What makes a garden child-friendly?

by Julie Kilpatrick

Summer may be coming to an end but the change in weather is unlikely to deter children from wanting to get out and play in the garden. According to leading garden centre, Notcutts, eighty per cent of the children they questioned enjoyed playing in the rain equally as much as playing in the sun. So, with a few changes and additions to your garden, plus some good advice from the next generation of garden designers, you can create a garden your children will enjoy all year round.

To find out what makes a great child-friendly garden, Notcutts formed a research panel of six to seven year olds from East Anglia and asked them to design their perfect garden.

Water

Top of the research panel's wish list was water. From paddling pools to swimming pools, kids get a lot of fun out of splashing around in water, especially on a hot day. If you have the space, you can now get above ground pools in a variety of sizes, some of them even large enough to swim in. Before placing your paddling pool on a lawn, run over the area with your hand to ensure there are no stones hiding in the grass which might puncture the lining of the pool and, if possible, move the pool around the lawn to let the grass underneath recover.

If your children are old enough, even a relatively shallow wildlife pond can be great fun and a useful educational tool as well. Ponds such as these attract frogs, toads, dragonflies, pond skaters and all sorts of interesting bugs and small mammals. Your kids can have great fun identifying them and keeping a log of all the visitors that use the pond. Surround your pond on one side with long grass for the wildlife to hide in and supply your kids with nets and jars filled with water so they can inspect the residents up close.

Somewhere to play sports

According to the Notcutts research, boys and girls are equally in favour of playing sports like tennis or football in their gardens.

A good-sized lawn is all you need to encourage sports activities. You can then get removable accessories such as goalposts and tennis nets to allow for multiple games.

Inevitably, your lawn will get damaged especially if your children play on it when it's damp but you can reduce the amount of damage and increase the recovery time by choosing a good hard-wearing general purpose lawn turf with ryegrass.

If your lawn has drainage issues, consider installing a lawn drainage system.

Bowled over

If you have a level area in the garden, why not build a bowling alley? All you need is some long planks of wood to form the sides of the alley and a flat surface such as levelled concrete or a strip of artificial lawn as a run for the bowls. You can buy outdoor skittle sets from most garden centres. Nail a blackboard to a nearby fence for keeping score.



A place of their own

Tree houses, playhouses and dens give kids a place to call their own and somewhere they and their friends can hang out. You can buy ready made playhouses or simply custom design an ordinary garden shed. Make sure the shed, tree house or playhouse is rainproof and you can even run power out to it so that they can watch DVDs and play music.

Treeless tree house

If you haven't got a tree, you could build a deck and sit your shed or playhouse on the deck. The one pictured even has room for a rabbit run underneath. If you leave enough deck space around the house, you can even buy them some chairs of their own, like these great animal chairs in a bag. The number one choice for the kids on the Notcutts panel.

It's a good idea to involve your children in decorating their new pad using paint or even wallpaper inside. You can even make a flag and hang it on a flagpole. Scatter some colourful beanbags around the floor and provide blankets so they can snuggle under them in colder weather. If you have the room, build a small patio outside where they can sit outdoors in the sunshine and entertain their guests al fresco.

Tree houses are great fun but you should check with your local planning office as you may require planning permission. If the tree house you build allows you to interfere with the privacy of neighbours, you could receive complaints. If you have a lot of outdoor buildings in your garden already, there can be planning restrictions based on the percentage of space taken up with sheds, etc.

When erecting outbuildings for children, check inside and out for any nails and screws that could be sticking out and cause injury.

'A bit of garden to call my own'

My lifelong love affair with gardening began when, at the age of five, I was given a tiny border of my own. Every plant in my border had a name including three geraniums named Jill, Kelly and Sabrina after Charlie's Angels. I had conversations with each of them individually every time I watered them. I'm not surprised then to hear that Notcutts found this to be the most popular request.

Giving them ownership over a small patch of ground, is a great way to teach kids about plants and science. You might even get them to eat more fruit and vegetables if they've grown them from scratch. Strawberry plants are a good choice as is peas and easy to grow salad crops.

A border of their own deserves a set of tools to call their own as well and there's great range available especially designed for children, from hand tools to watering cans.

Don't forget about clothing either. A good set of waterproofs is a must, as is a pair of wellies and child-sized gardening gloves. Nominate specific outfits for gardening so you don't care how dirty they get.

'A swimming pool, 2 poly tunnels and my own garden centre'

Okay, so maybe you don't have the space for all that but this was one of the more amusing requests from the research panel. Other items on the wish list included 'infinity plus a thousand sunflowers', a maze in the shape of a crab with a statue of myself in the middle' and 'a fountain with chocolate coming out of it'. It just goes to show that good garden design has no limitations.

So, if you're looking to design a garden with the kids in mind, why not form your own research panel? It might throw up a few surprises.

And, speaking of surprises, it may interest you to know that weeding tops the list of gardening activities, ranking above planting and watering. So, if ever there was a reason to encourage your kids to get out in the garden....

Animal chair in a bag and kids hand tools images supplied by Notcutts and on sale at Notcutts garden centres

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