Tuesday 6 December 2016

Magical gardens for little minds

Children love to play and it can be wholly beneficial to their learning process too. So as the weather gets better, let your youngsters' imaginations run wild in the garden

Mary Lirwan

Published 04/04/2011 | 05:00

Great outdoors: Selkie and Syngen Hennessy Packman enjoy some play time in 'Brigit's Garden' in Moycullen, Galway, created by garden designer Mary Reynolds. Photo: Andrew Downes
Great outdoors: Selkie and Syngen Hennessy Packman enjoy some play time in 'Brigit's Garden' in Moycullen, Galway, created by garden designer Mary Reynolds. Photo: Andrew Downes

It's been a long hard winter and the closest our kids have got to the great outdoors is watching green-themed TV programmes like 'The Waybuloos'. But now that spring has definitely sprung, it's time to entice our hibernating little ones outside and the good news is that it's not as hard or expensive as you think.

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You don't need to sign up Diarmuid Gavin to uncouple your kids from the charms of the Disney Channel. A little bit of ingenuity will turn them into budding gardeners.

In just months your garden could be jammed with sunflower houses, wildflower meadows and raised veggie beds which will be a magnet for your young ones for under €100.

We asked Ireland's foremost experts in creating child-friendly gardens for their top tips on how to pimp your patch. Here are the four simple steps to a play-friendly garden:

•Get children growing plants themselves.

•Put in cheap play gear.

•Encourage creativity.

•Create different zones in the garden.

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Get Them Growing plants

To get kids growing plants you first need to get inside their heads. Orla Kennedy, director of the Dublin-based children's museum Imaginosity, is brimful of ideas for making gardens attractive to children.

"You should start off with small things they can manage like pots. Raised beds for growing vegetables are great for kids because they are on a small scale. They can make their own from bits of wood that are lying around or from a skip. All you have to do then is line it with plastic and add the soil. It becomes their own."

The key to getting children involved is making them responsible for their own patch of garden.

"Children can see a garden as work. If you are out lifting big stones and doing heavy-duty work it may not be very enticing for a child. An important thing to remember with children is scale. When you are two or three your granny can look like a monster!

"You need to make the garden fun. If you buy a circle of timber edging and fill it with soil it can act as a raised bed. You can plant it up with vegetable and lettuce and you can dismantle it whenever you need," she says.

There are some enticing ideas to get kids growing their own food.

"A great notion is to grow your own salad box or pasta box. You just plant up a box with things you need for a pasta dish like basil, onion, oregano and a tomato plant. Then stick it on a window sill and make your own pasta when it's ready."

Because children are always on the go it's important to grow plants that are resilient and can take a trampling.

"Grow things in your garden that are robust. Sensory herbs like rosemary, lemon thyme and lavender can take abuse. They will bounce back if the dog runs over them or a ball is kicked on them," adds Orla.

She believes your efforts in the garden will really pay off.

"Out in the garden they learn the value and importance of the natural world. It is all about self-discovery and children educating themselves."

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Play gear

There's no excuse for not putting play equipment in the garden because it doesn't have to cost the earth. Forget about shelling out on expensive play sets which they'll seldom use -- DIY is just as good.

"Treehouses are lots of fun and you don't have to buy expensive kits -- you can make it with old bits of wood. If you don't have a tree you can make a fort. When friends come around it gets them off the couch and out into the garden and is very social," says Imaginosity director Orla Kennedy.

If you are lucky enough to have a tree there's always the tyre and rope trick to create a swing and if you're feeling flusher perhaps you should plan a trip to Ikea. They have swings, rope ladders and outdoor swing seats for around €20 each in their Ekorre range. Why not put a seat around the base of a tree. It's great for sitting on and making pirate forts underneath.

Don't forget to spread a few bags of play bark under any play equipment to encourage active play and break falls!

To cheer up dark corners, for under a fiver in Ikea you can pick up cute brightly coloured wind vanes that you simply stick in the ground or a pot.

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Encourage creativity

Kid's expert Orla Kennedy wants to awaken their artistic side and gardens are ideal for this.

"Let your kids bring their own art out into the garden. Collect the free CDs from the Sunday papers. You can tie them together and decorate them and make a garden mobile. Another idea is to paint a pot with a daisy and plant a daisy in the pot. These can make great presents for grandparents or friends."

Other ideas include making mosaic stepping stones with bits of old broken tiles stuck on with tile adhesive.

She also has some cheap and cheerful devices for getting wildlife into the garden.

"Peanut rings are great for getting the birds into the garden. All you do is get some shelled peanuts; punch a hole in them and string them together with garden wire.

"Wormeries are another favourite and hold an eternal fascination for kids," says Orla.

The Chelsea Gold Medal-winning garden designer Mary Reynolds, and star of RTE's 'Supergardens', is another advocate of encouraging creativity.

She says that most suburban gardens consist of nothing but blocks of grass and grey walls so places to play have to be created.

"A really nice thing to do to get them outside is blackboard paint. You can paint a whole wall or a door-sized section of a wall and they'll love getting their chalk out and drawing. Do make sure it isn't too high so they can reach it," says Mary.

If you are feeling really adventurous she suggests letting the kids paint murals. "It will go a long way to cheering up grey walls."

Mary encourages children to paint stones with pictures of ladybirds and other insects, and place them in the garden.

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Different zones in the garden

The best places for play in a garden are often spaces where children can make up their own games and stories. Designers recommend breaking the garden up into different spaces allowing different parts to be used for different things.

Mary Reynolds has plenty of inexpensive ideas when it comes to magical spaces. She designed Brigit's Garden in Galway, a wonderland of secret hiding and play areas for children.

"Create different spaces in the garden like a living willow hut which is very straight forward to make (see box, above). You can even drape solar lights over it to make it extra special."

For Mary, being eco-friendly and child-friendly in the garden goes hand in hand.

"Wildlife gardens are very low maintenance. Butterfly gardens are also a brilliant idea. You should plant five annual plants and five perennial plants such as cosmos, marigold, dill and, if your neighbours can tolerate it, thistles!"

She recommends simple things like bumps and mounds which are tremendous fun for rolling on and can keep children occupied for hours with minimal parental input.

If you have the space, Mary also suggests growing tree glades.

"They can be really enchanting and you can plant wild meadow grass instead of lawn so you don't have to worry about mowing in between the trees."

Even an old tree stump laid in the garden can become a treasure trove of bugs and creepy crawlies.

Every child loves sunflowers, but did you know you can create a sunflower house?

"Sunflower houses are a great thing for kids in the garden. Mark out a square on the ground and plant the seeds. You can grow other climbing plants like nasturtiums up along it and drape them over the top. You can even just plant them in pots," says Mary.

The champion garden designer believes that it's vital we reawaken our green fingers because children don't have the same access to nature nowadays.

"I know a lot of us would have been blessed growing up surrounded by nature. But for a lot of kids now their only connection with nature is parks or gardens, which can be very sterile."

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