Spending time outdoors can be a welcome release from the pressures of daily life, for kids and adults alike. We can all benefit from fresh air and open space, even if it's just a few minutes away from the four walls of our homes, work or school. Our own garden is the ideal location for outdoor time, as it's convenient, safe and familiar.
This is especially the case if you are trying to avoid screens as the Go To entertainment for your family at home. As far as I'm concerned, it is an important skill for kids to be able to entertain themselves in their own home, without friends or other distractions. They need to be able to solve the "I'm bored" question for themselves.
As our kids grow older, they often see less opportunity for fun in the garden and they can quickly get out of the habit of going there to play. That's the case no matter what size garden you have. But, with a little thought and creativity, there can be lots of potential for kids to play outdoors in your garden right up into their tweens.
And the benefits of getting kids outdoors to play as much as possible are well documented. I have posted about this topic myself here Top 10 benefits of outdoor play (naturedays.ie). In a nutshell, kids getting time to play outdoors is not something that might be nice to achieve in an ideal world. It is absolutely essential for their healthy physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological development.
In this era of Nature Deficit Disorder What is Nature-Deficit Disorder? - Richard Louv, screens, media and devices, we can expect our tweens and teens to spend between 4 - 7 hours (or more) online every day in their "spare" time. Finding other, screen free, ways to entertain themselves is a major issue for our young people. Getting childhood back outdoors has never been more important for children's wellbeing, from toddler to eighteen, and Nature Days wants to help.
As garden makeovers are generally a costly business,
making the most of what you have is a key message for getting our kids into the garden more.
Here are our 7 Steps for Creating a Child Friendly Garden - Without breaking the Bank!
1. Think Zones
I'm not a garden designer, so this is very much based on my own experience planning a garden at home.
Everyone’s garden will be different, ranging from the small suburban garden, to a half acre or more in rural areas. I have lived in homes with both types and, ultimately, when planning any garden, it comes down to Zones.
I have three zones in mind:
Relax zone - This will be the area where the entire family gathers together on balmy summer evenings. It will usually be right outside the back of the house too. Pay attention to the sun path, especially in the evenings after work, and consider whether repositioning this relaxation area to catch more direct sun light would be of benefit.
Play zone - This is exactly what it says on the tin! It's for play, be that ball games, swing sets, climbing frames, trampolines or whatever you may have in your garden now. This is the kids space.
Nature Zone - This can become somewhere to Grow Your Own, work with plants, create textures, smells, and even privacy for the kids when they are outdoors.
All three areas may blend into each other at times, depending on the activity involved.
The idea is to separate the three zones, as formally or softly as you like, so they are independent of each other. This can be done with materials like small box hedges, flower beds or borders, a gravel path or stepping stones, screens like a trellis, or planting in boxes, or a grouping of potted plants.
Many urban gardens will typically already have 2 Zones - the hard landscape of the patio and the grass of the lawn. So using this blank canvas, create a further zone in one area of the garden to be your Nature Zone.
2. Tap into your children’s interests
This comes high up on my list because, if you want to get your kids out into the garden playing, or hanging out, the garden must have something to interest them.
Once your kids are of school going age, it's a nice idea to sit down together and plan their space in the garden. Sure, they may suggest the Cu Chulainn rollercoaster in the front lawn, and a 100 ft water slide in the back (quoting the Lotto TV ads), but just guide them back to reality by chatting about their interests.
If there are several kids, of varying ages, the space will need to accommodate everyone. Make a short list, with something for everyone, and then use that to plan your garden.
Relax Zone – Your tweens and teenagers may want somewhere to sit, with some shelter, so maybe a hammock or swing chair, with a parasol in summer, would interest them.
Very young kids will want somewhere to bring indoor toys to when the weather is dry. Using your existing garden table and chairs is ideal. You could also look at sourcing a second hand bench, or picnic table, for messier play. With a lick of bright, cheerful, paint, an old picnic bench can take on a new lease of life.
Play Zone - A sports area, such as a goal, somewhere to skate or practice rollerblade jumps, may work well. The patio can be an ideal location for much of this, with it's hard surface, as well as the grass area. If goals are too big for the back garden, painting a small goal onto one of your side walls can work really well, while taking up no additional space. If it seems the Patio is needed more as a Play Zone, reposition your table and chairs to another location, together with decorative pots, plants or ornaments, away from the activity of boisterous kids.
Swing and slide sets, climbing frames, playhouses or trampolines will all be a source of outdoor fun for kids right up to their tweens, once they have an element of age appropriate challenge.
A basketball hoop, on the wall or free standing, is also a good idea for tweens and teens when toys are off the table.
Rotating toys is a Top Tip when it comes to outdoor play. Every so often, put some toys away for a while. They'll take on a new lease of life when they reappear at a later stage.
Nature Zone – This is an area that children can develop an interest in over time, from having small tasks looking after Nature in your garden. Planting seeds or flowers, planting herbs and vegetables in pots, watering plants, deadheading flowers, pruning shrubs, collecting leaves, grass, weeding, filling the bird feeder, or making bird feeders Naturedays | 30 Minutes of Magic | Make and Create are all gardening activities kids will enjoy. Hang a bird feeder, make a small bug hotel, or try other Nature Days activities in the link above to bring your Nature Zone to life.
3. Use what you have
A typical urban garden will have a patio, wooden fences, some wall space, a garden shed perhaps, and a lawn area. That’s the blank canvas. Now think in terms of Zones. How can a small Nature zone in one corner benefit your kids play outdoors? Can they get hands on with Nature materials, plants and dirt?
Decorations for the wall space, hanging an outdoor blackboard How to make an outdoor chalkboard - Rock and Roll Pussycat, hanging baskets or planting boxes for salad leaves or herbs using the fence, or making a sheltered hideout space off the side of the garden shed with tall shrubs or a trellis, are all ways to add interest to what you already have.
Once all the kids have outgrown swing sets, trampolines etc, start to rethink your garden with older kids in mind and move these on to reclaim the space.
If you’ve no lawn at all, that's no problem either. You can always add Nature with pots and containers of plants.
When looking at some of the ideas in this article, think of your own garden and think, “where could I do that in our garden?”
Search in your shed, garage, or kitchen, and gather together a hoard of items the kids can use for their outdoor play – buckets, containers, wooden boxes, old spoons, ladles, utensils, plastic jugs, pots and teapots all work great. A trip to the local charity shop can be a great source of outdoor play equipment like this too. The kids love to play in an outdoor kitchen, or factory, so the more utensils they have of their own the better. Have an easily accessed, large, container for these to be stored in.
4. Use natural materials and loose parts
Kids are drawn to natural materials like sand, gravel, logs, branches, planks of wood, or tree stumps. So, when you have decided what kinds of Play and Nature zones you will put together in the garden, keep an eye out for these types of materials when out and about, from neighbors, or on local notice boards.
It may look like an eye sore to you, but kids love a pile of gravel, mole hills of clay, a winding path threw the flower beds, or mini jungles made from tall shrubs at the bottom of the garden.
Tyres used as a Zone border and also for playing with. Wood, gravel, and loose parts all make for imaginative play equipment for kids.
Some long branches, sticks and planks of wood turned into a fun hideout for kids.
You can pick up sand for sand boxes in your local toy store. Consider making a cover for your sand box so that local cats don't use it as a litter. Teach the children to cover their sand pit and wash their hands when back indoors.
Tyres of all sizes are a fun addition to any garden, from planters to use as stepping stones, hideouts, or toys - they'll never be without a job to do. Older kids in particular will get a kick out of them. Pick up unused ones at your local mechanics or tyre center, for very little cost. Pipes can also be fun for kids in the garden, as race tracks, for ball games, DIY telephones, and lots more.
5. Get creative
Relax Zone – Pots and containers are your friend when it comes to planting in this area of the garden. And when it comes to kids, the quirkier the better! You can upcycle any old sink or containers and turn them into planters. Look around for old wooden boxes, unused metal containers, odd wellies or boots, even old toys can all make a cute little planter. Just bore some drainage holes in the bottom of your planters if needed.
There are endless ideas online when you look at upcycled planters, so get the kids involved and get creative. Your older kids and teens in particular may be a huge asset with this part of the garden makeover, so tap into their interest in tools, art, creativity and see what they can come up with! Let them feel they are a valuable asset to the family and they will flourish with newfound purpose.
Play Zone – Some planters or border boxes along the edge of your garden in places may be a nice touch. However, if football is on the agenda in this area, it may be wise to leave it clear of plants for the time being.
Nature Zone – Here your imagination can really take flight. If you want to start a Grow Your Own section, again a grouping of larger planters, upcycled wooden boxes, or specially made raised bed by your budding carpenters will all work great.
This doesn’t have to be a large space. Start small, and get the kids involved in picking the plants to grow and perhaps some starter lettuce or strawberry plants too. Check in the garden center what plants to grow at this time of year. Use variety of colour, texture, scent, height and also some edible plants to encourage a sensory experience in the Nature Zone. Make sure to avoid plants which may be harmful to small kids, prickly plants etc. Remember our bees and pollinators when deciding on plants too - it will give you all great pleasure to watch visiting bees on your plants next summer.
Why not start off this Autumn with some pots filled with spring flowering bulbs like daffodils, tulips, snowdrops or bluebells, which will appear after Christmas. They will be something cheerful and encouraging to look forward to throughout the lull after the New Year.
Having tools the kids can use safely is also a great draw in the garden. Their own trowels, small shovels, small rakes or scoops can be used for all sorts of games, with buckets, containers and wooden boxes too.
You could also plant one or two tall bushes in the Nature Zone so that the kids can have a space to hidebehind when out in the garden. Kids love a hideout! Just check what the height and spread of the plant will be when mature so it does not take over your garden!
Planting climbers, like sweat pea, along the edge of this bamboo teepee structure will create a natural hide out the kids will love. Check online for instructions.
b. Containing mess
Making specific zones goes a long way to containing the mess around the garden. "Mess" will be very important to some people and not even considered by others, so do what suits your personality and will work best for your family.
Some ideas to deal with "Mess" are:
Have large galvanised tubs from the hardware store on hand to store outdoors toys when not in use.
Use large, shallow, plastic or metal containers, lids, or trays, to make sand or gravel pits. A trip to the hardware store can be the answer here too. Or there are many items on line, like giant indoor gardening trays, which would be ideal. Keep take-away containers or foil containers for use in the outdoor workshop too.
You could also use sleepers, logs, or small bricks to make a bespoke "hands on pit" for the kids outdoor play. I love the car track along the edge of this DIY creation!
Also, a small patch, or large containers and pots, are perfect for specific areas like the Bee garden below, or a Fairy Village. A perfect opportunity to teach kids of the importance of bees and all our pollinator insects too.
Occasionally, we’ll all do a clean up and reclaim the patio and some lawn area if the loose parts have spread around the garden. But I’m not too strict though. If the kids are having fun, especially the older ones, I tend not to dampen their fun by being too picky all the time. But I do pull them up on it after a while.
c. Tools & materials
Older kids and teens in particular want to show off how grown up they are. Getting their hands on the family power tools is exciting for them. So, pick a relatively simple, age appropriate, project together like this nest box (NEST-BOX_0.jpg (3492×2453) (wildlifewatch.org.uk) and give it a try. Other ideas are DIY flower/Veg beds, or wooden planters How To Make a Wooden Planter - BBC Gardeners' World Magazine (gardenersworld.com). Begin to show the older kids how to use these tools safely. Adult supervision is essential here. Check out more DIY ideas here Naturedays | Easy Breezy Nature Days.
An interested relative, or friend, with equipment and skills, can be very useful if this is outside your comfort zone. But remember to challenge yourself too, the kids will love it and so will you!
The same logic applies for art and creative pursuits. If your teen wants to try their hand at a messy art challenge, then outdoors is the perfect place for it. Have some old sheets or gingham tablecloths to hand that can be used to protect your garden furniture.
Trellis screens, or trellis planters like in the picture below, can create zones and also privacy for kids hideouts.
Even attaching some trellis to the back of a large wooden box planter can create screening for cosy corners and out of the way dens.
Bamboo screens, a row of woven hazel, or heather panels, may work well in smaller gardens too.
Wooden Cable Reels
Large wooden cable reels are so versatile as tables, for playing with, or as work stations. One tucked away in a corner, surrounded by tall shrubs, can become the base for camp, hideouts and all sorts of headquarters too. Lash on some chalk paint to the top, or pop a parasol into the middle, for a handy chalk table or picnic table. There are really fab ideas online for these simple, yet affordable, items. Find them for sale online.
d. Colour & decoration
In all three zones, colour and decoration can go a long way to bringing fun and interest to the garden for the kids.
Painting up old pots or plant containers together can be great fun and liven up your outdoor space. Use outdoor paint so it survives the elements.
Upcycling old pallets, wooden boxes, metal containers, benches, second hand furniture can all add personality and interest to your garden. Kids of all ages will love getting the chance to help out with the renovations. Once you tap into this creative spirit, you will start to see potential for quirky additions to your garden at every turn. Warning – you may find yourself dragging old milk churns out of ditches but that's part of the fun!
6. Get the kids involved- even the teens
Getting your teens involved, asking their advice and for their ideas, is a great way to get their attention. It also helps them connect more with the outdoor space.
And when it comes to doing some work together outdoors, it’s both good for the soul and spreads the load. So, get them involved, let them lead if they want to, and just stand back to observe and oversee any of the more risky activities with equipment, power tools, or paint brushes!
Jobs for the kids can include marking out paths or zones in the garden, making decorations for the garden like painted stones, paintings for the wall, plant pots, painting old furniture, making small driftwood or twig fences and preparing flower or veg beds. They can then help create the different zones themselves.
7. Get Practical about Storage
Having a place for everything is a big part of the jigsaw. So, when making the Zones, make sure the kids know what can be left out in the Zone and what must be put back in the storage container provided or garden shed after use.
Storage Pallet - Something like this pallet for the kids outdoor tools or equipment would work well on the side of the shed.
Outdoor toy box - An outdoor toy box is a god send when it comes to tidying up, especially if you have a small garden space.
Kids Storage Shed - A slim line storage space which the kids can access is a great addition to many gardens.
Galvanised or plastic storage containers - some large tubs for guns, sticks and larger toys can be helpful in containing the spread of the mess around the garden. Check your local hardware for inexpensive large tubs. Just like school or preschool, teach your kids to tidy up their toys before them come inside.
Coming indoors - Finally, if getting dirty, and bringing dirt indoors, is a factor for you, plan for this at the outset. Place a large tub right inside the back door (or outside even if it's not too wet) where wellies, wet gear, dirty coats or shoes get dumped before they come inside. Grab an offcut from a carpet store to put out on wet days, so they can change out of wet and dirty clothes without ruining your floor. Once you are prepared, life becomes a lot easier.
Because we can't let rain, cold or damp weather keep our kids indoors - it's the very weather that builds their resilience and confidence in themselves. We just need to prepare for this weather both in how they dress going out and for when they come back in.
So there it is - 7 Steps to creating a play haven for your kids in your garden.
And my advice is simple really: start thinking of your garden in terms of outdoor entertainment for your kids. What do you need to put out there to entice them outdoors?
Once you have it set up, stick to your guns! Screens, indoor toys, and indoor comforts, are all off limits for this part of their day - they just have to find something to do outside - it's that simple.
Remember you are doing this for their wellbeing, so keep this in your mind if there is pushback at the beginning. Getting them involved in jobs in the garden, and having them help you with the garden makeover, will light their spark for fun in the garden. And once that spark is lit, keep it going by coming out to see them every so often as they play outdoors. They just love to show us what they've been up to.