Growing the Imagination

Hidden Hollow plan
Hidden Hollow plan
drawing: Anna Johansen

The growing interest in creating spaces for children to marvel at the taste of a perfectly ripe tomato and learn about the industrious attributes of honeybees is helping bring children back to nature. Equally important is the ability of children to experience, explore, and play in designed spaces that are imaginative, educational, and safe.

Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio, JMMDS, is proud to share one of several children’s gardens the firm has designed that does just that.

“Hidden HollowSM is the best early childhood exhibit I have ever seen out of doors or indoors.”  – Jan Crocker, President of Jan Crocker Museum Associates

“When it comes to measuring educationally effective spaces, Hidden HollowSM is off the charts.” – Susie Wilkening, Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors

“Hidden HollowSM is a magical place that has allowed our family to spend more quality time together exploring, laughing, sharing, learning and playing in a safe, nurturing environment. From the first moments we ventured down the winding brick path we realized how lucky we were to have this amazing educational space in our own backyard.” – Sharon Sherman, Mom, Sandwich, MA

Hidden HollowSM at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts, opened in August 2010. When our design team first visited the site in the spring of 2010—a mere 12 weeks before the space was scheduled to open—we knew immediately that we wanted to be part of this exciting design project. The dream of Hidden Hollow had been three years in the making. It is a result of the collaborative efforts and vision of Heritage’s former Executive Director Scott Swank and Director of Programming Heather Mead, and its dedicated Board of Trustees. The team researched and established the need for children’s horticultural exploration, selected the site, and expanded their children’s programming under the management of Environmental Education Specialist Tobey Eugenio.

Hidden Hollow from treehouse
Hidden Hollow from treehouse
image: JMMDS

Hidden Hollow, which has been certified as a Nature Explore Classroom by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, is located in a two-acre dry kettle hole, a site that presented both unique challenges and design opportunities. JMMDS was charged with creating twelve distinct areas for specific programmatic requirements, such as a “nature art area” and a “building area.” The firm drew inspiration from the natural history of the site and from the idea of “Hidden Pictures®,” as featured in the time-honored publication Highlights for Children. These images are expressed in plain view and three dimensions. For instance, the “nature art area” became “CREATE,” a pinecone-shaped space with bluestone floor and hand-carved pinecone tables with pine slab tops. Mushroom stools, hand-carved by chainsaw artist Barre Pinske, are set in a fairy-ring pattern around the teacher’s central stump to form “GATHER” in the midst of native lowbush blueberries. Black locust stump steps lead to a network of paths and balancing logs through a twisted canopy of some of Heritage’s famous Dexter Rhododendrons for the “CLIMB” area.

image:  JMMDS
image: JMMDS

Other features include handicap-accessible boardwalks, that branch like a tree and guide visitors to the main play areas. Following a non-traditional design process to adhere to a stringent timeline, it was necessary to work out many details on-site, using local resources and volunteers.

The response to Hidden Hollow has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Heritage administrators, working with a nationally-recognized research and strategy firm to evaluate Hidden Hollow’s effectiveness, reported exceptionally high rates of positive comments on visitor questionnaires. Hidden Hollow has had a measureable impact on attendance, sales of family memberships, and repeat visitation. Parents and educators praised the hands-on activities for children, the low-tech natural materials, and the respect for nature fostered in this imaginative space. Best of all, tens of thousands of children have enjoyed a magical and unforgettable experience in the out-of-doors. When one little boy looked down on the garden from the Overlook, he exclaimed, “This is what heaven must look like!”

by Anna Karina Johansen

Anna Karina Johansen is a landscape architect, project manager, and designer at Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Saxtons River, Vermont.

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