With interactive touches and sprinkles of whimsy, you can transform your garden into a place that engages and delights kids (and adults too). These 12 ideas — including involving the little ones in the magic of growing a plant from seed, incorporating play spaces and building in “secret” hideaways — could spark a deep, long-lasting interest in the outdoors.
1. Create places to discover. Even in a relatively narrow side yard, there’s an opportunity to conceal areas of the garden from view and create an enticing destination. Kids love hidden nooks — like a pathway curving around a corner or a clearing under a canopy tree — and these make a garden more interesting from a design perspective.
In this garden in Angers, France, the leafy vines curving around the path and hidden area behind the corner of the building add a sense of mystery and make a stroll down the walkway feel like entering a secret garden.
2. Add a kid-friendly element to grown-up areas. Sitting through meals can be tedious for fidgety kids. Use an outdoor setting to your advantage by positioning kid-friendly garden elements like a swing or hammock close by — giving kids something to do and adults the opportunity to relax.
In this English garden, for example, a swing hung from the beams of a shade pergola next to an outdoor dining table gives children an activity while parents can linger and enjoy the meal.
3. Try starting seeds. Few things are as simple yet awe-inspiring as sticking a seed in soil, having a sprout emerge a week or so later and then seeing it grow into a full-scale plant. Introduce kids of any age to the magic of seed-starting by having them help out. Kids will enjoy filling seed trays with soil, poking holes in the soil with a small stick or their fingers, dropping seeds in and gently covering the seeds with soil. Larger seeds like sunflowers, beans and pumpkin are easy for small hands and germinate quickly.
4. Start a vegetable garden. If you’re replanting your edible garden or starting one for the first time, invite kids to be involved every step of the way. Most kids enjoy being helpful (and playing in the dirt at the same time). Take the kids with you to the nursery to pick out seed packets or plant starts for vegetables or herbs and have them choose a few to try. At home, let kids assist in planting, weeding, watering and harvesting for family meals. An added bonus: Kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve helped grow.
5. A project of their own. Have kids take ownership over a certain garden project, like creating plant labels for the vegetable garden or weekly watering of a small raised bed. Kids will feel as if they’ve had a hand in the garden and will learn valuable gardening skills along the way, such as the names of plants and how much water they need to thrive.
6. Plant something sweet. Have plenty of tree fruits, berries and other kid favorites growing in your yard for children to pick on their own. Think of tasty fruits as a sweet way to lure kids outdoors. Once they discover which plants produce which fruit and when they’re ripe, you’ll hardly need to offer additional encouragement to set indoor toys and video screens aside and go outside.
Low-growing strawberries are particularly good for younger kids as they are easy to reach, immediately recognizable when ripe and on thorn-free plants. Slightly older kids might enjoy blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries and tree fruits of all kinds.
7. Grow a bean teepee. A kid-friendly classic for edible gardens, a bean teepee is effectively a structure that provides a trellis for vines and an outdoor playroom for children. Turn a trellis into a teepee by arranging bamboo stakes in a circle — with a section left out as an entrance — and securing the stakes at the top with garden twine. Plant beans, sweet peas or other climbers around the outside of the teepee and train them to grow up the sides.
8. Create a leafy hideaway out of willow branches. Kids love forts of all shapes and sizes as play spots in the backyard. Willow branches are some of the most forgiving building materials for natural forts, with bendy branches and the ability for cut stems to root when stuck in soil.
To re-create a fort like the one shown here, arrange willow posts 6 to 12 inches apart in a circle, driving the bottoms into the ground and arching the tops to form a dome of branches. Secure the structure in place with garden twine or wire and tuck in branches as they begin to emerge. Willows thrive with plenty of water, so keep soil moist, particularly while branches are rooting (before leaves have emerged).
9. Create a natural jungle gym. Instead of adding hardscape for a ball court or play structure, make an equally engaging play space out of natural materials. The designer of this Northern California backyard used a sheet of corrugated metal curled into a giant pipe to create a kid-friendly grass tunnel. The addition of wood flooring to the metal tube and a plastic skylight make the interior of the tunnel more inviting.
Alternatively, have your children construct a fort out of garden materials like cut branches, bamboo stakes or leftovers from building projects.
10. Welcome wildlife. Teach children about the wild creatures that share the garden with us. These include birds, squirrels, frogs, lizards, butterflies and other insects, and — if you’re close to open space — rabbits, foxes and deer. Have kids help put out bird seed, add nectar to the hummingbird feeder and keep birdbaths filled with fresh water. Watch to see who arrives, and challenge kids to identify the species (with the help of a field guide).
Plant pollinator-friendly flowers or hang an insectary to welcome bees, butterflies and other insects.
11. Create multiple outdoor rooms. Landscapes divided into multiple-use areas are often more dynamic spaces, both for kids and adults. This garden in Austin, Texas, for example, has plenty of activities for everyone in the family, with an outdoor kitchen, edible garden, greenhouse, chicken coop, compost pile and spots for hanging out and relaxing. Kids would want to investigate the different areas of the garden — perhaps pinching a tomato or two from the kitchen garden, checking for eggs in the chicken coop, or running their fingers through the fountain (the narrow blue rill to the left).
12. Throw an outdoor slumber party. Encourage kids to feel comfortable in the garden after dark by hosting a sleepover for your family or inviting their friends over. Make the backyard feel cozy by setting up pop-up tents or cloth teepees, or laying down a tarp and bringing out pillows, sleeping bags and blankets from inside. Have kids look for fireflies, listen for owls or watch for shooting stars. In the morning, have everyone come inside for mugs of hot chocolate and pancakes — maybe with a few berries or edible flowers from the garden as topping.