Creating a garden that will encourage family interaction and creative play is a breeze
By Jacki Brown
Nature, fresh air and relaxation are essential for all of us, and especially important for growing children. Being outdoors contributes to health and wellbeing and fosters an active lifestyle. The great Aussie backyard is a safe and convenient play space where kids can be easily supervised.
Family landscapes can also be spaces for adults and extended family to enjoy. Interaction between children and parents is encouraged with shared activity spaces and separate “garden rooms” or hideaways for play and passive recreation.
While it may not be practical or affordable to create your dream landscape, the reality may be a family garden made up of a few selected features. So what are some of the features you can include in a family garden to enrich the experience for adults and children alike?
Outdoor fun and learning
Playing outside is the subject of many a childhood memory: climbing, running, balancing, jumping and learning about nature, science and math. The more variety in a child’s surroundings the more creativity and original thinking it inspires. Being outdoors provides even more possibilities to think outside the box and it’s a great way to spend family time away from everyday stress.
Younger children will benefit from an environment full of colour, texture, scent and sound to delight their senses. Older kids need more stimulation, interest and entertainment, which will compete with computer games, such as a cubby or tree house, swimming pool, sporting equipment and climbing trees. Good climbing trees include jacaranda, crepe myrtle, elms, willow myrtle and brush box.
Pets and an open lawn area can both be enjoyed at any age by the whole family. Lawns are the canvas on which many family activities can be painted. You might also like to go a step further and create an outdoor wonderland for your family with features such as a flying fox, trampoline, cubby house, bridge, trampoline, sandpit, fireman’s pole or, for the extremely ambitious, a hedge maze.
Encouraging family interaction
Families can interact outdoors by playing games, planting seeds or seedlings, picking flowers, harvesting fruit and vegetables and playing sports. Sports such as totem tennis, badminton and ball games allow kids to interact with friends and family.
Other features for family interaction are seating and alfresco dining areas, and exercise opportunities that can be used by the grown-ups as well as the kids; for example, a balancing beam.
Integrate and arrange the landscape elements so that it is practical for parents to supervise kids at play while cooking, gardening, relaxing or doing chores. Also create storage space for toys, bikes and pool toys where they can be kept securely out of the way and where they can be easily accessed for cleaning and checking for spiders.
And don’t forget that shade trees and shelters provide space for relaxing while watching kids as well as protecting children from the sun’s rays while playing.
Things you should avoid
Avoid attracting mosquitoes by ensuring gardens are well-drained and there aren’t open containers that collect water and allow mozzies to breed. Avoiding bees can be a trade-off between having plants with masses of flowers, which in turn bring hoards of bees, and having fewer or less showy flowers. Allergies in the garden are often caused by grass seeds — overgrown weed grasses in garden beds would be a prime suspect.
Pebble pathways can be a parent’s worst nightmare. They can be a safety hazard, causing slips or choking, but also cause mess when they are picked up and carried or thrown around. If pebbles get scattered on the lawn, they can be a big problem next time you mow the lawn, getting picked up by the mower blades and flung around the yard or into windows.
When choosing plants, avoid spiky or poisonous plants or keep them out of reach — for example, at the back of garden beds or above high retaining walls. Plants such as yucca, oleander, white cedar, coral tree and grevilleas are all known to have hazardous attributes. Not only can some plants cause irritation or an allergic reaction, some can cause injury. For example, spiky plants near eye level along a walkway can end in tears, so consider a child’s eye level when planting thorny or spiky plants.
Enjoying plants and nature
Designing your family garden doesn’t have to mean installing a full playground in the backyard. Creative thinking, natural elements and reusing unwanted items can create fun and attractive play opportunities.
Give kids exciting options outdoors and engage in activities with them, share some exercise and get fresh air. Give the family plenty of reasons to go outside; for example, playing games, collecting craft items from different plants, planting and picking vegetables and flowers, and painting pictures.
Some other ways of enjoying the outdoors with the family include a clothesline swing on a sturdy Hills Hoist, bird- and butterfly-attracting plants, habitat ponds, bugs, fragrance, trees to climb, making craft from plants, water play, sand, swings, hiding opportunities, stepping-stone path adventures and journeys.
Plants should be tough enough to survive being trampled and neglected; for example, dietes, lomandra and liriope. Plants can have other uses for children’s play. Fun plants might be used in games, as swords, for craft and so on — for example, “Banksia men”, gum nuts and seed pods, daisy chains, and gum leaves or dianella leaves used as a musical instrument. Annual flowers are also fun for kids, and best of all it doesn’t matter too much if the plants don’t survive the rigours of family life.
Spending time outside with the kids is a good opportunity to encourage an interest in gardening. Get together and pull some weeds, check on the vegetable garden or do some watering — you’ll have children who are more in touch with nature and a well-maintained garden.
This article was prepared by Jacki Brown and the team at ecodesign on behalf of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers & Managers (AILDM). If you would like to find an AILDM member in your area, visit the website: www.aildm.com.au.