IT'S SYMBOLIC OF HOW FAR WE'VE COME that even the real estate sections of Dow Jones publications such as MarketWatch are publishing articles trumpeting the value of natural landscapes! In an article titled "Think Outside the Sandbox," Rachel Koning Beals writes that both homeowners and designers of public play spaces are installing features such as butterfly gardens in order to introduce children to nature.
Among the advantages of this type of landscaping, Beals says, is that it can be cheaper to install than large playsets and other traditional childrens' play equipment. Also, these types of landscapes are more likely to continue to attract childrens' attention as the kids grow older, unlike fixed equipment that can quickly lose its attractiveness.
One of her suggestions is to make sure your natural garden includes sheltered spots to which children can retreat; as a wildlife-friendly gardener, I was amused to realize that the same types of spaces children find so attractive are equally attractive to birds and animals! (Of course, if you're like some parents I know, you already consider your children to be "wildlife.")
The author of this article suggests planting a weeping willow or other tree with low-hanging branches that children can hide under. It strikes me that many large evergreens would be perfect for this purpose: Careful pruning could be used to make a cave-like hollow at the bottom of the tree.
A couple of other ideas also came to me as I was reading this article. For instance, you can also create child-sized retreat spaces with shrubs; for example, you can plant shrubs in a a circle to make a small, private "garden room," prune a shrub to create a hiding space underneath, or even (if you're very ambitious) plant shrubs to form a labyrinth or maze.
A simple, temporary child-sized shelter can be created by making a "tipi" out of branches or sticks; plant annual vines to cover it. Scarlet runner beans are great for this purpose, and both children and hummingbirds love them.
Beals also interviews a landscaping expert who suggests involving children in planning a garden that will attract birds or butterflies. She notes that the National Wildlife Federation has created a program called Green Hour to encourage families to spend at least one hour outdoors every day. Getting kids to help design and install a wildlife-friendly garden is a great way to learn about nature together, and the garden then becomes a place to enjoy nature every day.