Creating a world of imagination

Lauren Toker Wilmes of The Children’s Garden Preschool in Kihei uses her decorating skills to stimulate the minds of 2- to 5-year-olds.

An award-winning set decorator, she worked on TV commercials and music videos in L.A. for nine years before returning to her native Maui in 2006.

She grew up in the preschool – a family business run by her mother, Bobbe Green, for 30 years.

Continuing a practice that was begun by her mother and grandmother, Toker Wilmes has taken decorating at the school to a new level.

A playhouse, located at the rear of the preschool, serves as a springboard for the children’s imagination. The set changes every month to reflect topics children are learning about. It may be a doctor’s office one month and a campsite the next.

Four to five children at a time are invited inside for a hands-on experience that often includes “dress-up” and “dramatic play,” according to Toker Wilmes.

“This is the greatest Christmas one,” she said of this month’s theme. “I got inspired by new things from Costco.”

In addition to the new items, which include a bare-branched tree with glowing white flowers, Toker Wilmes has access to 30 years’ worth of decorative items stored at the school.

“We have over 50 trash cans of decorations and items used for our curriculum,” she said.

She has created a world of imagination for island children who are more accustomed to palm trees and hibiscus flowers in December.

“On Maui we don’t have snow,” said Toker Wilmes while running her hand over the faux snow-covered gingerbread house at the center of her set. “It’s a winter wonderland of all the things they don’t get to experience.”

She said the children love spending time in the playhouse.

“All the kids come separately and thank me,” she said.

Toker Wilmes said the changing playhouse theme is unique to The Children’s Garden Preschool. The school has an enrollment of 70 students (42 in attendance on any given day) and seven teachers.

Back in L.A., Toker Wilmes got her start in set design after she got access to the set of the TV program “Clueless” on the Paramount lot and met some key people, including Howard Koch, a past president of the Academy of Performing Arts.

Her recognition for set decorating came in 2004, when she received a Video Music Award for Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson.”

Today, her talent for creating imaginary worlds benefits Maui keiki.

* Rich Van Scoy can be reached at