The Gaia Tree casitas that was included in the 2023 collection, resembles a tree trunk covered with panels of wood and branches with leaves coming out the top.
The Gaia Tree casita was included in the 2023 collection. Credit: Courtesy photo

A design competition is open for natural playhouse casitas to be installed in Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Backcountry area, which encourages kids to explore nature and enjoy unstructured play.

“We seek creative designers, playful makers, and inspired hobbyists to submit ideas for interactive playhouses that are inspired by nature,” said Scot Pipkin, the garden’s director of education.

“They should connect kids of all ages to the power of native plants in innovative, creative, environmentally conscious, and even whimsical ways,” Pipkin said.

Deadline for entry is Friday, Dec. 15. Three winning designs will be selected and announced in January.

Each winner will receive a $5,000 stipend for the building of their designs. Construction will take place in two phases: late spring (May, June) and fall (October, November).

A pre-entry Zoom meeting hosted by the Botanic Garden is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16. Entries are welcome from outside the Santa Barbara area. Collaborations between individuals and/or businesses are also encouraged.

To register, and for design criteria and submission information, visit

The Casitas program began in 2019 with six temporary playhouses located throughout the garden. The three new casitas selected in the 2024 competition will replace three of the five playhouses that debuted when the 4.5-acre Backcountry opened in 2022.

Each of the structures are installed for six months up to two years, and are replaced by future design competition winning designs.

Casitas Design Competition Guidelines:

While all designs are accepted, entrants are encouraged use natural materials and provide appropriate engagement with families and guests of all ages, but specifically ages five to 13.

Entries should reflect creativity, imagination, and environmentally conscious design, and relate to the garden’s mission of fostering the conservation of California’s native plants.

Submissions will also be judged on the flexibility of installation, and durability, taking into account weather and heavy use by children.

For more about the casitas currently installed in Backcountry, visit