August 2013

Hidden Gem

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2013 / , , ,

Writer: Jessie Kuenzel / Photographer: Maddie McNamara 

Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museums and Gardens helps children step away from day-to-day distractions and reconnect with the world outside.

Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museums and Gardens helps children step away from day-to-day distractions and reconnect with the world outside.

Photo by Maddie McNamara

Walking down the sloping path, the air fills with the sounds of children laughing and playing. A father smiles as he watches his daughters, dressed in butterfly wings and an owl costume from an overflowing costume box, examine the small blooms of a new blueberry bush and a planter box filled with carnivorous plants. On a sunny summer day, energy and enthusiasm resonate throughout the grounds of Heritage Museums and Gardens—and emanate from the families and children exploring Hidden Hollow.

For decades, visitors from all over the world have visited Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich to see 100 acres of famous gardens, explore beautiful outdoor spaces, and enjoy treasures in three unique Americana museums. Three years ago, Heritage added a new attraction: Hidden Hollow, a place where families can escape the ever-growing technological influences of today and experience the beauty of Cape Cod’s landscape. With innovative activities, interesting exhibits, and a schedule of monthly planned events and classes, Hidden Hollow sees well over 50,000 visitors every year.

“The goal is to allow children to rediscover the joys of being outside and facilitate family time together,” says Ellen Spear, president and CEO of Heritage Museums and Gardens. “We want to pique children’s natural sense of wonder, and help them unplug and connect with nature.”

Hidden Hollow’s two and a half acres were once a composting site for tree stumps harvested from the extensive grounds. By August 2010, Hidden Hollow was designated a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, an initiative put forth by the National Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Only three other such designations have been awarded in New England. For today’s children, with technology increasingly commanding their attention, such resources encouraging play in the natural world are needed more than ever.

Recent studies have shown that younger generations are spending significantly less time outdoors than their parents and grandparents did, resulting in negative impacts on learning as they grow older.
“We were concerned about children not getting outside as much,” says Spear. “When you start to learn about ecosystems or water cycles, for instance, if you haven’t experienced these things firsthand, it’s much harder to grasp the deeper concepts inside the classroom.

Hidden Hollow at Heritage Museums and Gardens helps children step away from day-to-day distractions and reconnect with the world outside.

Photo by Maddie McNamara

We continually hear stories of children who prefer to stay inside and play video games or watch television rather than go outside and play. We created Hidden Hollow to give the children a comfortable and fun environment for playing and—even if they don’t always realize it—learning.”

A fusion of education and fun is the goal of the 13 learning stations spread across Hidden Hollow. Areas geared toward teaching skills like spatial awareness and critical thinking are scattered around the grounds, encouraging children to take a hands-on approach to learning, and the giant tree house, musical instruments, and arts and crafts table foster imagination and creativity.

Monthly themes set by the Hidden Hollow staff focus on different topics, ranging from weather to plant life, and scheduled weekly activities allow for a more structured way to enjoy outdoor and hands-on learning. Plaques are placed throughout the gardens, providing information about the many different plants and flowers. And although children are the primary patrons, there is no age limit when it comes to learning about the natural world; parents often take away as much from their visit as their children.

“Hidden Hollow is a whole new experience every time,” says a Heritage Museums and Gardens staff member. “You can come in 100 times and you’ll never have the same experience twice.” In a space transformed from a once-hidden stump dump to a now magical and whimsical children’s play area, the educational benefits of Hidden Hollow are just part of why tourists and locals alike can’t seem to stop flooding in.

Walking back through Heritage’s spectacular rhododendron, azalea, and daylily gardens, a school group on a field trip approaches from the opposite direction headed towards Hidden Hollow. A Heritage Museums and Gardens staff member asks the group how many have visited Hidden Hollow before. A majority of hands fly enthusiastically into the air. One boy, his hand still raised above his head, turns to his friend. “I’ve been here before, it’s so much fun,” he says. “You’re going to love it.”

For more information about Hidden Hollow and its schedule of events,

Jessie Kuenzel is an editorial intern at Cape Cod Life Publications and a journalism student at Simmons College in Boston.

Jessie Kuenzel

Jessie Kuenzel of Chatham is a former editorial intern at Cape Cod Life Publications.