It’s open and growing. And it will be growing along with its young visitors for years to come due to the generosity of an area family, the Kallmans. The new Kallman Family Children’s Garden is open for kids—of all ages and sizes—to enjoy at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Located right next to the wildly popular “ant hill” and “dinosaur eggshells,” this kid-oriented play area is more than just a playground. Its designer, Amy Pryor, is a mother herself and wanted to create a safe and stimulating garden area for kids to experience nature up close.
Unlike many children’s gardens in public spaces that are long on hardscape and short on plants, this new garden combines both into a stimulating outdoor environment. There are plants whose names conjure animals from the zoo itself: kangaroo paws, monkey flower, and more, as well as small animal sculptures hidden in its nooks and crannies, ready to surprise. There is a rainbow garden that will display the whole spectrum of colors as it blooms. Nearby is a selection of plants with fragrant flowers and foliage. Zoo campers and others enrolled in the zoo’s educational programs will likely benefit most from these through guided exploration of their nose-worthy attributes. But any child will find the gazebo (soon to be vine-covered) a cozy bower, enjoy stump-hopping over the dry streambed, or find a place to hide (almost, anyway) within the towering trunks of a grove of ancient yuccas.
Why is this new garden important? Kids need to be out in nature. There is a profound effect that early exposure to and immersion in the natural world seems to have on children. It can influence everything from how they handle stress, remain focused even when they are indoors, take responsibility for their actions on all levels, and even find their own callings in life. An early introduction to nature is important not only for mental health, but to foster a sense of connection to the physical world and a commitment to preserving what is left of it. If a child has never turned over a rock for himself to find the beetle burrowed beneath, if she has never had a place to build her own lean-to and find the calming solace of the world outside of the daily frenzy most of us live in, the mature individual will be unable to resist the forces that can and will change our world from a sustainable natural system into an artificial (and probably unsustainable) world.
Children need intimate outdoor places they create or find where they can hide from the larger world. Too many kids no longer have a place to just find nature in a safe way. Fear of the dangers inherent in climbing trees, hiking in the woods, or just being out of sight of an adult has greatly influenced the way that children in today’s America experience nature.
The new garden for kids at the zoo doesn’t have any rocks or rotting logs for the younguns to turn over and really explore nature (darn!), but it does provide a stimulating experience out of doors that is increasingly rare and much valued wherever it can be created and nurtured.