‘Unstructured play’ designed to encourage children to play in nature
On Monday, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is opening a 4.5-acre Backcountry “unstructured play” area designed to encourage children to enjoy nature and play outdoors.
The soft opening took place on Saturday morning “for donors to preview before we open to the public on Monday … The soft opening went really well …we had kids all over doing exactly what we thought they would do and we got really positive feedback. We also had a number of ‘young at heart’ (patrons) outside the normal age range,” Garden Executive Director Dr. Steve Windhager told the News-Press.
Dr. Windhager explained his inspiration for the project: “Walking through the garden, it felt like a place where children should look and not touch, and I wanted that to change. I wanted children to feel invited into the natural world and feel like they were a part of it.”
With the development phase beginning in 2012, this project has been almost a full decade from development to completion of construction. Conceptual design began in 2014.
“Elaine Gibson, a former trustee and strong proponent of children’s outdoor play, was a strong partner in developing concepts we used in the park … The project was put to the side for a while but we continued to explore the idea. In 2019 we ran a pilot test and internal program called ‘Garden Casitas’ which were seven playhouses throughout the garden, which were designed by artists and architects. The pilot test was extremely successful. We launched the capital campaign to build and endow the space and to have staff to maintain in perpetuity. In late 2019, we contracted with Brightview for design and building. Construction started in November of 2021 and was completed literally yesterday” Dr. Windhanger told the News-Press during an interview on Saturday.
The garden is designed for all visitors, but the target audience is ages five to thirteen. The area is designed for children to climb on fallen trees, rock-hop, build forts out of natural materials, discover unique “Casita” playhouses, navigate a maze and more.
The $4 million project budget was raised through community donations including an endowment of $2.5 million, to ensure staffing and upkeep in perpetuity. Donations can still be made to continue the project’s evolution at https://www.sbbg.org.
“In the 80s and 90s, as kids’ and parents’ lives became over-programmed, the only time they went outside to play was sports. Their outdoor recreation was organized sports … Any unprogrammed time was spent on a computer or video game,” said Dr. Windhager. “It doesn’t feel safe in this day and age to just turn your kids loose outside, so this area is designed to rediscover the joy of unscheduled unstructured outdoor play. However, It’s not a place for parents to drop off kids and leave. Parents can hang out while their kids play. Kids can run and jump and explore and use imagination.”
The project includes a designated area with comfortable seating and shade where parents can read the newspaper or connect to the wifi while their kids play.
Backcountry is located adjacent to portions of the former Canyon Trail that runs parallel to Mission Creek, with new areas created in spaces previously underutilized. The main pathway is accessible to strollers, while secondary trails are designed for children to use agility, balance and coordination to build a sense of independence. At least 15 inches of fall-safe mulch is distributed to cushion beneath any climbing feature more than two-and-a-half-feet tall.
Natural features, including fallen trees and boulders, were incorporated into the landscape, and 28 truckloads of additional boulders were brought in from the drainage basins filled by the 2018 Montecito debris flow. Fallen trees in the Garden were utilized and many others donated by local horticulture partners. Some trees damaged in the Jesusita fire were removed, and additional California-native trees, shrubs, and foliage have been planted. Additional landscaping will continue in the fall when conditions are conducive to planting native species.
Backcountry also features man-made attractions, including an area designed to mimic the feeling of climbing a tree.
“So what we have done is we took down trees and attached them to a steep hill so you can ‘climb up a tree.’ There are also ropes anchored into the ground that you can pull yourself up. The trees are anchored into the hillside so if you do fall you don’t fall 20 ft out of a tree, but it gives you the same sense of climbing and exploration,” said Dr. Windhanger, who also described some even more whimsical features like “a troll made from limbs and rocks on site. We also have a raptor’s perch made from ropes and rope nets. One of my favorite things is the hawk’s nest: a lending library, designed to look like a red tail hawk.”
A moment during Saturday’s soft open was described by Dr. Windhager: “I saw a boy, probably about 10 years old, come through and was super active, and absolutely tearing it up. Then later I saw him sitting down reading a book by himself. It really does speak to all the elements of childhood,” said Dr. Windhager.
“We don’t want to give everything away. A sense of surprise and discovery is built into the Backcountry experience. Guests may round a corner to encounter a six-foot-tall troll constructed from rocks and native plant materials found in the garden, or follow an invitation to look more closely underneath a decomposing log, for example. These delightful experiences foster long-lasting connections with native plants and habitats,” says Scot Pipkin, Garden Director of Education.
“If anything words don’t do it justice. You’ve got to experience this thing on site. I’m a child at heart. This has been a dream of mine for a long time. I get out there and I start to play. It is a fun place to explore. I can’t wait to share it with the rest of Santa Barbara’s Community,” said Dr. Windhager.
Additionally, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is unveiling a new logo and website on June 9th. “For the last decade we have been a botanic garden with a growing emphasis on conservation work. We have decided that we are a conservation organization that happens to operate a botanic garden as one of our tools.We also have a research staff of 23 working all over the state conserving California’s most endangered plants and rebuilding habitat,” said Dr. Windhager.