Wandering into a garden one lovely summer day I was greeted with a sign “No Picnicking, No Pets, No Bicycles, No feeding the wildlife.” Beyond the gate was cool shade, colorful flowers, falling water, birds singing in the trees, rabbits, ducks, and squirrels on a carpet of lush lawn. I found no one in the garden but the gardeners. I’m fine with policies about expected behavior, yet a greeting like this kicks the kid in all of us out of a garden.
Public gardens are understandably protective of their plant collections designed for education or illustrating a garden’s horticultural history. Some gardens distinctly point out a garden is not a park and encourage children to play elsewhere. So cautious are gardens that often a special section is set aside for children, their answer to accommodating the wild ones. The Children’s garden takes many forms.
Hunter Gardens in the wine growing region of Hunter Valley is a prime tourist destination in NSW, Australia. They opened a Storybook Garden in 2003 for children. Described as “the stuff of imagination and dreams” it provided touchable, life size and larger than life staged sculptures of well known nursery rhymes and stories. Pretty and fun for the littlest ones who visit.
Ten years later the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden opened alongside the Dallas Botanical Garden, introducing an entirely different style of garden. This eight acre, $62 million facility is an “interactive garden designed specifically to address state and national science standards in life, earth and environmental sciences. The Dallas Arboretum is setting the gold standard for outdoor children’s facilities with this garden – the only children’s educational garden of its scope in the world.” (Focus Daily News) Community and corporate funding from Texas Instruments, Trammel Crow, and T. Boone Pickens Energy, to name just a few, are supporting this exciting place.
Early on the day I visited the Rory Meyers Garden yellow school buses filled with excited children arrived one after another. These children were not thinking about curriculum, they were thinking about the possibilities of discovery, out of doors, with space to move and things to do. The garden boasts of 150 interactive activities for children.
There are orchards, vineyards, vegetables and a maze to explore. A walkway through the tree tops gives children a bird’s eye view of the life up high.
Few gardens are able to build such a children’s space, let alone maintain the activities long term. A school field trip is perhaps a once a year event. What in between a static display of nursery rhyme characters and a technical activity land will draw families and children?
When a garden offers the green space, a shady spot to share a family picnic, a quiet place to see the squirrels run across the ground, to locate the bird singing in the tree overhead, it introduces children to the wonder of nature. Early connections to nature are often cited as the defining moment which launches a career path for our future naturalists, biologist, zoologist, environmentalists, ornithologist, florists, ichthyologist, gardeners, artists, philosophers and spiritualists. The opportunity for free play, to run on a lawn, to roll down a hill, to touch the bark of a tree connects children to life. Given time to explore the bugs in the grass, to peer into a pool of water and experience the gooey, stinky, pokey, slimy bits of a new world is education. Given a chance to smell the soil, feel the petals, leaves and grasses which grow, children develop a sense of place, and a reverence for life in all its forms.
Yet alongside these excited children there needs to be a companion, be that a parent, teacher or best friend. For when their eyes fly open in surprise someone must be close enough for their little hand to reach out and touch that person when they cry “Look!” Sharing that excitement compounds the joy and impacts the learning.
A garden needs children and children need a garden. There is much to learn in a garden with or without special activities. Vivian Russell, author of “Monet’s Garden Thru the Seasons at Giverny,” writes “do not forget that in Monet’s day, eight children were brought up here, children who scampered up and down the paths, ate the sunflower seeds Monet wanted to save, threw their balls into the summer flower beds,” and if Monet’s garden can welcome children surely others can too.
Published in Roots & Shoots, Maricopa Master Gardener Newsletter http://cals.arizona.edu/maricopa/garden/mgcentral/uploads/R&S-June-2015-060215.pdf