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Published: Sunday, 10/14/2012

A garden full of wonder in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The 15-foot bronze sculpture, "Bent of Mind," by Tony Cragg, graces the entrance to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The 15-foot bronze sculpture, "Bent of Mind," by Tony Cragg, graces the entrance to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — You don’t have to be a child to draw pleasure from the children’s garden at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park here. As my husband and I entered the park, we were drawn by the sight of a child-size iron-grate door in a wall through which small children were delightedly emerging. Intrigued, we headed into the nearby entryway and found ourselves in the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden.

Just inside, we encountered a group of sculpted children in playful poses, elevated a few feet on their pedestals, with a low fountain flowing at their feet. A few real children were splashing their feet in the water.

Nearby, in a section called the Kid-Sense Garden, metal depictions of a nose, hand, ear, mouth, and eye clued children in to different ways of experiencing the displays. In Treehouse Village, I climbed to the second story and joined a young boy in peering down at the shaded interior. He confided that there was a monster inside: “I heard it go down there.”

In the Great Lakes Garden, a series of small, low pools shaped like said lakes beckoned hot children and their frazzled parents in the summer heat. Overlooking it was a human sundial, where you stand on the spot marked for the current time of year and raise your right hand to see the time. It seemed about an hour off; then again, the dial probably doesn’t take Eastern Daylight Time into account.

As in much of the 132-acre park, sculpture is an integral part of the children’s garden. A topiary dude wearing sunglasses surveys the scene, water bottle in hand; an old man sits at ground level, his right hand grasping the hand of a small girl who listens to him intently, her doll languishing, forgotten, in her other hand (“Grandpa, the Storyteller,” by Victor Issa, bronze); a clown juggles three balls (“Juggler Clown,” by Marshall Fredericks, bronze); and a colorful wolf family nestles close in their den as their leader stands watch (“Family of Wolves,” by Leonard Streckfus, steel, and other materials).

Other sections of the children’s garden include a log cabin, a labyrinth, a rock quarry where kids can dig for buried fossils, and a storytelling garden, complete with a performance hut and amphitheater seats.

The garden is named for Frederik Meijer, the late owner of the grocery store chain that bears his family name, who died in November at age 91. Meijer and his wife, Lena, donated the land for the garden, gave a sculpture collection to it, and continued to give financial support as the garden developed. The children’s garden is named for Lena.

Among all the children’s garden’s charms — its whimsical sculptures and clever teaching moments — I think I liked best the one thing I couldn’t experience: the child-size door at the entrance. More than anything else we saw there, it reminded me of that time when all the world was bigger than I, when countertops, sinks, and doorknobs were too high to reach, but delightful little playhouses with their kid-size doors and windows were a perfect, cozy fit.

If you go:

The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is open year-round and offers children’s activities in all seasons, inside the children’s garden and elsewhere in the park. Special fall children’s activities include:

Tree-mendous Kids’ Tram Tours: A tram travels throughout the park with stops along the way for tree-related lessons, such as learning which trees are used to make baseball bats, musical instruments and Popsicle sticks, and using puppets to find out about tree-living animals. Through Oct. 27; extra fees.

Giant Pumpkins at Michigan’s Farm Garden: Pumpkins weighing hundreds of pounds will be on view, and cooking demonstrations will be held at this replica modeled roughly on a 1930s family farm (except for the 1880s farmhouse). Oct. 20-21; fee included with park admission.

Hallowee-ones: Children can come in costume, join a costume parade and hear Halloween stories. Oct. 26; fee included with park admission.

General park information: 888-957-1580, meijergardens.org; 1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, Mich. Grand Rapids is about 180 miles from Chicago, an easy drive of three to four hours. The park is north of Interstate Highway 96 on East Beltline Avenue, between Bradford and Leonard streets, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Grand Rapids.

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