A new field of wild flowers and prairie plants at the Brookfield Zoo started last year – inside 70 pairs of old gym shoes. Children at the Hamill Family Play Zoo decorated the shoes, as part of a “funky planters” activity, according to Jill Damato Westhus, director at the play zoo.

“We collected used shoes, a piano, a bathtub – anything that could be a planter – and planted it with native species seeds,” Westhus said.

The children made paper cups from old newspapers and planted wild flower seeds in the shoes.

A year later, the purple coneflowers, goldenrod and black-eyed Susans – now transplanted to pots – were given a final home May 18 in a special native-plant Buffalo Prairie at the zoo’s north entrance.

Representatives from the Riverside and Brookfield libraries, the British Home and students from Riverside-Brookfield High School’s School of Environmental Education planted the native flora.

“We’re trying to preserve the beauty within the prairie,” said zoo conservationist Andre Copeland.

For awhile, the shoes and their tiny seedlings were displayed at the Riverside and Brookfield libraries in conjunction with a national ecological conservation poetry contest.

“The children just loved the plants in the shoes,” said Kim Krueger, head of youth services at the Brookfield Public Library.

Riverside Library Director Janice Fisher said the focus on conservation “has permanently changed us at the library.”

The Riverside library now sponsors Project Green to reduce, reuse and recycle materials it uses. The library donated a rain barrel decorated with poetry from the contest to the Brookfield Zoo’s prairie patch.

After their display at the libraries, the shoe-seedlings were taken to the British Home greenhouses in Brookfield, where horticulture therapist Laura Svik cared for them – along with residents.

“We watered them and took care of them for a year,” said Svik, who brought 70 of the plants to the zoo on May 18.

Seventeen students and a teacher from the RB School of Environmental Education helped plant the seedlings Wednesday. They will return to the zoo later this month to give an environmental literacy conference, where students will give presentations on solar panels, lighting choices and other ecological topics.

Mores shoe-seedlings are being planted this year, at Hamill Play Zoo, said Copeland. He hopes the zoo, libraries and British Home can continue their partnership next year with native species plantings not just in the zoo, but in neighboring towns.

“We are the Prairie State, and we are doing our part to restore our beautiful native plants,” he said.