Children’s Gardens

The Importance of PLAY

Did you know that there’s a National Institute for Play? ( How cool is that? There’s been a lot of talk lately about play: Its importance not only for early childhood development (which is very important), but for people  – and animals, too – of all ages. The new book by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan called Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul has been getting a lot of press, and for good reason. We need play, and just as Richard Louv uncovered that kids are not getting outdoors enough in Last Child in the Woods, we are not playing enough, either. So, if we’re suffering from nature-deficit disorder and play-deficit disorder, wouldn’t the perfect antidote be some outdoor playtime?

A lot of play does occur outdoors – in “wild nature,” in backyards, in playgrounds, even on sidewalks and cul-de-sacs. When people think of “therapeutic landscapes,” they often imagine a quiet, contemplative healing garden with a bench and a fountain and pretty flowers. And this is absolutely one example of a restorative landscape. But a landscape for health – a landscape that facilitates health and well-being – can be so much more. Under this broader definition, any outdoor space that allows and encourages play would be a landscape for health. 
I’ve recently come across a slew great websites, blogs, and articles about play and playgrounds, so this seems like an appropriate post to list a bunch of them:
National Children & Youth Garden Symposium, July 23-25 at the Cleveland Botanical Garden in Ohio, sponsored by the American Horticultural Society. Sign up now (and please take notes so you can report back to us)!
Of course, the Children & Nature Network has great information and resources about getting kids active outside, as does the National Wildlife Federation’s Green Hour.
The Grass Stain Guru is Bethe Almeras’ brand-new rockin’ blog. Check it out for a great list of other play-friendly sites (I won’t list all the ones she does – just go take a look). Bethe, I’m going to get you on here for an interview one of these days!
Kaboom, a national non-profit organization that empowers communities to build playgrounds. Also a great resource for news and information about getting kids outside to play.
ASLA has a new Professional Practice Network called Children’s Outdoor Environments, chaired by Jena Ponti, ASLA.
The Krasnoyarsk Playground Project: A project to build a new playground in the birth home of Alex Griffith (now living with his adoptive family in Forest Hill, MD). Alex took this on as his Boy Scout Eagle Scout project after reading his adoptive father’s journal of their experience in Russia. “The journal mentioned a playground at Hospital #20 in great disrepair. The playground had one rusty swing with a rotten wooden seat, a sandbox mostly covered in dirt and mud, and a small gazebo with a picnic table.” Alex spent six months researching and planning the project and has gotten a huge amount of support. Very inspiring!
Playground Builders (, a non-profit organization devoted to building playgrounds in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the West Bank and Gaza. 
SOL, or Sequential Outdoor Learning Environment, was developed by Tamara M. Vincenta of Artemis Landscape Architects as a sequence of outdoor spaces designed to meet the needs of children and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Tamara began this project for her Healthcare Garden Design Certification at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and she has created something really beautiful and powerful from it.
Learning Landscapes (“Building Community Through Play” – A project with The University of Colorado Denver and the City of Denver to “connect the design and construction of urban public spaces with healthy initiatives. Since 1998, in partnership with Denver Public Schools, we have transformed 48 neglected public elementary school playgrounds into attractive and safe multi-use parks tailored to the needs and desires of their neighbors and communities.”
Robin Moore’s Natural Learning Initiative. Moore’s book Plants for Play is one that I refer to again and again. 
If you can get a back issue, Landscape Architect and Specifier News had a great issue devoted to play in October of 2008 (Vol. 24, No. 10), even with articles on playgrounds in healthcare facilities. 
“Working in the Margins: A non-traditional approach to the practice of landscape architecture creates a much-needed playground in a women’s prison.” by Daniel Winterbottom, ASLA Landscape Architecture Magazine, December 2007, Vol. 97, No. 12, pp. 38-47. This article is about the construction of a playground at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.
“Reclaiming Outdoor Space for the Digital Generation,” by Helle Burlingame (of the Kompan Institute), Landscape Architect and Specifier News, December 2008, Vol. 24, No. 12, pp. 28-30.
Most of these references are about kids, but play is important for us grown-ups, too. If you have some great resources about the benefits of play in the outdoors for people over the age of 12, I’d love to add them to the list. Anyone out there have stuff specific to seniors? That, too, would be great. Submit comments and I’ll add them here or in another blog post. Please and thank you!
Thanks also to Guy for the great picture of E. at Storm King Art Center.

Planting the Healing Garden: Growing Your Own Bird Seed

Image of prairie warbler courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

Not much time for blogging lately, but here’s a good
article about planting flowers that will attract birds into your garden. And if they don’t eat it all while it’s “on the vine,” you can harvest to feed the birds later. “How to Grow Your Own Bird Seed in the Garden.” Enjoy, and the birds will, too!

Planting the Healing Garden: Ornamental Grasses

This and other images for this post courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

It’s a balmy 41 degrees here in the Hudson Valley today. I’m not being sarcastic! Anything over 40 degrees is a welcome change, and it’s sunny to add…hm, what’s the opposite of adding insult to injury? Icing to cake? 

Anyway, it was warm enough for me to get out and garden for the first time in months, and it felt really good. Not much to do yet, but it is the time to cut back any perennial stalks that you left up for the winter for vertical interest and birds, and it’s also time to cut back your ornamental grasses, which is what I did today. Note to self: Next fall, plant lots of bulbs amidst the grasses so that something green and colorful will be coming up after the grasses have been cut back and before they start to grow in again. More on this in a minute.

Ornamental grasses are a wonderful plant for any garden, including the healing garden. Many people think that a “healing garden” has to have medicinal plants. Not necessarily so! While herbs are certainly great – for actual medicinal use, or as symbols of healing, or just because they smell good and are therefore a delight to the senses – many more healing gardens don’t have any medicinal plants at all, or they have a mix of herbs, vegetables and fruit, trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and any other kind of plant material that seems appropriate for the intended user (the technical term for the person who will be enjoying the garden) and the space. 

Here are some reasons why I think ornamental grasses are ideal for healing gardens:

1. They are beautiful! Aesthetically speaking, ornamental grasses really do it for me. So reasons #1-6 all have to do with beauty.

2. Color: Who can resist the bright and rich greens, bronzes, tans, and even reds of grasses, a constantly shifting display of color throughout the year? From the moment they emerge from the ground to when they get cut back in the spring, grasses put on a show of sometimes subtle, sometimes stop-in-your tracks color variation. 

3. Play with light: If you’ve ever seen bright-red Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata) in summer or copper little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, above) in autumn backlit by the sun, you have experienced a thing of true beauty. Sometimes it’s the foliage that gets highlighted, sometimes the flowers, and sometimes both; when you’re thinking about where to site grasses, keep in mind where the light comes from; backlighting can have a really dramatic effect. 

4. Movement: Most grasses are very light and airy, and therefore catch the slightest movement of air. There’s something enchanting about seeing grasses dancing and shimmering in the breeze.

5. Seasonal interest: Most grasses offer almost four whole seasons of interest. There’s about a month in the early spring when they get cut back (hence the note to self about bulbs to fill in the gaps), but other than that they put on a great show year-round with changing colors of foliage and flowers, and with texture as well. Like evergreens but with more variation, they provide a kind of structure and continuity in the garden as other plants around them appear, grow, bloom, fade, and go dormant again.

Other great reasons to use grasses:

7. Sound: Many ornamental grasses make a rustling sound when moved by the breeze, bringing an element of sound into the garden. That gentle “ssshhh” adds another layer to the sensory experience, and can even stand in for visual elements in gardens for the visually impaired. 

8. Critter-proof! Whether you’re battling squirrels, deer, Japanese beetles or any other kind of pest, grasses are pretty tough. Most animals (other than my dogs – they love to chew on some of my grasses!) don’t like them. 

9. Low maintenance: As mentioned above, most ornamental grasses are pretty good at fending for themselves. Other than being cut back in the spring, they don’t need the pruning, staking, deadheading, raking, etc. that we have to do for our other beloved garden inhabitants. 

10. Good in containers. Grasses do well in pots and other containers, making them excellent candidates for small-space, rooftop, and other types of container gardens. They can act as nice vertical and or/softening accents, they are often drought- and wind-tolerant, and they (usually -see below!) get along well with their neighbors. 

Caution Caveat: A few species of ornamental grasses (especially pampas grass) have very sharp blades (I guess they don’t call them blades for nothing); if you’re using grasses for a children’s garden or another space where people might grab hold or have to brush past, make sure to plant the kinder, gentler, touch-friendly species.

Also, a few species of ornamental grasses do not make good neighbors; they can be a garden nuisance (Hakonochlea and Stipa tennuissima, for example) or even a threat to native grasses and other flora (especially pampas grass, runner bamboos, and varieties of Miscanthus in some parts of the country). So whether it’s your own garden and especially if it’s a garden for a client, do your homework: Make sure you’re not saddling yourself or someone else with a lovely but unruly beast! Here are a couple of articles to start you off: “Native and Invasive Ornamental Grasses” and “Bad Boys of Ornamental Grasses.

Oh, and one more thing: Here’s an interesting article on caring for ornamental grasses – turns out it depends on whether they are really grasses (vs. sedges or rushes). Thanks to gardenmentor for sending me the link on twitter!

Conference: Creating Sustainable Environments for Young Children

A colleague just sent me this announcement for the “Institute for Creating Sustainable Environments for Young Children” conference in Kansas City, MO. Dates are June 11-12, with a pre-conference day on June 10th for a site visit to Pembroke Hill Early Learning Center. 

“The Institute provides a place where early childhood practitioners and designers can learn about creating sustainable environments for young children, both indoors and outdoors.”

Click HERE to see more details.

Thanks, Bryce, for the conference info, and thanks to Jeff for the image of his daughters and goats!

Nature-Deficit Disorder: Getting Kids Outdoors (watch the video clip!)

Here’s a nice television clip from CBS and about Nature-Deficit Disorder (a term coined by Richard Louv of Last Child in the Woods and the Children & Nature Network). My favorite part is when TV anchor Don Shelby asks kids what “nature” means to them. You can either watch the clip (after a brief but nonetheless annoying advertisement) or just read the transcript. I’ve blogged about Louv before, so if you’re new and you want more, use “Louv” in a keyword search in the column to the right to pull up all relevant posts.

You can watch more news clips and get lots more great information about children and nature on the C&NN website.

And here are two more good related articles that I’ve come across recently:

Research Shows a Walk in the Park Improves Attention in Children with ADHD,” by Frances E. Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor, 2008. Click HERE to read the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release.

Amount of green space and childhood obesity:
Neighborhood Greenness and 2-Year Changes in Body Mass Index of Children and Youth,” by Jeffrey Wilson and Gilbert Liu, 2008, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 35 No. 6.
Summary by Research Design Connections: “The amount of green space near their homes is related to the weights of inner city children. Children living in inner city neighborhoods with more green space (as determined from analysis of satellite photographs) have significantly lower body mass index changes as they grow taller than children living in areas with smaller amounts of green space.”

Many thanks to Heather for the photo of her beautiful daughter!

Book Review: Open Spaces Sacred Places

The Therapeutic Landscapes Resource Center takes a broad view of therapeutic landscapes, or what we call Landscapes for Health.™ According to our definition, any outdoor space that fosters health and wellness is a Landscape for Health. While we tend to focus more on healthcare design, we see great value in other spaces that put people in contact with nature: Community gardens, sensory gardens, public parks, nature preserves, gardens in prisons, and even indoor gardens and atria. It’s not often that you find a book that covers this breadth of examples, and that’s because there aren’t many organizations out there devoted to supporting this breadth of Landscapes for Health.

Enter the TKF Foundation (, founded in 1996 by Tom and Kitty Stoner. TKF’s mission is “to provide the opportunity for a deeper human experience by supporting the creation of public greenspace that offers a temporary place of sanctuary, encourages reflection, provides solace, and engenders peace.” The T and K stand for Tom and Kitty, and the F stands for “Firesouls,™” leaders and individuals “who have the spark of hope and energy to find a way…to foster the creation of places that can become sacred and embedded in nature.” TKF has worked hand in hand with these Firesouls, often in ongoing relationships that go far beyond just donating funds, to build these open spaces and sacred places (see for more on this).

In the past twelve years, TKF has funded more than 120 projects in and around the Maryland/Washington D.C. area, where the Stoners are based. Twelve of these projects are lovingly described, in words, photographs, and drawings, in the new book Open Spaces, Sacred Places (2008), written by Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp. These include nature preserves, vacant lots transformed into community gardens, an arboretum, gardens in healthcare facilities, a prison garden, and even a tree-planting project. 

In each of the gardens, a bench made from recycled pickle barrel wood (originally designed by Chuck Foster and Paul Willey and now created by the inmates at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD) offers a place for people to sit, reflect, and connect to nature and each other. A yellow journal and pencil are tucked into a built-in pocket beneath each bench, and Open Spaces Sacred Places is filled with journal entries from people of all ages and walks of life who have been touched by the place they are visiting. Here are three examples: “I give thanks to whatever spirits whispered in my ear today and gently led me through the gate of this very special garden. I will try to carry its energy in my heart and consciousness when I am outside the walls,” and “My daddy moved his finger today,” and “Places like this make me feel like everything will be OK.”

Tom Stoner’s inscription in my review copy of Open Spaces Sacred Places was “Be inspired!” And I truly am, every time I look at the book and think about TKF’s amazing work. But we can learn a lot from this book, too, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it again and again. For anyone who has waged the uphill battle of getting something built, especially something that involves the collaborative process with designers and community members and administrators and red tape and bureaucracy, these stories provide something of a road-map, hope, and yes, inspiration.

You can learn more about Open Spaces Sacred Places at this site:, where you can also buy the book. And for those of you who missed the earlier blog posting about TKF, click HERE for a nice article by Anne Raver of The New York Times about the organization.

More Useful Research on Landscapes for Health

The articles from InformeDesign have been coming fast and furious (they send weekly research summaries), so instead of listing each one separately, I’m listing three at a time today (as always, click on the colored words to connect to the links):

1. Nature Improves Concentration for Children with ADHD: “Children with Attention Deficit Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park, ” by Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. Kuo, 2008. ” Get those kids outside! I’m sure Richard Louv and the Children and Nature Network are happy with this one. In fact, their blog points to a New York Times article about the study, which is definitely worth a look: “A ‘Dose of Nature’ for Attention Problems,” by Tara Parker-Pope for the New York Times (10/17/08).

2. Legible Neighborhoods and Dementia: “Dementia-Friendly Cities: Designing Intelligible Neighborhoods for Life,” by Lynn Mitchell, Elizabeth Burton, and Shibu Raman, 2004. While the article talks about wayfinding and legibility outside of nursing homes and CCRCs (Continuing Care Retirement Communities), many of the same points could be used for designing any environment for people with dementia, even gardens and other outdoor spaces.

3. Designing Parks to Serve Poor Communities: “Parks as Mirrors of Community: Design Discourse and Community Hopes for Parks in East St. Louis,” by Laura Lawson, 2007. This goes back to yesterday’s blog, about the TKF Foundation’s work, only this time in Missouri. 

New Study: Childhood Memories and Environmental Stewardship

This just in from InformeDesign, one of my favorite sources for information about Landscapes for Health (along with a ton of other good stuff): A new study by Louise Chawla at the University of Colorado, “Childhood Experiences Associated with Care for the Natural World: A Theoretical Framework for Empirical Results,” (2007). 

You can get the low-down by clicking here (you may need to log in to InformeDesign, I’m not sure – it’s free, though, so if you’re a research hound, do it now!). Here’s a teaser…
This referenced position paper analyzed why childhood experiences of caring for nature and interacting with role models who are attentive to the environment influence environmental stewardship in adulthood.

  • Previous studies have shown that positive childhood experiences caring for nature influence environmental stewardship in adulthood. The reasons these experiences lead to environmentalism has not been thoroughly investigated.
  • Free play in natural environments with a variety of features (e.g., puddles, mud) provides limitless first-hand learning experiences (Reed, 1996) that encourage continued interaction with nature, teach children about how nature works, and demonstrate the human capacity to impact nature.

Paul Newman Knew It

Photo by Henry Domke, Henry Domke Fine Art

“We are such spendthrifts with our lives. The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”           – Paul Newman (1925-2008)

I finally brought myself to read some of the obituaries of Paul Newman, one of my favorite actors and one of my heroes, and the above quote resonated. Among his many accomplishments, Paul Newman, who died on September 26th at age 83, founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp with A. E. Hotchner in 1988. This camp, along with others founded later through the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, serves thousands of children with cancer and other serious illnesses, allowing them to experience nature and camping, free of charge. It also happens to be located in Ashford, CT, within twenty miles of where I grew up, where my parents still live, and where I’m visiting today for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Ever since I can remember, my father and I have spent part of this holiday taking a walk in the woods during the break in High Holy Day services. We will go on our walk this afternoon together, but this morning I went for a short one on my own, marveling at the beauty of the brilliantly-colored falling leaves, the light shining through the hemlocks and playing on the river, the sound of the birds and the wind in the trees, the shock of green ferns amidst yellow and orange and buff, the smell of loam and leaves and green and fresh air. There is little as life-affirming as a walk in the woods.

And funnily enough, The National Wildlife Federation’s latest Green Hour tip is also on taking a walk with the family:

Guest Book Entries from Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, OR

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, OR
Photo courtesy Legacy Health System
The guest book in the Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden at Legacy Health Systems in Portland, OR allows visitors to leave comments and share their experiences. Here are some recent postings. Thanks to Teresia Hazen, their on-staff Horticultural Therapist, for sending the guest book entries and images.

Thank you for the garden!  It really lifted my spirits!  
Abram (10 months) 
It is nice to be able to step away from the beeping machines, wires crossing and constant watching and sit in the garden.  Listening to the water, smelling the herbs, watching the birds helps restore a little bit of balance lost here.  Thank you for this beautiful escape for a bit.

The garden was peaceful and soothing during my stay (bed rest).  
Barbara E., Mom to Be (twins) 

Wonderful garden.  Waiting for Daddy to finish PT (Physical Therapy).     
Emily and Grandma 
Love all the plants.  We come and visit often.  My girls love this place.  
Love, Danielle, Jada, and Treasure  
Thank you for such a beautiful place.  It brings great calm amidst the storms of life.  

Our son Jacob loves the garden.  He loves all the silly animals, especially the cow and turtles. His baby brother is having surgery today so it was a nice treat while we waited. 

Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden, Portland, OR
Photo courtesy Legacy Health System