by Peter Shaw of Ocean Road Landscaping

We recently opened our own garden to the public through Open Gardens Australia and watched to see what people gravitated to. The answer was unexpected and it’s made me think a lot more about the relationship between children and natural spaces. Visitors, adults and children alike – were attracted to the bits specifically incorporated for our kids’ sake in our child friendly garden. If you’re like us, keen to encourage natural play rather than hours spent indoors in front of a screen, then you might find the following helpful. It’s what we’ve done, and done cheaply, and it seems to be working.

child friendly garden

As a professional, I’m often asked to design and build landscapes with children in mind, and as I’m also a parent, I often refer to my own experience with our four children who are 15, 13, 11 and nine for a child friendly garden. Right from the beginning – even while we were still living in a construction zone – we’ve always had lots of things in the garden to attract play. In those days the children were younger and very happy to dig and fossick in piles of rocks, pebbles, soil and mulch. In the years since, they’ve grown and their needs have shifted so that we’d added things to suit.

loops are great

We’ve laid a circuit track through a bed of shrubs and under the trees, something they can run along and hide, but more importantly, there are places to visit along the way. A water bowl and fire pit in a sitting area is a great place to go to read a book or sit around with friends. Further along, the younger two have a fairy garden, furnished with a hammock and some logs. They’ve decorated the fence nearby with coloured chalk (it washes off, clearing the surface for new expression) and the rainbows they’ve drawn meant this place is now known as rainbow land. The track meanders back to meet the drive so on coming home I often look through the trees and see my kids at play.

a crazy lawn

Until a little while ago we had a lawn like most other people – a flat zone of green. And it was put to the usual good use, but then we played with it, and now have something with almost magnetic appeal. We took the lawn and divided it into a series of soft, interconnected mounds in varying heights so that now, just walking across our lawn is fun, or lying in the valleys between to read a book is fun, or sitting on top, or playing with the dog, or rolling around- This is definitely a child friendly garden!  Yes it’s a bit more difficult to mow, but almost everyone who visits – child or adult – takes off their shoes to sink their feet into our soft buffalo grass.

a tree house with zip line

And then, after many years of scribbling dream designs in a notebook, we all built a tree house together. We used tea tree logs and hessian rope and tied them up in the tree to create three platforms along the lines of something out of Swiss Family Robinson. Everyone was involved from stripping rope to building the ladders and it was a great bonding time. There were many discussions about how to do things, and I gave them the space to make a few mistakes. I also discovered that they had good ideas I hadn’t actually thought of. It was a great time together and I believe we ended up with a fantastic child friendly space because of that. Oh and did I mention the icing on the cake: the zip line that carries them off from the top level, out across the garden? It’s been a huge success.

what works and why

Of course we could have gone out and bought a brand new wooden cubby and slide from a big shed store. Initially it would have seemed ok, but there wouldn’t have been the same level of involvement possible for the kids – literally waking up with more to do each day to make the tree house happen. And so the interest in a delivered cubby must drop off because, nice as they are, there’s not much scope for change. My vote goes for something that’s more natural and evolutionary as it has the chance to grow with the children. It might start off as a platform in a tree then, as they get older, you could add some ropes, then a ladder and a sand pit below.

and the point of it all is

Simple, to get kids outside, in a place were the stimulus is natural, but without spending a lot of money and by giving them good reasons to be out there. If we tell them to go outside where there’s nothing to engage them, they’ll probably head out for about ten minutes before coming back in. But if you can make something out there, something that’s exciting enough to make them want to go out there without being asked, you’ll be the ones calling them in. At our place, since the introduction of the zip line and the platforms, the garden has become a whole exploring space. I now watch my kids’ friends arrive and head off into the garden, with no thoughts of going inside for some screen time- the magic of a child friendly garden.

some tips

If you want to create your own child friendly garden, here are a few cheap and simple tips:

  • gather together a heap of branches and watch them make a temporary cubby
  • collect some empty crates or boxes and watch them arrange them into a virtual world
  • a single pallet on a lawn is a brilliant boat
  • make a simple teepee out of a multiple of straight sticks
  • river pebbles, sand, water are great materials to pull together, whether you put them into a sand pit or rig up something more elaborate with a recirculating pump
  • chalk on any surface is brilliant
  • loose logs can be moved into endless settings for play
  • make an outdoor kitchen with old taps, sinks and even an old microwave; and don’t forget to add water and sand as thee perfect ingredients
  • don’t look at what you don’t have in your garden for children instead look at what you do have a make the best of whatever that is
  • have some rules but don’t set too many boundaries, play should involve some risk so our children can learn about their world and themselves

Our team of 15 Landscape Architects, Landscape professionals and Horticulturists, can assist you when it comes to child friendly gardens to deliver a premium product.

If you would like a child friendly garden designed or need a landscape contractor to implement your garden then contact our office on 03 5263 3133 or use our Contact Us page