A World of Pure Imagination
Story by Savy Janssen
Photographs by Jason Moore
Sunlight filtered through the outstretched arms of the 120-year-old monkey pod trees, and a warm Wailuku breeze swirled through the air. Behold a forest to envy the likes of Eden: dark monstera leaves, fuchsia Hong Kong orchid trees, ripe avocados rolling lazily, fragrant Calamansi limes, a mango tree heavy with fruit and a carpet of lush green lawn under foot.
“We are going to have to tell kids, ‘No playing under the mango tree!’ when it’s mango season,” jokes Dean Wong. Dressed in hot pink from head to toe and smiling warmly, Wong walks and talks as he tours the grounds of the Will Smith Imua Discovery Garden at 2471 Main St. in downtown Wailuku.
Wong is the executive director of Imua Family Services, an organization that supports the developmental and special needs of Maui County families and children. Wong is leading the creation, implementation and development of Imua’s Discovery Garden, a place where all of the children of Maui are invited to learn through playing in and exploring an outdoor learning environment.
From the rolling acreage that seems to say “Let’s run!” to the low-branched trees that beckon passersby to stop and climb, it is not hard to imagine children all around, laughing and playing, just as Wong envisions.
“Our goal is to create outdoor experiences where children and families are connecting,” Wong said, be it through exploring the grounds, through art, music, dance or the other cultural and community events hosted here.
Wong is full of energy this Saturday afternoon, which may be from the natural high he seems to get from sharing this project he’s been working on for the last six years. He narrates the past and future: what was and what will be. The old canal that once fed the sugar cane fields, the empty plot that will one day become the ethnobotanical garden honoring the ali’i who once walked this land, a veranda where visitors will one day enjoy the shade and sip tea while their children chase monarchs in the butterfly garden.
Wong is like the property’s Willy Wonka, spouting beautiful ideas that will fulfill children’s fantasies. He points out what appears to be an old garage (really an old carriage house) near the property’s north gate that will soon become the indoor shelter for the outdoor preschool. Learning outside feels dreamlike already. In this garden, dreams seem as real and tangible as the ground below.
The idea for the Discovery Garden first arose in 2017 at a visioning meeting among Imua staff and directors. Their goal was to discern community needs and imagine the future of early childhood development in Maui County. And as they visioned, they saw troubling trends in behavioral problems. More “outside” became a theme of solutions.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s children spend less time in nature than prior generations. The numbers are shocking: children under 3 spend less than 30 minutes outdoors each day but spend more than three hours a day on devices. Wong says increased behavioral and developmental issues come as no surprise.
“In my day, parents used to tell us to ‘Go, play outside, come back when the streetlights come on,’ ” he said. “But that’s not true for kids anymore,” Wong continued. “Parenting today is so safeguarded. Playgrounds limit creativity; play dates are all arranged. We keep eliminating the risk of children having disappointment, and we keep pacifying them with tech instead of teaching them to use their imaginations.”
The Discovery Garden is built on the philosophy that when kids play outdoors, nature teaches them to problem solve, to navigate relationships and to learn from failure, Wong said. “It’s not rocket science.”
Dean walks over to the back lawn and down toward a valley of green and roots that will, awaiting permits, become tunnels and bridges made of natural materials where children will experience “navigating through space.”
“When my partner and I go to New York City, we bring our son to Central Park,” Wong said. “I assumed he would want to check out the merry-go-round, or the fountains, but you know where he wanted to play? On the rocks.” Though instinctive, Wong points out that this simple fact lost in today’s society: Children want to dwell in nature where they can use their imaginations.
When complete, Discovery Garden will invite kids to invent play, where the choices are as limitless as their own creativity. “I always say, once you start to put a vision out into the universe, you can expect that things are about to move,” Wong said.
Following the 2017 visioning meeting, the idea for an outdoor preschool and garden was set in motion. The next step was finding a location: somewhere with space, but also central so it could serve the community.
Sure enough, the right answer sought them out. The children of the late, well-known local Maui businessman and Realtor Masaru “Pundy” Yokouchi approached Imua with an offer to take over the Yokouchi Estate in Wailuku.
As the founder of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, Yokouchi believed in fostering art and exploration in the Maui community. While the family mostly used the property for entertaining, the same 6 acres, within walking distance from at least six preschools and schools, became a no-brainer for Imua.
Yokouchi’s generosity as a philanthropist directly influenced what Maui looks like today, and now his impact will be ongoing. The history of the property, however, predates his ownership. Prior to his purchase in 1991, the property was once the first manager’s residence for the Wailuku Sugar Co. plantation. Renowned American architect Charles W. Dickey – known for his designing of other notable Maui estates such as the Hui No‘eau in Makawao, as well as Seabury Hall’s Cooper House – designed the house that still crowns the property in 1937.
The white walls of the house stretch wide, nestling into the upper acres, backlit by the greenery of the West Maui Mountains. The tropical Downton Abbey has servants’ quarters, a formal dining room and four sizable bedrooms that now accommodate therapists and clinical staff as they relocate to the island. The beautiful outdoor veranda will continue to host events, as under the previous owners, in addition to a tea house for visitors to enjoy.
A rock canal cuts through the center of the property below the home and down the sloping green lawn. These remnants of stone form the Kama ‘Auwai Ditch that used to feed fresh water from Waikapu on one end, and ‘Iao Valley on the other, into this central meeting place, propelling the waters to run a 14-foot waterwheel. The exposed walls of variegated brown rock divide the lower portion of the garden into what will be a central walking path on one side and a stage area on the other.
This land has served many purposes – from the residence of King Kahekili II, who ruled Maui in the 18th century, to the missionary station of the Rev. Jonathan Green in 1832, who established the first thatched school nearby, to a female seminary run by Edward and Caroline Bailey of Massachusetts, who bought the land in 1942.
Bailey & Son’s Sugar and Flour Plantation created the stone artifact that stands today, and the neighboring Hale Ho‘ike‘ike-Bailey House Museum run by the Maui Historical Society. The Discovery Garden cherishes this genealogy and its relationship with the museum that it physically envelopes – no fence line demarcates borders, fostering inclusion and participation from visitors of both places.
Under the direction of Hokuauo Pellegrino, sustainability and ‘aina-based learning designer and facilitator at Kamehameha Schools, an ethnobotanical garden in honor of Hawaiian history will soon grow from an empty lot on the Main Street side of the museum. Children and visitors will find inspiration in the native plants, the shady hale, and the shadow of the stinkytoe tree (West Indian locust) and the stories they tell.
The tour concludes back where we started at the old carriage house, or the new future outdoor preschool, depending on how you look at it. Imua Family Services already offers a preschool for children of all abilities, but now they plan to take the learning outside.
“Here nature actually becomes the classroom,” Wong said. Mud tables, sitting logs, a garden and a bunny borough will all become the primary learning environment for the students. “The kids direct the learning, and the teachers design lessons to follow. If they want to build a veterinarian or post office, the class will create it themselves.”
After the lockdowns of Covid-19, outdoor learning doesn’t seem like a wild idea. “As a non-profit, I never thought I would launch a $5.5 million capital campaign in the middle of a global pandemic,” Wong said. While so many schools were forced to move haphazardly outside, this preschool is designed for outdoor learning. After being inside and isolated for so long, embracing the freedom that nature provides makes more sense than ever before.
From the stage that will one day host Shakespeare plays, to the fields where food trucks will feed event goers, to the lawns where picnickers and plein air artists will ponder, to the “mooing” and “baaaaaing” of the animal paddocks, to the butterflies and music that will fill the air, Will Smith Imua Discovery Garden seems like a paradise for all to enjoy. The families who already benefit from the work of Imua Family Services will be joined by countless others who will soon treasure this community space and the welcoming hands who run it.
The garden will celebrate a formal groundbreaking in May 2023, but its dreams are far from over. “If you think for a minute about Central Park, there is something going on in every nook and cranny of the grounds. So far, we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Wong said. “We are thinking even bigger now. What will this place be years from now? How will it continue to help the Maui community beyond the time that we get to spend here?”
Just like the mountain stream waters that once gathered here from the north and the south, the Will Smith Imua Discovery Garden turns a new tide for all of Maui.