Shelly Zacks, preschool teacher-turned community garden activist, grew up unplugged and outdoors, roaming the wild green spaces of her hometown, Delray, FL. That’s how it was for all her friends. “I didn’t have air conditioning when I was a little girl,” she explains, “so we were cooler outside than inside. And we had the best time being outside. We could feel that freedom of being away and separate.”
That freedom is no less developmentally critical for children now, and yet is rarely available to kids growing up today in Delray. Technology has hit, of course, bringing with it the Nature Deficit Disorder epidemic that’s plaguing our nation. Add to that the fact that many parents fear it’s not safe to send their children out alone, and then add to that the fact that green spaces in Delray are shrinking rapidly. “The building and construction has really hit hard in our town in Delray Beach,” says Zacks. “Thirty years ago there was absolutely zero downtown. It was dead. Now we have this vibrant downtown, but nobody’s planning for the kids. They’re all planning for their dollars right now.”
That’s why she’s creating the Delray Beach Children’s Garden – a gorgeous, two-plot parcel of land donated by St Paul’s Episcopal Church, and now a haven where kids can explore, escape, dig, plant, hide, climb, learn, and become the environmental stewards they’ll need to be. Zacks knows they’ll take to it like champs; she gardened with her students for 40 years, and she’s seen it a million times. “Preschoolers are little worker bees,” she says, “and they don’t care how hard the project is. They will do it. They’ll dig to China if you let them. If you have a hose, they’ll come with their watering cans and they won’t stop. And they absolutely love it! The younger they are the better, because they’re closer to the earth, and they’ve been less spoiled by screen time. If you start them young, they’re sensory beings and whenever you teach to the senses, it becomes a part of them.”
THE SECRET GARDEN
The project broke ground in January, and we’re here to tell you: this is not just your average children’s garden. This is the garden you wish you’d had as a kid. No surprise, given that local kids helped design it!
Imagine: a winding labyrinth made of raised bed veggie planters. A medicinal section (ginger and aloe are already planted – medicinal plantain, echinacea, calendula, capsicum, comfrey and borage are on the way soon). A “sunflower house,” a huge mulch pile for digging, an aquaponics permaculture system in which fish and plants sustain each other. And that’s not the half of it.
The real show-stopper is the banana forest. Yes, banana forest. It’s an idea Zacks picked up in Alexandria, Virginia, while scouting for concepts at a kids’ garden there. “It was the attraction of the garden,” says Zacks. “You could only see the color of the kids’ clothes moving through the banana plants. You couldn’t see their faces. It was a feeling of being completely surrounded and immersed in a forest experience. They can hide. They can see through the leaves and see out, but they feel like no one can see them.” Banana trees grow incredibly quickly, creating a lush, dense forest to get lost in.
“That’s a preschool thing,” explains Zacks. “Being seen and hiding and coming back out again and being seen.” It’s all about the discovery that we are embodied human beings, she says. That we are, in other words, real. “They’re exploring the idea of something being gone but coming back again. The experience of not being and then being again.”
Will this garden make enough of a difference? Is it worth the huge amount of love and labor that Zacks and her peers have poured into it? “I don’t believe that I can change the world in a year or even ten or twenty years,” she explains. “But I can make little ripples. It’s really gratifying to make a change in South Florida, where change is very slow.” Didn’t someone smart once say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step?
If you want to create a children’s garden in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have other awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’re here to help you get started today.
Pssst… IN OTHER ioby NEWS: Come Hike the Heights with us on June 6!