Creating a garden that’s fun for kids

by Alice Wright

© National Trust Images / Arnhel de Serra

Over the last few years evidence has mounted about the alarming rate at which children are losing touch with nature, and the damage this can cause to their overall well-being. A phrase has even been coined for the problem – ‘nature deficit disorder’. And last year the National Trust launched a campaign to re-engage children with the joys of playing outside. So it has never been more vital for parents to consider how they can tempt their children away from computer screens and into the back garden. But how do you create an outdoor space that the whole family can enjoy?

Give children space to explore

Many urban gardens in particular have a rather formulaic layout, with a lawn in the middle and beds around the outside, which do little to spark a child’s imagination. Introducing secluded and intriguing areas opens up a world of possibilities.

‘Children like to feel as if they are having an adventure so a secret path through some tall planting or trees that you can’t see from the house, for example, can give them that sense,’ says garden designer Jayne Anthony (  ‘Stepping stones could form part of a path so that jumping from one to another without touching the ground can be an exciting challenge.’ ‘Children also like to have a sense of their own private space,’ she adds, ‘so a small area tucked away that they can play or read in, away from the adults, is also appealing.’

Living willow withies can be planted in a circle and tied together at the top to create a den that is attractive to both adults and children. Bamboos can also be planted to create a natural screen where children can tuck themselves away, but  care should be taken to restrict the plants’ growth as they can get out of control.

The garden should grow with the family

‘Creating a garden for all the ‘users’ is one of the most difficult elements of designing a family garden,’ says Alex Styan, garden designer and director at Design and Dig ( ).

‘A toddler needs a safe garden with low steps and wide pathways with no large drops, whereas six and eight year olds like somewhere to run around, make dens and generally get muddy.’‘Teenagers need space to hang out with friends and for quiet time out.’

The trick, she says, is to try to create a space which can be used in different ways as the child grows. So, for instance, that willow withy hideaway that made an exciting den for eight-year-olds can be a private place for them to chat with friends when they reach their teens.

Use all the senses

Children planting seeds

© National Trust Images / David Levenson

We tend to focus on the visual appeal of a garden, but plants or other features can also be used to encourage children to touch, listen and smell. Jayne suggests creating movement through planting grasses like Stipa and Miscanthus that sway in the breeze, or Alchemilla mollis for its soft leaves which water droplets sit on. She adds that small stones are another simple way to get children to interact with the garden.

‘Pebbles might have letters painted on to them so that they can be used to create words as a fun outdoor learning tool, or different coloured pebbles could be used to create patterns,’ she says.

Children will love sniffing plants with exotic scents, like the Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) or the Helichrysum angustifolium, or curry plant. Or grow a few aromatic herbs like mint and sage that will tickle the taste-buds too. Your child can even be in charge of their own pot.

Get children involved

Gardens for children 3

credit: Design and Dig Ltd

Encourage children to join you when you’re using the garden so you can all enjoy it together.

‘Generally, children take the lead from adults so my children are as much at home in our veggie patch as I am because it’s normal for us to be out there,’ says Alex. ‘My children have a flower bed each and they decide what goes in it. ‘

‘If you don’t usually venture past the patio and barbeque, encourage the children into the garden by doing some artwork in the garden, or let the children make something more permanent to go in the garden, like a home-made wind chime. The children can then go out and visit it.’

Give them a patch of their own

Gardens for Children

© National Trust Images

Giving children a plot of their own, as well their own tools, encourages a sense of responsibility and ownership.

‘They could sow simple seeds, water them and watch them grow. They could grow something that they could eat, to learn to appreciate where food comes from,’ says Jayne.

She advises that raised beds and pots are easier for little ones to reach, and placing them near the house not only allows parents to keep an eye, but also means children will remember to check on their progress.

Ian Wright, Gardens and Parks Advisor for the National Trust, suggests focusing on plants that show results quickly so children don’t lose interest. Sunflowers, pumpkins, runner beans and sweetcorn are all fast growers.

Spark an interest in wildlife

Gardens for children 2

credit: Design and Dig Ltd

Most children love creepy crawlies and other wildlife, so a garden that’s tempting to birds, insects and other creatures should also be tempting to your own brood. Hang a bird box and feeder – children can make or decorate their own – and invest in a children’s bird book so they can identify feathered visitors. And embrace a bit of mess in the garden. Minibeasts thrive where they have somewhere to hide from predators so try to leave a corner of the garden relatively untouched. Or create a log pile, which will provide a refuge and hunting ground for a whole array of wildlife.

The Wildlife Trust has a great page for kids which will help them discover what is hiding in the garden, with activities such as making a tumble trap for insects: first, find somewhere in the garden that won’t be disturbed. Then fit two empty yoghurt pots together and dig a hole deep enough that you can place them in the ground with their rims flush to the earth. Bait the pot with a small piece of meat or fruit and balance a large, flat stone or tile on smaller stones across the top of the pot, leaving space for insects to walk in but protecting it from rain and birds. Check a few hours later to see what you’ve caught.

Safety in the garden

“Gardens contain many of the same hazards as inside the house but people relax their guard outside and don’t take the same precautions with safety,” says Alex. “I have been to gardens where highly toxic chemicals are piled casually next to play equipment in unlocked sheds or lean-to buildings that children can and do access.”

Family on community allotments

© National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Apart from the danger from toxic chemicals – which should be safely locked away – Alex adds that many plants can be dangerous. These include the berries on yew and ivy, and foxgloves, laburnum and delphiniums. The RHS has a helpful list of potentially harmful garden plants. You may want to eliminate the most toxic plants from your garden, but the best policy is to teach children from a young age not to eat anything from the garden unless an adult has approved it.

Animal faeces can also pose a risk, especially cats’, which Jayne says can be particularly bad in areas of newly cleared ground, gravel or sandpits.

“Try to teach your children to keep their hands out of their mouths and to wash them after being in the garden as all soil carries tetanus which can infect through an open wound,” she adds.

Water is another hazard in gardens. The danger of an uncovered pond is obvious but Alex says children should be taught about the dangers of all kinds of water in the garden, such as water butts and paddling pools.

Smaller ponds can be protected with a strong metal grid, which prevents children from falling in, while larger areas of water should be securely fenced off. Or Ian suggests introducing a circulating fountain or similar feature which will create movement and noise that the whole family can enjoy safely.

Play equipment doesn’t have to take over

Children’s play equipment can present something of a conundrum. Children love swings and slides, but they are often garish and can dominate smaller spaces. Alex says there are ways to make the play equipment blend into the garden, but stresses that the safety of the equipment is always more important than how it looks.

Gardens for children 1

credit: Design and Dig Ltd

“There are companies that (for a price) provide rustic- looking timber play equipment or will safely lower trampolines into the ground,” she says. “These things should only ever be undertaken by properly insured experts.”

However, she adds there are always ways to “soften and screen” equipment, citing a garden she recently designed where one side of a play house was painted a darker colour to provide a backdrop for fernery and white birch. Jayne also suggests using plants or a trellis to screen equipment from the house, or at least reduce its impact. But, she adds, if the whole garden has been designed with children in mind, play equipment may not even be necessary.

“I find that a lot of parents are happy to use the local facilities and make the garden attractive yet child-friendly using some of the other ideas mentioned,” she says.

Leave a Reply