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One of the coolest places in Sarasota … for kids and adults

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and that down-to-earth concept is the driving philosophy behind one of the best-kept secrets for cultivating young minds and bodies in all of Sarasota: The Children’s Garden.

From the moment one crosses the threshold of The Children’s Garden, no matter how accustomed to iPods, cell phones, and computer screens they’ve become, every child — and every adult who has even a smidgen of memory of what it was once like to be a child – abandons the stuff of our over-electronified world and enters a place where imagination and wonder leap from the dulled recesses of hearts and minds and land squarely on the face in the shape of a smile.

It’s a little sanctuary where children and adults can experience the limitless adventure and abundance of the natural world. A place where learning is imparted and absorbed but imagination is the match that lights the flame of any knowledge gained.

The Children’s Garden is so gorgeously alive, so steeped in visual and physical stimulation, so engorged with adventure, so fragranced with scent and charmed with the sounds of children playing – really playing – not passively interacting with a computer screen and a keyboard – that one feels transported to another time and place.

What is there to see and do at The Children’s Garden?

The better question might be what isn’t there to see and do!?

Walking along the springy pathways of mulch and leaves, legs and feet begin to feel alive with a sense of adventure. Eyes widen in anticipation on the faces of the wee ones who wander through the ivy-covered passages. Tentative smiles broaden into glee and laughter as children begin to see – really see – where they are.

And where they are is wonder-filled.

Just beyond Hobbitville is a play-size pirate ship; a veritable hive of activity as kids of all ages whiz up and down and around the ship, demanding, “Are you a pirate?!” and exclaiming “I’m Indiana Jones!” practically defying anyone to disagree.

A line of soldier-like pink birds line the jaunt down Flamingo Road which leads to the exotic Garden of Odd – where odds and ends of all sorts have been recycled and given new life.

There’s a Secret Garden infused with jasmine and an A-mazing maze bordered by vine-covered chain-link fencing that lead youngsters along paths just complicated enough to intrigue but not scary enough to prevent them from finding their way out.

There’s a giant-sized chessboard where children perform as human chess pieces – interactively and spiritedly learning the intricacies of this game known for its intellect-honing attributes.

A whimsical Faerie Garden entices children to linger with sculptures of kid-sized mushrooms sprouting from the earth and fairies lying about looking wistful.

In the Butterfly Garden stand three little pigs in front of three miniature houses where nearby brilliant yellow sunflowers reach over seven feet toward the sky.

There’s an absolutely enchanting Caterpillar House decorated in a Snow White theme. The main room twinkles with little white lights shimmering overhead and a tiny side room made magical with a special mirror for glimpsing secrets and cuddly stuffed animals waiting for tea and crumpets. Even a special reading room for bookworms.

The pièce de resistance of The Children’s Garden has got to be the Monster Garden. Not because it’s better than all the other spots of magic, but because it’s built on a scale that lifts imagination to new heights. There’s a giant – GIANT – green dragon whose twists and turns rise up out of the earth in serpentine loops that lead you to his Snuffy snout. Not too far from Snuffy is Isabel, a lovely purple octopus whose tentacles spread across a generous play area.

Nearby a mountain of recycled truck tires painted in fruit-loopy colors provides an energetic exercise in mountain-climbing. If you happen to be around at 10 am or 3 pm, Tire Mountain turns into train central as another train rolls past nearby 10th Street. The minute those whistles start blowing, kids swarm in from all points of the garden, their hunt for earthworms and battles as pirates forgotten as they clamber to the top of the mountain and start waving their little arms so hard and with such an urgency you’re surprised the entire mountain doesn’t become airborne with excitement.

And to whom are the children waving? The conductor of the passing train of course, who obligingly hangs his arm out the window and waves back until his train weaves out of sight.

It’s a simple moment. A single, small moment in the scheme of things at The Children’s Garden, but a moment that sums up the experience.

The experience is about imagination. Trains from far-off places going even further to parts unknown. Faceless conductors who, despite their anonymity, cast a benevolent spell of “all’s right in the world” as they whistle and wave with a timeless continuity that has been calling children to the tops of tire heaps for generations upon generations.

And when the caboose scoots out of sight, the children climb down Tire Mountain and within seconds seem to forget all about far-away places. They return to their games, their reveries, their imaginings and go right back to finding the magic right at their fingertips … at The Children’s Garden … where magic begins.

(An expanded version of this article appeared in Sarasota Downtown & Beyond magazine in 2008.)

Posted on July 3rd, 2009Comments RSS Feed

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