Evans Children’s Adventure Garden
by Brent E. Vinson, ASLA

Garvan Woodland Gardens is a 210-acre forested peninsula donated by Verna Cook Garvan in 1985 to the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture. Besides offering natural features such as waterfalls and lake views, the garden features several unique bridges and architectural elements, including a six-story glass and steel chapel.  The area, created by long-ago volcanic instability, is now covered with abundant trees, springs, and streams. Deer and squirrel roam freely throughout, along with songbird and waterfowl species.

The Children’s Garden project was initiated by the University of Arkansas’ Landscape Architecture Department and the Facilities Management Department.  It was designed by Brent E. Vinson; development began in 2002 in three phases.  The garden offers both educational and leisure opportunities to more than 135,000 visitors annually, ranging from school children and families to older area residents (golf cart tours are available.)  Many come to view the floral displays or to explore the woodland; in addition, art exhibits, weddings, and other events are held continuously throughout the year.  In December the garden is lit up with Christmas lights and decorations.  There is a very popular tulip/daffodil display in early spring, and an annual gala event, including dinner and dancing, in summer.

Photos by Bob Byers, Garden Director at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs Arkansas

The main motivation for the creation of the Children’s Garden was to generate an atmosphere for exploration and learning within the confines of a rocky wooded hillside and lush green waterway —typical of the region. The goal was to provide the opportunity to experience impromptu and undefined play activities, with the intent of developing cognitive and physical skills in the context of a structured yet natural environment. Here, a child is released to pursue and develop a sense of adventure while stimulating a creative, resourceful imagination without the usual confinements of fences and electronic-powered devices.  At the garden, children are given ample opportunity to explore, discover, and imagine among towering oaks and an oversized boulder playground, allowing the uninhibited physical experience and excursion of all the senses that is integral to a child’s personal cognitive development. No signs are posted. Instead, participants are encouraged to climb, jump, and play, inventing and engaging in their own games and individual challenges.

Photos by Bob Byers, Garden Director at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs Arkansas

Photos by Bob Byers, Garden Director at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs Arkansas

Upon entering the garden, a replicated cave is encountered. Similar in appearance to the many caves existing along the limestone bluffs and craggy rock formations of the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains, the cave is complete with trickling waterfall and lichen growth. Scaling the large rocks and canvassing the nooks and overhead passageways of the cave complex, the imagination is opened, instilling a spirit of exploration and appreciation for the natural world—from the sound and feel of a waterfall to the observation of how a tadpole grows to a toad. The waterfall becomes a creek which descends to a large rock-lined pool at the bottom of the ravine. Shallow waters invite the child to wade in, overturning submerged stones in search of the illusive “crawdad.”

Photos by Bob Byers, Garden Director at Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs Arkansas

Soon, large “tree-pod” playforms will be built among the existing oak and hickory canopy above. These can be entered by ladder, spiral stair, and climbing rope from the forest floor or from the accessible boardwalk bridge encircling the garden. The treehouse complex will allow the child to be free to envelop herself within the outdoor stage of a wood and steel climbing apparatus, constructing endless possibilities for play.  Treehouses as well as the other garden activities promote confidence and self-assurance in the child, allowing decision-making and exploration, while simultaneously making him cognizant of his place within the world and his relationship to it. Time and experience here is invaluable in teaching about the natural processes that occur in the woodland, and encouraging respect for, and understanding of, the importance of preserving them. 

Brent E. Vinson, ASLA, is Site and Planning Coordinator for Arvest Bank in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He can be reached bvinson@arvest.com or brentvinson@hotmail.com

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