I am seriously conflicted about the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden. I want to love it. Why can’t I?
It’s not as though I haven’t said over and over – for at least fifteen years – that the Dallas Arboretum really needs more features for kids. Over those years I have admired installations such as mazes constructed from hay bales, where kids could walk, jump or climb. And of course the frog fountain, where the little ones always get their clothes wet, is a perennial favorite. (But no climbing on the frogs, kiddos.)
So I was excited about taking our 4-year-old grandchild, Aidan, for his first visit. Anticipation built as we walked past the usual fall displays of pumpkins and storybook houses. When Aidan discovered a large slide near the crape myrtle garden, he was so excited that we had a hard time convincing him the real fun was still ahead in the new children’s garden.
Our first glimpse of the arched gateway inspired awe, akin to entering a themed “land” at Disney World. But after a few steps inside the gate, my son-in-law (Aidan’s dad) looked around and said, “Whoever designed this has no idea what kids like.”
Blasphemy! Such hasty judgment! Of course the designers of the Children’s Garden had researched and studied hundreds of examples of what kids like, and those state-of-the-art exhibits cost $62 million to build. I knew the garden was huge (eight acres) and I knew there must be something a 4-year-old boy would enjoy.
Turns out there are plenty of fantastic diversions for all ages. More than you can experience in one day. It is a cross between a science museum (interactive and educational), Disney (fantasy perpetuated by cartoonish fake plants), the Jetsons (skywalks and video screens) and a Grimm fairy tale (magical lures that lead to life lessons.) There are two levels of outdoor exhibits with dazzling models of planets, a giant sundial, a big concrete tree with a rope play-web in the “branches,” and a giant kaleidoscope.
By definition, nature is truth, and the natural world is full of surprises. But conventional wisdom says 21st century youngsters prefer electronics to the ancient technology of nature. After a while I began to understand what some of the Arboretum’s children’s garden detractors mean when they complain about fake flowers and a feeling of contrivance. Reality and fantasy are blurred. And about those jabbering robo-monitors — is the noise pollution worth it? Is the view of White Rock Lake and the organic soundtrack of bird songs really that boring?
Who is Rory Meyers, anyway? Even Perot is satisfied to use only his last name.
Ahem. Meyers has been a tireless volunteer at the Arboretum, and she served on the board for 13 years. Due to her life-long promotion of education, her husband became the primary donor of the Children’s Garden as a gift to her. OK, that is not only generous but downright touching.
What about all those dedicated benches? Can’t we even sit down without thinking about how much it cost?
But some of those benches are dedicated to beloved family members who have passed away, and so the dedication of a bench is not necessarily vanity. I get that, too.
The fact that many employees of the Arboretum also donated varying amounts, large and small, from their earnings might even lead me to conclude that the project truly is a labor of love and teamwork, if I didn’t also know the first operations manager, Melissa Wright, quit before her two month anniversary due to irreconcilable differences with her bosses.
Once it finds its true identity, I hope and expect the Children’s Garden will become a wonderful destination in Dallas. Even so, now that I’ve seen it, I learned what I had really wanted at the Arboretum all along. A simple playground would have worked for me.
What about four-year-old Aidan? Climbing, building, and shooting giant water guns were his favorite exhibits. But he liked the old-technology slide near the crape myrtles just as much.