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Plan a Children’s Garden With This Expert Example

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children's garden

Young visitors to the Family Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center enjoy pouring water through limestone boulders.

Named for Luci Baines Johnson and her husband, Ian Turpin, the Luci and Ian Family Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.opened quite in 2014. The garden was an immediate hit with its target audience—families with children—and botanic-garden observers alike. The Family Garden also serves as a pilot project of the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), a program designed by the Wildflower Center, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden to promote rigorous standards of sustainability for gardens and landscapes. The APGA was quick to recognize the important missions of the space and the well-planned features that will ensure its success.

Designed by the Wildflower Center, award-winning landscape architect W. Gary Smith and TBG Partners, the 4.5-acre Family Garden aims to engage children with nature at every turn, while it also bides by the best practices of sustainability and resource conservation. Native plants fill the garden’s beds, educating visitors about the natural central Texas landscape while requiring little input to survive the local climate and conditions. The existing topsoil and some plants were saved and incorporated into the garden, along with locally sourced compost, mulch and native species. The garden is water efficient from stem to stern, with rainwater harvesting and rain gardens playing key roles. To build the child-friendly features, the team used elements found on the site, such as stumps and stones, as much as possible and avoided any use of PVC piping. (That’s right: A child’s space that limits plastic!)

Indeed, the Family Garden welcomes children at every turn, recognizing their innate need to touch and to move. It’s a fully interactive space, designed for running, climbing, splashing, investigating—in general, for just being a kid as nature intended. “Nature play” is central here, and while math, science and cultural lessons are up for the taking, play is the focus. Young guests come away educated in just how much fun nature and its elements can be—an important lesson for sure.

Children’s Garden Highlights
The Luci and Ian Family Garden comprises features and elements that welcome hands-on exploration. They include these spaces and more:

Jeff Wilson Memorial Watering Holes: Kids fill watering cans under a hand pump and then pour it into limestone boulders to observe its flow.

Dinosaur Creek: Visitors are welcome to put their hands and feet into the creek and its pools to explore the amazing qualities of water. They’re just asked to respect the plants, frogs, turtles and other creatures the creek supports.

Hill Country Grotto: Caves and tunnels offer a cool respite from the Texas sun. Pictographs related to culture and history decorate the interior walls.

Diana Poteat Hobby Dry Creek Overlook: This walkway provides a bird’s-eye view of the trees.

Alice C. Tyler Stumpery: Stumps and logs encourage climbing, jumping, hanging and hiding.

Bette and Nash Castro Giant Birds’ Nests: Woven from grapevines and branches native to the area, these huge nests spur imaginative play and a perspective on what it’s like to be a bird.

Tips for Outdoor Exploration
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center offers these tips for engaging children with the outdoors:

Be patient and flexible. Let kids lead the way. That might mean hurrying to keep up with them as they run and jump, or biding time while they examine fine details.

Encourage questions and curiosity. Guide their explorations toward the discovery of facts.

Embrace the weather. Don’t stay inside just because it’s raining—dress properly and enjoy those raindrops and what they do.

Build opportunities for interaction. Make sure the garden or yard includes an area that’s open to the kids, with natural features for moving through or over, plus materials that can be gathered for art projects and close observation.

Set an example. Show your love of nature and demonstrate respect for plants, wildlife and natural materials. This will rub off on the children in your life.

Image courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center