Growing up in a rural setting, I experienced the wonder and fauna of the woods, the thrill of being up high while climbing apple trees, and hiding in a crudely built “cabin.” Those childhood days were filled with adventure and my imagination took me many places. I was Pioneer Girl back then.
Incorporating kid-friendly features into a backyard landscaping plan (or front yard!) may entice children outdoors to improve their health as they learn about nature.
When including a play area in landscape design, child-safe plants and equipment should be used. Young children might try to eat vegetation so avoid toxic plants like foxglove, lily-of-the-valley, mistletoe, holly berry, and ferns. A fence around the play area will keep children in, while deterring strangers and roaming animals. Rubber mulch or thick layers of bark mulch create a softened landing zone around play equipment. To help reduce sun exposure, a beach umbrella or series of umbrellas set in a crescent line to match the arc of the sun, can create a shady play area.
Cabin, House, Fort
“Children need places where they feel safe and can think and play privately, away from the constant supervision of adults,” say the authors of Outdoor Environments for Children. Kids have different name for that small outdoor structure that they can enter, so they may call it a cabin, house, fort or something else. Made of wood or from store bought structures, like a small tent, that hideaway can become a private retreat for the young.
Actual tree houses are good for the older child who can climb and is aware of safety measures and their surroundings. When trees sturdy enough to support a tree house are not an option, the house can be built on stilts to elevate it off the ground. There is something grand about looking out the window of a tree house, even if it’s only about 3 feet off the ground.
An arbor or gazebo can be used for a child’s retreat. If using an arbor, cover the sides with vines or even stick vinyl roll-out shades. The gazebo too can become a sanctuary with roll-up shades.
Swings or a teeter-totter are enjoyed by children of all ages. Another landscape idea is to install posts 10 to 12 inches in diameter and of varying heights so the child can jump from one to another. The series of posts may display as little as 6 inches above ground or as much as 3 feet. Lots of mulch should surround the area for a soft landing.
A water feature, made audible with a circulating pump, can provide a shallow pond for little feet (supervised, of course). As the child grows, the depth of the pool can be increased to add fish like coy. Even a simple bird bath can be a water feature. Attracting birds, the bird bath can create an opportunity for parents to teach children about different birds and work on small projects to create bird feeders.
Design a narrow path around trees, shrubs or other landscape obstacles, like a lamp post. The path can be paved to ride a bike or other wheeled toy, or the path can be made with mulch. Create hiding areas along the pathway using boulders, shrubs or flowers, or short stretches of picket fence. Add whimsy to the adventure by tucking items, like gnomes, gazing balls, or “Beware of Bears” signs, into the vegetation so they are slightly hidden.
Reference: Designing Outdoor Environments for Children, by Loly Tai, Mary Taylor Haque, Gina K. McLellan, Erin Jordan Knight