Plan A Kid’s Nature Garden

Landscape designer Julie Messervy offers tips on how to create a dynamic and engaging outdoor play area for kids.

By Rachel Devaney

Within a two-month period, Messervy, founder of Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Vermont, transformed a two-acre kettle hole into Hidden Hollow, New England’s first certified nature explore classroom. The children’s garden, which was completed in 2011, not only contains aspects like a nature stage, an outdoor tree house and an investigation garden, where families can play, explore and learn about the natural world together, the area also features design components where children can climb stepping stumps, navigate log balance beams, construct forts, create nature-inspired art, build with blocks, dig in sand, experiment with water, make music and engage in sensory investigation with plants.

Hidden Hollow is surrounded by lush forest and rhododendrons and features unique three-dimensional elements, such as a mushroom-stool fairy ring and gathering circle, an acorn building block area, a pine cone art space, wooden classroom-style benches and fun outdoor musical instruments. The combined elements lead children through woodland paths and themed areas, adding mystery and fantasy to a child’s overall experience.

For Messervy—who, for the past 30 years, has tackled the design of everything from private residential gardens to large-scale parks—the key to constructing Hidden Hollow was to harness dynamic, nature-based play through embracing the physical environment and natural beauty of Cape Cod.

By working along with the Nature Explore Program, an organization headed by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, Messervy says she was able to create a cohesive design that enables children and families to “develop a profound engagement with nature.”

“The Nature Explore Program served us well in imaginative pursuits, and Heritage was very good about envisioning [a] program space that would make Hidden Hollow dynamic without being too invasive. Through these collaborations, we were able to create a safe space where children and adults alike can learn to appreciate nature and not take it for granted,” says Messervy. “Children don’t get many occasions to interact with nature these days and Hidden Hollow has become a destination location because of that fact.”

Messervy, who has also written eight books on landscape design, including her most recent, “Landscaping Ideas that Work,” explains that while Hidden Hollow has a unique yet diverse strategy, a similar effect can be executed at home by utilizing applications like Google Earth or Messervy’s Home Outside Palette application, which imagines and arranges landscapes using 21 palettes of scalable and versatile elements. “Anybody anywhere at any time can compose landscapes of beauty and meaning into their own backyard designs. The application makes it easy to drag and drop paths, add trees and create your own sort of paradise,” Messervy says. Do you want a fire pit or a veggie garden or both? You may like straight lines and symmetry or curved linear forms and asymmetry. These are things you need to ask yourself to find the design that works best.”

And when it comes to children’s play areas, Messervy admits that parents often need to go beyond their own desires to accommodate their children’s wishes. For example, she says one of her clients preferred to have everything in his life in spotless order, but was raising four rambunctious kids. Instead of thinking how the scrubby areas and bamboo groves that surround his property could be utilized for his children, he instead mowed down the edges, leaving the children with no place to hide or play—which he regretted later.

“Why would a child want to play in a perfectly mowed backyard that has no defining features and nothing to do? Sure, there may be playground equipment, but let’s face it, that’s exciting for a few days; kids will lose interest,” says Messervy. “We encourage our clients to keep the scruffy edges, the interesting widespread rhododendron, the forsythia that kids can make a fort under. Install a swing so they can move and dream. We want kids to climb the trees and read or to make-believe and do what they love, and in order to make that possible, parents need to think beyond themselves.”

Messervy realizes it’s not always easy for families to be “heartfelt and specific” when incorporating every individual’s desires. But by prioritizing continuity and clarity, she says homeowners can immerse themselves in the design experience and search for solutions together to find the elements everyone has in common.

“Think about your property as a journey through time and space, where your gardens can both entice you and make you feel complete,” she says. “Focus on what you love to do and that will help you imagine future events where memories will be made along the way. Stop and enjoy all the things that nature has to offer and your imagination will do the rest.” •

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