Any garden is a good garden for children as long as it’s safe. Safety in a garden cannot be absolute, but as designers we have to avoid deep water with dangerous edges, the most poisonous of plants and unguarded drops on sloping gardens. The best way, if you are designing a pond in a garden with children, is to put a safety grate over it. For older children, with a degree of water competence you could design a pond with shallow sides that are easy to get out of. Whilst it is not possible to avoid poisonous plants altogether, as there are so many of them, I would avoid plants such as Laburnum and Yew in a garden for children, but the only way to keep children safe is to teach them not to pick and eat anything from the garden unless supervised. Greenhouses or cold-frames have to be placed with care, and terraces made safe with walls, fences, rails or planting.
However, gardens are undoubtedly good for children – they provide fresh air, play opportunities, contact with green spaces and opportunities for exercise, exploration, adventure and stretching the imagination.
I say any garden is good for children, but there are many design elements we can bring in to expand all these imaginative and play opportunities. We can, of course, put in play equipment, such as trampolines, swings and climbing frames, but we can make the natural spaces varied and exiting offering vast opportunities for imaginative play including building dens in shrubs, making mud pies in mud patches, climbing trees, making amphitheatres in clearings between shrubs and trees, jungles amongst more exotic plantings and magical spaces using ‘fairy-tale’ planting of small plants at a child’s level, wooden mushrooms, play-houses if nicely designed and sandpits. A lawn is a good space for ball games and running around, but offering planting of different shapes, sizes textures and colours is important too, to stimulate children’s senses and imaginations – even scents, provided, for instance by herbs can enhance a child’s experience in a garden. Water in the form of a hose, tap, paddling pool or sink or bowl in a garden can make for a great play experience, as long as young children are supervised. And, of course, children can benefit greatly from having the chance to grow their own plants from seed. Sunflowers, potatoes (from seed potatoes), runner beans, courgettes, pumpkins, sweet peas and nasturtiums are all good plants for children to grow and having their own patch to dig can be a great way of introducing the next generation to the joys of gardening as well as educating them about where food comes from and how plants grow.
I started by saying any garden is a good garden for children. Their experience can be greatly enhanced, however, by good design aimed at them, but I said this, because I don’t believe that for a garden to be good for children it needs to be given over to them and full of play equipment. If a garden is well designed I believe it can be just as enjoyable and beautiful for adults as for the children, and it is good for children to share their space with adults and appreciate plants (rather than walk all over them and destroy them), and gardens can instil a respect and love of the natural environment as well as provide play opportunities, if designed well.