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What Do Children Need in a Garden Design?

Designing for children, whether in a home setting or in a schoolyard habitat, requires not only an understanding of basic landscape design, but also special consideration of the needs of children. A childs safety, stimulation, and development are crucial principals in designing these special garden spaces. A childs garden should appeal to all five senses, and whenever possible, bring wildlife into a childs world (Moore, 1997). Such gardens are not only entertaining and educational, but instill in children a love of nature that will grow into stewardship and environmental sensitivity. It is important to identify both the common needs of adults and children, and special needs particular to the young. While adults see the world on a large scale, children are attentive to details. Gary Nabhan, co-author of The Geography of Childhood, recalls a time he gave his young son a camera for photographs of a trip to several western National Parks (Nabhan, 1994). Upon viewing his sons photos, Nabhan was struck by the difference between the subjects of his

Erin J. Knight

When designing for children, natures rich detail and variety is a good model. sons pictures and those of his own. While amazing vistas dominated his own photographs, the child seemed more interested in rocks, twigs, lizards, and other more tactile, small-scale objects he could explore on an intense level. Children are intrigued by the miniscule details that give an object beauty or interest; often adults take the simple and small elements for granted, preferring to see the big picture from a more removed standpoint. When designing for children, this is an important fact to remember, and when designing for adults, it may be challenging and beneficial to encourage them to see the same level of detail, as through a childs eyes. It is essential to realize the similarities between children and adults as well as the differences. Many adults treat children with less respect or attention than they would a peer. However, adults must remember that children are individuals, with varied and dynamic personalities that add immeasurable insight to the design


process. Children express the same range of emotions that adults do, but the source of their feelings may be alien to an adult perspective. Some adults see childhood as a time for play, free of the stress and care common to later life. Just as adults need private spaces in which to relax and escape, children must have a retreat. Gardens are wonderful, safe spaces to fulfill this need.

Elements of a Childrens Garden or Other Outdoor Space

Discovery Discovery is essential to childhood. Through a childs opportunity to define the parameters of his or her play, creative, constructive activity occurs. Plant life, wildlife, heights, enclosure, construction with loose parts, and games of make-believe all provide opportunities for discovery. Water
William F. Jordan

Child Development Through Play

Play has important roles beyond recreation; it is the exploration of a world still fresh from the perspective of a child (JOPERD, 1994). Some play, such as games of make-believe and role-play, or investigative play such as exploration of nature, develops the mind of a child and expands the thought processes. Other play is more active, and directly effects a childs development of motor skills and physical fitness. Yet another kind of play is the controlled and deliberate release of feeling, an expression of self, such as drawing a picture or making any unique and artistic object. Each type of explorative play contributes to a childs education.


Children need these loose parts as an element of creative play. When designing gardens and outdoor play spaces for a child, the many experiences of discovery that teach children about the world must be incorporated (Moore, 1997). Molly Dannenmaier, author of A Childs Garden, proposes that these needs are best met through 9 basic elements desirable in a childrens garden: discovery, water, loose elements, plant life, wildlife, heights, enclosure, movement, and make believe (Dannenmaier, 1998).

Perhaps the greatest joy for children discovering a landscape is found within water. Water is the most desirable element in a landscape for children, but it is also the least provided, since liability and safety issues as well as issues of cost must be considered and overcome. Loose Elements Through play with loose elements such as dirt, twigs, cones, and leaves, children develop skills in construction and creation. For a child, comprehension of these principles may be as basic as knowing that wet soil can be sculpted better than dry, or

Erin J. Knight

Water is an important element to provide for children. Through thoughtful design, safety issues are minimized. that flowing water will eventually break a dam of twigs and sand. These are important concepts for children to grasp to develop spatial intelligence. Heights Heights give children a sense of escape, providing a unique and exciting perspective. However, safety issues concern many adults. There are safe ways to provide height exploration to children, such as well-designed treehouses and play towers. Thoughtful design of spaces, paired with safety educaiton for children, minimizes risk. Movement Physical development is currently the

primary focus of outdoor spaces for children. Though childrens mental and emotional needs must also be met to ensure healthy childhood development, it is also crucial to maintain safe places where children can be physically active (Moore, 1997). Development of motor skills and physical health is essential, but it is important to realize that different children need different types of spaces for movement and physical play. Some children enjoy group activities, but others prefer active games they can play alone. The skill level of the child may reflect greatly on their preferred physical play (JOPERD, 1994). It is important to allow physical development to occur in a non-threatening atmosphere in which the child has control of his or her type of involvement. Children who fear the ridicule of their peers in team sport situations or group games can gain confidence before interacting in situations in which they must prove their skill. Movement and physical play should be enjoyable and comfortable for every child, and spaces should be versatile to meet childrens varied needs and skill levels.


easy to provide, by definition. Children can fill in the details of their games with their minds and have entertainment with very rudimentary tools, or no tools at all. However, a natural environment is best for encouraging creativity, for within nature are many elements that children can adapt into their play (White, 1998). Sticks, leaves, acorn caps, and rocks can represent the dishes and food of a tea party, or be fashioned into tiny houses and miniature figures to inhabit them. When a childs mind is given tools to create a new world, the possibilities are endless. Enclosure Children need places where they feel safe and can think and play privately, away from the constant supervision of adults. This is essential to the development of a sense of autonomy, and gives children a place for creative play (Dannenmaier, 1998). Spaces for enclosure should be situated within a safe environment so adults can remain nearby and assure safety of the child, without invading the private spaces the child seeks. Safe spaces of enclosure may be built structures, such as tree houses or the tubes of a plastic fabricated play structure. They may also be

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The Cottage Garden at the Michigan 4-H Childrens Garden is a great place for discovery. Make Believe Creative play is one of the most important exercises of childhood. Often, creativity is strongest in childhood, but when it is not cultivated, it can be lost. When encouraged and stimulated by a healthy play environment, a childs imagination will thrive, improving his or her mind, thought process, and potential. Spaces for make-believe are

part of a natural garden environment. Woven willow branches can create sculptural spaces for children to hide in or move through, and vines trained over a low, simple arbor can create a private space through a screen of greenery. Creative spaces for enclosure can be very beautiful and fitting to a garden setting that adults use as well. Ideas for such structures can be found in books and magazines, a good source being Sharon Lovejoys Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots (Lovejoy, 1999). In this book, many proposed gardens give children a sense of privacy within walls constructed purely of plant material, such as the Sunflower House. With walls made of sunflowers of varying heights, and a roof of flowering vines


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Children love loose parts such as leaves and twigs, which they can use in creative play.

clinging to a grid of twine strung between the tallest sunflowers, a beautiful and magical space is created.

must be considered: plants that are poisonous or have poisonous parts, and plants with hazardous parts, such as thorns, barbs, or sharp blades. Plants Many common plants, or their parts, Selection of plant material requires can be hazardous or fatal to children if careful consideration when designing for consumed (Moore, 1993). Anemone, children. Plants should be hardy, interesting caladium, foxglove, hydrangea, lantana, to children, and safe for their environment mistletoe, and philodendron are poisonous if (Dannenmaier, 1998). Two primary dangers eaten. The bulbs of amaryllis and daffodil, the leaves of apple and privet trees, the seeds of apple and wisteria, and berries of holly and privet are all poisonous (Dannenmaier, 1998). Should these be totally eliminated, or should children be taught to respect their dangers? This is a question any parent, supervisor, or designer for children should answer for his or her particular situation and landscape. Some plants provide particular attraction and interest to children, often based on bright color, unusual behaviors, fruits, flowers, or plant parts that can be used creatively for play, projects, and crafts. According to Lovejoy, the top twenty plants for children are as follows (Lovejoy, 1999). William F. Jordan Pumpkins-most popular plant for kids, Pumpkins are one of the most popular plants for kids come in all colors and sizes.

William F. Jordan

Children love berries and other edible plants. Sunflowers- come in many heights, kidsize or gigantic, and are great for many reasons. Gourds- can be made into birdhouses, drums, dolls, instruments, etc. Carrots- can be made to branch into interesting shapes when rocks and pebbles impede natural growth.


William F. Jordan

Providing children spaces to interact with their favorite plants will encourage them to explore the natural world. Mimosa- sensitive plant good because it responds to a childs touch. However, this is an invasive species, and can spread uncontrollably Corn- can be used for mazes, or plant colorful varieties. Berries-kids love to grow something they can eat. These can also be strung as necklaces and used to feed animals. Hollyhocks- attracts insects, and good for making dolls. Alliums- colorful, fascinating blooms Potatoes- can be a rainbow of colors, from gold to purple. Kids can carve them into stamps, or make them into characters with other veggies. Lambs Ear- fun to pet Four O Clocks- these multi-colored flowers are exciting in their punctual unfolding of petals Poppies- can be made into puppets. Their delicate beauty and bright color is

great for kids. Tomatoes- good for snacking Trees- plant a birthday tree and take a picture of tree and child on every birthday. Moon Plant- silver dollars or fairy pennies are fun for kids and do well in problem areas Lemon Verbena- edible, lemony leaves can be shredded and added to ice cream, or put in lemonade or tea. Can be put in a bag and kept for fragrance in a drawer. Evening Primrose- magic explosion of flowers at sunset. Radishes- grow fast to satisfy young gardeners, many colors. Nasturtium- vibrant flowers shine like jewels. Peppery taste, good in salad.


Wildlife Plants are essential, beautiful elements for childrens outdoor spaces. Often, these plants serve a double function, by attracting wildlife into childrens spaces. Observation of wildlife is a favorite pastime of childhood, and is beneficial both in developing a sense of the wonders of nature and in teaching children about animals (Dannenmaier, 1998).

It is simple to invite animals into a landscape. Birds and butterflies are particularly easy to accommodate, and can come into childrens lives even in a city setting. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has many helpful guidelines for the attraction of wildlife into the landscape and will certify spaces in schoolyards or backyards that meet the criteria demanded by animals (NWF, 2001). These landscapes must provide a means of food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. However, in extremely small spaces or city gardens, even the most basic answer to these demands is acceptable for certification. A certified garden may be no more than a

birdhouse, a pan of water (cleaned and filled regularly), and a feeder. Once the space meets these criteria, it may be certified as a Wildlife Habitat through a simple application process. Schoolyard Habitat certification requires a slightly more rigorous application process, for these spaces are typically larger in scale, and need a large team of committed partners to maintain lasting health, growth, and beauty. All these elements are basic tools from which to construct a landscape. When combining and applying them, it is important to use creativity, and to give the child or children for whom the space is provided a strong voice in its construction. Often, as

adults, it is hard to not straighten and enhance the creations of children, but it is important tha children feel a sense of ownership for their landscapes.. It is also important to be sure that while learning and growing, children develop a lasting love for the act of nurturing life and watching nature give birth to the landscape.

Beginning the Design Process

When beginning a design project in a residential, public, or school setting for children, the first steps are an evaluation of the design problems and objectives, and an exploration of all possible resources. For those with little or no design experience, there are many options to developing a successful design.

Design Resources
Many national and regional resources can be propositioned for advice. The NWF is an excellent resource for public childrens gardens as well as for elements of private spaces at homes. Literature on Schoolyard Habitats is available from the NWF, including a Planning

National Wildlife Federation

This information is provided by the National Wildlfe Federation in their Schoolyard Habitats Planning Guide.


American Horticulture Society

These demonstration garden designs from the George Washington River Farm were designed for general use in both private and public childrens gardens. Guide that gives detailed planning, design, and implementation strategies. Horticultural societies, Master Gardener Programs, and Extension Services are also great resources. The American Horticultural Society (AHS) is exemplary in its involvement of the development of successful childrens garden designs. The Annual National Youth Garden Symposium is sponsored by the AHS. There, experts, designers, educators, parents, and others benefit from national organizations, successful program leaders, and many other resources. One particularly helpful service provided by the AHS is a series of demonstration gardens designed for George Washingtons River Farm Gardens in Virginia (AHS, 2001). These twelve childrens landscapes were created by school groups and landscape designers, many at a scale that is adaptable for backyard childrens gardens as


well as a school landscape. Each was created with the desires and needs of children in mind, and plant material particularly appropriate to childrens gardens was applied. The elements of each are readily accessible and duplicable, and detailed plans of all twelve are available for only $2. To order, write to: AHS, Childrens Program Guide, 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, VA 22304-1300. This service is a great option for those desiring a comprehensive, attractive and safe space for children, but who dont have the knowledge to create one without guidance, or the budget for a designers perspective. For schoolyard gardens, the resources are even greater than for the private home. The importance of these spaces is recognized by schools world wide, and many programs aid in their creation. Not to be overlooked are local sources of support, such as businesses, garden clubs, and service organizations. There are also numerous organizations dedicated to curriculum development to make these outdoor spaces optimum areas for learning.

Forming the Design Team The National Wildlife Federation recommends development of the Habitat Team as the first step toward creating a schoolyard habitat (NWF, 2001). In a school setting, it is imperative to develop a strong team to ensure a successful program. One determined educator or an excited parent cannot carry the project without an organized group of supporters equally committed to the continued health and success of the garden. On this Team, children are the most important members. Their ideas should define the components, structure, and goals of the project (White, 1998). Educators should be involved as mentors to the children, offering resources, facilitating

American Horticulture Society

The Imagination Garden incorporates many elements children enjoy with varied plant material.

student ideas and goals, and acting as co-workers with the children. The next partner in the Habitat Team is the schools habitat staff. Budget concerns, future building plans, liability issues, community relations, and funding opportunities are issues in which their assistance is fundimental (NWF, 2001). Most administrators see garden development as a valuable asset; they improve the image of the school, offer cost savings, provide teaching opportunities in all aspects of the curriculum, and foster student involvement and development within the project. The maintenance staff is an important asset to the Team. They must have a clear understanding of the projects scope so they can offer assistance in assessment of the tools and equipment needed for the work, as well as issues of construction and maintenance. Parents, too, must be included and involved, not only so the Schoolyard Habitat is successful, but also so its goals and ideals can be reinforced in the home environment. Local businesses and civic organizations are great resources and team members as well, for they often offer

American Horticulture Society

This Ditch Garden is great for small lots and spaces. technical support, material contributions, grants, volunteers, and other donations. Finally, resource professionals are important to the Team. They have invaluable knowledge of habitat development to offer the school, and often will offer free or reduced rate consultation and


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The outdoor classroom can become a vehicle for teaching subjects accross the curriculum. design assistance. Local landscape architects identify areas where assistance is needed. and landscape designers may have affiliations These lists and estimates may change after the with the schools of their communities that site analysis, updates may be needed as strengthen their commitment to affordable information becomes available. assistance. After the team is defined and formed, Site Inventory and Mapping set a clear and workable goal and determine a The next steps in the design process time line. Estimate planning, are site inventory and mapping. The site budget, and material needs, and inventory is a list of everything (natural and


manmade) that exists or occurs on the school grounds. Identify physical elements, such as soil, topography, and drainage patterns, and note existing ecological components, such as animals and plants. It is important to look beyond the school property as well. Do bordering land uses enhance or detract from the Schoolyard Habitat? If existing wildlife corridors surround the school site, a plan might extend these and create a greater space for animals for the whole community. However, if neighboring sites create undesirable views, noise, traffic, or other concerns, screening may need to diminish their negative impacts. All observations should be recorded and organized. As in all stages of the process, it is important to involve children in the information gathering and organization process. Mapping should begin by obtaining a base map with the schools footprint, footprints of any other existing buildings on the property, property lines, parking lots and drives, and other substantial features. In many cases, base map information is readily available, but if not, a base map can be constructed accurately and easily with

basic tools. First, the school and any nearby buildings should be drawn to scale. A simple measuring tape can be used to manually measure all sides, and graph paper or a rough sketch with accurate measurements can be refined after the information is gathered. Next, property lines should be determined in relation to the existing school. Straight lines can be pulled on the measuring tape from a particular building corner to the property boundaries of that side, then the other corners can be used likewise as reference points. In this method, move to the property line or other boundary, and look back at the building. Move slightly left and right with one eye closed, and the open eye focused on the corner. When the next face of the building is slightly visible, move slowly in the

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Children can be involved in every phase of the design and implementation process opposite direction until it can no longer be seen. This is a good method for maintaining accuracy in measurements. With the tape lying on the ground in this position, additional measurements can be made with a second tape held perpendicular to various points on the measured line to locate drives, parking lots, significant landscape features, and other points on the property lines. This is a process students can assist in, but supervision and assistance by one or several adults is advisable to ensure accurate results,

National Wildlife Federation

According to the NWF, these are a few of the professional members of the community that can become instrumental parts of the design team.


We can be there with them as they climb on rocks, play in streams and waves, dig in the rich soil of woods and gardens, putter and learn. Here, on the land, we learn from each other. Here, our childrens journey begins.
- Stephen Trimble, co-author of The Geography of Childhood as the process can be complex and intricate. Once a base map is created or obtained, make copies to accommodate different types of information, preferably on a transparent material so all maps can be used as overlays to compare land use and patterns. Locate important trees, plants, and elevation changes noted in the inventory, and indicate general drainage patterns by drawing arrows in the direction of water flow (NWF, 2001). This may be most easily observed during times of rain, and problem areas identified. Next, record soil types in general terms, such as sand, clay, silt, loam, or combinations of these types, with consideration for the adaptability of plants in

moisture content with students. Then, observe and record the sun and shade patterns of the site. Both for the success of plant material and for the greatest energy efficiency of the site, this is an important step. Indicate compass directions on the map, from which further sun/shade information can be determined. Consider traffic and human use patterns. Sketch in the general foot traffic paths in non-paved areas. When designing, it is often beneficial to develop these paths, but if it is preferable to keep children out of such areas, plantings should be dense enough to

discourage foot traffic from recreating the old patterns and destroying plant life. Next, consider the needs of the site. Often in school settings, outdoor classrooms, areas for recreation and outdoor play, quiet, individual student reading areas, tables for class projects, and functional areas for demonstration gardens or class planting beds are desired. Any combination of these may be applied, but some should not be in the same vicinity. For example, consider the noise and distraction of active recreation, and avoid areas where it can be readily seen or heard when locating an outdoor classroom or


such soils. Take samples from different areas and compare their color, texture, particle size, and

Students should help with site analysis and design ideas. They provide valuable insight into the design process.

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Mary Haque

Providing native grasses as in the photo above gives many animals nesting sites and cover. reading area. Take note of existing wildlife habitat components and select elements that should be preserved or developed. To attract wildlife, four essentials are necessary: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. This can be provided in many ways, and while most schools develop habitat for birds and butterflies, some school landscapes may provide opportunities to attract deer, rabbits, and other larger animals as well. Creating a Wildlife Habitat When providing food, it is best to utilize the natural sources, which means implementing native vegetation. Trees, shrubs, and other plants that produce acorns, nuts, berries, and other seeds are great attractions, while leaves, buds, catkins, nectar, and pollen are also important. By providing

food for the animals through the natural food chain, children learn about ecology while animals get the best possible source of nutrition. According to the NWF, native plants can support ten to fifteen times as many species of wildlife as non-native species (NWF, 2001). Most states have a native plant society, and contacting a local chapter is a good way to learn about native species. Natural food can be supplemented by feeders, and particularly in winter, this is a great benefit to animals. The best foods for feeders include sunflower, niger, safflower, millet seed, cracked corn, meal worms, and suet, according to the NWF. Each type attracts particular kinds of birds, and a variety of feeders and food types ensures a diverse bird population. In warm months, humming bird feeders containing four parts water to

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The type of feeder and type of feed will determine the species of birds attracted. To have a diverse bird population, a variety should be provided.

one part sugar can supplement the hummingbirds diet. When providing feed, there are several important rules to follow. Make sure feeders have proper drainage holes and are covered to keep seed dry, so mildew wont develop. Do not place feed directly on the ground, for mold, mildew, animal droppings, lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and bacteria can contaminate the seed and harm birds. Also, keep in mind that bird droppings may accumulate under the feeder, so avoid areas where the mess will cause problems. Follow these steps, and children and teachers will enjoy hours of watching and listening to birds of all kinds. All animals need water throughout the year for drinking and bathing. Adding a water feature to your yard is the best way to insure you will attract birds to your home. Water is helpful to the health and happiness of birds because clean feathers insulate the bird, and bathing helps prevent parasites. Birdbaths provide this necessity, but a few basic rules apply to ensure that they are safe and beneficial to birds. Basins should be no more than one-and-ahalf to three inches deep, with small


wildlife. The box should not be attractive or accessible to predators. Height, hole size, and location are key factors in birdhouse safety. Spaces to raise young are often identical to those of cover, but certain additions can ensure a variety of wildlife in the garden. Again, native plants play a key role in provision of these spaces, for many types of native wildlife, such as butterflies, require these plants for laying of eggs. The key factors in spaces to raise young are safety and proximity to reliable sources of food and water. It is easy to provide such spaces for animals, and educational for children. Wildlife habitats have many benefits, not just for animals, but for children and adults as well. Children can learn about their native environments through observation of wildlife, and feel gratified when their work in

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Children gain appreciation for plants and nature when they can observe wildlife in the garden. pebbles in the basin to provide areas for perching and preening. They must be placed in an open area safe from predators, but with cover available nearby, and should be fifteen feet from feeding areas. Fresh water should be added every 2-3 days. To provide shelter for wildlife, it is again advisable to look to the natural state of the area. The same plants that feed wildlife often provide natural sanctuary. Brush piles, fallen logs, rock piles, and other natural preferable. Evergreen and deciduous plant material should be combined to provide for animals needs throughout the year. Often, the same spaces can also be used for courting, nesting, and raising young. Manmade cover is also helpful in many cases, such as birdhouses, bat boxes, and other protected homes. Be sure that the construction of these houses suits the needs of the animal. For example, different types of birds require different locations for their homes, as well as different shapes and sizes of boxes and their entrances. Even the color of the box can be a factor in its safe use by


elements can give animals safety and shelter. A variety of sizes, heights, and densities of material is

Using native plants one simple way to attract wildlife to the garden.

William F. Jordan

the garden calls to animal visitors and inhabitants. There are many solutions to the four requirements for a wildlife habitat, and no matter what the size of a school or home garden may be, it is possible to provide habitat.

Conclusion- Designing for Children

Even someone with no prior design experience can be a part of the development of a creative, healthy outdoor space for children. The key to creating such spaces is using all the resources available, understanding the needs of the child, and providing natural or naturalized spaces that allow children to engage in play that is not predetermined.

William F. Jordan

Erin J. Knight

Involve children in the development of their garden.

Childrens landscape designs come to life when inhabited by youth, whose creative minds expand the potential of the space. If design is too great a challenge for design principles alongside safety precautions all those involved in the design team, to create successful childrens spaces. A consulting a professional regarding problem design cannot be masterful without meeting issues, or hiring someone to design the the safety needs of children, yet issues of project is an option. There are also national safety and liability cannot overshadow the resources such as the NWF and the American various desires and needs of the child. The Horticulture Society. two are not exclusive, and when used The design process cannot be successfully in cooperation with one another, provide the best spaces children can completed without consideration of child have to further their development, safety. In the next chapter, safety issues are happiness, and health. explored. Yet, it is important to consider