The necessity of providing healing, welcoming, and engaging healthcare interiors has become more dogma than debatable in recent years. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the interior design and architecture fields that doesn't believe that such interiors have significant positive effects not only on patients, but staff and visitors as well. But what happens when you take that concept a step further, giving patients, staff, and families a sense of purpose in a close-knit community while also attempting to give perspective on their place in the world as a whole? Such is the goal of San Diego-based The Children's Rainforest Art Explorer Program, a project that aims to provide intricate, playful, healing environments, as well as give patients and families a sense of place in a greater worldwide ecosystem with the help of the San Diego Zoo.

Dan Evers, The Children's Rainforest director, started the program after experiencing what he called one of the grayest and institutional settings he'd ever experienced in a local Kaiser Permanente hospital. In an effort to enrich the clinical space, Evers and a team of artists created extensive mosaics of rainforest settings-a theme he chose after researching the effects of one's environment and recognizing the rainforest's inherent connection to life and vitality. And with the assistance of the San Diego Zoo-which, once a month, hosts pediatric cancer patients and their families to engage with and learn about the animals-Evers, with help from the SUCCESS Optimist Club of San Diego, began to brighten the lives of chronically ill and cancer-stricken children.

“Part of the therapeutic value is basing the children and getting them to understand their role in a great natural world,” says Evers. “I think there's tremendous value in feeling like you have a place in this marvelous world. To see all of these different animals and relate to them in a very empathetic way-for example, in the orangutan room, Karen the orangutan, who is in the stained glass [at the hospital], 10 years ago, when she was a baby, had congenital heart disease and the veterinarians brought in heart surgeons to operate on her.”

For the hospital interiors, Evers wanted more than just a collection of peripherally related artwork. As such, he decided to adorn the walls with images that, as you progress through the hospital, seem to tell a story. “We don't really want an interior that is a patchwork quilt of children's art,” says Evers. “We want things that create a story and are part of a bigger picture, that develop a theme, so that when you walk in, you're not confused and it flows. There's flow as you walk through. We can start with literally 200 feet of hallway, and you can follow from one end to the next, and as you go through the rooms, you can see the transition of the different animals, but there's continuity throughout with the theme.”

That's not to say that the patients don't have a say in how their clinical environment looks. Evers explains that as the program began to gain steam, the culture surrounding it grew similarly, providing them with more opportunities to have the children participate. “More and more, we're getting into using [the children's] creations,” he says. “We have a turtle room where the patients created ceramic turtles and then we fired and glazed them, and then they went into the mosaics. They get to come in there and say, ‘I did that.’ That ownership is where we really love going. We see the greatest return in building the kids' confidence and inspiring them.”

Evers and company have since begun to work on other projects in healthcare settings-Evers gives credit to the San Diego Zoo for this ability because of how well they've sustained The Children's Rainforest project. Their most recent work is for the Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, and continues the concepts of storytelling, nature, and inspiring environments that The Rainforest project began. “We've created a 15-foot tree-it's not real giant, but it's pretty big-made out of steel,” he says. “The story that goes with it is the story of Little Tree: Little Tree is high on a mountain and experiences all that wind and the animals thought it was crazy to be up there. No one went up to visit him because the weather was severe and they would hide in the valley behind the big trees. Then one day the storms came and the flood came and they all escaped for their lives and clung to Little Tree. We're trying to connect these fantasies and stories with real nature so that it engages and inspires their mind, diverts their mind from their illness, and takes them to a fantasy world. It's more than just a visual fantasy. There's a story that goes along with the visual fantasy.”

From humble, ambitious beginnings, The Children's Rainforest Art Explorer Program has become more of a lifestyle than simply another art installation in a hospital. “Once they get out of the hospital, we have people that are like our family,” says Evers. “When you build a culture around art, it's a sense of purpose.” HD

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Healthcare Design 2009 August;9(8):98-99