Cultivating a Child-Friendly Backyard

Imagine that you are the same age as your child…
What grade were you in?
Who was your teacher?
Your best friend?
Favorite game?

Imagine that you are outside…
Did you have a place that you considered your own?
A treehouse or a fort in the bushes?

Remember that special place where, besides listening for your mom's voice, your imagination was the limit! Did you build hideouts or homes for your toys? Catch rollypollies or fireflies? What did you feel, see, smell or hear?

Remember how good you were at having fun? Your child is gifted with the same skill! Now that you've loosened up your imagination, join us in encouraging kids to use theirs!

First, let go of preconceived notions of an outdoor play area. As a society, we have designated concrete, plastic and metal areas as the appropriate places to play. Were those your favorite childhood play areas? It's more likely that you preferred a secret hideaway under the bushes, rolling down a grassy slope or using your imagination to build a fort. By encouraging children to see the potential in their backyards and other outdoor spaces, we allow them endless, undefined and undiscovered fun. Here's how you can create a fun and safe outdoor environment for your kids.

Define safety.
Create rules for outdoor safety so children can be free within your specified boundaries. Rather than clearing away all risks (which is nearly impossible), help your children to learn caution and respect. Do your own work outside while your kids are playing. Put away your tools after using them, but also give your children appropriate and useful tools for their "work." Teach them to observe and respect wildlife. Let them know what plants are useful and how (i.e. what is edible and that everything else is not). Get rid of poisonous plants. Do not use garden chemicals.

Allow kids to discover and use found resources.
Using objects available in nature, such as sticks and stones to build hideouts for toys and landmarks for play, will develop a child's creativity, teach them to be resourceful, build their confidence and heighten their awareness of nature's abundance. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden built collection boxes where children can collect pine cones, berries, etc. As you're cleaning the garden or yard, designate a place to collect useful sticks and stones that your children can use in their play.

Set aside some space.
You don't have to give your hopes of enjoying the backyard over to plastic sandboxes and swing sets. Designate areas for play and give control of those areas to your child's imagination! Allow your children space to dig, but hide it from view with a tall grass. Create a sand pit right in your landscape. Leave yard space for running or create a circular path; kids won't think negatively about running in circles, but will enjoy the rush of physical activity.

Create spaces.
Children are amazing; they will take a stretch of bushes and turn it into a jungle or turn an old tire into the center piece of a junkyard. It doesn't take much, but there are ways you can facilitate such a transformation. Create corners and nooks in your garden; lay out winding pathways; plant tall grasses and weeping trees; add a bubbling fountain; use a working gate to create the illusion of entering a different part of the yard; designate a hardwood tree with low branches as the climbing tree; plant bean teepees and giant sunflowers; leave a large boulder or a fallen log for climbing. Creating these inviting coves will be as much fun for you as for your children.

Invite other creatures.
There is a natural fascination with the world beyond our own. Children will spend hours looking for dirt creatures, admiring a butterfly's colors, watching a bee dance from flower to flower, or laughing at a squirrel's chase. Teaching your children to observe and respect living things will equip them with relational skills they can use throughout life. Plant fruit, nut and seed bearing plants, and put out a basin of water for birds. Compost your yard waste to keep a high population of rollypollies and worms. All living things need food, water and shelter; providing these things through your yardscape is a great invitation for all sorts of creatures.

Exercise your child's green thumb.
Give your children space where they are in charge. It is a great idea to grow food so children can plant seeds, nurture the plant growth and taste the fruits of their labor. You can create theme gardens such as: an alphabet garden (with plants representing every letter), an animal garden (with plants like elephant ears, bee balm, or lamb's ears), or a color garden (plant red tomatoes, red cabbage, and red peppers). An herb garden with different mints, basils and other plants can develop your children's awareness of different smells and tastes. Fast growing cutting flowers like zinnias and cosmos are always fun and beautiful, and a strawberry patch will stay in your children's memory. You can start by growing a few plants in containers so the gardening is manageable and rewarding for your children. Choose plants you like and will use in cooking or decorating.

Expect some damage.
As children claim your outdoor space as the ideal place to play, they will get dirty and not treat plants with a tender distance. Encourage your children to wear play clothes. Bath nights can follow days of outdoor play. Use hardy plants in your garden along pathways and where your children play.

Enjoy the joy!
When your child begins to discover and enjoy nature, you're bound to hear all about it! Show your child that you're interested in hearing about their adventures: Ask provoking questions, encourage them and share your own experiences. Most of all, join with your child in the spirit of appreciation, wonder and joy!

Plants we LOVE to Grow in the Yard
There are many plants you can use in your garden. Children and gardens are always growing and changing, so enjoy experimenting with a variety of plants. Here are some suggestions that you may want to try.
  • Tough plants that can take a beating: feather reed grass, lamb's ear, woody thyme, willow, arborvitae.
  • Plants with which to create hideaways: tall grasses such as sedge or wild oats; group hemlock, pine and yew together; weeping trees like mulberry, fig or willow; mulberries, apples, maples and oaks are good climbing trees; vines, including squash, small pumpkins, pole beans and scarlet runner beans, can cover bamboo teepees; sunflowers can grow into a tall fort.
  • Plants to grow and eat: sugar baby watermelons, tom thumb lettuce, carrots and radishes (kids usually like root crops), dwarf fruit trees, berries, blue potatoes, peas, mints, basils, lavender and nasturtiums, which have a tasty flower.
  • Plants to stimulate the imagination and use in play: Snapdragons, fairy bells, sensitive plant, money plant and Chinese lantern.
  • Flowers for bouquets: zinnias, cosmos, daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, roses, and snapdragons.
  • Plants to keep your child breathing deeply: various scented geraniums, roses, lavender, mints, basils, rosemary and lemon balm.
  • Plants to attract garden creatures: evening primrose for moths; joe pye weed, purple coneflower, sedum and columbine for butterflies; bee balm, obedient plant and cosmos for bees; fir, spruce, serviceberry, dogwood, poppy, goldenrod, sunflower and buffalo grass for birds.
  • Plants for a dinosaur garden: club mosses, ferns, and horsetails
  • Plants for an alphabet garden planting from "a" (aster) to "z" (zinnia)
  • Plants for a "three sisters garden": beans, squash and corn
Plants to Avoid
Many common plants have poisonous parts. Depending on your child's age, it may be enough to tell them not to eat any part of any plant without your permission. Remember: When in doubt, check it out. Try or other searchable poisonous plant websites. However, here is a list of some poisonous plants.
  • Autumn crocus
  • Black locust
  • Bleeding heart
  • Caster beans (fatal)
  • Daffodil
  • Elderberry
  • Elephant ear
  • Foxglove
  • Hyacinth
  • Hydrangea
  • Iris
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Jimson weed
  • Larkspur
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Mayapple
  • Narcissus
  • Nightshade
  • Philodendron
  • Poison hemlock
  • Privet
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb
  • Wisteria
  • Yew
Cornell University Poisonous Plants Database:

Dannenmaier, Molly. A Child's Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents. New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1998.

Rushing, Felder. New Junior Garden Book. Iowa: Meredith Corporation, 1999.

Posted with permission from the Grow Outside Guide to Outdoor Play, published by the Leave No Child Inside Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati.