Unearthing Mother Nature’s Playground

Transform your backyard into a natural wonderland.

Unearthing Mother Nature Playground


Transform an ordinary backyard into a captivating, natural wonderland and you’ll harness the curiosity and imagination of your children in a whole new way. With a little ingenuity, you can create a multi-sensory landscape that provides your children with an enriching, year-round fresh-air

Jocelyn Chilvers, a 30-year veteran in landscape design, as well as an artist, teacher and author of the blog “The Art Garden,” suggests that you work three different areas into your landscape. These areas, including active play, interactive play and seasonal observation, should evolve with your child’s changing interests.

Active play area

Plan open spaces for active play to accommodate your children’s ages and their favourite activities. While a young child might prefer a sandbox and swing set, an older child might need more space for playing croquet or volleyball.

Also include an area in which your kids can do whatever they like. “For my three boys, that means unfettered digging! In fact, they have been working on ‘the crater’ for at least three years now,” says Jamie McIntosh, an award-winning writer and author of the blog “Organic Gardens.”

In addition, an enclosed area encourages imaginative play. “Kids appreciate an area that feels like they are in their own little world,” Chilvers says, recalling how her daughter played dolls for hours under an apricot tree in their backyard as a child. If you live in an area with few mature trees, create structures for shady retreats such as a canvas canopy or a metal or wood gazebo.

Interactive learning area

Designate a space for you and your children to plant a garden or design a birdhouse together. A low bench for potting plants and a raised garden make it easier for a child to tend a garden. Suggest a special place for kids to keep gloves and gardening tools alongside your potting area.

“Let your child select the plants and help plant them,” advises Chilvers. “Take digital photos and make a picture book of the summer.” At the end of the season, reflect and share in the progression of your child’s garden, reviewing pictures of the planting, watering and weeding of growing flowers or vegetables.

Annette Pelliccio, founder and CEO of The Happy Gardener, Inc., says that when her daughters were toddlers she integrated storybook elements in their “play garden.”  This included a Charlotte’s Web wire in a tree, a cottage playhouse and plants with names like Blue Fairy Clematis, Robin Hood tulips and Ruby Slipper poppies.

Now ages 10 and 8, Pelliccio’s daughters planted a serenity rose garden choosing varieties of roses based on what they want in their lives. “Varieties include Home and Garden, Easy Living, Cha Ching… They are painting tiles to hang throughout the garden with words we find important, including Peace, Family, Laughter,” says Pelliccio.

Further cultivate an appreciation for the world outside through recycling. “It’s never too early to teach children how to be good environmental stewards,” says McIntosh. “We compost all of our kitchen vegetable scraps and my children like to see what insects are crawling around in the compost bin when we add the scraps.”

Seasonal observation area

Children love to study bees collecting pollen, observe birds searching for worms, search for animal tracks or patiently wait for a butterfly to break out of its cocoon. “Include features in your garden that allow you and your child to observe nature and seasonal changes throughout the year,” suggests Chilvers.

Bring calming water elements into your garden and follow the aquatic life cycle of fish and plants. For younger kids “a self-contained waterfall fountain is safe and inexpensive,” says McIntosh.

Create a bird-feeding station in the winter and consult a field guide to identify the birds that visit your feeders. Plant flowers in the spring that attract bees and butterflies to your garden throughout the summer. In the fall, put the “garden to bed” in preparation for the winter while noting the change of the seasons highlighted in the glory of rich fall colors.

A multi-sensory experience

Provide children with a garden that satisfies all five senses. Plant showy, fast-growing sunflowers or lilies and fragrant herbs like mint and lemon balm. McIntosh recommends fuzzy, soft lamb’s ears and “the curious sensitive plant, which folds in when touched.” And since children love to pick flowers, McIntosh suggests flowers like snapdragons, pansies, cosmos and marigolds that “respond to picking by producing more blossoms.

“Encourage birdsong in your garden with drought-tolerant coneflowers and zinnias, which attract goldfinches with their seeds,” McIntosh adds.
Children can taste the fruit of their labours if together you plant small fruits or vegetables. Thorn-free raspberry or blackberry bushes are also a great option. (As a cautionary note, instruct your children to always ask you before eating anything from the garden.)

Get expert advice

For expert landscape advice, consult an experienced independent landscape designer with formal training in landscape design or landscape architecture. Request samples of family-friendly designs. And talk to your local garden store for information about what plants and flowers grow well in your soil.

Also check out:

  • A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children by Molly Dannenmaier
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Author: Christa Melnyk Hines

Christa Melnyk Hines is a freelance writer and the author of Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.

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