About this time next year, the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens will boast a 2-acre children's garden with an elevated walkway, a hammock lounge, a sandstone bluff and other notable amenities.
Among the garden's 16 major features, however, one suggestion during focus-group meetings didn't make the cut: "One child wanted a chocolate river,” said Cindy Tyler, the lead designer from Terra Design Studios in Pittsburgh.
The conservatory will break ground Thursday on the $8 million project planned for north of the main conservatory building. Other highlights of the garden — expected to open in May 2018 — will include a stream, wetlands, a nature "play zone," and plenty of flowers and plants.
“Children today don’t go outside as much as we did when we were kids," said Bruce Harkey, the conservatory executive director, "so there is something called 'nature deficit disorder,' which is actually changing the way their brains develop. So this is a solution that we think is very important for our community."
The project arose from a 2012 re-assessment of the conservatory master plan originally conceived in 1999 and 2000.
“We heard from the donor community that we needed more experiences for families and children," Harkey said.
The attraction — to be called the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children's Garden — is being funded by a capital campaign expected to be completed by the end of the year. (As part of the effort, the lawn-care company has agreed to extend its financial support of the conservatory for seven more years, to 2024.)
Designed for children up to 10 years old, the garden will be enclosed and have a single entrance and exit. The entrance/exit will feature an arch that incorporates stained-glass panels designed by Jeff Lint, an artist living in Clintonville.
The panels, Lint said, will contain embedded crystals — so that, on a sunny day, the ground underneath will be covered with prisms.
“I’ve done work for major companies, but this is going to be a very special piece,” said Lint, 60. “This is going to be my legacy to my grandchildren.”
Also part of the plan is a “willow tunnel,” a smaller arched entryway made up of branches and leaves.
In the terrace immediately inside, misting boulders (again, on sunny days) will, like the entrance arch, produce rainbows — a popular feature, Tyler said, among young focus-group members.
A gentle slope (wheelchair-accessible) will lead up to the canopy walk, which will encompass the hammock lounge and a rope bridge.
Interactive areas will include the nature play zone, where kids can climb, dig and jump; and a nature art studio, where kids can use a variety of natural materials.
“I grew up in the woods and making forts, and we wanted to give children the opportunities to get out in a natural setting and have open-ended play,” said New Albany resident Suzanne Lucas, a mother of two who serves on the conservatory’s Women’s Board, which helps with fundraising.
From the 15-foot-tall sandstone bluff, inspired by the Hocking Hills, water will trickle down to form a stream in which children can play.
“The bluff and its 'weep wall’ are something no other garden in the country has attempted,” said Tyler, who has been designing children’s gardens since 1999.
Harkey said that other botanical gardens throughout the country have seen attendance increase an average of 40 percent in the first year after adding a children’s garden.
Admission to the conservatory's children's garden, he said, will be covered in the venue’s regular admission price, which has been gradually rising in recent years and will probably go up again before the garden opens.
“It’s not going to be the largest children’s garden in the country,” Harkey said, “but we feel like the 2 acres has a lot in it that’s very unique and that will celebrate the beautiful Ohio landscape."