The two boys perch on the edge of a rock slab, that sits in a shallow pool, and peer into the rock-lined edges of the pool where hides a green tree frog. The frog suddenly jumps onto the rock slab directly in front of the boys before leaping into the pool. The boys let out whoops of joy and continue their search for the frog, together. What you don’t know is that the boys are in a children’s garden and, until a few moments ago, had never met before. Encounters with animals, especially up close, but even from a distance, are one of the major draws for children in outdoor environments. Over the past six years, I have been performing post-occupancy evaluations and observations of children’s environments. As a result of this research, I’ve tallied animal encounters (or sightings) as one of the top two draws that attract children, regardless of their age or ability. As infants, we are attracted to movement. And animals move! As we age, we become increasingly curious about how other things live. One of the most popular hobbies of senior citizens, for example, is bird-watching. Is this because of the count of rare birds, or does this come from a more basic interest in living things?
The most popular draw (and I’ve also asked children about this) appears to be water. Not only does the water look and sound intriguing, but it also feels great! In fact, children attempt to touch the water regardless of the location. For example, at the Hershey Children’s Garden in Hershey, PA, even where a fountain was physically inaccessible because shrubs had been planted around the pool, children still attempted to climb over the shrubs to get to the water (observed 7/29/09). The Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens is recognized more for its fountains than for its plants, yet it constantly occupies children of all ages. Through my evaluation work, I analyze where and how and how many people spend their time. On the ramp at the Indoor Children’s Garden, toddlers not only touch the water that spurts up from the numerous small fountains, but also spend time manipulating the spray of the water that comes out of each fountain, attempting to hit people nearby with it. Toddlers have a reach that extends anywhere from 8 to 12 inches, depending upon how long their arms are. The trough that holds the small salamander fountains is within easy reach of toddlers – only seven inches away – and this accessibility contributes to its popularity. It was rated as one of the most popular places in the Indoor Children’s Garden by parents when I interviewed them about where they and their children spent the most time and had the most fun.
The parents also commented that they (the parents) enjoyed the herbs that were planted on the wall that they leaned against, while they were watching their children. Here, the herbs were in direct contact with parent’s head and shoulders. In other words, the plants were within the parents’ reach. I call this reach area the engagement zone because, through touch, the person becomes engaged in the environment.
I have observed that when the person cannot touch something, they either extend their reach or move on to something else. An example of this is in the Secret Room at the Indoor Children’s Garden, which houses a large sculptural fountain called the Drooling Dragon. This area received some of the lowest ratings by children and parents and was observed to have only few children in it. Parents of children under four years of age reported that their children were afraid of the dragon and requested that their parents not take them into that part of the garden. I observed that many of the younger children who did venture into the Secret Room and tried to reach into the fountain were not able to do so – it was designed for larger children to touch the water, according to the drawings made by Tres Fromme, the designer. One older child dipped his hands into the fountain and made handprints on the slate walls. His younger sister asked her parents for help to reach the water so she could do this, too. When I reported this to Nancy Bowley, who is in charge of children’s activities, she purchased large paintbrushes for the room which extended the reach of the younger children. In subsequent observations and interviews, I was told by many parents that their children were no longer afraid to go into the Secret Room; in fact, many delighted in dipping the paintbrush into the dragon’s mouth in order to paint on the walls with the “bigger kids.” The implication here is that by making things accessible to children through their “engagement zone” or reach, children could better understand aspects of the environment, making these places less fearful or challenging in a bad sense.
If we extend this idea of the “engagement zone” to all people in all environments — meaning that accessibility through touch becomes the connection that enables engagement – we can make our environments more engaging. Perhaps we can also extend this idea even further into “hands-on” forms of education to make learning even more fun, regardless of age or ability?