An Interview with Lolly Tai, PhD, RLA, FASLA, author of The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design
Lolly Tai is a very busy person. In addition to serving as Professor of Landscape Architecture in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at Temple University and maintaining a landscape architecture practice, Lolly is the recipient of many awards, has authored numerous articles, wrote the highly praised 2006 book Designing Outdoor Environments for Children, and is author of the newly released 2017 book The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design.
Published in 2017 by Temple University Press, The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design is a must-have book, and this is not just for landscape architects, students, and designers. Anyone who interacts with and cares about children—parents, grandparents, childcare staff, teachers, and therapists—will reap innumerable benefits and inspiration from reading this gem of a book. It is a rare book that crosses over between textbook and general interest book, and this is one. Landscape architecture and design students will be inspired by the case examples. The general public now has a guide for must-visit children’s gardens, because as we all know, letting children do what they do best—engaging in spontaneous play, learning, and exploration—can happen in an outdoor space designed just for them.
The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design is a compilation of 19 exquisitely well researched, detailed, and well organized case studies of exemplary children’s gardens in public gardens throughout the United States. Themes explored throughout the book include: growing, engaging, sustainability, differing levels of available interaction, teaching, learning, regionality, history, culture, inspiration, and imagination. The range of projects included in the book covers large scale budgets as well as grassroots endeavors. Some of the gardens are pristine and some incorporate a more ‘wild’ nature playspace theme. Many of the projects involved a community and participatory design process, with input from the meetings included in the designs, thus ensuring that the gardens would best meet the needs of our young visitors. Adding to the child-centeredness of the gardens described in the book, for a number of the projects, experts in child development and horticulture were consulted as part of the design process.
Well organized and comprehensive in scope, each case study contains a multitude of pertinent information, including the garden goals, concept, design process, and a summary conclusion. Plant lists and contact information round out each case. The text is highly understandable and engaging, adding to the value for practitioners, students, and a general readership. All of the 700 images are breathtaking; it is obvious that exquisite attention to detail was applied to designing the book.
I had the good fortune of spending time with Lolly to talk about the book. Below are some highlights from our conversation.
Amy Wagenfeld (AW): How did you get interested in children’s gardens?
Lolly Tai (LT): For about the past twenty years my research has been focused on designing children’s outdoor environments. It started with a project I did with my students while teaching at Clemson University in the late 1990s, in which they were tasked with designing a schoolyard garden at a new elementary school in Clemson. Much to my surprise, beyond historical accounts there was little information, much less research available on designing children’s gardens or the value of these spaces. The dearth of information became the catalyst for me to learn about, to first-hand explore, and to write about how designing outdoors spaces for children can be magical and transformational. In fact, the result of the early research we did was the inspiration for my first book, Designing Outdoor Environments for Children.
AW: What was your process for selecting the projects in the book?
LT: I wanted to be sure to include a variety of gardens that show how the design considerations for children were integrated in the overall garden design. Many of the projects found inspiration not only from the designers, but also from experts in other fields such as botanical gardens, wildlife organizations, and museums.
AW: Are there any elements that you see as being critical to include in every children’s garden?
LT: For me, considerations for scale, incorporation of opportunities to enrich the five senses, including water, height and grades to scale, retreat and enclosure for moments of rest and quiet observation, active play, creative play, make believe play, plants, and wildlife are critically important to include in every children’s garden.
AW: What advice would you offer students who are considering focusing their career on designing children’s gardens?
LT: This is a good question. Connecting children to nature is important. Today’s children do not have ready access to green spaces that we once had before. Sedentary lifestyles that do not encourage outdoor activity are contributing to obesity and other health problems for urban children as well as a sense of disconnection from nature. To students, I suggest that when designing these important spaces, that you consider ways how your designs will encourage children to explore the joys of being outside. Promoting these important spaces for their worth and value can be immeasurable when designed for whom they are intended: children.
As we as a global society experience an alarming increase in childhood obesity and a dramatic reduction in time spent outdoors, factors that threaten to derail the health and wellbeing of our youngest generation, the time could not be more right for this book to have been published. The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design is available for purchase from all booksellers.
by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affiliate ASLA, Co-Chair, Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN