For the last 20 years, Oak Park resident Eric Gyllenhaal has kept the rock garden in his front yard stocked with polished stones, shells and fossils, free for children to explore and take home.
“I’m a big believer in giving kids a chance to collect things and get their hands on things,” said Gyllenhaal, who lives in the 1000 block of South Elmwood Avenue.
He first created the rock garden for his young son, who wanted to have a rock-themed birthday party. The kids who attended the birthday party got to collect rocks to take home as party favors. After the party, Gyllenhaal kept the rock garden stocked for curious children. To keep supply from running out, he capped the limit of rocks kids could take to five per trip.
“The neighborhood kids over the years would come, some of them would get interested and they’d come over to us every day and collect rocks,” he said. “It was kind of a local thing that kids on the block and from a few blocks around knew about.”
Gyllenhaal, who has a degree in natural resources and a doctorate in paleontology, teaches nature and science programming at Wonder Works Children’s Museum. When the pandemic struck, Wonder Works had to cease all programming.
“When the pandemic hit, all of a sudden it was a hands-off world for kids,” said Gyllenhaal. “I decided to spruce up the old rock garden.”
Among the array of natural keepsakes available to kids, Gyllenhaal started putting out “quarantine bags” — plastic bags for kids to carry their haul. He also puts out informative guides so children can identify and learn more about the rocks and fossils they’ve chosen.
Since he began doing so last spring, interest rose in his rock garden because more people were out walking.
“People from several blocks away started to discover it,” he said.
Word spread among Oak Park’s multiple community Facebook groups as well.
“All of a sudden, people were replying that they’d discovered it years ago or they discovered it this year and their kids were really interested in it,” said Gyllenhaal.
Come May, Gyllenhaal’s rock garden, dubbed the Nature Collector’s Garden, will hit its 20th anniversary. Its treasure troves have expanded over the years to include sea urchin spines, crystals, pieces of coral and broken geodes.
While some people have donated their childhood rock collections to the garden, Gyllenhaal also purchases some of the rock garden’s stockpile through rock dealers.
“The government keeps giving us money, and we’re supposed to spend it on local small businesses,” said Gyllenhaal. “But rock dealers are small businesses too.”
Many of the rock dealers with whom he does business he met through geology shows. Prior to COVID-19 making such gatherings unsafe, Gyllenhaal worked at the shows in the children’s booth.
At home, he tries to stay out of the spotlight to give the garden a magical feel. Near the garden sit two gnomes, one holding the handles of a wheelbarrow and one digging in the earth.