Creating a Children's Garden
© Beverley Paine, Mar 2006
I like to close my eyes and travel back in time and. swish a stick through sour sobs, flatten trails for my bike; plough through tall weeds with swampy ground underfoot in gumboots, ever wary of the 'enemy'; cautiously climb trees, feeling the fear hold me back, the excitement urge me on; level roads with my hand in the dirt beneath dad's fruit trees for matchbox cars; swing higher than the shed.
It's memories like these that have guided my instinct when designing gardens for my children. I loved getting dirty; splashing about in puddles, playing in the mud, feeling it squish between my fingers and toes. I remember endless hours of fun and creativity making cubbies; mazes out of mum's sheets hanging on the Hill's hoist; banging nails into wood to make wobbly go-carts; pulling apart my bike and making mud pies.
Although my mum and dad didn't intentionally design a garden for their children, they gave each of us a small plot of earth and encouraged us to learn how to grow vegetables and flowers. I've heard it said that if you encourage a child to garden before the age of five, he or she will grow up to be a gardener. It worked for my brother and sister and me. I can think of nothing more satisfying or soul enriching that pottering away in a garden on the weekend. As children our garden was our special playroom, free from the tedious restrictions of inside games, as well as a yummy source of food throughout the year!
So, what does a garden need to entice children and encourage them to have endless hours of imaginative fun? If you're thinking expensive outside toys and play equipment, think again! Let Mother Nature provide the raw ingredients and then allow the children to cook up their own games.
If you don't have mature trees suitable for climbing, how about planting one? Wattles are fast growing and can be easily pruned into great climbing trees for young children. My children loved the mature olive trees on our property - as did I: their smooth bark and strong, resilient limbs didn't break or unexpectedly fall. It was good to know that Roger, at ten years of age, was perfectly safe when he poked his head and shoulder through the top of the canopy, like a bird in a nest, or when he adventurously 'abseiled' down the outside of the tree!
The dry, shaded ground beneath a tree is one of the best spots to build a tree house, or play with small toys in the heat of the day. My three children scavenged for off-cuts of timber, disused brick pallets, odd bits of rope, and together with a hammer, some nails and help, knocked up a low platform, complete with ladder and rope swing tied to a high branch. The deep mulch beneath the tree provided a soft landing. The kids played in all sorts of cubbies over the years but always found the best those that they designed and built themselves. The simplest was made from sturdy forked branches that had fallen in a strong wind lashed together with string and covered with long strips of gum tree bark to make a humpy. Tepees, made with tomato stakes driven into the ground and draped with a colourful blanket, were another favourite, especially when the children were small.
It's difficult to separate children and water in the warmer weather and those shady trees came in handy for sandpit play. Our first sandpit was a huge pile of sand that slowly disappeared as dad made concrete for the house, but he soon took the hint and set up a special area under shade cloth, close to a tap and hose. A cheap tarpaulin, dragged across the sand and weighted with small logs, kept out the neighbourhood cats. The children played for hours: dug caves for their cars and dolls, built dams and volcanoes, and learned how rivers eroded hills into valleys.
To make an instant refreshing shower on those very hot days we used to drape the hose off the pergola or a suitable branch, with the end stuck into a titled watering can, then listened to the children's squeals of delight as they darted about underneath. It was always hard to resist and we'd soon join them! If you are lucky and have a sloping garden you can hold the hose at the top of a sheet of builder's plastic for an instant and very popular water slide. Our block is relatively steep, and the slope was often used with smooth boards for surfing down when the grass was long, or rolling down.
Mud pies and teddy bear picnics wouldn't be the same without a range of delightful foliage and flowers to decorate the delicious offerings. Always check to make sure the plants you buy for your garden are child friendly and don't contain poisonous, irritating or prickly parts. Avoid flowering lawns: nothing spoils fun faster than a bee sting! Long hours were spent in the garden making secret or magic potions in tiny jars and discarded perfume bottles. Stink-bombs, from seedpods, were another perennial favourite, especially with the boys!
When cutting firewood, select a smooth long log and place it on the lawn to encourage balancing on; or place under a tree for a shady seat. Trim dense bushes to make secret hiding holes; your children can quietly watch small birds hatch their young. Hang a rope or tyre swing. Cut up logs into short rounds and make stepping stones. Arrange your garden beds into small 'rooms', with winding paths that take the children to new sensory delights. Indulge in some garden 'whimsy' made from recycled bits and pieces. Those 'cheap' shops are often full of colourful or musical objects you can use to decorate your garden.
The trick is to think like a child - what would delight you, get you laughing, jumping for joy, or beating back the jungle, exploring the dark forest, stalking dragons and exotic beasts in some imaginary land, far away from the world of grown-ups.
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We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!
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