Between the crawlers, the flyers and the plants with deep roots, the Cylburn Arboretum in Northwest Baltimore wants to teach visitors all about the living world on their grounds through their newly added Nature Education Center.

The center helps explain what one could find if they strolled through the arboretum’s 200-plus acres of trees, gardens and wooded trails. The hope is it becomes a hub of learning and gives children and families opportunites to experience the outdoors in ways their immediate urban, concrete neighborhoods may not offer.

Erika Castillo, the center’s education director, said she has the best job in the world because she gets to expose kids to the beauty of nature. The former Baltimore City teacher said many of the students who come to the arboretum on field trips have never been in the woods. She hopes the center is a good introduction before heading out there. Castillo said they try to focus on engaging with kids in Park Heights and other neighborhoods near the arboretum.

The arboretum is tucked away off Greenspring Avenue in Cylburn, not too far from Sinai Hospital and the former Dr. Roland N. Patterson Senior Academy building where former Harlem Globetrotter Charles “Choo” Smith plans to build a CommuniVersity.

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“I think that children who spend time in nature when they’re young, it changes how they see the world. … It teaches you to want to protect it,” Castillo said.

The Nature Education Center, a 1,760-square-foot addition to the grounds, is attached to a renovated 1912 carriage house. Rebecca Henry, board president of Cylburn Arboretum Friends, said the project costs a little over $7 million. The design process started in 2017 and the carriage house “needed a little love,” she said. Much of its original architecture has been preserved.

The new Nature Education Center in the Cylburn Arboretum is attached to a renovated 1912 carriage house.
The new Nature Education Center in the Cylburn Arboretum is attached to a renovated 1912 carriage house. (Jasmine Vaughn-Hall/The Baltimore Banner)

The center’s design emphasizes the hidden world of trees. A mock root system from a tree hangs from the high ceiling. Interactive sections of the exhibit teach about tree bark, birds in Maryland and insects found in trees.

Castillo said it’s important to tap into all the senses when teaching about the outdoors. One section of the exhibit creates the experience of sitting inside a tree trunk. People can press buttons and hear a squirrel, cicadas, creaking tree branches and a woodpecker. There’s even a large map of Baltimore that asks visitors to locate the different forest patches and a poem by Catrice Greer called “Here is the Place,” which talks about finding solace in nature.

Peter Ward said he still can’t wrap his head around the transformation of the carriage house and the construction of the center. His wife volunteers with the arboretum, so he watched the progression from start to completion. He thinks it’s wonderful for little kids.

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“A lot of city children who come here don’t get to see much of nature. It’s really an eye-opener for them. It expands their minds. It expands their goals,” Ward said.

The benefits for children were top of mind for Letitia Dzirasa, the city’s deputy mayor of equity, health and human services, at a recent ribbon cutting for the nature center. She said she looks forward to bringing her son one day, and can only imagine how young people will find joy in learning about new plants. She hopes the space serves multiple purposes, including catering to mental health.

“It’s my hope that these grounds are not only seen as a place of recreation, but restoration,” Dzirasa said.

The Nature Center for Education will be free to the public and pending additional inspections, they’re expected to open officially June 10 and 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The center will continue Saturday and Sunday hours only throughout the summer. By September, they’ll open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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