Like some hobbies, kids can get involved in gardening and plant care at an early age. Indoor plants are a great way to get children enthusiastic about gardening and science because houseplants can be cared for year-round and are fairly straight forward and inexpensive.
Houseplants are easier than ever to purchase and the best ones for kids are often the most affordable – meaning a few mishaps or dead plants can easily be replaced with new ones.
When searching for houseplants for children, focus on foliage plants that tolerate lower light and are slower growing – plants like these often have lower watering and light demands. Try to select plants that are relatively trouble-free and not particularly prone to pests, leaf tipping or shedding. Good starter plants for children include:
Philodendrons – both vining and non-vining types.
Philodendron cordatum (Heart Leaf Philodendron) is especially trouble and pest-free, inexpensive and easy to care for in almost any environment. A number of newer Philodendrons have bright colors like neon green, orange and reds.
Pothos (Epipremnum) are widely available, inexpensive, easy to care for and comes in a variety of leaf colors.
ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamifolia) is a newer plant type with very interesting, waxy leaves. It doesn’t need to be watered often, isn’t susceptible to most pests and tolerates lower light. Avoid over-watering this plant!
Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) has elongated, wispy leaves that are thick and fleshy. It’s available in a variety of colors and patterns. It is another low maintenance plant that does not need to be watered often, tolerates lower light and is susceptible to few pests. Like the ZZ plant, it prefers to be on the dry side and should not be over-watered. Dwarf varieties are available.
Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema) have larger leaves available in a wide range of patterns and increasingly in a variety of colors, including pinks and reds. Aglaonema makes a great interior plant and develops new growth even when not in direct light. It has average watering needs – avoid over-watering.
Carnivorous (meat-eating) plants include Venus Fly Trap, Pitcher Plant and Sun-dew plants. Although not necessarily the easiest plants to care for, these plants often provoke much imagination, interest and intrigue from kids, especially when they “eat” another insect.
The key to caring for most carnivorous plants is to keep them in a terrarium (often provided) to keep humidity high. Most carnivorous plants must be grown in sphagnum moss or a similar soil. Water with distilled water only and avoid tap water, fertilizers or any chemicals and provide bright indirect light or even direct sunlight.
Although tempting, avoid feeding Venus Fly Traps too often and only feed them small insects like ants or flies.
A trap often dies after it has “fed” on another insect, especially larger insects. Although most carnivorous plants can live without being fed insects, children will naturally want to feed them.
Consider feeding one trap on a plant a small insect about once or twice a month. Interestingly, many carnivorous plants are indigenous to the United States, including Venus Fly Trap (native to North and South Carolina) and many Pitcher Plants being native to the Southeastern US and parts of coastal Oregon and California.
Aloe vera is another common houseplant that has low watering needs but enjoys brighter light. Aloe vera is very well-known for its healing medicinal properties and is found in many over-the-counter skin-healing ointments. Like all succulents, avoid over-watering Aloe vera and provide it higher light.
Other Good Houseplants for Kids
There are many other houseplants for kids, including a variety of miniature palms, succulents such as cacti, ivies and others. If they are seeking a taller, larger plant, a cane Dracaena may be a good option.
Growing and caring for houseplants is a constructive, educational and therapeutic activity for kids that should be take advantage of. It’s a positive break that reconnects them to the calming powers of nature.
Green Side Up,
Matt Kostelnick, Senior Horticulturist at Ambius
Read our full archive Plant Doctor Blog Posts
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With the last frost due later this month, it’s time to get the gardening season off to a start with the kids. We have a brand new garden and as we turn it from a blank canvas into a family garden I really want the kids to join in. The plans include flower beds (and a cutting bed so I can have fresh flowers in the house regularly), food in our vegetable beds as well as some herbs that will find their way into the kitchen. But, as anyone that has tried to grow their own flowers and food knows it can take a lot of time and children aren’t the most patient of creatures. So I’ve put together my list of Quick Growing Seeds for vegetables and flowers are ideal for growing at home with the kids or in the classroom.
My kids love the starting growing, the soil, the seeds and the initial watering of the plants but waiting weeks for them to sprout through the surface and then months to show their beauty or to eat they lose interest. Now these flowers are great for the UK and many are available in other countries or ones of the same type but a different variety.
Find the Best Equipment for Kids that Like to Dig in the Dirt.
What You’ll Find on This Page
- Fast Growing Flower Seeds for Kids
- Edible Seeds to Grow with Kids in the Classroom
- Buy your Seeds Here ->
- Top Tips for Gardening and Growing Plants with Kids
- Pin these plants to grow later with the kids
- Share these ideas for plants to grow with others on Facebook
- Down to a Science
- Narrowing the Search
- And the Winners Are…
- Plants are People, Too
- A New Addition
- Kidsafe NSW Inc.
- Natural Playspaces
- How to Build a Safe & Fun Outdoor Space for Kids
Fast Growing Flower Seeds for Kids
- Morning Glory – This climbing plant opens the flowers in the morning and then closes at night. Liking a sunny site it’s easy to grow and pretty too. But be aware that the seeds are poisonous so growing with young children supervision is especially important with these pretty flowers.
- Sweet Peas – A traditional English Cottage flower and perfect for growing with the kids as well as having the added advantage of attracting bees and other pollinators to your garden. Sweet peas are perfect for growing up the trellis or in a wigwam and you can pick and place in vases around the home or classroom.
- Nasturtium – So easy to grow, sprinkle into prepared soil and then water, weed and watch as these bright colourful and EDIBLE flowers grow. Plus they are a companion plant and great natural pest control in the vegetable garden. They are also relatively cheap and will flower all summer long.
- Try these egg carton seed trays to grow the seeds in before you plant out to the garden.
- Marigolds – Another edible flower these really easy to grow pretty flowers looks great in the garden, whether grown in pots or in the soil they will brighten the day. Like Nasturtium’s they are also natural pest control in the gardens especially around tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, beans, squash…. They also attract bees to the garden another great benefit that will help other flowers bloom and your vegetables grow.
- Poppies – Although the traditional red poppies are a weed and will grow anywhere soil has been disturbed there are so many different sorts and they are very very easy to grow. Plus once you start growing them because they self-seed the area you can guarantee that for many years to come you will have lots and lots of poppies in the garden.
- Sunflowers – Each day over the summer holiday as a child my brother and I would race outside after breakfast as we took part in our annual sunflower growing competition. Which one of us would grow the biggest sunflower? We cared for those sunflowers and measured them daily. Then when they were grown and they got tall the flowers would appear, providing seeds for the birds for the autumn and winter.
- Snapdragons – although they take a little longer to grow than some of the other plants mentioned snapdragons are great to grow in the garden with the kids, plus the flowers are edible too although can be bitter and may not be to some children’s taste.
- Wallflowers – another English cottage garden favourite wallflowers are lightly scented and look good. They also survive in poor soil (so great for the edge of school playgrounds) and like the sun or semi shade. They come in a variety of bright warm colours that really add a splash to the garden.
- Spring Bulbs – Ok so not technically quick but once they appear in the spring these bulbs will brighten the day, mix up what you plant with some crocuses, daffodils, irises, snowdrops, alliums and tulips and throughout the spring the children will see the plants appear. Check out our planting a rainbow to find the sort of bulbs we choose to have the biggest impact in our garden.
- NB – Foxgloves are also quick growing – these pretty but TOXIC wildflowers are easy to grow but children should be kept away from them as all parts are toxic. However, they are great for a wildflower garden and do grow quickly plus come back. They attract bees and other pollinators to the garden and do look pretty. They also grow in shadier areas – but again keep them away from children there is a huge temptation to use those pretty little bell shaped flowers for things like fairy hats or cups.
Edible Seeds to Grow with Kids in the Classroom
Flowers look great in the garden but it’s always good to have some edible seeds growing as these are a great way to encourage children to try new foods.
- Salad Bowl Lettuce – with many different varieties available a mixed pack of lettuce seeds are ideal for growing with kids. You will find some are specific to a country like Italian seeds or maybe just a mixed bowl. Don’t worry about growing these and getting the perfect shape they are meant to be eaten young so unlike trying to grow iceberg or little gems kids can sow the seeds, water, weed and eat within a couple of weeks.
- Mustard or Cress Seeds – ideal for growing indoors like we did with our caterpillars these are one of the easiest seeds to propagate and you don’t even need soil to do it. Cress are a less spicy alternative but mustard seeds add a little spice to a sandwich when picked, washed and eaten.
- Beans – with so many varieties to choose from these legumes grow quickly and are perfect for some early botany experiments like growing in glass jars to see what happens under the soil. You can even use them to create a natural teepee in the garden, an ideal reading nook in the summer months that you can reach up and have a snack from at the same time.
- Carrots – not as easy to grow as some of the vegetables and flower mentioned but one of the favourite vegetables of many children carrots can even be grown in containers so reducing the need for a vegetable plot. Just make sure if you do grow in the vegetable garden that you sieve the soil first to remove any stones otherwise you will have wonky carrots!
- Radishes– really quick growing these peppery vegetables are ideal on salads and come in many different varieties. I normally grow them in between slower growing plants so that the soil stays weed free and we get tasty treats from the garden to go with our salad bowl lettuce.
- Chives and other herbs – Grow your own herbs with the kids, chives are quick and easy to grow and the purple flowers are pretty in the garden. Other herbs that kids will love growing are ones that they will enjoy cooking with – mint, basil, oregano, corridaner/cilantro , rosemary. We plan to have a herb wheel but mainly grow these in pots near the kitchen door or throughout the year on the kitchen window sill.
Buy your Seeds Here ->
We have included affiliate links to seeds and other gardening products ideal for use with kids.
Below are all of the seeds linked to either Thompson and Morgan (UK only) or Amazon.
- Morning Glory Morning Glory Seeds online at Thompson and Morgan or Amazon
- Sweet Peas Sweet Pea Seeds in the UK or Amazon
- Nasturtiums Nasturtium Tom Thumb brightly coloured mix in the UK or Mixed Colour Nasturtium US from Amazon.
- Marigolds Marigold seeds from Thompson and Morgan in the UK or Amazon.
- Poppies ladybird poppies in the UK and Amazon
- Sunflowers Russian Giants in the UK or the Mongolian Giants from Amazon
- Snap Dragons purple twists in the UK are one of my favourites and these White Spanish ones from Amazon.
- Wallflowers My Fair Lady mix from Thompson and Morgan in the UK or an English Garden Mix from Amazon.
- Salad bowl mixed lettuce Seeds – Bright and Spicy in the UK or Mesclun on Amazon
- Cress or Mustard Seeds – Extra Curled (UK) and Fine Curled on Amazon
- Beans – Runner beans are smaller plants and grow quicker than other varieties Speedy in the UK has a great taste and one of the heirloom varieties available on Amazon looks pretty as it grows as well as tasting great.
- Carrots – Carrot Parmex are perfect for kids producing little round carrots in the UK and why not try growing Little Finger carrots perfect for kids available on Amazon.
- Radish – Try French Breakfast in the UK or how about Radish Watermelon on Amazon.
- Herbs – Pick variety packs that let you sample different herbs like the Herb Collection in the UK or this themed herb collection from Amazon.
Top Tips for Gardening and Growing Plants with Kids
- Use unusual containers – old boots, egg shells, tea pots, old pans all make for great pots
- Have everything to hand – compost/soil, seeds, watering can
- Make sure you have equipment that the kids can handle
- Teach the kids not to over water – start off putting less water than needed in the watering can and show them what it should look like when they water
- Get them to help to weed around the plants, plant out, water, feed and harvest
Pin these plants to grow later with the kids
Cerys is a marine biologist, environmental educator, high school teacher and mum. Realising that life doesn’t have to be put on hold and you don’t just have to survive whilst the kids are young she shares ideas to inspire you to LIVE with the kids, with activities to do together, recipes to cook and enjoy and family travel to make memories to last a lifetime.
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Plants add vitality to indoor spaces.
There’s something refreshing about having greenery and flowers inside that elevates the mood, especially on dreary days.
However, this may not be due solely to their beauty.
You may know that when plants convert sunlight to energy in the process of photosynthesis, they contribute oxygen to our indoor environments.
But did you also know that scientists have long known that plants may filter toxins from the air we breathe inside our homes?
Down to a Science
Two definitive studies have been instrumental over the years in helping people choose houseplants for their homes.
In 1989, the famous NASA Clean Air Study was conducted to determine the contribution of 19 low-light houseplants to indoor air quality, in terms of their ability to remove toxins from the air, such as benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene (TCE), and xylene.
These are the common names of the plants that were tested:
- Aloe vera
- Bamboo palm
- Chinese evergreen
- English ivy
- Gerbera daisy
- Golden pothos
- Green spider plant
- Janet Craig (dracaena)
- Mass cane/corn cane
- Mother-in-law’s tongue
- Peace lily
- Philodendron (elephant ear, heart leaf, and lacy tree)
- Pot mum
Scientists discovered that these plants exhibited various degrees of “phytoremediation,” or the ability of leaves, roots, and soil microorganisms to remove harmful gases from indoor air.
However, in 2009, University of Georgia researcher Stanley Kays participated in a study funded by the UGA’s Agricultural Experiment Stations that tested 28 plants.
His group reported that 5 had superior phytomediation rates for benzene, toluene, octane, alpha-pinene, and TCE, making them “super ornamentals.”
These are commonly known as:
- Asparagus fern
- English ivy
- Green spider plant
- Purple waffle plant
- Variegated wax plant
Kays also noted that while plants may enhance indoor air quality, it is possible to have an unintended adverse effect by bringing these into your home, via chemicals in plastic pots and pesticides. He indicated that further research was needed, but funding was inadequate at the time.
To date, these tests have been regarded as a gold standard for houseplant selection. However, there are additional considerations:
Which ones are nontoxic? And which are easy to grow?
Let’s find out!
Narrowing the Search
Now that we know which plants may remove toxins from indoor environments, we also want to learn which ones are safe for pets and children.
For that, we need to cross-reference the above two lists with the ASPCA list of plants that are toxic and nontoxic to cats and dogs, and the Poison Control National Capital Poison Center list of plants that are toxic and nontoxic to humans.
Doing so leaves us with the following:
- Bamboo palm
- Gerbera daisy
- Green spider
- Purple waffle
- Variegated wax
And guess what?
All 5 are easy to grow!
And the Winners Are…
Each of the plants listed here is worthy of consideration because:
- It has demonstrated the ability to phytomediate known pollutants in indoor air.
- It is nontoxic to dogs, cats, and people.
- It can grow with relative ease in a household setting.
Please note: Nontoxic DOES NOT mean edible. Consuming a nontoxic plant may cause adverse reactions such as gastrointestinal upset. Supervise pets and children when adding plants to your home, and call poison control or your local veterinarian or ASPCA immediately if plant material is ingested.
1. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea Seifrizii)
Bamboo palm, also known as the reed palm, grows naturally in Mexico and Central America, where the air is humid and the sun is bright.
It’s a popular indoor plant because it’s one of NASA’s Clean Air varieties, and is nontoxic to dogs, cats, and humans.
With feathery green fronds and clumps of brown fibrous stems, this graceful beauty may reach a height of seven feet, for a stunning botanical focal point. It produces yellow blossoms.
Hardy and affordable, the bamboo palm is fairly easy to maintain. As with all of NASA’s study plants, it grows well in low-light settings. However, it also thrives well in brighter light, provided it is indirect.
Palms like soil that is moist, but not wet. I like to test moisture with an unvarnished take-out chopstick.
Just push one into the soil to a depth of about one-third the total pot depth. If it’s dry when you pull it out, it’s time to water.
Be sure to have adequate drainage holes to prevent standing water.
In addition to watering at the roots, mist palm fronds frequently.
Misting serves two purposes.
First, it creates humidity, which all tropicals love.
Second, it inhibits infestation by spider mites, a common palm pest.
Like most plants, your palm will let you know what it needs:
- If you see brown on the fronds, you may need to provide more water.
- If they are yellow, you may need to water less, or remove the plant from direct sunlight.
- Discoloration may indicate an infestation of mites, as will the appearance of specks of “dirt” on fronds that are actually tiny insects.
Dust and dryness are attractive to these pests, so I like to use my electrostatic duster on the fronds each week when I clean.
Be sure to shake the duster outside when you’re finished, and then wash it for next time.
In addition, the misting that I recommend is another way to keep little critters from setting up housekeeping. Give your palm a good rinse once in a while, if you can get it to a shower or outdoors.
If after reasonable diligence you do see evidence of mites, mix up a solution of one tablespoon baby shampoo or other mild soap to one-half gallon water.
Using a spray bottle, test your mixture on the top and underside of one frond. Wait a day to make sure it doesn’t adversely affect your plant, and if all is well, spray each leaf in the same manner.
This treatment may be done periodically to keep mites at bay. If it fails, purchase an insecticidal soap at your local nursery and administer per the package instructions.
2. Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera Jamesonii)
Gerbera daisies, also known as Transvaal daisies, are native to South Africa, where the climate is hot and dry.
Another of NASA’s wonder plants, gerberas are nontoxic to dogs, cats, and humans.
Available in a rainbow of colors, this daisy-type flower has green lobed, hairy leaves, and is often featured outdoors, where it grows in clumps in perennial beds.
Interestingly, it is not in the daisy family, but is a relative of the sunflower (like sunchokes also are), and often the focal point of cut arrangements.
Gerberas typically bloom from late summer through the fall.
As with all of NASA’s study varieties, gerberas will tolerate low light. But they prefer several hours of morning sunlight a day.
As a plant from an arid natural habitat, the gerbera needs enough moisture to keep its roots from drying out, and no more.
I push my finger or a clean, dry chopstick into the soil two to three inches, and if it comes up dry, it’s time to water.
I like to take my gerbera to the kitchen sink and run the tap gently over the soil until the drainage holes drip water. I leave it there until the dripping stops, then return it to a sunny spot.
Gerberas that are too wet are susceptible to mites, mildew, and root rot.
Do not mist this plant!
Buy gerberas from a nursery, as opposed to a florist who would typically sell cut flowers, and avoid purchasing during holiday gift-giving periods.
Plants grown for giving as gifts often fail shortly after blooming, as they have not been cultivated for longevity.
When a gerbera blooms, be sure to prune spent blossoms by snipping cleanly across the stem, just above the leaves.
This is called ”deadheading,” a process that redirects energy to support additional flowering.
3. Green Spider (Chlorophytum Elatum)
The green spider boasts variegated green and white foliage that resembles cascading ornamental grass.
One of my favorite plants, it was among the first I was given to nurture as a child, and it thrived magnificently in a glass globe suspended by a macramé hanger near my bedroom window.
Spider plants originate in South Africa, where the air is hot and dry.
Another NASA Clean Air plant, spiders are nontoxic to dogs, cats, and humans.
They can tolerate low light, but do exceptionally well in bright, indirect sunlight.
Spiders need minimal water, and while humidity is not essential to growth, misting is a great way to clean the leaves and provide moisture.
Use a chopstick inserted two-thirds down into the pot. If it’s dry, water. It’s better to let the pot dry out than to over-water and risk root rot.
I like to water mine in the bathtub, and let it drain completely before re-hanging it.
An interesting feature of this undemanding variety is its exceptionally strong root system that often works its way out of drainage holes in a tangled web.
No worries – spiders take well to repotting.
In addition, “mother plants” send out trailing stems that produce tiny white flowers, and these become mini-spiders. They may remain attached or be removed for the propagation of new plants.
If you notice brown leaves, you may be under-watering. If so, snip them off, and be sure to check the plant daily until you get a handle on its needs.
If you’ve overwatered, leaves and roots may become mushy. In this case, attempt to remove stressed plant material and allow the pot to dry out.
Alternatively, slice away a healthy portion of the root system, or a mini-spider, and start fresh in a new pot.
Spider aficionados are generally quite happy to snip off a “plantlet” for a friend, so keep this in mind if you’d like to grow a spider at your house!
4. Purple Waffle (Hemigraphis Alternata)
Also known as red ivy, the purple waffle has variegated, toothed leaves that are silver-green on top and purple underneath.
This plant is one of the super ornamentals of the UGA’s Agricultural Experiment Stations study, it has a demonstrated ability to contribute to indoor air quality, and is nontoxic to dogs, cats, and humans.
Native to Asia, purple waffle prefers conditions rich in moisture with abundant sunshine.
While able to grow in low light, its leaves will fade without the bright, indirect light it craves.
Watering is required frequently to maintain moisture-rich soil, and misting is recommended to increase humidity.
This lovely plant may be permitted to elongate, or may be pruned for a bushy appearance.
Occasionally, a waffle plant may become infested with scale or whiteflies. If you notice discolored or distorted leaves, pinch them off and discard them. Then rinse the plant under a steady stream of water to detach and destroy insects.
Often sold to unsuspecting fish tank aficionados as an aquatic plant, purple waffle is not an aquatic, and will not last long under water. It is sometimes sold in stores that carry aquarium supplies.
5. Variegated Wax (Hoya Cornosa)
Native to Asia and Australia, the variegated wax plant has trailing stems of waxy green leaves and fragrant, waxy pink-white flowers. It is a climbing evergreen.
One of the UGA’s Agricultural Experiment Station’s super ornamentals, variegated wax is not only great for indoor air quality, it is nontoxic to dogs, cats, and humans.
Wax does best with several hours of indirect, bright sunlight each day. Bloom times vary, and once in bud, avoid disturbing the pot.
Test for water as previously described, and water and drain thoroughly as needed. Mist leaves to provide humidity. During the winter months, the wax plant usually requires less moisture.
Discolored leaves may signify a nutrient deficiency, or the presence of mealy bugs. Common methods for removing the pests are with rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs, a steady stream of tap water, or the mixture of shampoo and water mentioned earlier.
Blooming doesn’t always take place in the first year. When buds do appear, keep the pot as still as possible. Check often for moisture, as a plant that is producing flowers usually requires more water.
The most interesting feature of variegated wax is that it can bloom day or night!
After blooming, the wax plant needs time to rejuvenate. In the summer months, it may benefit from time outdoors in a sheltered area that receives some filtered sun.
Plants are People, Too
In addition to light, water, and pest management, plants also benefit from periodic nutrient supplementation, particularly during growth periods.
Just like people, plants – especially those that live inside – need vitamins and minerals to thrive. Ensure that they get the elements they need with an organic, all purpose, slow acting fertilizer.
Feed plants per package instructions.
A New Addition
Are you ready for a new member of the family?
Visit your local nursery or attend the next horticultural event in your area and decide which plants will breathe new life into your indoor surroundings.
Professional growers and master gardeners are usually eager to offer advice and discuss their favorites, so don’t hesitate to ask questions!
Why not start with a cheery pot on the windowsill and see where it takes you?
Do you have tips to share about your experiences with houseplants? We’d love to hear them in the comments section below.
Photo credit: .
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!
Kidsafe NSW Inc.
Play is a vital part of childhood and growing up. Children learn through play to develop social, physical and emotional skills. Providing children with an outdoor learning environment that incorporates areas for quiet, natural, creative, active and stimulating play will allow children to learn whilst using their imagination. By inviting a child to use their initiative and explore possibilities we provide them with the best opportunities to learn.
The National Quality Standard (NQS) for Early Childhood Education and Care and School Age Care 3.1.3 states a requirement for outdoor spaces to include natural elements and materials which allow for multiple uses.
Remember your own childhood. Where was your favourite place to play? The inclusion/addition of natural elements such as a few logs, boulders and plantings, for example, can easily be added to a playspace to create a natural environment.
Click here to download the Kidsafe NSW information sheet titled Natural Playspaces.
Natural playspaces create opportunities for children to experience both risk and challenge and can also be a safe place for children to explore.
When planning a natural playspace ensure that:
- it complies with the Australian Standards for playgrounds e.g. adequate falling space/impact areas and playground surfacing are provided surrounding higher features
- play value is optimised
- clear pathways are provided
- non-toxic plants are selected and that plants with sharp or spiky features are avoided
- loose parts such as small logs, leaves, seed pods, cones etc. are readily available for children to incorporate in their play
- boulders and rocks used to construct sandpit edges, creek beds, stepping stones etc. have rounded edges and are non-slippery even when wet.
Rocks and Boulders
Cleverly arranged rocks and boulders are safe. Children have a healthy respect for the solidity and hardness of rocks and boulders and develop their own sense of care, concern, and safety when they climb on them. Click here to read more.
How to Build a Safe & Fun Outdoor Space for Kids
Imagine that you are the same age as your child…what year level were you in? Who was your teacher? Your best friend? Favorite game?
Imagine that you are outside…did you have a place that you considered your own? A treehouse or a fort in the bushes?
Remember that special place where, besides listening for your parent’s voice, your imagination was the limit! Did you build hideouts or homes for your toys? Catch butterflies or bugs? What did you feel, see, smell or hear?
Post by Nature Play WA.
Remember how good you were at having fun? Your child is gifted with the same skill! Now that you’ve loosened up your imagination, join us in encouraging kids to use theirs!
First, let go of preconceived notions of an outdoor play area. As a society, we have designated concrete, plastic and metal areas as the appropriate places to play. Were those your favorite childhood play areas? It’s more likely that you preferred a secret hideaway under the bushes, rolling down a grassy slope or using your imagination to build a fort. By encouraging children to see the potential in their backyards and other outdoor spaces, we allow them endless, undefined and undiscovered fun. Here’s how you can create a fun and safe outdoor environment for your kids.
Create rules for outdoor safety so children can be free within your specified boundaries. Rather than clearing away all risks (which is nearly impossible), help your children to learn caution and respect. Do your own work outside while your kids are playing. Put away your tools after using them, but also give your children appropriate and useful tools for their “work.” Teach them to observe and respect wildlife. Let them know what plants are useful and how (i.e. what is edible and that everything else is not). Get rid of poisonous plants. Do not use garden chemicals.
Allow kids to discover and use found resources
Using objects available in nature, such as sticks and stones to build hideouts for toys and landmarks for play, will develop a child’s creativity, teach them to be resourceful, build their confidence and heighten their awareness of nature’s abundance. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden built collection boxes where children can collect pine cones, berries, etc. As you’re cleaning the garden or yard, designate a place to collect useful sticks and stones that your children can use in their play.
Set aside some space
You don’t have to give your hopes of enjoying the backyard over to plastic sandboxes and swing sets. Designate areas for play and give control of those areas to your child’s imagination! Allow your children space to dig, but hide it from view with a tall grass. Create a sand pit right in your landscape. Leave yard space for running or create a circular path; kids won’t think negatively about running in circles, but will enjoy the rush of physical activity.
Children are amazing; they will take a stretch of bushes and turn it into a jungle or turn an old tire into the center piece of a junkyard. It doesn’t take much, but there are ways you can facilitate such a transformation. Create corners and nooks in your garden; lay out winding pathways; plant tall grasses and weeping trees; add a bubbling fountain; use a working gate to create the illusion of entering a different part of the yard; designate a hardwood tree with low branches as the climbing tree; plant bean teepees and giant sunflowers; leave a large boulder or a fallen log for climbing. Creating these inviting coves will be as much fun for you as for your children.
Invite other creatures
There is a natural fascination with the world beyond our own. Children will spend hours looking for dirt creatures, admiring a butterfly’s colors, watching a bee dance from flower to flower, or laughing at a squirrel’s chase. Teaching your children to observe and respect living things will equip them with relational skills they can use throughout life. Plant fruit, nut and seed bearing plants, and put out a basin of water for birds. Compost your yard waste to keep a high population of rollypollies and worms. All living things need food, water and shelter; providing these things through your yardscape is a great invitation for all sorts of creatures.
Exercise your child’s green thumb
Give your children space where they are in charge. It is a great idea to grow food so children can plant seeds, nurture the plant growth and taste the fruits of their labor. You can create theme gardens such as: an alphabet garden (with plants representing every letter), an animal garden (with plants like elephant ears, bee balm, or lamb’s ears), or a color garden (plant red tomatoes, red cabbage, and red peppers). An herb garden with different mints, basils and other plants can develop your children’s awareness of different smells and tastes. Fast growing cutting flowers like zinnias and cosmos are always fun and beautiful, and a strawberry patch will stay in your children’s memory. You can start by growing a few plants in containers so the gardening is manageable and rewarding for your children. Choose plants you like and will use in cooking or decorating.
Expect some damage
As children claim your outdoor space as the ideal place to play, they will get dirty and not treat plants with a tender distance. Encourage your children to wear play clothes. Bath nights can follow days of outdoor play. Use hardy plants in your garden along pathways and where your children play.
Enjoy the joy!
When your child begins to discover and enjoy nature, you’re bound to hear all about it! Show your child that you’re interested in hearing about their adventures: Ask provoking questions, encourage them and share your own experiences. Most of all, join with your child in the spirit of appreciation, wonder and joy!
Plants we LOVE to Grow in the Yard
There are many plants you can use in your garden. Children and gardens are always growing and changing, so enjoy experimenting with a variety of plants. Here are some suggestions that you may want to try. Some of these are not Australian plants, but give great suggestions to find a similar Australian alternative.
- Tough plants that can take a beating: feather reed grass, lamb’s ear, woody thyme, willow, arborvitae.
- Plants with which to create hideaways: tall grasses such as sedge or wild oats; group hemlock, pine and yew together; weeping trees like mulberry, fig or willow; mulberries, apples, maples and oaks are good climbing trees; vines, including squash, small pumpkins, pole beans and scarlet runner beans, can cover bamboo teepees; sunflowers can grow into a tall fort.
- Plants to grow and eat: sugar baby watermelons, tom thumb lettuce, carrots and radishes (kids usually like root crops), dwarf fruit trees, berries, blue potatoes, peas, mints, basils, lavender and nasturtiums, which have a tasty flower.
- Plants to stimulate the imagination and use in play: Snapdragons, fairy bells, sensitive plant, money plant and Chinese lantern.
- Flowers for bouquets: zinnias, cosmos, daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, roses, and snapdragons.
- Plants to keep your child breathing deeply: various scented geraniums, roses, lavender, mints, basils, rosemary and lemon balm.
- Plants to attract garden creatures: evening primrose for moths; joe pye weed, purple coneflower, sedum and columbine for butterflies; bee balm, obedient plant and cosmos for bees; fir, spruce, serviceberry, dogwood, poppy, goldenrod, sunflower and buffalo grass for birds.
- Plants for a dinosaur garden: club mosses, ferns, and horsetails
- Plants for an alphabet garden planting from “a” (aster) to “z” (zinnia)
- Plants for a “three sisters garden”: beans, squash and corn
Plants to Avoid
Many common plants have poisonous parts. Depending on your child’s age, it may be enough to tell them not to eat any part of any plant without your permission. Remember: When in doubt, check it out. Try www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants or other searchable poisonous plant websites. However, here is a list of some poisonous plants. Not all of these are necessarilly found in Australia and there may be more.
- Autumn crocus
- Black locust
- Bleeding heart
- Caster beans (fatal)
- Elephant ear
- Jimson weed
- Poison hemlock
Cornell University Poisonous Plants Database here.
Dannenmaier, Molly. A Child’s Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents. New York: Simon & Schuster Editions, 1998.
Rushing, Felder. New Junior Garden Book. Iowa: Meredith Corporation, 1999.
Posted with permission from the Grow Outside Guide to Outdoor Play, published by the Leave No Child Inside Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati.
If you are looking for something bigger try Katie Belles, a Lomandra Hystrix with amazing soft flowers, and its beautiful spring and autumn perfume smell. Its flowers are far less scratchy than the common form, but although it’s spent flowers should not bother people, they are stiffer than say Tanika spent flowers. The other popular plants amongst Landscape Architects for kid’s playgrounds are Little Jess and King Alfred, two of the best, toughest Dianella plants available. Both love hot dry or hot humid environments, so they work well in most parts of NSW. Little Jess also makes a good robust border plant. These two do get Purple Berries, which Aboriginal used to eat, with most people not being affected, but I guess there is always a chance for some kid to be allergic to them, so please keep this in mind. These are caerulea types and are generally regarded as safe, where as Dianella tasmanica types can produce berries that can make people a little sick. Avoid these for playgrounds. Often the areas are really shady, so this is where the Liriope excels. Just Right will give you a bigger clump and will stay far more evergreen than Evergreen Giant. Just Right also rarely produces a seed, in fact very rarely, so it is a safer choice around kids than say evergreen giant which is known to produce a lot of berries. Isabella, with its extensive Rhizomes is the best choice as the ground cover form, but it is not big enough to cope with constant abuse like the larger Just Right, so put Isabella where less destruction is happening. Hedging plants are often difficult to keep alive in a kid’s playground. They need to not only survive the kids, but they need to remain with a tidy look. Westringia Naringa stands out as the best hedge for sunny to lightly shaded areas. Tidy, fast enough growing to cope with kids, but it is a tidy hedge form. It also seems non scratchy. A hedge for a shady garden is probably the hardest plant to find. Often space is tight so a thin hedge is needed. Pinnacle, a thin growing Lilly Pilly fits the bill perfectly. It is very narrow, so bigger 200mm or 300mm pots need to be planted close together. Where possible always use 200mm pots or larger for a kids playgrounds, unless a ground cover like Isabella is needed, as these rarely come in pots larger than 140mm.
Now you have your basic tough plants to fill 80% of the garden, it’s time to find some plants that have amazing foliage colours or bold flowers. Semi-compact Phormiums such as Flamin’ are good, being soft on the side of the leaf, and stylish, providing red tonnes to the gardens, yet large enough to cope with kids. Flamin’ is also proving to be the toughest variety of Phormium for Sydney, better handling the humidity. However all the robust Phormium types have a spikeier tip than say Lomandra Tanika, so they could have the potential to poke a kid in the eye, if the circumstances were right. Most Cordylines seem similar, but one new one called Sunrise seems to have softer more flexible tips making it a safer choice. This is a vivid reddish pink form; which also seems to burn less in the sun, and works well in moderate shade. As far as silver foliage plants go, the safest and best is Pennstripe. The only variegated ornamental native grass. It can be a real feature of the garden, but the only drawback is that it will need pruning once per year in late winter or early spring, apart from that, in full sun to light shade it is the perfect contrast plant for a kid’s garden, being tougher than the kids who will play near it. When it comes to flowering annuals or perennials, just make sure they are not spiky, and not toxic. If you are using only 20% of the garden for weaker flowering plants, or foliage colour plants, it is not too much of a strain on environmental resources. Watering 20% of the garden is easier, and replanting a small area is not a big task. Some clients may want the extra flair this approach offers, where others simply want plants that will usually live, preferring to stick to tougher plants.
Finally, which lawn to choose? A safe one for kids is Palmetto, as unlike most other Buffalo types, it produces very little seed head, meaning it does not cause allergies. It’s also one of the softest to the touch. If the area is shady, Sapphire has proven in research to be the most shade tolerant, but anything above 50% shade with kids wearing it may not be able to cope, even Sapphire. Sometimes there is no choice but to relent and use the far less environmental option of plastic grass, particularly for small excessively worn areas in shade. Avoid plastic grass in full sun as it gets way too hot in summer, as does mulch. On a 40 degree day I tested a playground and recorded the following temperatures. The Plastic grass was 66.95°c, while real turf was 45.65°c. Fine grade wood mulch was 64.15°c in the full sun. The plastic playground equipment was 70.25°c, and surprisingly the metal play ground equipment was 62.35°c; either way a little too hot for kids to play on when it is a 40° day. Shade certainly reduced the heat of a playground. For example the shade of a tree reduced the temperature of the concrete by 25°c. In full sun to keep the surrounds cool try Empire turf as it has incredible wear tolerance. It has vigorous underground rhizomes which will reshoot if damaged, although not as fast as Kikuyu. Sometimes in full sun, the reshoot ability of some of the new faster growing Kikuyu types is the answer. A lot of mowing, but it will work. Kenda for example has an extreme amount of rhizomes; great for wear but not good around gardens for maintenance. So choosing the right turf for the right conditions is important. Consider carefully.
When deciding on what type of plant or turf to use around playgrounds, think hard, use larger plants sizes, and have at least the majority of plants you use not only kid safe, but ones that have been proven to work in many playgrounds, surviving kids, drought and neglect.