Botanical gardens can be magical places for children. They offer wonderful smells, beautiful colors and best of all, the chance to get grubby playing in the dirt. And, particularly for kids who don't get much contact with plants in their every day life, a trip to the gardens can open up a whole new world of botanical appreciation. Wondering where to get started? Here are five gorgeous gardens that offer outstanding opportunities for kids:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn NY. Since 1914, children have signed up to tend individual plots of earth at the oldest children’s garden operated within a U.S. botanical garden. If you don’t live in the New York City area, the BBG also has daily programs for visitors. Summer Science Adventures include studies in ethnobotany, art in nature and ecology. Younger children can enjoy drop-in programs (no registration required) in the year-round Discovery Garden. Two-hour weekend programs for Spring 2008 include making adinkra printed cloth using stamps from gourds, and creating Chinese New Year flower decorations.

Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis MO. Children ages 5-10 can check out a “Journey to Seiwa-en” activity backpack to help them explore the 14-acre Japanese garden, the largest in the U.S. Kids learn about design concepts like simplicity, asymmetry and meigakure, the art of partial concealment so that plant discoveries are not in plain view but only seen after a little exploration. There are other MBG educational classes offered to children as young as 2, and an “Oaks and Acorns” series of hands-on garden-related activity classes for seniors to take with young ones.

Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta GA. The two-acre Children’s Garden invites curious wandering. Its tree house teaches about woodland habitats, you can watch bug-eating plants in the Soggy Bog and see a real hive in the Beehive Meadow. There are Saturday morning programs in the Children’s Amphitheater April-October (except during steamy August) and drop-in family classes with seasonal themes. Stay until 10 pm Thursday nights during the summer and watch the Garden transform in the dark, with different sounds and critters than in daytime.

Huntington Botanical Garden, Huntington CA. The Huntington Library and art collection complex just outside Los Angeles also features a botanical garden divided into themed areas: herb, Shakespearean, camellias, jungle, Australian and a children’s garden for ages 2-7. There are make-it-yourself family workshops (like Bonsai Builders in Feb 2008,) family festivals several times a year and themed overnight camping in the gardens. On Saturday afternoons, look for kid-friendly nature exploration activities at the Discovery Carts in the Japanese Garden, Desert Garden and Lily Ponds.

Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago IL. With 23 display gardens and three habitats, there is plenty to see and do here even in fickle winter weather. In the warmer months, children can toot-toot with the G-scale (garden-scale) trains that run through the Railroad Garden; it’s a topographical landscape of tiny plantings, small-scale landmarks like Mount Rushmore and a tribute to Chicago’s architectural influence with miniature replicas of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Family educational classes are available for ages 4 and up with topics like Worm World, plants from the dinosaur era and making homemade vanilla ice cream after learning about the vanilla plant. In January there’s a free drop-in program to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Festival of Trees.

Be prepared – after a visit to one of these gardens, your child could develop a taste for botany - and maybe even for his vegetables!

To find more botanical gardens in your area, search for gardens by type and location at the American Public Gardens Association.