Lessons in Children’s Garden Accessibility

by Jeannie Fernsworth

Aerial view of the children's garden
An aerial view of the veggie labyrinth and surrounding garden treasures. / image: PAPPHOTO

Over a year ago, I heard that one of the 2017 ASLA Florida annual meeting tours was to the Delray Beach Children’s Garden. While I was unable to attend the tour, I did have the good fortune of running into Jeannie Fernsworth at the 2018 American Horticultural Society National Children & Youth Garden Symposium. Jeannie Fernsworth, Co-Founder and Horticulturalist at the Delray Beach Children’s Garden, was kind enough to invite me to the garden and to share some thoughts about this magical place. Thank you, Jeannie!
– Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network Co-Communications Director

Keeping nature and children wild is a challenge in the midst of urbanity. Parental instincts are to tame wild children and urban sprawl is about beating back wildness so that a townhouse can live there. For the sake of our health and wellness, the look and feel of nature needs to be maintained. This involves careful observation of what nature looks like and also encompasses deep understanding of the needs of people and children of varying ages, abilities, and preferences in a wildscape. The Delray Beach (Florida) Children’s Garden (DBCG)‘s mission is to promote eco-consciousness in all children through nature education and play experiences. Located just south of the downtown area, being immersed in the garden feels like you are miles away from the bustle of this South Florida beach town. The DBCG boasts innovative features, many involving repurposing materials otherwise destined for the scrap heap or recycling bin.

Vertical planters
Wooden pallets and water bottles are transformed into eye-catching vertical planters. / image: Jeannie Fernsworth

Children, run, climb, fall down, jump, swing from whatever is available to swing on and sit and sleep in their strollers as parents’ wheel them around, all the while tossing whatever they have in their hands into the forces of gravity. These are the actions of children and people in the world, and we need to create opportunities for these activities to happen in nature. Children and nature also toss plants and seeds around like windblown whispers into the air. These secret travels mean that plants spring up in the most unexpected places. At the DBCG, papayas have popped up in clusters by the compost pile, at the base of a tree, in the middle of the vegetable labyrinth, and beside a gate. It makes it easy to find them and happily, access to picking them is easy. They are not just growing in the banana forest, where they were intended to be. They traveled to where they want to be. There is a charm to a landscape created in large part by nature and children. It is not always cabbages planted in a row or like we think our children should grow all in a row as they enter the school house to be taught and tamed. The DBCG is a wild place for imaginative play and bounty.

What language do you speak in a wild garden? We can speak names of plants, clouds, scientific formulas like H20, and the vocabulary of boundaries. We can learn games of fairness, like how to safely play with a stick and understanding that the satisfying plop of a rock into the pond may not be as satisfying if pond plopping involves trash. How do you reconcile the challenge of keeping nature an experience of sun, wind, water, and down-and-dirty play with human needs to inclusive access to nature? Nature is the original 3D total immersion experience. We all have different levels of ability to function in the world. Birds can fly in ways that we cannot, fish can swim in ways that we cannot, and worms can wiggle through the soil in ways that we cannot. That is more than okay—it is the way it is.

The garden is designed for children to explore with all their senses. / image: Jeannie Fernsworth

The same is true of children and adults in a wheelchair, a stroller, hanging upside down from a tree or rolling around in the mud. Nature experiences can enhance our understanding and experience of the world through our own special lens of ability. As humans, we have needs and do not want our needs thwarted simply by our ability. If we cannot walk, we wheel ourselves or get wheeled around; if we cannot talk we use symbols to express ourselves; and if we cannot hear we learn to look carefully. It is marvelous and inspirational to understand the depth of our ability to adapt. We all need assistance with the process of adaptation. Through nature, we learn that we are one. We are, after all, one.

Compassion engineering innovations, such as matting designed to be laid across mulch and sand so that wheelchairs and strollers (another invention of compassion engineering) can easily roll over them, are one way of approaching our wild space. The DBCG provides inclusive access with the launch of our new All-Abilities Garden Path that allows for smooth-wheeled access from the sidewalk to the central gathering spot of our outdoor classroom, Chickee Hut. This is the first step in our voyage for full access to nature’s world. Capital One Bank of Delray Beach, The Grass River Garden Club, and local historian Sandy Simon generously sponsored the installation of this compassionately engineered All-Access Mat and we are deeply grateful to them.

The matting provides easier access for visitors while maintaining the permaculture principles in the garden. / image: Jeannie Fernsworth

The DBCG also employs tools to open nature’s window such as microscopes and binoculars that are a stay-in-place and look, listen, and carefully observe way of interacting with birds, plants, soil, and water. It is a wondrous world that opens its treasures to those who have the ability to sit still and see, an ability that is to be admired and learned from by children and people who are busy running through life. We are multiplied by our experience of being one. These nature lessons of ability are an example of how careful observation of nature is available even in an urban setting. The DBCG is more than the sum of its parts—the Giants House, Propagation Area, Vegetable labyrinth, Dream Garden, Weather Station, Banana Forest, Pond, Stage, and Wishing Wellness Garden are the garden rooms found within the garden, but the lessons available to gain enlightenment are infinite. Who would guess that you could learn about ability and its profound impact on what every species does simply by walking through The Delray Beach Children’s Garden Gate?

This pile of mulch is no match for this ambitious young boy! / image: Jeannie Fernsworth
The Dream Garden / image: Jeannie Fernsworth

Check out our website at delraybeachchildrensgarden.org.

Jeannie Fernsworth is a botanist and horticulturist who has worked for The New York Botanical Garden and The Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She is the Co-Founder of The Delray Beach Children’s Garden in Delray Beach, Florida. Jeannie is a popular speaker about plants and children, has written about the subject, and has designed many gardens for children.

2 thoughts on “Lessons in Children’s Garden Accessibility

  1. Cliff Thorbes December 20, 2018 / 11:46 am

    What a positive, inspirational and uplifting post. I love the veggie labyrinth concept! Thank you

    • Jeannie Fernsworth December 24, 2018 / 9:43 am

      Thank you for your comment Cliff. The Children’s Garden is a wonderful incubator of green living as the synonym for children is future.

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