Family Exploration Kits Encourage Science Learning and Outdoor Activities at the Arboretum, Kubota Garden, and Your Own Backyard

by Mark Van Streefkerk

For kids and their caregivers experiencing Zoom learning fatigue, a new Family Exploration Kit might be a welcome opportunity to get outside and explore the Washington Park Arboretum, Kubota Garden, or their own backyard. The self-guided exploration kits are designed for kids ages four to 12 and their caregivers, offered through a partnership between the University of Washington Botanic Gardens and Kubota Garden Foundation (KGF). With scavenger hunts, treasure maps, discovery games, hand lenses, and a comic, the kits provide hands-on science education activities, as well as sharing the story of Kubota Garden and pointing to the larger history of the Japanese-American community in South Seattle.

Kits can easily serve four kids at a time and cost $7 but are available to all regardless of ability to pay. To ensure COVID-19 safety, those who sign up for the kits can choose a time slot and location (Othello Commons, the Arboretum, or the Kubota Garden Foundation’s office) for pick up. 

The kit includes investigations and scavenger hunts that can happen in any green space without having to travel to the Arboretum or Kubota Garden. In one investigation, kids are encouraged to explore and describe plants through touch and smell without looking at them. In another activity, the four hand lenses provided make it perfect for allowing multiple kids to investigate their neighborhood greenery up close. The kit teaches the changes and survival strategies of plants and trees in the winter, including differences between deciduous and evergreen trees, illustrated by the comic The Diary of Lola the Larch: The Winter Challenge. 

Jyler and Rysic Terada of Auburn set to explore some winter greenery with hand lenses from the Family Exploration Kit. (photo: Greg and Katrina Terada)

The comic centers on Lola, a larch tree. “Lola is trying to figure herself out,” explained KGF Volunteer Manager Anna Carragee. “Larches are deciduous trees, but they’re also conifers. She’s just looking at these trees around her thinking, ‘These maples are losing their leaves — why are they doing that?’ and ‘The Doug fir [aren’t] losing their leaves — why are they doing that? What works for me?’”

Carragee estimates 60 kits have been picked up so far, with about two-thirds of those going to families in South Seattle. “To me that [meant] that Kubota Garden Foundation should really offer more education for youth, and it was a resource people were really looking for in the Rainier Beach neighborhood,” she said.

Image courtesy of Kubota Garden Foundation

Last September Cait McHugh, school-age programs coordinator for UW Botanic Gardens, reached out to KGF to inquire about partnering for education opportunities since in-person classes were suspended. Carragee was enthusiastic about the collaboration. “We were really excited to have their expertise in environmental education combined with our volunteers’ expertise on the garden plants and different Japanese American cultural topics,” she said.

Image courtesy of Kubota Garden Foundation.

Outdoor education has a deeper connection when paired with the story of founder Fujitaro Kubota’s vision of the garden — a gathering place for the Japanese American community as well as a public park. The kits include photos and facts about how the garden came to be, including Kubota’s immigration to the U.S. in 1907, the racism he and other Seattle-area Japanese immigrants faced, including internment at Camp Minidoka during World War II, and building his 20-acre retreat as a testament to Japanese gardening and a public gathering place. “[Fujitaro Kubota] was really a visionary in bringing Japanese gardening to the U.S.” Carragee explained. “We knew we wanted to include not just things about plants but also the history of Kubota Garden and the history of the founder, Fujitaro.”

The UW Botanic Garden and KGF plan on collaborating again for a future Spring Exploration Kit. 

Read more about the history of Kubota Garden

Sign up for Winter Family Exploration Kits, which are available through Feb. 28, 2021.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.

Featured image by Sharon Ho Chang.

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