I have distinct memories of making mud pies in the backyard when I was a child, of playing endless games of chase with the family Cocker Spaniel and, for a week or two, pretending that a faint circle of sand left on the lawn after one of my dad’s building projects was the remnant of a UFO landing.
I recall barrelling up and down the driveway on a trike, picking fruit from our orange tree (up a ladder held by one of my parents), collecting sweet pea seed pods with my mum and then planting the seeds the next spring, helping out with chooks and collecting eggs, and playing in the cubby house — complete with a shady verandah and pretty picket fence — that my dad built for me and which, in later years, became a rather grand dog kennel.
My childhood, lived in a simple suburban backyard, was a place of imagination, of connecting with nature (although I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time) and physical play. We had TV of course, but no smartphones, tablets or video games emitting their siren call, so playing in the backyard was just what you did.
There are many ways you can encourage safe outdoor play, exploration and a connection to nature. How you design your backyard and what you plant is part of it, but so too are the activities you plan and encourage, be it a kick-about on the lawn, planting strawberries the kids can later harvest and eat, or time spent foraging for twigs, branches and flowers to decorate a fairy glen.
“If you have kids running around frequently, it’s worth looking at how you can soften surfaces to decrease the chance and severity of damage that can come with falls, accidents and the like,” says Matt Leacy, creative director of Landart Landscapes. “Cut back trees and plants with sharp branches and consider introducing some soft plantings, hedges and groundcovers to act as barriers around potentially dangerous garden beds and hardscapes. For groundcovers, I recommend Dymondia, Zoysia and Dichondra as these can be walked over without being destroyed. They are also relatively hardy and able to contend with cooler weather conditions.
“Synthetic grasses are also another good option for softening hard ground surfaces,” says Matt. “They’re not quite as soft and nice as the real thing, but they’re a fantastic substitute for south-facing play areas where grass won’t grow. They can be laid directly over concrete to help soften and green up an area. If you have lots of slippery surfaces in areas like patios, walkways and swimming pool decks, you might consider adding some non-skid, non-slip surfaces such as pavers or rubber flooring to reduce the risks of falls.
“Also avoid any potentially toxic or prickly plants that kids might come into contact with. Steer clear of varieties like cactuses, oleander (as a general rule, anything with white sap), hydrangeas, chillies, azaleas, agave and some succulents, to name a few.”
MAKE A SPLASH
A pool is a great source of exercise and fun. Of course, little kids who are still learning to swim need shallow waters. This might be a dedicated wading area but once they have learned to swim, it becomes an obsolete feature. Instead, consider a swimout (which adults can use for lounging about) or wide steps (which provide wading platforms at different depths).
Even once they have learned to swim, kids might appreciate the security and comfort of a pool with two shallow ends where they can rest between laps. The middle area of the pool then becomes the “deep end” for diving or water games such as pool volleyball or basketball, or for a slide.
A slide is a fun inclusion in a family pool and can easily be incorporated into the initial design brief. One approach is to create a tropical theme for the pool surrounds, nestling the slide in a rockery. The tropical island theme opens lots of possibilities for play … perhaps you could add a rock cave, add an area of sand to create a beach, or place a seating shelf beneath a cascading water feature so the kids can pretend they’re sitting beneath a jungle waterfall.
Pool fencing is not an option — it’s a legal requirement and it needs to conform to Australian Standards. An added safety measure is a hard pool cover that will take the weight of a small child or wandering pet. No matter how secure the pool fencing or how old the kids are, parental supervision is vital. This means locating the pool where it can be seen from all areas of the garden and from inside the house.
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