Remember when your mother used to urge you to turn off the television or video game console and go play outside? Medical experts now agree mom was onto something. So is Awbury Arboretum, which offers an abundance of public programing to improve the physical and mental health of Philadelphia residents of all ages.
Located in Germantown, the arboretum’s 56-acres span both sides of Washington Lane between Chew Avenue and Ardleigh Street. The entrance at One Awbury Road leads to the 19th century Francis E. Cope House and a terrain of rolling hills, meadows, ponds, and a walled garden. The other entrance at 6336 Ardleigh Street opens to The Farm at Awbury. Free and open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset, the mission of the arboretum has changed significantly since its establishment in 1916 when Germantown was still an affluent, predominantly Quaker community. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that the arboretum re-established itself as nonprofit and changed its mission to embrace the well-being of the area’s diverse residents.
“There is a growing body of evidence that supports nature’s role in children’s health development,” said Sara Stevenson, executive director of Awbury Arboretum. “We have partnered with the national Children and Nature Network and Let’s Go Outdoors (LGO), both of which are committed to providing children with equal access to the benefits of the natural environment.”
In addition, the arboretum “fills prescriptions” initiated by Prescribe Outside, a partnership between Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), LGO, the U.S. Forest Service, and Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities. The program encourages pediatricians to recommend outdoor activities for children impacted by asthma, anxiety, depression, and obesity. Dr. Natalie Minto, a pediatrician at CHOP, has been referring children to Awbury Arboretum and other green spaces for two years. “The Prescribe Outside program is a valuable resource that we link to ongoing treatment,” said Dr. Minto. “Parents are often hesitant about taking a child to a community playground or park due to safety concerns,” she explained. By referring them to a place like Awbury, they know their child will be in a safe, healthy environment where activities are guided by a responsible adult.”
“In the last quarter, 81 children were referred to us via Prescribe Outside,” said Hideko Secrest, Awbury Arboreum’s education director and grants manager. These programs are in addition to the arboretum’s Field Studies which hosts free weekly field trips for hundreds of Philadelphia public and charter school students, as well as after school programs for kids interested in learning wilderness survival skills, archery, and environmental science.
Awbury Aventures Summer Camp also offers one and two week sessions and a new After Camp session starting in 2024 for working parents who cannot pick up their children until 6 p.m. “While the bulk of our campers are from Mt. Airy and Germantown, we also draw participants from Narberth, Glenside, and Jenkintown,” said Secrest. “We even had a camper from Florida whose parents searched online for wilderness survival camps and who stayed in a local Airbnb while their child attended our camp.”
What about adults seeking to improve their health? Awbury Arboretum has a prescription for them too, featuring free early morning walks and yoga classes. Alyssa Schimmel, the arboretum’s horticultural educator, runs The Many Hands Apothecary Garden where she teaches herbal aid education and Wild Wisdom, a hands-on class in foraging and creating natural herbal medicines. Plus, there are free family events throughout the year, including a Martin Luther King, Jr., National Day of Service, a community garden club, tree identification hikes, bird walks, and seasonal potlucks.
Awbury Arboretum’s partnership with Weavers Way Food Co-op does more than provide fresh produce for the grocery store and the arboretum’s seasonal Sunday farm market. Food Moxie, the nonprofit arm of the co-op, educates and inspires people to grow, taste, cook, and eat healthy food. Established in 2019, the 16-acre farm at Awbury Arboretum is a shared space for various organizations, including the Philadelphia Goat Project, Philadelphia Guild of Handweavers, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Community Gardens Program, Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, Many Hands Community Apothecary, and Fuugs, a sustainable company that turns damaged trees into furniture.
Along with these many offerings, the arboretum also recognizes the healing benefits of the visual and performing arts. It presents free exhibitions featuring local artists, March through December, in the Cope House Gallery. The artwork is for sale and a portion of the proceeds helps support the organization. “The Cope House provided a welcoming environment to present larger pieces of work for my first solo show, as well as a central location for guests coming from all parts of the city,” said Willow Grove-based collage artist Yolanda Ward. “I think Awbury Arboretum is one of the many hidden treasures of Germantown,” said local ceramicist Karen Singer who has exhibited and taught tile making workshops there.
In the summer, Awbury Arboretum becomes an outdoor concert venue offering a wide range of music. In the past, the roster has included the West Philly Orchestra, the Hot Club of Philadelphia, the Philly Blues Society, and the Philadelphia Folksong Society. If you want to experience the arboretum at its most vibrant, don’t miss its annual Harvest Festival which has attracted 4,000 visitors in the past. This year, the event will feature four live bands, area craftsmen, and food vendors.