Kew proves gardening is child’s play
Alice Whitehead visits the new Children’s Garden at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew to discover what’s on offer for youngsters.
It has a tree-top walkway, historic glasshouse, a Royal Palace and even its own constabulary – but now for the first time in its 260 year history, the Capital’s Botanic Gardens has a garden dedicated to children.
Kew's first garden for children opened last week
Hailed as its most ambitious design project of recent years, the 10,000 metres squared landscape – the equivalent of nearly 40 tennis courts – has been designed around the four elements that plants need to survive: earth, air, sun and water.
With a combination of tunnels, trampolines, hammocks, giant windmills (frustratingly out of reach) and rainbow spheres shaped like pollen, the idea is to encourage two to 12-year-olds to develop a 'deeper connection' and 'lasting relationship with plants and nature'.
The giant windmills are frustratingly out of reach
Indeed, the way the play elements have been mapped around the 100 mature trees – ginkgos, pines, sweet chestnuts and eucalyptus – has created a magical space that feels like its roots are already firmly in Kew soil, rather than something newly germinated.
And at its centre - an enchanting four-metre-high walkway wrapped around the canopy of a 200-year-old oak tree nods to Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. Plantings (as yet immature) of star jasmine, strawberries, sunflowers and espalier apple trees will no doubt add to the sensory experience. And the fact visitors will be allocated a non-bookable 90-minute session will allow families to fully explore the space without feeling crowded.
But as a world-famous organisation respected for its expertise in conservation and sustainable development – Kew has missed a golden opportunity to do more teaching through play.
With school pupils joining the global strike over the climate change crisis, isn’t this exactly the time to influence the next generation? As yet there are no bird boxes, bee homes, wildlife plantings or areas for growing your own. And while the mesmerising water pumps and pools are set up to “engage children with the water cycle”, there’s no signage or info boards to demonstrate this.
Equally, while the garden factsheets talk of porous paths to water plant roots, and the benefits of earthworms – you can’t help question the decision behind the large lawns laid with artificial grass. This was installed 'due to the expected wear in a restricted space where real grass wouldn’t last long and would turn to mud' but it still seems a strange decision for a space within one of the world’s greatest botanic gardens.
The new Children’s Garden is certainly a special place within a very special garden, and will undoubtedly be as attractive to children as honey is to bees. But you can’t help feel that despite its natural setting, it is, at the moment at least, more grandiose play area than a garden.