When I was growing up I was lucky to live next to the woods and in a rural dairy community. My friends and I loved the outdoors and spent many an hour away from home with the blessing of our parents. We even created a nature trail area complete with labeled plants, secret hiding places, bird feeders and nesting boxes.
Not all children have the freedom that was afforded to me nor the great expanse of the forest and fields of the dairy farms. But that doesn't mean we can't create interesting garden spaces that will hold the interest of our children and also provide a level of safety.
Play and exercise are most frequently accommodated by the many lawn games. Depending on our children's ages, these activities could range from free-form playing to more formalized lawn sports. Unlike the regulation-sized facilities at outdoor parks, backyard versions are usually scaled down as dictated by the children's ages and available space.
Children's playhouses and treehouses are probably the most involved when it comes to adding structures to the garden. They do, however, make great areas of refuge for children. Before starting construction, confirm if municipal permits are required in your area.
Simpler do-it-yourself structures include the many variations of a hideout. It could be an inexpensive twig-and-branch fort, dome or teepee made by the children themselves. Like the playhouse, it makes a great place to escape. I built a combination sandbox and second story clubhouse-deck-jungle gym for my children and boy, did it attract the neighborhood kids.
In addition to the above-noted facilities, where space and funds allow, a paved circuit for tricycles and skateboards could be installed. When not in use by those on wheels, it could be used as a hopscotch board. These are but a few of the many possibilities.
Plants in a child's garden should appeal to the senses. For visual enjoyment, plant topiaries loom large. These wire-based creations of ivy or pruned privet (Ligustrum spp.) and yew (Taxus spp.) could be in the form of a favorite cartoon or storybook character. Plants that stimulate the sense of touch are a delight to small children. "Fuzzy Wuzzy" lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina "Fuzzy Wuzzy"), with its woolly, silver foliage, is a good example. Scented plants such as rosemary, lavender (Lavandula spp.) thyme (Thymus spp.) and chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), also stimulate the senses. Taste is easily satisfied in the children's garden with a ready supply of snacks such as ripe strawberries, raspberries and fruit trees.
Children should be actively involved in both the selection of plant material and the planting. I always found that easy-to-grow spring bulbs were a hit with my children because they remained mysteriously hidden and then reappeared in the spring. Plants selected should be easy to grow, nontoxic and noninvasive.
Children are accident prone, so it's critically important that purchased and do-it-yourself equipment is properly tested. Safety starts with perimeter landscaping, secure gates and fences, along with adequate lighting. Play surfaces should be durable but forgiving to spills and skid marks. Materials to consider include sand, deep mulch, rubberized tile and special synthetic products.
Sharp-edged surface materials should be avoided due to tripping concerns. To prevent animals from soiling sandboxes and wading pools, investigate secure all-weather covers. Shade cast over outdoor areas is important, be it from overhead trees, fabric canopies or blinds.
Space and facilities for children in the garden should never be an afterthought. They should offer a diversity of ways to learn, have fun, relax, socialize and daydream. Younger children often want more open garden spaces. As they reach middle school age they still can enjoy special garden spaces but probably would like more privacy from the riveting gaze of their parents.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.