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Presented by the National Association of Landscape Professionals in partnership with Houzz 

By Summer Baltzer

Isn’t it funny that so many of our young children ignore their presents in favor of the box? And why not? A box isn’t just a box. It’s a fort, a rocket ship, a car, a boat ... And the same idea goes for outdoor playscapes. Jungle gyms can be a fun addition to a yard, but the importance of free and imaginative outdoor play can't be overstated.

Exploring an ever-changing environment and having their capabilities challenged in natural settings helps children ages 3 to 8 grow physically and emotionally. This kind of play also expends energy and encourages imagination.

Natural play elements are attractive, easy and often more inexpensive than prefab superstructures. Plus, you don’t need a megayard — just a little imagination. Consider implementing just one or two of these play-boosting concepts in your yard this season.


Photo by Keith Willig Landscape Services, Inc. - More landscape photos


1. Create multilevel play. Topography challenges attract kids. Multilevel environments can be magical and attractive places where children can let their imaginations run free. Build traditional elements, such as slides or tubes, into natural topography, or build up the soil to create hills and valleys.

2. Let kids take a risk. Children test and repeat skills until they have mastered them, beginning at an early age. Parents and teachers naturally often try to limit injuries by making environments safe — but sometimes spaces end up being too safe, minimizing healthy challenges along with risk. Many researchers believe that adults should not stand in the way of children’s “risky” play and complex challenges.

A child’s ability to understand and manage risk is essential to development, and naturalized environments can be adjusted to suit the child. Consider introducing climbing walls, hills or trees into a playscape.


Photo by Bio Friendly Gardens - Look for landscape design inspiration


3. Put children on the right path. Naturalized playscapes with areas where children can branch out and explore are key to imaginative play. Not only are multiple centers for play a great idea, but fun pathways to get there are as well. Multicolored or oddly shaped pavers can be fun for kids to hope around on. Think rocks, stumps or pebbles to encourage a game of "avoid the lava." You can easily add these materials to a patch of grass or an existing slab.


Photo by Valerie McCaskill Dickman - More landscape photos


4. Go wild! Childhood play can range from the active and boisterous to the quiet and contemplative. Wild grasses and flowers help create a fantasy-like environment to support creative minds, whether the kids are playing hide-and-go-seek, looking for bugs or just finding shapes in the clouds. If you have limited space or can't make major changes to your landscape, use potted plants. Mix and match plant sizes and colors to create interesting textures and shapes.

5. Let there be life. Children who nurture plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables can experience the benefits of caring from seedling to mature specimen. They also develop a sense of responsibility, self-maturity and pride over the environment they helped to create. Additionally, they tend to choose healthier foods to eat — such as the fruits and vegetables they grow themselves! An easy project no matter what space you have is planter beds. They can be the focal point of a yard or relegated to the perimeters.


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6. Let them learn through the senses. Successful playscapes allow children to explore the environment with all five senses. Sounds of water splashing, mud slurping, bees buzzing and birds chirping aren't only enticing, but they inspire curiosity. This dry creek is a great and safe place for playing children. Just add a trickle of water from a hose to encourage experimentation or mud making. If a dry creek isn't in the cards, use a large planter pot or fountain with elements like rocks, water and mud.


Photo by Annette Tatum - More landscape ideas


7. Encourage building with loose parts. Rocks, twigs, pinecones and leaves are considered “loose parts” and are perfect for constructive play, which is very important in early childhood development. Static environments generally have limited loose parts, but naturalized environments have an abundance of them! Kids can use these materials to build and also to create roles and structures, such as Nature Rangers on a backyard camping trip.

8. Nurture art through play. Art isn’t only for paper; your landscape can provide a canvas or materials too. Creating art requires children to engage in self-evaluation and decision making, from choosing the elements to arranging them. And even just the act of creating art — painting, drawing, cutting, sculpting — helps children develop coordination, strength and fine motor dexterity.

Engage your child's inner artist outdoors by painting pots, making mosaic pavers and creating artwork from fallen leaves. The possibilities are limitless!


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