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June 2011

Enchantment in Your Own Backyard

Relying on Nature for Imagination, Play and Discovery

By Mary Phillips Quinn

When we had children, it seemed inevitable that our small suburban backyard would be overwhelmed with a pre-fabricated play set of multiple swings and giant plastic tunnels. Instead, our children have created a connection to our yard by relying on nature for engaging play spaces that continue to spark their imagination and sense of discovery.

I saw the potential early on, when friends’ children came to visit our newborn son and explored our pole bean tepee and delighted in watching baby birds chirp and poke their heads out of a nearby birdhouse. As our own children have grown, they created various discovery areas: a treasure digging sand pit partially hidden by a butterfly garden, Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden with poor Peter Rabbit’s lost jacket and shoes (found at the thrift store) for a scarecrow, an elf house in an old stump and a homemade fort of various levels created with plywood platforms inserted into a very resilient old and large arborvitae.

Imagination Areas

Imagination areas in gardens are timeless. Eighty years ago, gardener Olive Percival, planned whimsical gardens for children and adults alike. Her garden themes included “The Fairy Ring” of blue forget-me-nots, larkspur and borage, and “The Sliced Cake,” a round pink and white tea garden divided into wedges. She wrote The Children’s Garden Book, which includes 15 garden sketches and lists old fashioned flowers for inspiration.

Since the time they were toddlers, our children believed they were “on their own” in their garden world while I supervised from the open kitchen door. Now in 2nd and 4th grade, they often join with neighbor children to climb trees, create forts and lean-to’s in the green space on our block. They have a sense of independence to play truly on their own, experiencing a touch of risk while embarking on imaginary adventures.

Wonder and curiosity abound in creating discovery spaces near your family’s home, be it in your own yard or a nearby community green space. Wherever you and your children create a safe garden to play, the essential elements are the same.

Essential Elements for Enchantment

Engage the Senses

Invite children to use their senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Fragrant herbs, brightly colored edible flowers like nasturtiums, textured plants like lambs ear, rustling grasses and wind chimes all add to the sensory experience. Lola Bloom is the co-founder of City Blossoms, a nonprofit that provides urban gardening experiences to 800 children across 17 garden spaces in Washington, D.C. She uses rosemary, thyme, lavender and lemony-tasting sorrel in her gardens. She says, “Kids love the smell as they brush against herbs while weeding and sample tastes to make up recipes. Many herbs are perennials that survive our Mid-Atlantic winters and provide an almost year-round engagement in nature.”

Children’s discovery gardens offer areas that not only stretch imaginations, but muscles as well. Physical activity can be accomplished through digging, building, rearranging or climbing areas. Behind a boxwood hedge, my children hide building materials: parts of a willow screen, old boards, sticks, a few small tree stumps and some bricks that offer plenty of opportunities for lifting and building to rearrange nature nooks in newly inspired parts of the yard. These items can then be put away as needed.

Invite Surprise

A key element for wonder is the anticipation of finding the unexpected, something apart from oneself in the garden. To ensure this, make sure the garden is a sustainable habitat that invites nature in. So many backyard memories involve my sons calling me in “loud whispers” to come look in the garden and share in the thrill of their discoveries, including an eastern box turtle, toads that moved in under the stump, baby bunnies, a mole poking its head out of a hole, chipmunks, a very large woodpecker, a hawk, deer footprints, butterflies and many different types of colorful birds. This past February, the yard still a sodden gray mess from all the ice and wind storms, my son came running in the backdoor with the announcement I had to come into the yard. He showed me the only bright spot, the far back corner covered with newly emerged purple crocus. “Look closer, you will be even happier, Mom,” he said, “the bees are back too!”

Wildlife is attracted to gardens that provide a habitat of food, water, cover and places to raise young. Using native plants, natural compost and no chemicals can help you maintain a healthy environment where your children can play and have an important effect on the health of the soil, air, water and habitat for native wildlife.

Allow Time

Provide children time to discover enchantment. Carving out lazy afternoons for exploring and day dreaming is a must. In our overscheduled lives, consider blocking off two to three hours of protected downtime once a week on your calendar when kids are left to explore without an agenda. Molly Dannenmaier, author of A Child’s Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces, writes, “Long hours of unstructured outdoor exploration are a fast vanishing aspect of contemporary childhood. …We promote the idea that important business of real life happens only in offices and classrooms—not in yards, field and forests.”

Dannenmaier’s book is a wonderful resource for incorporating nine elements in your enchanted space: water, creatures, refuges, dirt, height, movement, make-believe, nurture and learning. She provides instructions for making simple structures, such as tunnels made from living willow, vegetable caves, hiding places made from vine arbors, topiaries, sculptures and living screens. Water features and more complex designs are described for those having more space and bigger budgets.

Brian Kane, ASLA, principal of the Kane Group in Alexandria, is an experienced steward of cultural and historic landscapes in the Mid-Atlantic region. As a father of four, his advice to parents creating sustainable backyards of discovery is, “Start small, help your children find safe places to explore and create. Leave some trees with low hanging branches, less than two feet off the ground where children can hide and be in their own secret world. Personalize the yard by helping children pick out and plant a tree that they can name. Give them areas where they can explore the terrain and make a mess. A perfectly sculptured garden can wait until they are in college.”

Create Ownership

Invite children to make the area their own by asking them what they want in the space, such as opportunities for art and a scale suited to their size. City Blossoms worked with the community to transform an asphalt area in Columbia Heights into a shared garden. Children’s homemade art personalized the garden and served as a simple introduction to children and parents new to spending time in nature. Bloom also recommends starting out with colorful seed packages of small edible vegetables for children to choose and create their own garden combinations. She says, “Foods that grow prolifically are bite-size and fun for small fingers to manipulate, like ground cherries (tomatillo-like tropical-flavored fruits that have small husks), peas, bean pods and cherry tomatoes make engaging choices.”

D. Landreth Seed Company, one of the oldest seed companies in America, offers a children’s collection of seeds perfect for small hands to harvest, that include Queen Anne’s Pocket Melons, 3.5 in. long by 2.5 in. in diameter, with jagged orange and yellow stripes and incredible fragrance. The melon is named so because Victorian ladies carried them for the perfumed scent.

“Garden children, no matter what happens to them through the years, find life sweet and big and precious. To them are given vision, poise and eternal youth.” Olive Percival, The Children’s Garden Book.

Mary Phillips Quinn is a part-time management consultant and the mom of two elementary-school boys. Her blog,, shares her family’s discovery of sustainable gardening, native plants, local food and other treasures. She lives in Silver Spring.