Gardens help children combat 'nature-deficit disorder'

by Pamela J. Forsythe
Posted 4/14/21

How should a children’s garden grow? Local professor Lolly Tai knows, and she shares what she’s learned in “The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design.”

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Gardens help children combat 'nature-deficit disorder'


How should a children’s garden grow? Local professor Lolly Tai knows, and she shares what she’s learned in “The Magic of Children’s Gardens: Inspiring Through Creative Design” (Temple University Press), recently reissued in paperback. The lavishly illustrated book profiles great children’s gardens across the U.S., including four in this region.

Tai, professor of landscape architecture at Temple University's Ambler campus, has spent 20 years researching and writing about children’s gardens. In “Magic,” she takes readers on an armchair tour of magnificent children’s gardens, starting with the oldest in continuous use, established in 1914 at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Children’s gardens have flourished over the past 30 years, but in the mid-20th century, garden operators tended to view young visitors more as an invasive species requiring careful control. Tai notes, “Before 1993, when you would go into a public garden you would see signs reading ‘Do Not Touch’ or ‘No Running.’” She dates the resurgence of child-focused design to the 1993 opening of Michigan’s 4-H Children’s Garden at Michigan State University.

Michigan’s garden reaches children through what they know and like. “They have a pizza garden,” Tai says, “with basil, oregano and other things you find in pizza, a cereal garden and a perfume garden.” The 56 themed areas include one comprised of plants from the tale of Peter Rabbit, a garden of teddy bear topiaries and plants named for animals and another of raised beds for children with physical challenges. Like Brooklyn Botanic, Michigan’s 4-H garden combines learning and fun, which Tai says is key.

Reinforcing awareness of the natural world among children is increasingly important and increasingly challenging. “Right now 54% of the world’s population lives in cities. That will increase to 66% by 2050,” Tai explains. “A lot of kids don’t know where foods come from … My research has shown that being disconnected from nature leads to obesity and lack of energy and makes children more prone to violence.” Using a term coined by author Richard Louv, Tai calls it “nature-deficit disorder.”

Each chapter is a case study, outlining a garden’s goal, concept, design, plants and Tai’s assessment, supplemented with detailed schematics to show spatial relationships and hundreds of color photos that will make readers want to get into a garden as soon as possible.

Four of the 19 featured gardens aren’t far away: the Children’s Garden at Hershey Gardens in Hershey; Longwood Gardens’ Indoor Children’s Garden in Kennett Square, Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden in the Arboretum at Penn State in University Park; and Enchanted Woods at Winterthur Museum Garden and Library in Wilmington, Delaware.

They and other gardens in the book incorporate what Tai considers essential qualities for an excellent children’s garden, the most important of which is water: “It can be a pool, a spray, a fountain or even a fog. Anywhere you see water in a garden, you see a child’s hand dipping in. It attracts them.”

Children are also attracted to height, whether in a treehouse, overlook, ramp or hill. At Winterthur, young visitors can climb into a giant nest for a bird’s eye view. “Children are small. They like to go up high and get a panoramic view,” Tai says. At the same time, children like things that fit them, whether a low arbor or little chair, making attention to scale important. “You should know you’re in a children’s garden the moment you walk in,” Tai says.

There should also be places for retreat and enclosure. “Children need private time away from hovering parents,” Tai notes. “We all like privacy.”

Opportunities to observe wildlife habitats, such as butterfly gardens, beehives and bird nests should be available, as well as elements that stimulate the senses.

As a licensed landscape architect, Tai feels gardens should inform and inspire visitors of all ages. She recalls two such projects from her time in South Carolina, where she taught at Clemson University. One, a xeriscape at Hilton Head’s town hall, demonstrated water conservation, and another, on campus, interpreted the university’s heritage.

Now at Temple, Tai is concerned with transforming concrete schoolyards for local public schools. For a 2016 project she enlisted landscape design students to develop eco-schoolyard designs for Greenberg Elementary in Philadelphia’s Bustleton section. The students consulted with parents, teachers, staff, community members and conducted focus groups with K-to-8 students, which Tai says led one child to suggest “a rollercoaster, and another wanted a hot dog stand!”

For more information on “The Magic of Children’s Gardens,” visit