From Fairytales to Waterfalls...Unearth Mother Nature's 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 retreat.

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 learning and seasonal observation areas, 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 favorite activities. While a young child might prefer a sand box and swing set, an older child might need more space for playing croquet or volleyball.

Also, include an area in which the children 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."

Enclosed areas encourage 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 a tree in their backyard. 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 structure like a gazebo.

Interactive Learning Area

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

“Let her select the plants and help her plant them,” Chilvers says. “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, reviewing pictures of her planting, watering and weeding her growing flowers or vegetables.

Annette Pelliccio, founder and CEO of The Happy Gardener, Inc., whose company provides earth-friendly products to gardeners, says that when her daughters were toddlers she integrated storybook elements in their “play garden,” including 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.

“They are painting tiles to hang throughout the garden with words of what we find important, including peace, family and laughter,” Pelliccio says.

Further cultivate an appreciation for the world outside through recycling. “It’s never too early to teach children how to be good environmental stewards,” McIntosh says. “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,” Chilvers says.

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.

Create a bird-feeding station in the winter and consult your state bird field guide to identify the birds that visit your bird 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 changing seasons highlighted by the glory of rich fall colors. 

A Multi-Sensory Garden Experience

Provide children the opportunity to indulge in a garden that satisfies all five of the senses. Plant showy, fast-growing sunflowers or lilies and fragrant herbs like mint and lemon balm. McIntosh recommends fuzzy, soft lamb’s ears and mimosa pudica, a sensitive plant that responds to touch. Since children love to pick flowers, McIntosh suggests snapdragons, pansies, cosmos and marigolds, which 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 fruit 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.)

Additional Resources

For expert landscape advice, consult an experienced independent landscape designer with formal training in landscape design and architecture. Request examples of family-friendly designs. Also, check with your local county extension office for information about soil, water conservation, classes, pest control tips and more (

McIntosh also recommends “A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children” by Molly Dannenmaier and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv. 

Christa Melnyk Hines is a freelance journalist, wife and mother of two boys who love to play in the dirt.

Published: January 2013

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