The Santa Barbara Zoo’s new Kallman Family Children’s Garden, opening this Saturday, was designed especially for children to play and interact with nature.

Santa Barbara Zoo volunteer Amy Prior designed the new Kallman Family Children's Garden.

Santa Barbara Zoo volunteer Amy Prior designed the new Kallman Family Children’s Garden. (Katie Clemons photo)

The whimsical garden includes a maze, boulders for climbing, winding dry stream bed, quaint footbridge and stepping stumps, animal topiary and statues, picnic areas and more — all set in a garden of fragrant and vibrant blooming plants.

Several featured plants have animal-themed names, including coyote mint, golden monkey grass, hummingbird sage, deer fern, kangaroo paw and sticky monkey flower. Many native plants are featured, as is a rainbow array of flowers.

“Connecting children, in particular, to nature is absolutely critical for the future of our planet,” zoo CEO Rich Block said. “The experiences that children have today will help guide their decisions tomorrow as the next generation of environmental decision-makers.”

The garden’s debut completes the Kallman Family Children’s Play Area, which opened in March 2008. One of the zoo’s most popular areas, it includes a giant Ant Hill, oversized dinosaur eggs, a large spider web and other nature-inspired features. The Play Area is conceived as a “naturalized playground” — part of a national trend to give children a safe, outdoor environment to play, explore and discover nature. Rather than being “built,” naturalized playgrounds are “planted” using the landscape, vegetation and other materials.

The garden was designed by zoo volunteer Amy Prior, garden designer and mother of two young children. “Owen’s Maze” is named for her son. The Kallman family, longtime zoo donors, are lead donors for the Children’s Garden and for the Play Area.

“My goal is to create a garden where young imaginations run wild, and age-appropriate educational opportunities abound,” Pryor said. “After visiting the garden, I hope children carry away with them a curiosity of nature that continues to bloom.”

According to “A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural World” by the Children & Nature Network in 2008, adults who consider themselves conservationists or “environmentally aware” almost always had a transcendent experience in nature as children.

It notes that children today are drifting further away from nature — spending less time outdoors and more time in front of the television or computer. While technological advances can help them understand nature in new and exciting ways, the report suggests that advances should compliment, not replace, real experiences in and with nature.

Construction and planting of the zoo’s new garden was performed by the Santa Barbara Zoo’s professional in-house Facilities and Horticulture Department, in conjunction with community volunteers including the ladies of the Garden Club of Santa Barbara under Pryor’s direction.

Though the garden has been planted, there are still ways for the public to help it to thrive through the “Plant a Seed” campaign and naming opportunities. For more information, call 805.962.5339.

— Julia McHugh is a publicist.