water you use: don’t run water while brushing teeth
  • Put a timer in the bathroom to limit showers to five minutes
  • Let the grass go dormant and not water it during a dry spell

The hope is that if these simple practices become mainstays at home, kids will see they can make a difference.

Meantime, the thrill of watching Rylee’s face light up when the spray brushes her face as we pass the cascading waterfall en route to the Japanese garden reminds me of the abundance—and joy—that water brings to our lives. In some ways, I know if she gets that too, there’s hope she will work to make a difference for her children and theirs. For now, we’re making memories that will last a lifetime.