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Play, Learn, Observe

3 distinct yard areas give kids all-year outdoor enrichment.

Blue fairy clematis

Blue fairy clematis

Well-planned spaces in your yard can harness your children’s curiosity and imagination and provide an enriching, year-round fresh-air retreat.

Landscape designer Jocelyn Chilvers, author of the blog The Art Garden, suggests that you work three different areas into your yard: active play, interactive play and seasonal observation areas. Each should evolve with your child’s changing interests.

Active Play Area

Plan open spaces for active play to accommodate your children’s ages and favorite activities. While a young child might prefer a sandbox and swing set, an older child might need more space for sports activities.

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 organic gardening writer.

An enclosed area encourages imaginative play. “Kids appreciate an area that feels like they are in their own little world,” Chilvers says. She recalls how her daughter played dolls for hours under an apricot tree. If your home has few mature trees for shade, create a canvas canopy or a metal or wood structure such as a gazebo.

Interactive Learning Area

Designate a space in the garden for your children to plant or design a birdhouse. A raised plant area makes it easier for a child to tend her garden.

“Let her select the plants and help her plant them,” Chilvers advises. “Take digital photos and make a picture book of the summer.” At the end of the season, reflect and share in the progression of her garden.

Annette Pelliccio, founder of The Happy Gardener, a garden products company, says that when her daughters were toddlers, she integrated storybook elements in their “play garden.” These included a Charlotte’s Web wire in a tree, a cottage playhouse and plants with names such as blue fairy clematis, Robin Hood tulips and ruby slipper poppies.

You can practice recycling with your kids. “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,” McIntosh says. 

Seasonal Observational Learning Area

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

Create a bird-feeding station for the winter and consult a bird field guide to identify birds that visit it. Plant flowers in the spring that attract bees and butterflies to your garden throughout the summer. In the fall, note the change of the seasons highlighted in rich fall colors.  

You can also 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,” McIntosh says.

A Multi-Sensory Garden

You can provide children the opportunity to revel in a garden that satisfies all five senses. Plant showy, fast-growing sunflowers or lilies and fragrant herbs such as mint and lemon balm. Gardening writer Jamie 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 labors 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.)

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The "sensitive plant"

Christa Hines is a freelance writer.

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