Children love to move, discover, imagine, build, and they love to hide. There is no “right and wrong” in creating fun spaces for children! We hope you can use some of these ideas to enhance your outdoor spaces.
Children love to move, discover, imagine, build, and they love to hide.
If you need some help, contact us for a consultation or design. Some keys we use for creating childhood gardens; they can be a blend of any or all of the following critical elements:
Water is like a magnet to children – they head towards water first! Of course a visit to a natural stream or lake is the most fun, but you can include a variety of elements in the landscape that bring some of this adventure home. A pop-up sprinkler included just for them, an interactive fountain, or a shallow water feature can help fulfill that need for sensory experiences by water. With careful thought to safety, water features can easily be included in a special spot in the garden.
All kinds of natural wildlife can be attracted to a garden – insects, butterflies, rabbits, birds, bats, etc. Children’s pets, too, are “nature” to them. A good garden design invites life into it – build a bat house, install a birdbath and feeders; restore the ecosystem of our backyards. No need to remove all old tree stumps or snags – they provide wonderful habitat for creatures. We can provide resources for information of what might be attracted by which kind of plants, as well as all the needs in a habitat. If you have outdoor cats, attracting wildlife can be dangerous. Keep cats inside at night to protect them, create cat yards, or at least keep bells on collars to warn birds. Unfortunately, lizards can’t hear!
What better way to watch other activities going on around you, or wildlife approaching, than by being hidden in your secret fort, or cave, or den? Certain plantings can accomplish this as well, and parents can keep an eye on their hidden young ones by using tall grasses (screening from the ground up) or by the graceful “blinds” of the branches of a desert willow, for example. Work as a family on the construction of kid’s playhouses and forts. Include a lot of opportunity to change and create. This is much more important than the perfect pre-made structure. Arbors can be included in the garden, and by mid or late summer be covered with dense greenery such as vines, gourds, or other climbing vegetables. Huge garden teepees can support bean plants, etc. Huge sunflowers can be planted in a circle, then grow beans up the stalks for a fabulous fort.
The “loose parts” of nature – rocks, stones, sticks, sand, etc. – become children’s favorite things. With these simple and available things they become their own architects, bringing their imaginary worlds to life. Make a space in the garden for this need to dig, build up, and tear down. If the garden is flat, build up some earth berms and grassy mounds, sufficient for a very small child to have hours of fun running up and down the “hill”. Kids garden tools, or old kitchen tools should be available for them to dig and play. Sand piles/sandboxes are like the beach – full of endless possibilities for play. Treasures, or “fossils”, can be hidden in the sand.
Children – and not only children – always want to get to the highest point around them. Humans have a basic need to survey their world from the top. Pre-fabricated climbing structures provide only one way to address this need to climb. Include climbing trees in your design; make tree houses. If you have boulder piles in your yard, leave them there; use them in your design. What children don’t see in the garden can be considered a hazard, but children need to make choices to test themselves out and develop confidence in their abilities, and the risks they take can, essentially, be “created” quite visibly in the garden. Be clear about the dangers, however, and openly discuss issues of spiders, snakes, and other creatures that live in the garden.
Watch children in a playground – they love to run, fall, spin, roll around, etc. A dense, soft native grass area would be wonderful for this. Winding pathways would give them a place to meander and for discovery; a larger one could create a “track” for running. Simple open spaces allow for this rambunctious movement, and there are certain native plants that are kid-energy friendly – prickly plants do not belong here. Remember use NO herbicides and pesticides on the grassy or other garden areas – keep children, pets, and wildlife safe from contamination. Hang swings from a sturdy tree branch, rather than erecting a factory-built swing.
In an imaginative garden your children will become explorers, nurturers, discoverers, artists, and many other things. Surprise them with whimsical images at various turns. Circular pathways, mazes, secret paths, can all be created in different ways, and they don’t need to be large. A small area, created with hidden areas, tall and short plants alike, can give hours of fun and pleasure to children. Cut pathways through a meadow-like, tall grass prairie area (native sand dropseed grass); curve pathways around the boulders. Giant beanstalks or sunflowers add to the make-believe stories children create for themselves. Wild and crazy ornaments made by the parents and/or children are all part of the make-believe inspiration. Gates that go nowhere in particular; fences for no reason, with child-height peepholes make the garden unique and fun. Little furniture helps to create the perfect imaginary story or allows for a comfortable, quiet place for reading.
It is important to instill in children a care and compassion – an ethic – for the land and its creatures. Model this for your children; guide them through this. Encourage observation of insects, rather than destruction. At the same time have enough flowers and herbs in the garden that it is OK to pick some. Miniature vegetables, giant veggies, berry bushes are among choices that allow for the nourishment of the mind and body. These days there are countless varieties of odd-colored and quick growing vegetables, allowing for the magic of growing, harvesting, and eating what the children grew themselves. Miniature fruit trees bear fruit earlier than regular fruit trees, and are low enough for the children to harvest the fruit themselves. Do include fragrant flowers and herbs – chocolate flowers, flavored mints, lavenders, and sages. Include plants with different textures and sounds (dry pods, for example).
People learn in a multitude of ways, and children learn even though they think they are just having fun. Consider including “theme” sections of the garden giving children the opportunity to learn about different cultures, different subjects (math, English, etc.), story telling (beanstalks, pumpkins, imagine fairies and elves), alphabet gardens (plants with names going from A-Z). Different families of plants – such as succulents, mosses, and lichens – can all be included in specific areas of a garden. Medicinal plants, grown and used by Native American tribes and the pioneers, can be grown and serve as a lesson in history and social studies. Hot plants, such as chilies, could serve to include cross-cultural studies, etc. Other spices and herbs and vegetables could serve as a learning tool for other cultures – India, the Middle East, etc. Living sundials can be included, as well as plants with flowers that open and close at different times of the day. Consider a night garden – white flowers attract nocturnal pollinators – a lesson in itself. There is no “right and wrong” in creating fun spaces for children! We hope you can use some of these ideas to enhance your outdoor spaces for children. If you need some help, contact us for a consultation or design.
Coming Soon: Childhood Landscapes – Creating Outdoor Spaces for the Child in Everyone is a book that is currently under development by Nichole Trushell. If you are interested in receiving information about this book, please send us your contact information.