Longwood Gardens just opened a magnificent new children’s area in their main conservatory featuring many unique state-of-the-art fountain displays in about an equal mix with the plants and flowers. In just one example, a series of small fountains at child-height along a wall are synchronized so that a foot-long arc of water appears to run back and forth along the wall, reversing as it bounces off each end. It is usually lined with squealing children trying to catch it as it passes by.
But, make no mistake, this is not the warm and comforting land of Disney and Pooh, filled with bunny rabbits in bib overalls. That was their old Children’s Garden. The new theme is a Harry-Potter-like world of fantasy, quite in tune with today’s taste, a nightmare land of danger that is traversed only by the alert and plucky adventurer. A huge, glaring malevolent turtle is hardly the gentle creature we thought we knew. The fountain coming from his mouth is a threatening weapon directed at us. An iron gate across a dungeon-like crypt depicts a bird and a snake in a circular, screaming fight to the death. Coiled snakes with extended fangs and dripping venom hang from a cave ceiling above a smoke-filled pool.
This is the world of children—a scary world of predators and constant danger of physical harm. If a friendly-looking man asks you to help him find his dog, scream for help and run to the nearest house. Examine your Halloween candy for hidden needles. Never ride without car seat, never ride your bike without a helmet. You must be ever-vigilant to survive.
But children have always seen the world as divided between the security of the home and the capricious adult world filled with unexpected danger that can blindside them. In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s secure Kansas life is suddenly threatened by an evil neighbor, Miss Gluch, who legally takes Dorothy’s dog Toto to be destroyed. The episode is transformed to Oz, a far-away land to be rescued by the application of old-fashioned middle-American values, like Europe during the World Wars. Home was still Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. (Trivia question: What was Dorothy’s last name? Not Dorothy Tornado, but close.)
Today, we make sure children understand the dangers confronting them. The children’s section of Longwood Gardens is the world as we teach them it is, for better or for worse.