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).

Sleepover at the Camas Library

The Camas Public Libary is hosting a sleepover—yup, at the library! Overnight!—for kids in first through sixth grades, starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 26. There will be games, a movie, crafts, stories, and pizza for dinner! There might even be some sleeping, but we can’t guarantee that. The event is free and every kid should be accompanied by a parent. Bring your sleeping bags, pillows, pajamas, and your Camas Library or Fort Vancouver Regional Library cards. Air mattresses are fine. Yes, you still have to brush your teeth.

There’s a limit of 25 kids for this event, so advance sign-up is required. Call 360-834-4692 or RSVP in person at the Camas Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave. in downtown Camas, across from City Hall. Teddy bears are welcome, but no siblings younger than first grade or older than sixth grade are allowed because they might spoil the kid-style fun. Once you arrive at the sleepover and walk through the library doors, you have to stay at the library all night! But it’s OK because the library staff has arranged for all the monsters to be gone that night. The sleepover ends at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27.

“Playtime in the Parks” for Kids 6-11

Playtime in the Parks” is the perfect solution for keeping kids ages six to 11 happy, physically active, and busy. Bring your kids to the park for free supervised games, sports, playground time, and crafts. The program is free and runs from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. on June 30 through Aug. 15 in two local parks: on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Hearthwood Park in East Vancouver (801 N.E. Hearthwood Blvd.) and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at John Ball Park (corner of W. 23rd St. and Kauffman in downtown Vancouver). Lunches are provided at no cost during the first 15 minutes of the program, in cooperation with Share. No registration is required. Just stop by and play! Although the program is completely free, donations to support the program are gladly accepted through the Parks Foundation of Clark County.

Mad Science at the Mall

Science goes crazy from 3 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 2, with a special Mad Science show, “Spin! Pop! Boom!” hosted by The Mall Library Connection. Kids and grown-ups can watch in awe as the Mad Scientist creates jaw-droppingly amazing (and yet completely scientifically based) eruptions, booms, explosions, pops, and fizzes with flames, flasks, tubes, foam, soap suds, gases, and an array of molecule-busting chemical reactions. Call it the wild side of chemistry. You know you want to see it as much as your kids will! (We had you at “boom,” didn’t we?)

The hour-long program is held on the lower level of Westfield Vancouver Mall, in the courtyard area directly in front of JC Penney. All library events and programs are free and everyone is welcome. Registration is not required. The Mall Library Connection is located inside the mall in Suite 285.


Vancouver Summer Adventure

School’s out, summer’s here, and families are looking for out-of-the-ordinary ways to spend time together. Gifford Pinchot National Forest has partnered with local businesses and organizations such as the Parks Foundation of Clark County, Mount St. Helens Institute, REI, Columbia Sportswear, Columbia Springs, Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington and many others to form Vancouver Summer Adventure (VSA), a program that provides opportunities to connect kids and families to free and low-cost activities that show kids how to eat smart, play hard, experience nature, learn new things, and discover ways to serve their communities. The goal of VSA is to keep school-age kids engaged in healthy activities during the summer. Here’s how to participate:

  1. Visit and fill out the registration form
  2. Check out the VSA calendar page and choose activities and events
  3. Attend the events and have fun!

Families can also register at the VSA kick-off event from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 21, at Marshall Park, 1015 E. McLoughlin Blvd. There will be lots of family activities, including learning about insects and backyard wildlife, planting vegetable starts, and creating crafts out of natural materials. Kids can enjoy story time in the park and help with a park clean-up activity. For information about VSA, contact Anne Johnston at 360-397-8000 ext. 7337.

Summer Pass for Parks & Rec

Beginning on Sunday, June 1, you can purchase a three-month Summer Pass for your family to use at Firstenburg Community Center or Marshall Community Center. That's three months of climbing, swimming, running, learning, and playing for one price. If you're a resident of Vancouver, the cost is $49 for kids ages four to 18, $89 for adults and seniors, and $147 per family. If you life outside Vancouver, the prices are slightly higher: $59 for kids ages four to 18, $99 for adults and seniors, and $167 for families. You can sign up in person at Firstenburg (700 N.E. 136th Ave.) or Marshall (1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd.), or go online to the Parks and Recreation website at or call 360-487-8311 to see what classes and activities appeal to you and your kids.

Humane Society Discover Camp

The Humane Society for Southwest Washington (HSSW) is now enrolling campers for Discover Camp (formerly Critter Camp), where kids get behind-the-scenes access to the HSSW. This camp begins every morning with hands-on time meeting our animals, education about the shelter, and special guest speakers. After lunch (which is included in the camp registration fee), campers embark on a globe-trotting journey around the world. In these lessons, they explore a region of the world, learn about the area's indigenous animals and even meet special animal ambassadors.

Discover Camp will have three week-long sessions available for kids entering grades three through six in the fall of 2014, and the last one (July 21-25, for kids entering fifth and sixth grade this fall) is already full, but your can call 360-213-2626 to have your child put on the waiting list. The remaining two camps are for kids entering grades three and four this fall, and will be held on June 23 -27 and on July 7-11. The cost is $225 per child, and you can register by downloading the form here, filling it out and e-mailing it to Once your registration form is received, you'll be contacted within two business days to process payment. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis and isn't confirmed until full payment is received.

For more details, call Sam Ellingson at 360-213-2626, or visit the Humane Society's website at

Summer Sports with Parks & Rec

It may still be spring, but it's just the right time to sign up for summer sports with Vancouver Parks & Recreation. Parks & Rec offers Youth Leagues for kids who want to be part of a team and learn a new sport, as well as Mini Sport Camps for kids who want to try several different sports before joining a league. Register online at or call 487-7100 or 487-7001, ext. 8. Here's what you can choose from:

  • Mini Sports Camps for ages three to 11 in a variety of sports and variety of locations
  • Soccer for ages three and a half to nine (co-ed or boys only/girls only) at Marshall Park, Fisher Basin Park, and Haagen Park. New this year: Summer Soccer Tournament, ages six through nine, on Aug. 9 (location TBD).
  • Baseball for ages four and a half through 10 (co-ed) at Bagley Fields and Fisher Basin Park
  • Flag Football for ages five through six and a half (co-ed) at Memory Field

Coaches are still needed for the Youth Leagues. Every team needs a head coach to teach the fundamentals of the sport and to manage the team during the season. If you're chosen as a head coach, your child plays in the league for free. Find out more by calling 360-487-7083 or 360-487-7029.

Family Easter Brunch at Beaches

Locally-owned Beaches Restaurant and Bar—with two locations, one in Vancouver on the Columbia riverfront and another location at PDX—is hosting an Easter Brunch at both locations. The restaurant will offer all its usual breakfast items, plus some special Easter Brunch dishes, such as shrimp Benedict with bacon, spinach and tomato topped with Béarnaise sauce, and blackberry-hazlenut pancakes with orange-maple syrup and rough-cut bacon.

While you are licking the Béarnaise sauce off your fork, your kids can visit with the Easter Bunny; bring cameras for photo ops! Each child who dines at Beaches on Easter morning will also get an extra Easter treat. Reservations are recommended; call 503-335-8385.

Plan to return on Tuesday, April 22, when Beaches is hosting an all-day fundraiser for the Hough Foundation. Just say “Cashback for Hough” to your server, and Beaches will donate 50% of the check to the Hough Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support for programs and projects that enhance Vancouver's historic Hough Neighborhood and Hough Elementary School.

Klineline Kids’ Fishing

The Klineline Kids' Fishing event is an incredibly popular annual fishing derby that gives kids from age 5 to 14 the chance to catch fish from a fully-stocked pond. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hosts events similar to this throughout the state from April through June, but it partners with local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers to put fins on the ground (so to speak). The Klineline event is hosted in tandem with Klineline Kids' Fishing Nonprofit and Clark Public Utilities.

The fishing event at Klineline Pond is open to the first 2,000 kids to register—and there's also a fishing day for up to 800 special needs kids on Friday, April 11. You must sign up for a specific time slot, anytime from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on both days. The cost includes a free t-shirt and a Zebco rod and reel to take home. Additional gear and bait (lots of wiggly worms!) will be provided. Sponsorship opportunities are still available; click here to find out more or call Jamie Birkeland of Riverview Community Bank at 360-931-5524.

Visit or to download the registration form (sorry, there's no online or phone registration available). The registration deadline is Friday, April 4.

Community Egg Hunt

Hippity, hoppity, Hough! It's almost time for the Community Egg Hunt in the Hough Elementary School field, to be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 19. This egg hunt is perfect for kids ages two through fifth grade and their families (sorry, no eggs for adults; they just get the pleasure of watching the kids scrambling around, scooping up candy-filled eggs). Here's the schedule for this event, which will be held rain or shine:

  • 11:30 a.m.: Ages two through second grade
  • 12 noon: Third through fifth grades

But this egg-hunt is more than just eggs. There will be reasonably-priced hot dog lunches for sale, free popcorn from the Hough PTSA, games, music, and a free raffle with prizes from generous downtown Vancouver businesses. Raffle prizes will be awarded at 12:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend this event. More information can be found on Compass Church's website at or by calling 360-695-8448. Hough Elementary is located at 1900 Daniels St. in Vancouver, just a few blocks west of Main Street.

Spring Break in the ‘Couve

For some parents, spring break is a welcome opportunity to spend some relaxed, unstructured time with their children. For other parents, it's a puzzle: how do I make sure my kids have fun and learn something and also exhaust themselves so that, by the end of the day, they don't exhaust me? 

Vancouver Parks and Recreation has got you covered. Below, you'll find brief descriptions of four day camps to be held at Firstenburg Community Center and at Marshall Community Center during spring break—April 7-11—for kids ages six to 15.

Firstenburg Community Center

  • SPARK Youth Day Camp for ages six to 10. This camp focuses on sports, physical activity, and recreation for kids. Campers will enjoy swimming, rock climbing, sports, games, and a field trip to Safari Sam's. The cost is $160 per camper for the whole week. Click here to register online or call 360-487-7001, ext. 8.
  • Teen Survivor Camp for ages 11 to 15. There’s no lack of activity in this exciting camp, which includes swimming, rock climbing, gym games, team building, video game tournaments, and field trips. The fee $160 per student for the week. Click here to register online or call 360-487-7001, ext. 8.

Marshall Community Center

  • Spring Adventure Youth Day Camp for ages six to 10. Your child will enjoy crafts, sports, games, playground time, swimming, a field trip to Dizzy Castle (including a pizza lunch), and many other activities. The cost is $160 per camper for the week. Click here to register online or call 360-487-7100, ext. 0.
  • Teen Xcape Camp for ages 11 to 15. This day camp features swimming, games, sports, field trips to John's Incredible Pizza, bowling, and other activities. The cost is $40 per teen per day, or $160 for the week. Click here for online registration or call 360-487-7100, ext. 0

To learn more about all of the programs Vancouver Parks and Recreation has to offer—for kids and adults—visit

Jurassic Quest Dinosaur Expo

Jurassic Quest is the largest exhibition of lifelike, moving, museum-quality dinosaurs in North America. This family-friendly dinosaur adventure is coming to the Clark County Event Center, allowing you and your children to safely explore the world of dinosaurs. Jurassic Quest is an interactive experience that takes participants from the Middle Triassic to the Late Cretaceous eras with the help of over 50 animatronic dinosaurs. There are also lots of kid-centric activities beyond the exhibit, giving young paleontologists a chance to see, touch, ride, and dig up their favorite dinosaurs.
Tickets are $15 for kids ages two to 12, $20 for adults, and $18 for seniors and those with military ID. To purchase tickets, click here, or buy tickets at the door. The ticket price includes the exhibit, crafts, and coloring stations. Tickets for rides, inflatables, and fossil digs are $5 each. VIP tickets ($24) are also available and include the exhibit, crafts, dinosaur cinema, and unlimited rides, inflatables, and fossil digs. For all ticketholders, there's an addional cost for face painting and green-screen photography. Parking is $6.

Open House at Earth, Glaze & Fire

Earth, Glaze and Fire—a popular paint-your-own ceramics studio in uptown Vancouver—is hosting an open house from 8 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, March 22, to celebrate the kick-off of its Ceramic Arts & Enrichment Center and to introduce its line-up of youth summer camps. The business, which is locally owned and operated, will also have a list of adult workshops, "clay nights," and new ceramic bisque items for you to choose and paint with your very own hands. Bleu Door Bakery will prepare sweet treats for the occasion, and tea, coffee, and lemon water will also be available.

Guests at the open house will be the first to register their children for clay and ceramic camps in June, July, and August. They'll also have the opportunity to enter drawings for discounted workshop sessions, camp sessions, and future purchases. The first 25 guests will receive a door prize (one per family) and all guests will be entered into a drawing for a free birthday party. Attendees who decide to paint will be invited to draw a ticket for 10% to 40% off one item painted that night.

New owners Danielle, Addi, and Alexandre Ireland are ecstatic about the growth the business has experienced and the loyal clientele they've garnered. They're especially proud that all their unglazed ceramic bisque figurines, tableware, ornaments, and tiles are made in the United States. Their goal for the Ceramic Arts & Enrichment Center is cultivate a love of the ceramic arts and to further inspire our community's artistic genius.

Earth, Glaze & Fire is located at 2106 and 2110 Main St. in the Uptown Village area of Vancouver. There's no cost to attend the open house, but items will be available to purchase and paint.


St. Paddy’s for Kids

"St. Paddy's for Kids" is the Parks Foundation's way of giving back to the community with a special St. Patrick's Day celebration just for kids! The celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day at Shorty's. It's a totally free, kid-centric St. Patrick's Day party with stories, arts & crafts, hands-on nature activities, and more. And did we mention that it's FREE?
If you're looking for something to do the Friday night before…

Vancouver's biggest St. Patrick's Day celebration is also a giant fundraiser for the Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission raise funds to support Clark County's parks, trails, and recreational programs. "St. Paddy's for Parks" is a 21-and-over event featuring Irish food and ale, live music by 5 Guys Named Moe, and performances by the Vancouver Firefighters Pipes and Drums and Molly Malone Dancers—all in a toasty warm, heated indoor space. Tables seating six to eight people can also be reserved for $100. Purchase tickets online through Ticket Tomato. (Early registration is recommended, because this popular event often sells out!) Click here to see a flier—or call the Parks Foundation at 360-487-8370 if you'd like to become a sponsor.


St. Paddy’s for Kids

What's dressed in green, adorable, and really, really happy? Your child at the St. Paddy's for Kids event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 15, at Shorty's Garden & Home, 1006 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd. in Vancouver. This free family event is hosted by the Parks Foundation of Clark County, and sponsored by local businesses, including Columbia Credit Union, New Seasons Market, Waste Connections, and First Pacific Associates.
You and your little ones will enjoy kid-friendly, hands-on activities, dancing, arts and crafts, and nature-themes games and stories. Some activities will be held outdoors, but there will also be a warm, undercover area in case it rains (always a possibility). Many local nonprofit organizations will have representatives stationed at booths on Shorty's grounds; visit them all, fill out a "passport," and wine a prize. Sponsorships are still available; click here to learn more. For more information about the event, visit

Kids’ Book Club

Wilson Rawl's "Where the Red Fern Grows," is the book-of-choice for the next Page Turners Book Club at the Camas Public Library.

This book club is designed for kids in fourth grade and up and their parents. You can get a free copy of the book from the Camas Library—and the book is yours to keep after the book club is done! The meeting also includes snacks and an activity. For more information about this and other Camas Library book discussion groups—including Teen Read Café, a mystery book club, and a general literature club—click here or call 360-834-4692. If you'd like to start your own book club, the Camas Library even has a "Book Club to Go" kit to help you get started.

Book Signing at Little Cups & Grownups

Take one mischevous-but-adorable black doggy, lots of books and children, and really good coffee, and what do you have? You have a book signing and reading with children's author and illustrator Dawn Marie Hooks and her dog, Cookie, at Little Cups & Grownups, a popular "play cafe" in East Vancouver. The fun begins at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 8, when Hooks will arrive to read and sign books, with Cookie in tow and ready to be petted by lots of tiny hands. Three of Cook's books ("Can Kate See?" "Visits with Grandpa," and "Oh, Cookie!") will be available to purchase, and proceeds from sales will benefit Reece's Rainbow Foundation, a nonprofit that funds adoptions of Down Syndrome children.

Battle Ground-based children's clothing retailer Twig & Sprout will also be on hand with kids' clothing giveaways and other goodies. For the grown-ups, you can enjoy a blended espresso drink, hot or iced tea, chai, or an Italian soda and any one of the café's salads, sandwiches, paninis, or wraps—to be consumed in relative peace while your child plays in the charmingly decorated and well-stocked-with-toys play area.

There's no charge to attend this event, but admission into the play area is $4 per child, and your little ones should be wearing socks. For more details, visit

Eighth Annual Children’s Festival

When you have young kids, Saturday can sometimes be the longest day: you're all home together from work and school, and what can you do with all that kid-energy? You can take that energy to the Eighth Annual Children's Festival, to be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Westfield Vancouver Mall. There'll be face painting, balloon art, dance performances, martial arts demonstrations, and lots of kid-and-family-centric activities, games, and prizes. And it's all 100% free! The festival is presented by Vancouver Family Magazine and sponsored by GET (Guaranteed Education Tuition) and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

If you own or work at a local business and you think this would be an ideal place to connect with your customers, exhibit space is still available. Contact Nikki Klock at 360-882-7762 or

Kids’ Lego Classes

Your young builder is invited to join one of two seven-week Lego classes offered by Camas Community Education at the Camas District Office (formerly James David Zellerback Elementary).

The two classes are "Lego Engineering" for kids in second through fifth grade ($65 per student), and "Lego Jr. Blueprints and Buildings" for kids in kindergarten through first grade ($60 per student). To sign up, contact Karen Rudolf, Camas Community Education Coordinator, at 360-833-5548, or register online at