Kids Decorate Green Playhouse

Palm Beach Daily News – March 31, 2007
By David Rogers

Children's Playhouse an Homage to Nature

Jack McFadden, 6, points out his playhouse work to Daisy Cook, 5, and William McFadden, 4, in the Pannill Pavilion of The Society of the Four Arts Gardens. The inside of the playhouse is made from plants, including sod for the roof.

Once upon a time, parents didn't have to tell their children to get of the house to enjoy nature.

Those days are gone.

"Children are in trouble in terms of their health, with higher levels of obesity, attention-deficit disorder and depression," said Palm Beacher Elizabeth Dowdle. "There is more and more evidence from health leaders and educators that this is because children don't have as much free time outdoors and as much access to nature. They are more wired to the Internet and television, excluding time to be outdoors."

To counter the trend, The Garden Club of Palm Beach agreed to add an exhibit to the club's biennial flower show this weekend: a conservation exhibit featuring a green playhouse that celebrates nature and demonstrates environmentally friendly building principles.

Dowdle, head of the Florida office of The Conservation Fund, spoke last summer with fellow Garden Club members Nancy Murray and Carol Flanagan about a book she'd read, Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

They recruited pupils from local schools to help decorate the playhouse and learn about nature at the same time.

"The children have learned about Florida's endangered and threatened species. They did the research themselves and turned coconuts into endangered animals," Dowdle said, referring to playhouse decorations styled as manatees, alligators and other creatures. "And they also learned about sustainable building practices. They studied tropical and subtropical plants and animals and created artwork of them on recycled paper."

The playhouse, in the garden's Pannill Pavilion, is constructed of recycled plastic and covered in renewable, sustainable materials that include bamboo, heather and palm leaves. Near its entrance are pots of rosemary, thyme and sage, along with containers of Brussels sprouts and other vegetables.

The playhouse has floor mats of woven palm fronds and windows trimmed with woven corn husks and sea shells.

Students from Palm Beach Day Academy, Cardinal Newman High, Suncoast High and other schools visited Carrie Murray's home on five Wednesdays to create the art.

Jamie Givens, 12, a sixth-grader at Rosarian Academy, contributed some of the artwork and painted the alligator coconut at the front of the playhouse. She said she learned how animals become endangered and about species that live in rainforests.

Givens said she is pleased with the playhouse. "It looks very natural and organic."

Madison McLeary, a Rosarian fifth-grader, decorated a coconut to look like a sea turtle.

"They are endangered and they need protection," McLeary said.

Emily Reed, 9, a Rosarian fourth-grader, transformed a coconut into a Florida black bear. Reed said she learned to not litter and the value of the rainforests to earth.

While the students came to the Four Arts to decorate the playhouse, they also took breaks to run around and enjoy the beauty of the newly renovated sculpture garden.

And that fulfilled the project's other purpose.

The exhibit came together with the help of committee members Mimi McMakin, Brooke Hutting and Ann Blades, along with other Garden Club members, Dowdle said. McMakin and Hutting work for Kemble Interiors.

Kemble employee Herbert Lewis constructed the playhouse.

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