Garden Design with Children in Mind (Top Tips from a Landscape Designer)

Most gardens naturally become multifunctional spaces. You may use your garden for relaxing, entertaining, growing veg, or all of the above. Often a garden becomes multifunctional without you even realising it.

For those of us with younger children, it can be tricky to know how to plan for an outdoor space that caters to everyone’s needs.

You want a space that looks attractive and gives all the features you, the adults, would like. But you also want safe spaces for children to play, with resilient planting that can withstand wayward footballs and the like.

When it comes to garden design for families, zoning your space is often the key. But, says Tobermore landscape designer Vanessa Drew, don’t focus too heavily on adding permanent features for young children.

“Kids grow up fast,” says Vanessa. “Once they’re older and no longer want to play in the garden, you’ll be left with spaces you’ll want to repurpose again. I always recommend planning for the longer term, with easy-to-adapt features to keep kids happy in the short term.”

Zoning a family garden

With a zoned approach, you can define areas close to and further away from your house. For example, make the area closest to your house a ‘safe space’ where younger kids can play independently, but where you can still see them if you go inside.

Products Used: Tobermore Tegula Bracken, Tegula Setts Charcoal & Secura Lite Bracken
Products Used: Tobermore Tegula Bracken, Tegula Setts Charcoal & Secura Lite Bracken

“With that in mind, make the area closest to your house the most hard-wearing space,” says Vanessa. “Put your prize planting and delicate shrubbery further into your garden – as well as any fragile structures, such as your greenhouse!

“It’s likely you’ll want a patio area close to your house for dining and entertaining, anyway. So when the kids have grown up, the space won’t need to be drastically altered.”

Products Used: Historic Bracken Flags & Circle, Garden Stone Bracken
Products Used: Historic Bracken Flags & Circle, Garden Stone Bracken

Read more: Ideas for incorporating hard landscaping into a small garden

Play equipment

For many proud, garden-owning adults, play equipment can be a pain. It takes up a lot of room, quickly goes rusty and discoloured, and just becomes an eyesore.

“You can give your kids some wonderful play spaces without needing to buy play equipment,” says Vanessa. “At a very basic level, a rope with a short plank of wood on the end can be hung from an existing strong tree to make a swing, for example.”

“Simply putting paths and walkways through borders can bring a sense of exploration and adventure for children. This is also great for open-ended play, where you allow the children to play in an unrestricted way and let their imaginations run wild.”

Trampolines are popular in gardens these days, but take up a lot of ground space.

“Get one that can be dug into the ground and made flush with the lawn,” says Vanessa. “They look neater, they’re safer, as you can’t fall off them, and when the kids are bored with them, you can take them out and turn the hole underneath into a water feature or pond.”

If the kids really want a playhouse or slide, think about the materials that would best complement your garden. Wooden alternatives are available for most play equipment (a wooden playhouse can actually be a very attractive feature) and provide a more sustainable option than plastic equipment.

Vanessa adds: “Instead of buying a small child’s playhouse, you might consider investing in a large shed which can be painted and dressed up with curtains and window boxes, to act as a playhouse. When the kids have grown out of it, you can reclaim it as a summer house, workroom, garden studio, or just as a storage shed.”

Built in trampoline to garden

Planting for family-friendly gardens

A question often put to our landscape design team during consultation sessions is what sort of planting you should choose for a family-friendly garden.

Vanessa says: “When I’m being asked to design a family-friendly garden, I’m often told to keep the planting to a minimum. But a garden without any planting whatsoever would be very bland, so it’s important to get the balance right.”

Homeowners may think that container planting in pots will be easier to maintain in a family garden. But in fact, containers require continual revamping, watering, feeding and repotting.

“If the correct sized shrubs are chosen, planting directly into the ground is the longest-lasting, lowest maintenance solution,” says Vanessa.

Products Used: Retro Bracken
Products Used: Retro Bracken

“Do your research in advance and choose plants with a maximum growth size that will fit the space. For example, there are varieties of Mahonia that reach three metres in height and spread, but there are also varieties that only reach one metre. This is the same for most shrubs and trees, so choose wisely.”

Read more: Keeping garden maintenance to a minimum

Year-round planting for a family garden

To get the most out of your family space for year-round interest, choose shrubs that flower or have interest at different times of the year. For example, flowering blackcurrant and Forsythia for early spring. Lavatera for summer interest, Leycesteria formosa for autumn colour and llex ‘Golden King’ for winter interest.

Products Used: Historic Heather Flags, Sienna Setts Sandstone
Products Used: Historic Heather Flags, Sienna Setts Sandstone

Vanessa adds, “Apart from flowers, choose variegated, evergreen shrubs which will look interesting for their foliage, even when not in flower. If you aren’t sure where to start, the best bet is to ask at your local plant nursery and see if they can recommend a selection of shrubs for a family space.”

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