You want your children to enjoy the sunshine and outdoor play. In this article, Val Mullally gives five practical tips on how to create a child-friendly garden.

You’ve probably ensured you have a child-safe’ garden – but is it a child-friendly garden? A child-friendly garden doesn’t need to be perfectly manicured. It’s a garden that calls to your child, “Come and play.”

How to Create a Child-Friendly Garden

What’s the difference between “child-safe” and “child-friendly”?

Safety is obviously important for your child’s sake – and creating a safe secure environment leaves your child free to play without unnecessary adult interference. What child wants a grown up saying – “Don’t do this/ don’t do that’” when they’re immersed in play! A child-friendly garden is always child-safe. i.e. no uncovered areas of water of any depth, no sharp corners that could cause harm. And a child-friendly garden takes into account the age and developmental needs of the child.  A child-friendly garden will evolve as children grow.  While some child-safe gardens will have little that attracts the child or holds interest for long, the child-friendly garden is a child-safe space that begs to be explored.

What is a ‘Child-Friendly’ Garden?

A child-friendly garden is something so much more than just a safe space! It’s a space that lures the child; where nature waits to be explored. Where the child becomes immersed in the realm of curiosity and imagination. It’s a space that calms.

A Child Friendly Garden Is so much more than a Child-Safe Garden

 

No matter how pretty, children don’t want a flat garden that is immediately available to the eye on first encounter. Children need somewhere the imagination can wander.  A place where stories can come to life.

A child-friendly garden is a place where there’s a sense of ‘magic’ – of mystery and wonder. A place where you can disappear into your own world of imagination – or wonder and curiosity, watching swaying leaves in sunlight, a bright ladybird on a leaf, or a bumblebee industriously collecting pollen.  A place where you can create your own stories with your dolls or toy cars, where you can build a house for the hedgehog or fairy, or have a picnic or a tea party with invited guests (whether teddy bears, the child next door or mummy and daddy).

Children  love gardens that are rich in natural textures, where there are leaves that will blow in the wind, where the land has hillocks and undulations, and sunlight dapples through the trees.

A garden where the child can lose herself in her imagination, where anything could be possible.

It’s a garden where there aren’t such perfect flower beds that she can’t tumble and roll on the lawn. It’s ideally not one level surface. It’s interesting to the senses!

A place that is attractive to all the senses – touch, smell, sight, taste, and hearing are all enticingly engaged. The warmth of the sun on grass and stones, the coolness of water and dappled shade, the sounds of wind-chimes and running water, the feel and smell of leaves, flowers and fruit, unexpected corners with new delights – these are all elements of a child-friendly garden.

Young children can have endless hours of imaginative play in a garden like this.

Five Tips to Create a Child-Friendly Garden Your Child Will Love:

1. Provide props to encourage play.

For example, props for your children to create a picnic, or to make a ‘tent’. Sometimes children will ask for the props they need – but wise adults will also be sensitive to when something extra is needed. Maybe it’s a bottle of bubbles to blow, or a temporary ‘clothes line’ and pegs for a morning of washing dolly’s clothes, or an old sheet to make a tent.

Farms, zoos and many adventures can be created with a few simple props.

2. Provide natural play materials.

Natural materials like water, sand, mud, stones sticks and plants provide a rich sensory experience for children.  Different weights, textures temperatures, smells, ways fo being used. Water play is a much-loved activity – but be aware of any safety hazards. A sand area is also great. Earth, mud, stones, wood, and water are all part of garden play.

3. Create a safe (and enticing) garden – and give them freedom in that space.

Think back to your own favourite activities as a child. They were probably those times when you were free to create your own imaginative world, without an adult breathing down your neck. Young children need a child-safe garden with secure boundaries – and then give them space to create their own play, unless they’re inviting you to ‘join the party’.

4.  Expensive play equipment isn’t needed.

Many parents buy elaborate climbing frames and other playground equipment – but when you walk through a neighbourhood notice how many of these are hardly used. Rather create space that can be used in many different ways. The large pieces of equipment that are likely to give endless hours of pleasure are a good swing and a trampoline. (If you have young children, create a low boundary in front and behind the swing, so that younger ones won’t walk into the path of the swing).

5. Create a simple veggie patch

Children are far more likely to eat the healthy stuff when they’ve grown and harvested the food themselves! And there’s so much to learn – not only about the plants, but about the soil, worms and insects, watering, waiting for things to grow, tidying up after yourself, working together.

Why do ‘Child-Friendly’ Gardens Matter?

A garden is ideally a place where you can just ‘be’.

A place where imaginations can bloom, where the senses can feast and muscles and brains can relax or be challenged in interesting ways.

Even older children can experience a garden like this as a sanctuary – a place to be still and unwind.

How to Create a Child-Friendly Garden

Where to Find Inspiration for A Child-Friendly Garden?

Pinterest is a great resource to discover how to create a child-friendly garden. Click this link to see my Pinterest board “Magical Gardens for Children”

Flower Shows are places where you can find inspiring ideas to bring the “magic” into your garden. Annual events like The Bloom Festival (Ireland’s answer to Chelsea Flower Show) are a fabulous outing and great places to get ideas on what makes a garden a place to nurture a child’s soul.

 

To discover more about the Koemba Parenting approach buy your copy of ‘Behave – What To Do When Your Child Won’t’, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

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Last edited June 02nd 2018

It seems to me that being a parent (or carer of children) is rather like the job of a sound engineer. Most of the time nobody even notices the job that you are doing when everything Is going smoothly. But the moment that there’s some flaw or hiccup in the production, everyone becomes conscious that the sound engineer isn’t ‘doing the job properly’. We’ve all experienced those moments when the microphone feedback sends piercing shrieks through the auditorium, or the speaker’s voice is reduced to an inaudible whisper. That’s when we notice the sound engineer.

Likewise, it’s in the moments when something goes wrong with our children that we can feel like all eyes are upon us. And it makes sense that as parents we want to avoid that negative limelight. I’m speaking from experience. My son broke his leg when he was young, and it wasn’t only his pain that upset me, but the disapproving look and not-so-subtle comments from a family member, who gave the message that I hadn’t ‘done my job’. Keeping our children safe is certainly high on the priority  list of parents but, as a society, have we become so safety conscious that we deny our children the opportunity to thrive? Are we so focused on keeping our children ‘safe’ that their health and well being has moved to second place?

I’m thinking, for example, of the time when I was about eight years old when  I broke my collar-bone climbing a tree in our back garden. I am so glad that my mother did not stop me from climbing trees after that incident! I don’t even remember her telling me to ‘be careful’ once I was able to swing myself back up into my leafy haven. Kids falling out of trees was something that happened from time to time. I doubt if my mother worried that someone would think she was a ‘bad parent’ for letting me climb a tree unsupervised. Climbing trees was seen as something kids do.   When I was at the top of the tree in a strong wind, I was a ship captain sailing the wild seas. On calmer days I’d stay still in my overhead lair and watch and listen to the comings and goings of the neighbourhood beneath me. The tree tops were my refuge on days when I felt glum. They were the place where my imagination took flight. They were, without me even realising it, where I developed my sense of balance and spatial awareness. The tree tops were also the place where it was most challenging to keep up with my older sister. I can remember inching along high limbs, quaking with fear, but determined to climb as high as my big sister climbed. This is where I developed tenacity; where I tested my staying powers and my limits. Where I learnt what my body could and couldn’t do.

So my question is, in what ways is our over-safety mindset depriving our children? How is it affecting our children’s health and well-being when we are so focused on safety that we ignore their need to explore, to observe, to adventure, to test their own abilities? We need to think about the message we give to children when we jump in too quickly to ‘keep them safe’.

Perhaps in our well-meaning safety consciousness we are giving messages like:

Keeping your child ‘too safe’

Don’t ever listen to your body wisdom.                  

You don’t know how to make decisions.

Let other people to determine what you can’t do.

The world is a dangerous, unsafe place.

In contrast, through my experiences in the tree tops  I discovered:

My body knows what it can and can’t do.

I can make decisions. I won’t always get it right but then I’ll know how to do it differently next time.

I know how to keep myself safe.

The world is an amazing place.

Life is an exciting adventure to be lived.

I invite you to think back to your childhood experiences of free play. What are some of your favourite memories? Where did you play? By yourself or with others? Write down at least 5 of the messages you received about life without even realising it. What messages about life and about themselves might your children be absorbing, thorough their play experiences? What messages do you really want them to absorb? So what’s working and what might you choose to do differently? When we are tuned in to our own inner wisdom, we’ll sense when we need to intervene to protect our children, and when to quieten our own anxiety and leave them free to be. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about children’s need for free play. Watch out for my next blog in a couple of days, because I’ll be chatting about how focusing on being a ‘good’ parent can get in the way of achieving what you really want.

Last edited April 29th 2014