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What Kids Really Want in a Garden for Children: Fact vs. Fiction

Contributed by Monica Buntin Myhill, The Dallas Arboretum and Gardens, Dallas, Texas, USA


In order to create the most enjoyable and stimulating garden for children at The Dallas Arboretum, children aged 6 -12 years old were involved in its planning and design. Students in first to fifth grades were asked to draw a picture of their ideal garden for children (FICTION).

Observations were also made of school children who visited the Arboretum to determine their interests and activities within the Arboretum's current gardens (FACT). The results of these two studies were compared and contrasted to determine the most appropriate garden designs, features, topography, plant materials, and visitor activities for a future garden for children.

Why was this Research Study Conducted?

The Dallas Arboretum determined that it needed a garden for children. The mission statement for the Garden for Children is:

The Garden should stimulate exploration, discovery, dramatic play and imagination. It should provide memorable senses of place and promote feelings of security, safety and orientation while explored by children. The Garden should be properly scaled and accessible to children of all ages and learning styles, with a special sensitivity toward those with disabilities. It should integrate children and allow opportunities for shared experiences with adults, friends and family members. The Garden should offer diversity, reflect a sense of continual change, stimulate the senses and provide abundant opportunities for horticultural education, all in an aesthetic setting with a positive ambiance.

The Garden also determined to involve the audience in the planning

Fiction: Drawings

Who was involved?

Students in the first to fifth grades were asked to draw a picture of their ideal garden for children. The total number of students involved was 241, mostly from the Dallas public school system. Almost equal numbers of white, African-American and Hispanic students were involved.

How were the student’s responses collected?

Through visiting classrooms, mostly in Dallas public schools.

What were the results?

The frequency with which certain items appeared in the drawings was calculated. These frequencies are listed below:

Plant Materials:80% flowers ( i.e. 80% of the drawings contained one or more flowers)
69% a tree
60% grass
21% fruit tree(s)
20% vegetables
6% shrubs
1% seeds
Flower Color:46% red flower(s)
34% yellow flower(s)
34% purple flower(s)
28% pink flower(s)
26% blue flower(s)
23% orange flower(s)
Garden terrain: 82% the garden was on flat land
11% the garden was on hills
Wildlife:26% birds
13% butterflies
4% fish
4% rabbits
4% bees
3% ducks
2% frogs
1% ladybugs
Water:38% of the drawings contained water in the form of rain, in a stream, in a pond, or coming from a fountain.
People: 36% of the drawings contained a person or persons.
Garden Features: 28% playground equipment
24% a water fountain
15% pond
11% a garden tool/gardening device (sprinkler, hose, flower pot)
7% a treehouse
7% a stream
7% signage
3% bathrooms
2% store/vending machine
2% airplane

Fact: Observations

Who was involved?

Large groups of students were observed during June. These groups were attendees at summer camps, year-round classes, and child care groups. A total of 144 students were involved, from kindergarten to sixth grade. Their ethnic composition was 67% white, 28% African-American and 6% Hispanic.

How was the data collected?

As each group entered The Dallas Arboretum, the leader was asked if the group could be observed for the first 45 minutes of their visit (to keep consistency). Individual and group actions were recorded as well as individual comments.

What were our results?

At The Dallas Arboretum, the top two areas of interest were:

1) Water and water features:

  • Decorative stone fountains
  • Interactive large fountains
  • Shallow stone fountains with metal sculptures
  • Ponds

2) Animals:

  • Squirrels
  • Rolly-pollies
  • Spiders and their webs
  • Insects

The Implications for Garden Design

Water features:

  • Fountains
  • Ponds
  • Waterfalls

Plant selection:

  • Texture, shape, size, etc. (for touching)
  • Scent: good and bad (for smelling).

Wildlife habitats:

  • Plants that support wildlife
  • Bird houses, etc.
  • Natural ponds.

Opportunities for Activities:

  • Areas for planting by children
  • Wildlife-viewing areas
  • Assisting with daily watering, etc.

Additional structures and garden elements: Treehouse.

The Design Process for the Children’s Garden at The Dallas Arboretum

To design and build the Children’s Garden, staff carried out the following steps:

  1. conducted background research on other children's gardens throughout the USA (staff)
  2. formulated the beginnings of a program statement, goals, and objectives (staff). Submit draft to Education & Research Committee
  3. researched potential funding sources through the establishment of a Funding Sub-committee
  4. provided opportunities, workshops, and special events to enable kids to give their input on what they would like to have in a children's garden. It would be most advantageous to solicit thoughts from 9, 10, and 11-year olds because of their ability to verbalize. Also consult local school teachers and science specialists
  5. established a committee to select a designer for the children's garden
  6. created a long list of potential designers
  7. called for design-firm proposals
  8. selected a design firm
  9. established a design committee for the children's garden
  10. selected the appropriate site with the designer
  11. developed the conceptual design, the theme of the garden, components, discovery stations, etc. in collaboration with staff, committees, and the designer
  12. established the preliminary design
  13. began a fundraising drive
  14. created mock-up garden discovery stations and components
  15. conducted audience-testings by observation. Modified mock-ups as necessary
  16. analyzed observation results
  17. modified components and discovery stations
  18. completed the final design with construction documents
  19. began development of education programs that supplement the children's garden, such as teacher packets, school programs, birthday parties, etc.
  20. called for bids (city)
  21. selected a contractor
  22. fabricated the discovery stations and constructed the Garden
  23. grand opening!


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