Planning a Garden for Children to Use

It is possible to plan a garden which encourages running about and other active games even if it cannot be lavishly equipped with climbing frames and the like. So long as the children can be watched from a suitable vantage point they can be given the area furthest away from the house to allow as much distance as possible for running in and out. Some kind of screen may be necessary both as a windbreak and, if you feel the need, to hide some of the untidiness. Where fences or hedgesarenot possible a quick- growing screen of Russian Vine or, more profitable, runner beans might be a good idea. These die down in the winter of course but serve their purpose well in the months when the garden is most used. Sandpits, grassed-over humps or hollows, some hard area or a defined path wide enough to take tricycle and pram wheels are useful. Stepping stones laid into a piece of lawn or a serried-size collection of pieces from a thick tree trunk set in a group look quite pleasant and give opportunity for all kinds of games.

Children enjoy growing plants and vegetables. It is a good idea to give them a patch of garden suitably denned with a line of bricks or concrete kerb, plus a small but good quality set of garden tools. This may become a mud pit or may contain hap-hazard rows of quick-growing salad vegetables, depending on the individual child; since the main concern is the fresh air and exercise these activities involve it does not matter which the children opt for. A safe source of water such as a covered water butt with a tap is also a great attraction but it must be safe. Where a patch of garden is out of the question an old fashioned stone sink supported on a strong platform, bricks or an upturned crate can be filled with earth and used for growing plants instead.

The need for adequate fencing and gating is obvious. Peep-proof, neighbour-proof, ball-proof barriers may seem sensible but can be a prison to small children however attractive the area within is made. The dilemma is that if a solid fence is low enough to see over it is also low enough for a child to climb over. Perhaps solid and see-through sections could be placed alternately or at least some suitable height peep-holes made.

All these points apply equally to nursery-group gardens. Planning these is rather easier than a home garden since here they are expressly for the use of the children and fathers’ predilection for dahlias or the family’s need for vegetables does not arise. It is even more important, however, that they are planned to provide space for a large number of children and some thought has to be given to extending their use as long as possible through the winter months. More hard and sheltered areas, verandahs, vehicle tracks, shrubs, bushes and trees will provide interest throughout the year without too much maintenance. Gardeners and maintenance men like trouble-free arrangements. A lot of persuasion may be required before they agree to humps, hollows, raised banks, bicycle tracks, stepping stones or huge pieces of tree trunk firmly anchored which all have to be mown round or, worse still, hand clipped. (One nursery found an excellent solution: parents came in to do the fiddly edges and the official gardener turned out to be a superb story-teller, in addition to being very clever and resourceful in devising improvised equipment.)

Fences for nursery groups need some thought. They are needed to keep the right things inside and the wrong things out-side. Quite often a fence is planned with a view to keeping out vandals rather than keeping in three-year-olds. Gates which can only be opened by adults are an excellent idea but the designers might remember that some adults are rather less than six feet tall and not everyone has the elastic arms that they appear to plan for. Nursery groups which have to plan moveable fencing and barriers to be put up and taken down daily have reached some ingenious solutions. A strawberry net slung over a tight line and weighted at the bottom with bricks proved a flimsy-looking but very effective psychological barrier through which the children could see. Rolls of polythene fencing anchored at both ends and stiffened by threading thick dowel rod from top to bottom at suitable intervals also works well. The other advantage of these barriers, apart from being light to move and allowing children to see out, is that they also allow other small children and their mothers to see in from outside which is very valuable. Most nursery groups only have one means of entrance and exit. If there are more it is worth locking and never using all but one. This reduces the amount of supervision necessary during a session and at the beginning and end when some members of staff should always be there.

It may be necessary for staff to do some organizing of procedure just outside the nursery especially where cars are involved. Although this is strictly off their premises and they may feel their responsibility ends when a mother has collected her child, this will not reduce the distress and remorse if there should be an accident. For the one or two thoughtless mothers a quiet reminder or if necessary an overt direction from a member of staff may do more good than all the black looks, mutterings and loud asides the other mothers can muster. Quite often mothers are more than willing to take turns in helping with this coming-and-going safety duty.