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Campus & Community

A Baby’s-Eye View of UMD

Arboretum Program Introduces Caretakers and Kids to Plants, Pollinators Across Campus

By Karen Shih ’09

A woman talks to people while standing on red bricks

Meg Smolinski (center), outreach coordinator for the UMD Arboretum, introduces the weekly "Walk with an Arborist and Your Baby" tour to Charlotte Alberts and her two children (right) as Lindsay Barranco (left), coordinator of experiential learning for the Institute of Applied Agriculture, looks on.

Photos by Karen Shih

Charlotte Alberts reached the top of the Memorial Chapel steps with 11-month-old Marcy strapped to her front and 3-year-old Griffin balanced on her back.

“It’s been a morning,” she said. It was her first time coming to the University of Maryland campus, and she was running 10 minutes late on a warm October Friday.

“But you’re here, yay!” cheered Meg Smolinski, outreach coordinator for the UMD Arboretum and co-host of “Walk with an Arborist and Your Baby.”

There’s no judgment, just joy, during these weekly sojourns across campus that give caretakers of young children an excuse to go outside, learn a little about plants and pollinators, and visit portions of the UMD campus they’ve never seen.

“Being able to see insects and flowers, focusing on something other than screens and chaos, is great. And watching the kids interact with nature is amazing too,” said Alberts, an entomologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

That’s exactly the type of feedback Smolinski is thrilled to receive. She created the program after she had her first child in fall 2019 and struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety. Getting outdoors was one of the few things that helped her feel better, so she adapted the walks she previously offered for the UMD Arboretum to new parents.

“When you go on parental leave, it’s very lonely, honestly,” she said. “You’re used to going into an office and seeing your coworkers. Your spouse goes back to work, or you’re a single parent, and you’re just home with a new baby.”

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She hosted the first ones in January and February 2020, but the pandemic put those on pause. This fall, Smolinski relaunched the program, advertising it on local parents’ groups, on social media and across campus. She connected with Lindsay Barranco, coordinator of experiential learning for the Institute of Applied Agriculture, and Madeline Potter ’19, an entomology graduate student and UMD Extension agent associate, who take turns joining her to lead the tours.

a woman points at a tree in a field while a woman carrying two children looks on
Smolinski points out a persimmon tree

Each Friday, they meet parents, grandparents and other caretakers, along with babies, at Memorial Chapel. They walk a different route around campus most weeks to keep things interesting for returning participants, though they always start with the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance.

On Alberts’ tour, Smolinski stopped at a Chinese parasol tree (a county champion, meaning it’s the biggest specimen in Prince George’s) just down the hill from the chapel to grab some seed pods, shaking them like a rattle for Marcy to hear, then highlighted a native persimmon tree, dropping sticky, ripe, golf ball-sized orange fruits on the sidewalk—the perfect attraction for little toddler hands. Barranco pointed out unremarkable bare patches of dirt between criss-crossing sidewalks, which she showed were habitats for tiny, burrowing bees.

As of mid-October, more than 30 caretakers and babies have attended the tours. Smolinski will wrap up in mid-November, then pick them up again around spring break, though the Minnesota native says she’d be willing to start as early as February if there are hardy folks willing to come to campus.

“To be able to use my role at the Arboretum to help other people in the community and share our incredible, beautiful campus with them is one of the reasons I love working here,” Smolinski said.

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