Design nature play spaces for even the smallest yard

Garden columnist Eve Hanlin is a landscape designer and professional plant nerd in the Clark County, Wash., area. She has a knack for low-maintenance landscapes that serve a greater purpose. Her ultimate goal is to help others foster their passions for the botanical world and live healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. Visit her website, for resources, and details regarding her design work, consultation services, and upcoming classes and workshops. Photo by Jessica Swanson

Study after study is proving that children benefit (physically and cognitively) from time spent in nature. Reduced levels of stress, depression, & aggravation, increased ability to concentrate, reduced risk of obesity and diabetes, and improved academic performance are just a few of the benefits.* Additionally, children love spending time outdoors when they have the space. Many people believe that their backyards are too small to provide the opportunity for nature-adventures, but this is never the case. You do not need a large yard, nor do you need construction skills, a large budget or hours to spare. Here are some things anyone can do to add more nature play space to their yard.

Bring in a diversity of materials

Sensory items are great for all ages. Most materials can be accumulated by networking with those who have an overabundance. Bring in rocks. Logs. Plants. Branches. Tires. Pinecones. These things aren’t necessarily fancy. They are often things that people with an overabundance aim to get rid of. These things will become toys and building materials.

Sandboxes, dirt piles, gravel areas, mulch, and similar provide fantastic opportunities for play (an old, small tent can become a perfect, shady, rain-proof sandbox that can be zipped closed).

Turn ‘inside’ toys into ‘outside’ toys

Plastic things can be easily cleaned, so why not get them dirty? Small figurines can be live in miniature twig forts and chairs made out of flower petals. “Clothes” for dolls and figures can be easily crafted from large leaves and rubber bands. Dump trucks are MADE for piles of gravel, sand, dirt or wood chips. A plastic kitchen set can make for mud pie heaven.

Plant things that:

  • Create a cool, shady play environment, or to grow into havens, thickets, forts and hideaways.
  • Can be picked and played with, are texturally interesting and interactive (snapdragons snap, herbs smell, and sword fern fiddleheads are fuzzy).
  • That attract fascinating wildlife and mimic natural environments.
  • That are edible and useful. Many fruiting shrubs can be more or less neglected and still produce tasty snacks. Kids can become very passionate about gardening, as well.
  • That are SAFE. No poisonous berries, thanks. If something is not safe, just be sure the kiddos are mature enough to be careful.

Whenever you can, start with larger plants to create play spaces as quickly as possible. The larger the plant, of course, the more expensive. However, the sooner plants can serve their function in the landscape, the better. Children grow up fast, sometimes faster than the plants seem to.

Consider a lawn reduction

When most people want to design a yard for kids, they first think that children need as much grass as possible for picnics and rolling around. While there are many fun things that require grass, children tend to gravitate to more diverse and interactive parts of the landscape. Most of the year in our Pacific Northwest, lawns tend to be too soggy to be much fun, anyway. Remember that soil should always be covered by something (like wood chip mulch) to reduce weeding and maintenance. Also, children love dandelions. Quit exposing children to lawn chemicals and let nature fill in. A few weeds will attract wildlife and inspire wildflower tiaras and weedy bouquets. Children can learn how to respect honeybees while watching them crawl all over clover blossoms.

Water, water everywhere

Water is so much fun! It’s also an imperative ingredient in mud pies. Leaf boats can be floated in puddles or bird baths. Bringing in water in the form of buckets, bird baths, concrete basins, mock riverbeds, and more can provide many opportunities for fun.

Build a fort, or three!

Many of us grew up with a fort in our lives at one point or another. If a fort cannot be made using materials onsite or carved out of a large shrub, they are easy to craft. Old blankets or tarps can be thrown over teepees or frames made of sticks. Bamboo poles of varying lengths, paired with string, can provide the opportunity for young people to gain construction skills. Forts can also be planted, such as a circle of sunflowers, beans up a trellis or shrubs along a fence.

Incorporate wildlife

Let young people help attract wildlife. This inspires a special connection with the creepy crawlies that will show up when the environment is right. Brush piles create havens for snakes and small critters. Compost piles attract decomposers and worms. Mason bees do not sting, and homes for them can be easily built and installed. Sheltered plantings around water sources attract dragonflies, frogs and bathing birds.

Embrace whimsy!

It is possible to incorporate kiddos’ specific interests into the outdoor space, as well. Do you know a young pirate? Seek out an old boat and bury it partway into the ground, so it doesn’t tip. Add a steering wheel and a flag, and adventure awaits. Have someone who loves little cars? Paint street lines on planks of wood. These can be put together and rearranged into roadways around the yard. The possibilities are endless.

*Learn more about the benefits of nature play in the article “Childhood Development and Access to Nature” (University of Colorado, March 22nd, 2009).

Turn Kitchen Scraps into Garden Mulch

Here’s a fun thing to do on a Saturday: discover how to magically transform decaying organic kitchen waste into delicious, fresh, extra-nutritious vegetables, simply by making your own super-rich compost. If this sounds like fun to you (and what ISN’T fun about playing in the dirt?), come to the Center for Agriculture, Science, and Environmental Education (C.A.S.E.E.) any time between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, where a friendly Master Composter/Recycler will teach you everything you need to know to make your garden a natural success (if you’ll pardon the slight pun). C.A.S.E.E. is located at 11104 N.E. 149th St. in Brush Prairie.

Find out what type of compost system might be best for your household, learn how to sift compost, how to get your compost “cooking,” and what to do with a worm bin. Bring your composting challenges and questions to the composting demonstration site, and you will get answers to your toughest queries. This free workshop is sponsored by Clark County Environmental Services and made possible through Columbia Springs. If this is a topic you’re passionate about, why not become a Master Composter/Recycler yourself? Apply now for the 2015 Master Composter/Recycler training.

Patio, Plant & Garden Fair

Here is a perfect Mother's Day gift (even if it's not exactly on Mother's Day): a trip to the Patio, Plant & Garden Fair, to be held in the charming heart of downtown Camas from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 10. This is one of the most widely-attended public events in Camas, and it's no wonder—you'll find not only thousands of flowers, indoor and outdoor plants, vegetable starts, and succulents for sale, but you'll also discover wheelbarrow-loads of beautiful, useful, and one-of-a-kind garden-related items, including (but definitely not limited to) garden art, wind chimes, planters, garden furniture, iron works, tools, fixtures, trellises, vintage decorative items, and lots of fun stuff for your patio.
If you can't bring Mom, the Plant & Garden Fair is pretty much the idea place to find a gift. Get her a potted plant, an heirloom tomato, dried lavender (or soap and lotion made with lavender), a birdbath, a handmade birdhouse, or a hummingbird feeder. Get her a new spade, new garden gloves or garden clogs, pretty pots, or a bouquet of fresh flowers. And if you can't find anything at the plant fair, well…just duck into one of the many shops and boutiques that line the streets of downtown Camas, and you're sure to find something special. After all that shopping has worn you out, rest your weary legs at Twilight Pizza Bistro, Nuestra Mesa, Harvest, Caps n' Taps, Cafe Piccolo Paradiso, or K'Syrah.
Here's the best thing: the proceeds from this event help North Bank women, because funds generated by the vendor stall fees go directly to sponsor educational scholarships for local women who are continuing their educations or returning to school. For more details, visit the Patio, Plant & Garden Fair Facebook page, or check out the Camas Plant & Garden Fair website.

Plant Clearance Sale at Pomeroy Farm

If you missed the annual Country Life Fair and Herb & Plant Sale last weekend, don't worry—you can still visit the farm any time from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 3, where you'll find hundreds of herbs, vegetable starts, and flowering plants on sale for a whopping 40% discount. And even though you won't be able to take a hay ride, tour the original log farmhouse, enjoy a hot dog from the Farm Café, or learn skills like chainsaw carving or knitting, you can still take a good look around this hidden gem of Clark County. And if you're still looking for a special Mother's Day gift, Pomeroy Farms Tea Room has a few spots left at its Wednesday, May 7 Mother's Day Tea at noon for just $16.95. Click here to make reservations online.

Pomeroy is a "living history" farm—it's listed on the National Register of Historic Properties and has a working blacksmith shop, a barn, extensive herb and vegetable gardens, and picturesque, gently rolling pastureland surrounded by wooded hills. The farm is a nonprofit organization and a museum that's a popular destination for school field trips as well as anyone who wants to learn first-hand what life was like on a pre-electrical farm several generations ago. In addition to the Country Life Fair, the farm also hosts an annual steam logging demonstration in mid-summer and Pumpkin Festival in October. To learn more, visit

Plotting Your Future (in the Garden)

The plot thickens . . . to include fresh flowers, juicy berries, and plump vegetables that you've grown yourself in a community garden. 2014 community garden plots are now available at locations in and around Vancouver and Clark County, including Marshall Community Park Garden, Haagen Community Park Garden, Campus Garden, Ellsworth Road Garden, and Fruit Valley Park Garden.
If you dig the rewards of growing your own flowers and food, but lack the space to do so, Vancouver Parks and Recreation's Community Garden Program has a plot to meet your needs. In addition to an array of convenient locations—the places mentioned above are just a few!—they also offer a variety of plot sizes and types, as well as community resources to help you get started. The best part about gardening in a community plot? You get to meet—and share your bounty with—your neighbors.
Registration for returning gardeners is going on now, and registration for first-time gardeners starts on Monday, Feb. 24. To secure a plot, contact the Marshall Community Center at 360-487-7100. To learn more about the Community Garden Program, click here.