Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Outdoor Spaces for the Whole Family

Here in Ontario, Monday was a new holiday called "Family Day." As well as being a great excuse for a long weekend in the middle of winter, it's three days to take advantage of a long list of events and special activities geared toward families. 

In honour of this holiday, I thought that I would do a special post on gardens that are meant for the entire family.  

Just getting kids active and outdoors can be a huge challenge these days! If you have the budget, you can always invest in fancy outdoor play equipment, but that's certainly not the only way to go. Thankfully there are lots of inexpensive ways to get kids outside in the fresh air. 

Here's a list of simple ideas to get kids out of the house:

• Build a fort with outdoor chairs and some old sheets or blankets. 

• Have a backyard picnic or eat a family meal in the garden.

• When it comes to nature, it's important to create a sense of wonder. Turn over a rock or old log and see how many different kinds of insects you can spot.

• Organize a scavenger hunt for natural items.

• Lay back on the grass and watch the clouds on a hot afternoon.

• Take a night hike in the backyard with a flashlight. Teach them how to identify nocturnal insects.

• Look at things like insects up close with a magnifying glass.

• Camp out in the backyard. Pitch a small tent in the backyard and have a sleepover with a bunch of friends.

• The outdoors is a big place. Sometimes kids need a way to focus in to see what's right under their noses. Arm them with an inexpensive camera and go on a photo safari. Have them take pictures of bugs or flowers. Review the photos later and talk about what they discovered.

Steve Biggs, author of Grow Gardeners: Kid-Tested Gardening with Children, advises that parents should adopt a child-like approach to being outdoors. We adults forget the joy a puddle can bring or how much fun it is to play in the mud. Steve's "tool kit for play" involves simple, everyday items like leaves, soil, garden tools and water.

Here are a few ideas for outdoor themed fun:

• Paint a birdhouse and let the kids hang the finished project in a tree.

• Make a wind chime with large wooden beads or shells.

• Make a bird feeder and fill it with birdseed.

• Press flowers or make leaf prints with ink pads or paint on paper.

• Go on a worm hunt. Teach the kids how to handle them carefully and the importance of their role in the garden.

• Paint rocks or popsicle sticks as plant markers. A rounded rock with a little bit of paint might just as easily become a ladybug.

• Press leaves or flowers between the pages of a book to be used later to make greeting or birthday cards.

• Create a miniature or fairy garden.

In his book, Steve Biggs advises that once children enjoy playing and exploring outdoors, gardening is the next step. Just don't expect kids to garden exactly the same way adults do! Instead Steve recommends making adjustments like using larger seeds that are easy for small fingers to manage.

Here are some gardening ideas to get you started:

• Give kids their own space to garden. Keep it small and manageable.

• Plant vegetables that the kids actually like to eat. Let them harvest what they've grown and involve them in the process of turning that harvest into a snack or a meal.

• Choose plants that are fast to germinate and easy to grow. Plants with large seeds such as peas, beans or sunflowers are the perfect size for little fingers to plant. 

• Plant flowers that will attract butterflies and host plants that will feed caterpillars.

Avoid those cheap plastic tool sets that only break. Invest in a few basic tools like a shovel, trowel and watering can that are small and light enough for a child to manage.

• Encourage kids to participate in regular waterings even if they get wet or muddy.

• Show older children how to make new plants from cuttings.

Watch this HouzzTV video to see how one family created an outdoor living space for their modern-style home. One thing these parents discovered is that children, who participate in growing edible plants, are more likely to eat them!

Another HouzzTV video about a tiny edible garden in California that still manages to produce fruit, vegetables and herbs for a small family. 

A healing garden designed for children at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.

Echinacea and Rudbeckia

A huge, brightly-colored moose may be a bit much for an average-sized backyard, but it works perfectly in this garden at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.


If your kids are old enough, get them involved in the garden design process. Ask them for suggestions of what they'd like to see. They'll be much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and actually use the space, if they have some part in the planning and construction phases of a garden.

Designing a garden with kids in mind:

• Choose resilient plants that can take some potentially rough handling. 

• A child's garden should be fun and colorful. As well as plants, outdoor furniture, plant supports, birdhouses and plant pots are ways to inject color into a garden.

• Add a sandbox where they can dig freely and happily.

• Choose plants with interesting textures and smells. The foliage of this Agastache for instance, has a mild liquorice scent. Lavender, scented geranium, rosemary, mint and thyme are just a few of the many fragrant plant options. 

• Invite kids to touch with plants that are soft or feathery like ferns or velvety like Lambs Ears. 

• Build a small playhouse.

• Include a kids sized table for activities such as tea parties, outdoor meals and crafts.

• Add a treehouse to the backyard (just be sure to check local building codes before you build). Take a look at the amazing treehouse in this HouzzTV video:

Kids love to have their own space. Here an entire section of the backyard has been designed specifically for the younger members of the family.

Gardening is such a great way for kids to connect with the nature and foster a life-long love of the outdoors! Happy Family Day!


  1. Happy Family Day, Jennifer. Beautiful post. I did many of these things when my kids were little, then I involved my grandkids. When we moved away, I dug up my Angel Face rose to give a granddaughter that I called Angel Face. She still has it and now calls one of her nieces Angel Face. I wonder if that rose bush will be passed on. My grandson, who is studying and teaching on the other side of the country and living in a rooming house has a window sill garden. He worked as supervisor of a farming program for children in the city. My daughter's front garden is so beautifully maintained that people pause driving past her house - even in California, where water usage is closely watched. Living far from my family, now, I often called the little girl who lived behind me to come and pick a bouquet for her mother. She eventually started her own little indoor garden of African Violets which she gave to me when they moved away. This is the kind of thing that makes my heart sing. I think gardening brings out a generosity of spirit in the gardener and what better time to pass this along than when they are children.

    1. It's wonderful that you have found so many ways to share a passion. Your love of gardening has touched so many people Annie. It makes my heart sing just to read this!
      My own son does not seem much interested in gardening, but I still hope that one day I might have a grandchild who does.

    2. Oh, I bet you do. It's like planting a seed - sometimes they don't come up exactly where we planted them. It might even be a grandchild who rekindles that gardening bug in your son.

  2. Jennifer, thanks for all the great ideas! Luckily my two granddaughters love helping me in the garden and growing their own vegetables at their house. I love reading Rachel Carson's "Sense of Wonder". I love reading your blog! Sending hugs to the "boys"!

    1. I bet working with your granddaughters in the garden is an absolute joy Diane! I will have to check out Rachel Carson's "Sense of Wonder" next time I am at the library. Consider the boys hugged!

  3. Here in Manitoba, Monday was Louis Riel Day (founder of Manitoba) So many good ideas here! We're working on a play house for our daughter, and hoping to put in her own garden too, but it's been a slow project. One day I'll be able to post it!

  4. What a wonderful idea, Jennifer (Family Day), and I love these play houses!
    Thank you for sharing, and have a great weekend.


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