My Big Backyard, Part 1: What’s Good for Children is Also Good For Business

by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Memphis 1Through these blog posts, we often learn about how people are using their Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms that are associated with schools and daycare programs. Because few venues with outdoor classrooms charge admission, we rarely learn how these spaces contribute to their parent organizations, whether for profit or non-profit. In Tennessee, the Memphis Botanic Garden got their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, My Big Backyard, right; very right.

The Garden membership that had largely consisted of seniors and individuals—and few families—soon changed. Within several months of My Big Backyard’s opening, membership soared 300 percent! Free memberships were given to families that receive state subsidies to ensure that children’s programs are available to all.  The Garden now receives around 230,000 visits a year. Even with modest admission fees, My Big Backyard contributes healthily to the overall budget. It is an excellent example of great work that is reshaping the institution that created it.

The Memphis Botanic Garden’s first “seed” garden, around which many were later built, was formed in the 1950s.  A group of iris lovers requested space in an urban park to share their flowers with the city. Soon, other groups formed further gardens, until the Memphis Botanic Garden took the general form it has today. Occupying over 96 acres, it now houses 28 specialty gardens.

Just seven years ago, something was missing: a sizeable space dedicated to children. The board of directors had been considering a formal children’s area for years, and staff had long been studying children’s programs in many related venues. In 2008, members of the education staff attended the Nature Explore Leadership Institute at the Arbor Day Farm, and their designs for My Big Backyard reflected what they learned.  Incorporating the Nature Explore recommended areas and Ten Guiding Principles, they very quickly built an amazing children’s experience on 2.6 acres. Its construction was well-funded through major corporate gifts and contributions from the community. Understanding both the space and how it’s used tells us why it has become such a valued community resource.

Just to hear some of the activity area names and descriptions is to get a taste of the excitement My Big Backyard inspires in children:

Home Sweet Home

Come on in and learn about the important roles that plants play in our homes!

Seedling Circle (designed for infants and toddlers)

Explore the shapes and colors of this hands-on garden for our smallest sprouts!

Treetop Adventure

Get a bird’s eye view of the Garden and learn about our feathered friends.

Backyard Bluff and Wormville

Wiggle like a worm through larger-than-life worm tunnels, then become a rock star on the outdoor stage…your audience can take a seat on the giant worm “benches” as you create rhythms on the marimbas, drums, and bells.

And these are just four of the 13 activity areas in My Big Backyard.

Memphis 2

Let’s explore the Treetop Adventure as an example. Take the stone Bird Pathway (more on this soon) to the tall wood posts. You’re at the base of the tree house. You can get up to the house via the wheelchair ramp or stairs. From the tree house porch, you can look down and see that the stone path is truly in the shape of a bird. And while you’re up there, you can see the activity in the many birdhouses just above the skyway; each made by a local artist. If you want to return to Earth quickly, you can take the curved slide down, or just descend via the stairs or ramp.

This level of attention to wonder-inspiring features is only half of My Big Backyard’s story. The other half is the rich diversity of educational programs, workshops, activities, camps, and events conducted by its dedicated educators and volunteers.  In our next post, you’ll learn about the variety of services provided by the Memphis Botanic Garden, including one that we believe is unique within our Nature Explore family of outdoor classrooms.