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If you have a garden, there’s no reason for your child to be bored. Find out more about gardening with children.

The benefits of healthy outdoor activity for children’s physical and emotional development are widely acknowledged. Unstructured, creative play in a safe, natural environment allows the imagination to run wild, and builds children’s awareness of the natural world of which they form an integral part. But you don’t need to go trekking for miles to find the perfect outdoor playground for your child: just do some gardening with children.

British gardening guru Gertrude Jekyll is quoted as having said: “A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”

Planning the garden

A garden used by children should have a balance between security and freedom. Younger children tend to be happier in a smaller enclosed area, where you can easily keep an eye on them, but as children get older, they will explore areas further afield and try to define their own secret spaces. Landscapers advise leaving overhanging tree branches or deep shrubs where children can play more privately, and create their own personal territories. Structures such as a tree house or Wendy house are also ideal for this.

Trees will also help to create shady areas where children can play, and a strong overhanging branch is the perfect place to hang a swing.

A lawn – even just a small area – is ideal for free play such as kicking a ball around, for setting up a picnic blanket or pitching a tent. If possible, place a bench for yourself in the shade nearby.

A simple sandpit is a hit with young children. Depending on the space available, you can build one in a convenient corner, or buy a portable plastic one. You could even consider filling the fish pond with sand while your children are young – you can convert it back to a pond when they are older. Whatever you choose, keep it clean and cover it when it is not in use.

Stepping stones and winding paths are also popular. These are ideal for chasing games and exploring.

Apart from the obvious cautions of avoiding poisonous and irritating plants, also think about physical hazards. For example,  plants near paths that can catch children’s feet as they run past are not a good idea, and keep plants with spiky leaves or thorns away from play areas.

Find out more about designing a child-friendly garden.

Making light work of garden chores

Young children enjoy helping out with garden jobs, so make the most of it before they grow up. Often it means that a job might take a bit longer, but a task such as raking up leaves into piles is also much more fun if children are involved.

Most garden centres sell gardening tools and clothing specifically designed for children, which can make the job so much easier. Having their own special child-sized tools and a brightly coloured pair of gumboots will also encourage children to get to work.

Make sure it’s fun, otherwise you’ll soon find yourself working alone. Create games that are centred on gardening activities, for example a competition to see who can dead-head the most flowers in a certain time.

Involve children in sowing seeds and simple planting, as well as picking when it is time to harvest a crop. When choosing what plants to grow, select fast-growing flowers or veggies, so that young gardeners can see quick results. Some plants that grow quickly and easily from seed include sunflowers, nasturtiums and day lilies.

Children love growing herbs and veggies, so good crops to try are radishes, strawberries, carrots, cherry tomatoes, parsley and beans. Eating food they have grown themselves often gets children to eat things that they wouldn’t try otherwise.

Getting close to nature

Choose plants that attract birds, insects and other creepy crawlies – plants that are indigenous to the area will attract the widest variety, and provide suitable habitats and food.

Encourage children to observe the birds and animals that frequent the garden. Bird feeders are easily made and provide countless hours of entertainment and fascination. Look out for dragonflies and toads around water features.

Read our article on creating a bee-friendly garden.

Keeping children safe in the garden

While it’s great to see young children eating the fruits (and veggies) of their labours, children need to understand that some plants are not safe to eat. It’s not necessary to rush about and rip out everything that’s potentially harmful, but make sure you and your children know which plants to avoid and, more important, that your children know they should not eat anything without permission.

Don’t leave tools lying around. Keep sharp tools, such as pruning shears, out of reach and make sure that pointed tools such as rakes are always placed pointed side down so that they aren’t stepped on by little feet. Put tools away as soon as you’ve finished using them – and make sure that they are stored in a safely locked place where inquisitive hands can’t reach them.

The same applies to poisons and chemicals, if you use these. Of course, the safest option is to find ways round using chemicals, especially on plants that your children will help tend or that are grown to be eaten. A chemical-free environment is also better for the creatures that share your garden with you.

If you do spray, make sure that you do this when children and pets are not around. There are many very effective non-chemical methods you can use to keep garden pests at bay.

When gardening with children, ensure young children are never be out of sight if there is water anywhere in your garden. Safety nets on ponds or pools are vital.

Other ideas for playing in the garden

  • Build a hopscotch path
  • Create a den or secret garden for playing hide and seek
  • Flower pressing
  • Gather autumn leaves and use them to decorate scrapbooks
  • Create a fairy garden
  • Build a scarecrow
  • Build a wigwam, covered in fast-growing climbers
  • Decorate pots, as gifts or for your own plants
  • Create a mini water garden in a container
  • Invest in a magnifying glass to get up close to interesting bugs and plants

Toxic taboos

  • oleander – all parts
  • arum lilies – all parts
  • syringa – the berries
  • flame lily – all parts including the tuber
  • moon flower – all parts
  • ivy – all parts
  • sweet peas – seeds
  • privet – especially berries
  • delicious monster – all parts except fruit
  • frangipani – the milky sap
  • rhubarb – leaves
  • periwinkle – all parts
  • potato creeper – all parts above ground
  • wisteria – pods and seeds

Kathy Sutton

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