As anyone who has bundled giddy, hyper kids into a car for "the big weekend walk" at the beach or woods knows, time spent outdoors is a wondrous tonic. But your own backyard can be just as enticing. Just as well, given our lockdown restrictions.
It's all about knowing what engages and excites kids - and it doesn't have to cost the earth. "You can create a great garden for your family on a budget," says horticulturalist and garden designer Vyvian White, who has three children of his own to experiment with, Elodie (11), Juliette, (nine), and Ethan (six). "I enjoy getting the kids involved and recycling what we have. It's always good to build stuff or grow things together."
He's a big believer in the power of the outdoors to help children develop all sorts of skills, beyond just green fingers. It's critical, he says, for building core strength, developing fine motor coordination, improving eye function, not to mention tickling the senses - the smell of lavender, the taste of the season's first juicy alpine strawberries, the feel of damp soil.
Vyvian spent a decade in the south of France designing large-scale gardens for the high-end properties of celebrities (including Richard Madeley of Richard & Judy fame and former Irish Grand Prix driver David Kennedy), property developers, high court judges and CEOs.
In 2014, he returned to Ireland to start up Lotus Landscape Design (lotuslandscapedesign.ie) in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Recently, Vyvian has seen a spike in interest in child-friendly designs. "It's important to dedicate a space in your garden to your children and I'm seeing a big increase in demand for it, especially with people being locked down. We appreciate our own spaces so much more now."
One of the most striking features of the area Vyvian designed for his own children is a beautiful wooden treehouse, nestled among a handful of tall birch trees and made from old decking timber.
"So much stuff gets thrown away," says Vyvian, who worked with a local carpenter to build the house.
"This wood was leftover from a job I did - we pull up decking all the time as so many areas around Ireland are damp and not really suitable for it. But if the wood is in reasonable condition, we always try to re-use it. For this house, we bought the galvanised roof, but everything else was recycled." He's a big believer in working with what you have, whether that is old wooden pallets or leftover wood from previous projects, to create play spaces (check out your local skips for similar).
And while it's important to have a dedicated area for your kids to play in, it's also worth having a zone the whole family can enjoy together. "We have a little fire pit which we go to in the evening to enjoy the westerly sun," says Vyvian.
Get into the swing of things
Encouraging kids to move, jump, stretch, balance and run should be a key element of any garden. Vyvian's space is a child's dream and features a trampoline, a zip line, hanging rope, a swing and even a little obstacle course-like rope walkway connecting the trees, created using strong rope he had left over from his tree surgeon days.
He stresses the importance of looking for creative ways to integrate fun play spaces that complement and blend in with your garden, without the need for huge 'monstrosity' play structures.
"These structures can so often dominate the whole garden space when really all kids want is just a simple swing, slide or trampoline.
"Even really small gardens can have bespoke swings," Vyvian says. "They're relatively inexpensive too. If you can build your swing into a tree, or get a carpenter to pull it together and make it look a bit more rustic, it fits into a garden much more easily than large swing sets, which often don't age very well either."
Grow your own
While not created specifically for them, Vyvian's polytunnel is a place where his children love to spend time and he enjoys involving them in the process of growing things from seed.
"The polytunnel has been a great way to grow our own veg and my youngest son, Ethan, is very enthusiastic about it - he goes in to check on the plants without being prompted, he's so excited.
"We're sowing all the time. A lot of people don't realise how easy it is to grow things. Every outdoor space, no matter how small, can grow something and it helps give kids an appreciation and understanding of where food comes from. Propagating seeds can be done so cost-effectively using whatever you have lying around."
If you're growing from seed for the first time, start with easy things like salad leaves or radishes, which grow quite quickly.
"We're growing beans at the moment," says Vyvian. "The bigger beans, like French beans or broad beans, are sometimes easier to plant and kids can understand that a big bean will grow into something big."
Where the wild things are
A huge benefit of spending more time outside with your kids is fostering a deep love of nature.
One of the latest additions to Vyvian's garden is a pond, recycled from a previous project that will soon, no doubt, be teeming with life.
"From seeing earthworms and ladybirds, or butterflies hatching and learning about what insects need to eat - it's great to show kids the process of growth happening," says Vyvian.
"You can start as small as you like, with a bird table or hanging feeder, insect box or by planting native plants that support pollinators.
"The bird feeder has been great and we encourage the kids to keep it full themselves," says Vyvian.
"I am also making a wildflower meadow this year in our back field, but honestly, any outdoor space is capable of growing something to attract insects. All of these things encourage a bit of nature, a bit of wildlife and are helping save the planet a little bit as well."
Jobs to be done
Try to involve kids in the daily gardening chores - you might be surprised at how much fun they find things like watering plants, picking weeds and, of course, harvesting any fruit and veg.
"We try and set the kids a few tasks every day," says Vyvian. "Small garden chores, things like preparing wood for the fire or wheeling things in the wheelbarrow can be fun and encourages them to get out of the house and connect with nature."
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