Michelle Reynolds is a native plant enthusiast on a mission to teach people how to put nature back into the urban landscape.

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Unconstructed Play
by Michelle Reynolds       #Kids   #Misc




By planting native trees and plants in the garden, you’ll create a world of exploration. The tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) tree is a host plant for Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies. Plant them and they will come. Host plant to Eastern tiger swallowtail and spicebush swallowtails, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a good tree for a children’s garden as well. With sassafras, the children can chew on the leaves, make whistles and sassafras tea.

How many times have you been to a child’s birthday party with a bunch of laughing, screaming kids and lots of toys, and what the children end up playing with are the cardboard boxes, ribbons and ties from the gifts, loose parts from one of the toys (and not as they were intended to be used), or a pile of dirt or rocks next door? OK, that proves it – all they really need to play is a dirt pile and a bucket; unstructured play is the secret to happiness.

Children are remarkably imaginative, creative and innovative little souls and are able to find ways to play no matter what the circumstance. It always amazes me to see on the news in the aftermath of disaster (whether from a storm, fire, war, etc.), children playing as if nothing ever happened. Their imaginations and their willingness to work with each other, create games, laugh together, play together and continue on despite the horrors surrounding their community is absolutely amazing. And their resilience and ability to revert to simple games in an ever-changing and modernized world is inspiring.

Clockwise: A large tree in any yard can easily be turned into a play-station. This old hackberry holds a ropes course, a couple of swings, and the tree provides shade for the family’s rustic swing. The whole family can enjoy this space and time together outdoors. • A backyard full of trees is ideal, but even in yards with no trees, a stand-alone multilevel tree house can be built. A ladder, a rope swing and the platforms are all elements for building strength and confidence. • Building forts from branches and brush allow for creative play and also encourages empathy for birds and small animals, and their need for thickets and places to hide.

Elements of a Children’s Garden

Entrance: Build an actual gateway to the children’s garden by constructing an arbor or trellis. Plant butterfly host plants and vines and other wildlife-beneficial plants, a birdbath and feeder, add garden art, and a sign to delineate the space from the rest of the yard. These things will lend the place a feeling of enchantment.

Paths: Gravel, mulch or stone pathways meandering through the garden’s focal points will help lead a child to opportunities for exploration, adventure play, creativity and developing their imagination.

Sensory Planting Area: With the help of the children, plant garden plots with vegetables, flowers, wildlife-beneficial plants and herbs to appeal to sight, smell and taste. Allowing kids to grow their own vegetables is a good way to get them to eat them as well.

Seating and Stepping Logs: Small logs placed along pathways and tree cookies for stepping and sitting encourage balancing, quiet rest and observation of what lives under logs in the forest.

Rock or Dirt Mound: A mound is a more effective version of a sandbox by offering a height advantage as well as excavation possibilities.

Loose Parts: Tree cookies, branches, boards and rocks encourage creativity in building and problem solving.

Fort, Playhouse or Tree House: Incorporate ropes, climbing areas, hammocks, swings or slides into a multi-level play hut to improve hand-eye coordination, and to build strength and confidence.

Modernization is the inevitable path humans have been on for as long as we have walked the Earth. Through cultivation of plants and domestication of animals, we set up permanent settlements and thus began our move away from nature and into a dominion of manufactured living. The gap has grown ever since.

More and more, we are sterilizing our surrounding landscapes, schoolyards and our own properties by displacing nature with fabricated playgrounds. Strict neighborhood covenants and perceived notions of “curb appeal” are dictating what we have in our gardens. Devoid of nature, homogenized landscapes and housing in a land of sameness offer no opportunity for journeys of imagination and discovery. Concrete sidewalks lead us to and from buildings set on asphalt-covered lands across closely clipped lawns and ball fields and back home to sterile yards again. Once back home, it is homework, computers, video games and structured play. We have corralled our children in these small, modern and virtual worlds, leaving little time or space for imagination, creative play or self-discovery. We give our children only limited access to the wonders of the natural world.

Children are born naturalists and have a built-in curiosity and sense of wonder. If we as adults do not do what we can to provide places for children to practice their observational skills, and nurture our own inner child, who are we going to become as a society? It is through our own disconnect that we are separating children from the natural world.

When I was growing up, my family and I would go on hikes most weekends. We had adventures with names – The Railroad Holler Hop, Journey to Bamboo City and the Boulder Crawl to Kidland Canyon. We would stop and play in streambeds, build forts, swing from vines and climb trees. In creeks and in the cattails, we would discover baby fish, frogs and tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs, and other strange creatures. Under rocks, we would find salamanders, beetles, roly polies and ants. We would imagine how the animal and insect world worked and shrink ourselves down to an imagined “Land of the Lost.” Our favorite books were those that reflected our love of nature and sense of adventure and those that encouraged a deeper understanding of the natural world. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was our favorite TV show.

We would walk in the woods near our house, look at nature up close and feel a closeness to a larger force. Those treks in the woods were marvelous adventures filled with lessons in geology, history, the natural world, danger and Southern culture. They helped us look at things in a larger context, helped put things into perspective and helped direct the trajectory of my life’s interests; I believe my experiences in nature then and now help me solve problems, create, and conjure up the courage it takes to experiment, tackle new things and live life to its fullest. The music of the woods – the wind through the trees, babbling brooks, chorus of frogs, crickets, cicadas and katydids – is my soundtrack.


Clockwise: Pathways, rocks, logs and fences help delineate spaces and define the garden. Playing and planting is fun in a space the children can call their own. • Children are inherently imaginative and creative. My neighbor came up with the backyard bucket ride to enhance the zipline in her yard. She climbs the tree ladder, gets in the bucket, zips through the yard and makes a soft landing on a gym pad at the end of the ride. • “If you build it they will come,” works well in the natural world. Build a water feature or simple frog pond, and tree frogs will show up and breed. It is amazing to watch the life cycle of frogs – egg mass, tadpole, legs form, tails disappear, and finally, frogs. Once you have frogs, you’ll have beautiful music to enjoy when the family sits on the porch on a summer’s eve. Be sure not to add fish though, because the fish will eat frog eggs.

For most who live in urban areas, a trip to the woods and into nature is a weekend activity. If we do not live by a forest and we long for those weekend visits, we can construct areas in our communities that mimic the wilds to provide informal play areas for our children to explore daily. Fortunately, there are efforts underway, and by many organizations, to change the trends in schoolyards and churchyards. Outdoor classrooms, community gardens, environmental education programs, nature-based summer camps, outdoor after-school programs and other outreach activities are becoming more prevalent in many communities. These programs take the approach of using place-based education and inquiry learning in outdoor miniature habitats by matching the workshops to state core curriculums. By integrating education gardens into schoolyards and curriculums, teachers hope to reconnect children with nature through hands-on and direct experiences with the natural world.

Tree cookies offer places to step and sit as a child plants and takes care of their garden. Native plants and plants with funny names like Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) are great combined with herbs such as rosemary, basil and thyme. The combination smells good, looks good, and is sure to bring in the beneficial insects, birds and butterflies that are fun to observe. Harmless roly polies, worms and beetles live underneath the tree cookies and are fun to discover.

We can take it a step further and construct playscapes and naturescapes in our own backyards, where our children will be able to grow into their imaginations. By creating spaces for unconstructed play, we will build pathways that lead children to activities of exploration, adventure play, creativity and imagination, and with these things, come innovation.


A version of this article appeared in an April 2014 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Bob Farley.


Posted: 04/09/18   RSS | Print


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