Discovering how to get kids back to nature

Reconnecting children with nature through hands on experience is what the Discovery Garden at Wellington’s Botanic Gardens is all about. The 1,500 square metre living classroom has been designed and developed by Isthmus to teach children about the many ways plants sustain human life by providing food, fibre, construction materials and medicine.


Landscape architect Lisa Rimmer says the garden is part of the global reinterpretation of Botanic Gardens to increase their relevance in our everyday and, increasingly, urban lives.

“The garden is beautiful, as Botanic Garden’s traditionally are, but also designed for diverse ‘all senses, hands on’ activities; to encourage take home conversations and ‘how to’ learning through enjoyment,” Rimmer says. “This is a shift from the traditional promenade and observation of plants in Botanic Gardens to a more immersive experience - both inspiring and everyday; for outside the gates.”


The project took five years to come to fruition. Botanic Garden’s manager, David Sole, was the driving force behind it and he’s pleased with the way it’s been received.

“Not long after it opened ( last September) a child said ‘they did all this for children?’” Sole said. “And that summed it up for me. That made me really happy.”

As an integrated design studio Isthmus has a no boundaries approach; where architecture - buildings - are not seen as separate from landscape.


“As designers we speak the same language,” says Rimmer. “Working together in one studio made it easier to make the most of these opportunities, where the pavilion and other structures were designed to demonstrate how plants are used for construction and as nodes for activity and gathering. This integrated approach, with landscape and architecture blended together, working off each others strengths, made the design process and garden more enjoyable and an even greater ‘Discovery’.”


Located on a steep and exposed hillside between the existing Treehouse visitor centre and the playground the garden has a strong emphasis on interactive “hands on” learning and play. A series of carefully designed ramps, steps and terraces provide greatly improved accessibility to this part of the site, and encourage discovery and exploration in variety of ways.

The garden features multiple terraced learning spaces, each based on a different use of plants. In its heart is the pavilion - a gathering space for the garden club, school workshops and events. It allows making and doing, even when the weather isn’t great.


Isthmus architect Scott Donnell, says rather than “fighting the slope” the pavilion has been embedded into the land - the result of a decision to consider it as an extension of the terracing that steps down from above. It serves as a departure point for a learning adventure, or a gathering place to share discoveries.

He says material choices are reflective of the garden’s main theme - how plants are helpful to us in a number of ways.


David Sole says activities like building forts out of sticks and nature fibres (bamboo or manuka) have had “a really good thrashing.”

“But even if they’re just doing a roly poly on the lawn, that’s a really good experience in a green environment.”

While accessible to the general public, the garden has been designed primarily for children aged eight to twelve.

David Sole says the Ministry of Education has provided funding to develop “self-led” learning experiences aimed at families (or anyone who fancies giving them a go) outside of school hours or on the weekends. He hopes they’ll be up and running mid year.

“It’s a way of getting people engaged with the garden,” he says. “It’s a very important platform to demonstrate how important plants are to our lives. No plants, no life.”