It was with some trepidation that I visited the new Discovery Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden late in August. The Children's Garden farm--where my tiny daughter leaned over a plot of seeds in "KinderGardeners"--was unchanged, a tangle of crops worthy of Beatrix Potter with the charming cottage at its heart. But the dear little Discovery Garden that used to be at the Flatbush Avenue/Empire Boulevard entrance has been wiped away for a spacious new entry, and a whole new Discovery Garden created.
As a former BBG docent ("garden guide"), I still feel a fierce proprietary interest in its every development. I was very underwhelmed by the much-heralded new Visitors' Center, a sprawling vanity project that manages to incorporate every LEED-certified trend while seeming utterly unconnected to the Garden's historic vibe (and, mysteriously, facing the parking lot with a vast swath of blindingly white concrete). I had high hopes for the new Discovery Garden, but it didn't thrill me, frankly.
It's...very educational, I guess, and far better designed for large groups, laid out as a series of environmental habitats. I'll bet they all "align to Common Core standards." The boardwalk-like paths and rope bridges are fun to explore, and I liked this nest with some building materials in it.
But everywhere there are signs urging you to be a Young Scientist, suggesting questions and experiments like an earnest progressive textbook. This "meadow" seemed more man-made than meadow-like to me. In the Poconos as a kid, I'd wander in meadows for hours on end--they were wild, lush, untracked, humming with life. Wonderful places to dream and do nothing--not even science. Are kids still allowed to just dream in meadows?
The pond feature needed some work; I highly approve of investigating pond scum, but at least at this early juncture, the pond seemed without much (at least of the macroscopic variety) to investigate. No fish, frogs or turtles, for sure.
There was a variety of bug-houses but a warning not to disturb the bugs (good for not getting sued by kids who forgot their Epi-Pen, but not much fun), and a station for adding to the Curiosity Collection, whose display jars were sealed shut. As a kid, my chief private game was something I called "nesting," which consisted of collecting just this sort of thing--but for a fantasy winter survival cottage.
Silky, irresistible treasures like these bursting milkweed pods--it will be hard to balance the "hands-on" thing while keeping kids from "harvesting." The whole project, while state-of-the-art in its eco-friendly zeal, was somehow dispiriting. You could get lost in the old kids' exploration area, amid towering hedges and sunflowers; you could stand at a table full of pine cones and, well, mess with pine cones, with no one asking you to sort, hypothesize, or analyze. It was flowery and messy, full of beauty and a bit mysterious.