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Garden Design

Child’s play garden design

Steve Garland

Steve Garland

October 4, 2018

In order to create exciting gardens for young children, you need to put yourself in their shoes. It’s a sad fact of life that most of us lose, bit by bit, connection with the direct sensory world of our childhood.

Externally, a child’s world is simpler and smaller than an adult’s, they are mostly concerned with interactions with their immediate surroundings. Internally, their world is a lot more free, open and flexible than an adult’s.


Small details provide treats for children to discover


Children are remarkably creative with fertile imaginations unfettered by the protocol, rules and regulations that constrain our adult thinking. They will use the garden in ways you may not have foreseen. It is worth finding a fresh perspective to shake off habitual attitudes and behaviours and try to view the garden through a child’s eyes. Children look at their surroundings in terms of how they can interact with them whereas adults are far more concerned with appearance.


Simple bas-relief carvings of garden creatures can add a sense of delight


Simplicity and multi-functionality

Unfortunately a lot of commercially available play equipment, though styled to appeal to adults, is very limited in what children can do with it. The more functions any facet of the garden serve, the more avenues for adventure it will provide. Simple structures, such as a large block of wood or a large log, can provide numerous functions in a child’s world.

They can provide a platform to stand on, balance on, straddle or jump off, a seat, a table for storing treasures… In keeping with the principles of permaculture the same applies to plantings. Plants that fulfil a structural function in the garden, such as providing shade or screening, can also be selected to provide colour, fragrance and food. They can also attract butterflies and birds which provide a sense of wonder through serendipitous encounters. Retaining walls provide another opportunity for adventure.


Bird attracting plants, such as this Corymbia ficifolia cultivar provide unexpected encounters with wildlife


Children will always want to walk along retaining walls. Once you have embraced this fact it opens a whole world of fun possibilities to incorporate this feature into their play, especially if the wall forms a continuous circuit with a few obstacles along the way.


A sand pit for a special needs preschool being road-tested prior to opening (Garden design by Jane Britt)


Any garden for young children should have some food plants. It is a very enjoyable and educational experience to grow your own food. If there’s not enough room for a veggie patch there are a huge number of perennial plants that provide food and are a welcome addition in any garden. Strawberries, passionfruit, blueberries, dwarf mango, dwarf avocado, there are so many available that do not demand too much space in the garden.

Sensory input

Children perceive their world through direct sensory experience, free of the preconceptions that cloud our eyes with age. Smell is incredibly important as a child. As adults our sense of smell tends to numb. How often do you notice that a chance odour tends to bring back vivid childhood memories?


This simple water feature provides visual and tactile stimulation


Fragrant flowers and foliage enrich the sensory experience. Sounds also play a key role. Hollow logs you can drum with a stick, wind chimes you can reach, hollowed out planks that resonate as you walk on them all provide avenues for children to make noise and potentially music. Children are immensely tactile, both with their hands and their feet. Can you still remember the sensation of mud squashing up between your toes? Plants such as Albany woolly bush, Acacia cognata or Acacia holosericea (velvet leaf wattle) all invite small hands to run through their foliage.


Albany woolly bush foliage has an irresistible texture (Centennial Park Wetlands)


Smooth polished rocks and timber also have the same effect. Irregularly spaced stepping stones or mixed media paving can provide a basis for a whole range of games – remember dodging the cracks in the pavement when you were a kid?


Sculptural elements

You may not think of children as art connoisseurs, but if they can touch it, climb it, stand or sit on it, it will be a much appreciated addition that will meld into their fantasy playscape. Children are innately bonded with nature. You look at any early childhood drawings and you are bound to find the sun, trees, flowers, butterflies, birds and other animals.

Sculptural elements that incorporate this are bound to be a favourite. Children don’t have an appreciation of the abstract, it is important that the art captures the essence of its subject. Small sculptural features that are not immediately obvious can give a sense of discovery and encourage children to explore to see what else they can find.


I doubt the sculptor foresaw this usage of their work. The foal provides a convenient step up to the mare. (Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney)



Poisonous plants. So many plants in cultivation are toxic, in varying degrees, to humans. Fortunately a lot of these are so bitter it would be physically difficult to ingest a dangerous amount. However, some are so toxic, such as foxglove and oleander, that its really not worth the risk. This is of concern with infants and toddlers that will happily pop anything in their mouths, including worms and snails. (Ah, the joys of parenthood!) However older children can also be at risk. I have two young boys with autism, the 12 year old is quite sensible, but his younger brother is partial to chewing on random twigs and leaves indiscriminately. This has included a Colocasia leaf which was followed by a period of considerable oral discomfort and an oleander leaf from a street planting – fortunately I was present at the time, took the leaf out of his mouth, repeatedly rinsed out his mouth with water and there were no apparent ill-effects afterwards (phew!).


These simple sculptures at Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens are like a magnet for children


Falls. While it is important to let children fall over as often as needed to develop their gross motor skills, it is equally important to help reduce the risk of serious injury when they do. This can be as simple as ensuring there are no drops greater than 600mm unless there is soft-fall underneath. It is also a good idea to round any sharp edges and corners on structures to reduce the risk of lacerations.

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