Playing is what childhood is all about. Making a place to play in the garden inspires kids and sets them an example for the rest of their lives. Even in a tiny backyard, there is plenty of room for children to play, and for adults to have a good time, too.
There is a lot of play equipment on the market, but you don't have to commit yourself to fancy installations that look like a three-ring circus, says Lolly Tai, a landscape architect and professor at Temple University in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Kids really don't need all that. "Kids like height, they like water, they like plants, tree-houses and stepping stones," Tai says. "Give them a little water and sand, and all of a sudden creative play happens." Tai specializes in outdoor environments for kids, particularly in schoolyards and botanic gardens, where kids' gardens have taken off. Plants are part of it, of course, but swinging, sliding, running and splashing all have enormous appeal to kids.
Tai, the author of "Designing Outdoor Environments for Children," recommends taking your entire property into consideration when you're getting ready to add a play space for kids of any age. First, write down all the features you'd like -- a swingset, a treehouse, a sandbox, a vegetable or herb garden, or fragrant plants -- and then figure out where best to place these features within the topography of your yard.
"It takes doing and thinking," she says. Bear in mind the different ways adults and children will share the garden, and try to make them work together. Don't forget comfortable places to sit: The result should be inviting, beautiful and unselfconscious.
"When you design something that looks like it was meant to be there, it flows," Tai says. "You might not be able to tell it was designed, other than it just feels good."
A vegetable garden can most definitely be part of the play area. Raised-bed gardens are especially attractive to kids because they are of an accessible scale. "It's a great way to engage kids with nature and to introduce them to plants and bugs," Tai says. She also recommends providing shelter in a child's garden: You might want to build a tepee with sturdy garden stakes and plant morning glories or pole beans around the base.
Don't make the play area an afterthought of garden design, says Michael Laris, director of product development and strategy for Playworld, which makes imaginative, kidcentric playground equipment. "If your whole backyard is beautiful and the plastic sandbox is just stuck in the corner, what does that say about the hierarchy?" Laris says. "A child has rights like we do to have proper spaces. We should do things beautifully and well for them."
Laris, an architect who specializes in architecture for children, has studied the importance of play and how it helps kids develop critical thinking and respond to problems creatively. Playing also encourages collaboration and helps build compassion, Laris says. Organized sports are great, he says, but they're rule-based: The clock is always running, and, unlike simply playing outdoors, there are "fewer chances of really defining yourself."
Hopping through a garden on stepping stones, splashing in a sprinkler or running a race between the big oak tree and the edge of the patio develop the imagination and the personality in ways organized sports do not.
Take your children to a park or playground, Laris suggests, to see the kinds of play equipment they are interested in. This will help you make age-appropriate choices for your kids in your own backyard. A sandbox is a good starting place for small children. Swinging, sliding and spinning all help challenge and stimulate a child's senses. Grown-ups forget, but "learning to swing is a big thing," Laris says. For adults, the experience of teaching a child to pump his or her legs and swing higher and higher is exhilarating.
If you can, bring the natural world of plants, birds and bugs right up to the swingset or the backyard slide, says Mary Legoria, a science teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who has studied the relationship between kids and plants. Legoria is one of the presenters at the American Horticultural Society's National Children and Youth Garden Symposium in Austin this year.
Bird feeders, birdbaths and unusual plants, such as plants with fuzzy leaves or big, bright flowers, will attract kids' attention and spark their interest in nature, she says. Kids love to grow and eat strawberries, to nibble on mint and parsley and to discover the caterpillars and other insects in the garden. "They're really eager to find out what is going on," she says.
Whatever play space you create in your garden, let your kids jump, shout, tumble and roll all they want there -- or at a public playground. Muddy knees and learning that falling down is not the end of the world are part of the experience of play, Laris says. When kids play outside, they learn about their own abilities, develop balance and grace, and start to find their place in the world.
"Every child plays their way to becoming a human adult," Laris says. If they get dirty, remember this: They're having fun.
-- The American Horticultural Society's annual Children and Youth Garden Symposium is scheduled to be held July 9-11, 2015, in Austin, Texas; ahs.org.
-- Playworld's playground equipment is designed to inspire creative, unstructured play; playworldsystems.com
-- Lolly Tai is the author of "Designing Outdoor Environments for Children" (McGraw Hill, $57).
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