Small Urban Gardens Can Be Kid-Friendly, Too

You don't need tons of room to create a beautiful, stimulating play environment.

little girl walks barefoot through backyard with chickens

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Raising children in a city has its challenges, not least of which is having minimal space to play. Any outside space that people do have is hugely important, especially if there are younger family members. As a permaculture garden designer, I often work to help those with children make their small urban gardens as child-friendly as possible. 

When people think of creating a child-friendly garden, their minds may immediately turn to large expansive lawns where children can run and play. Perhaps they may think about swings,  jungle gyms, trampolines, or other large pieces of play equipment. 

In a small city garden, you likely won't have the space to include such features. But that does not mean you cannot create a wonderful space for children to learn and play. 

In a small urban garden, multi-functionality is key. Fortunately, there are ways to provide play spaces and practical elements for kids which also serve other functions. Here are a few ideas for elements you may wish to include.

Raised Beds With Integrated Bench Storage

Raised garden beds are great for many urban gardens. They allow you to create growing areas even where there is no access to soil. 

In a child-friendly space, it's a good idea to include some raised beds which are of a height and size suitable for the youngest members of your family to reach. You could also give a child their own raised bed, where they can choose (with your help and guidance) what to grow.

Where space is limited, you might think about how materials which make up bed edging for raised beds could serve other functions. Wooden bed edging with pallet wood benches along the sides can be very useful for kids, encouraging them to spend time around the food and other plants you grow together, and which they grow on their own. 

You could consider creating fairly narrow box-like structures around a raised bed. The lids of these box structures become a bench, while plant pots, tools, garden toys, and other items can be kept within. Integrating storage into the heart of a small kitchen garden can be a practical choice—and helps to keep kid chaos to a minimum.

baby doing some gardening

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Trellis Dens

Whether you are growing in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers, trellises are important features for small urban gardens. They allow you to grow vertically and make the most of your space.

Trellises can be placed along the edges of your garden, or they can be used to create screening between one part of the space and another. They can be vertical screens, curved arches, or wigwam-shaped structures up which plants can grow.

With careful thought, trellises designed for plants to grow on can also be used to create the structures for dens for children. For example, create a wigwam structure with a space inside for kids to play, and grow flowering climbers, beans, or cane fruits around the outside.

You can also, for example, create an arch or A-frame structure which covers the space between two raised beds, giving a space for kids to play between the two.

Outdoor Kitchen Play Space

little boy with a mud kitchen

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A small patio or courtyard area is a great place for kids to develop not only gardening skills but also some ability in food preparation, cooking, and nature play. In an outdoor kitchen area or play place, kids make mud pies, get their hands into the sand, soil, or water, and experiment with plants and produce.

One great idea for urban gardens is to create a small structure along a wall or fence to one side of the space. Shelving above and and cupboard space below can be built using reclaimed materials. Folding-out elements make the most of tiny spaces, and you can customize the design to suit you, your family, and your space. 

Place a hinged worktop over rainwater collection access, a sand pit area, and storage bins, for example, to provide a flexible place for kids to learn and play.

Play Tunnel Planting Areas

Urban gardens may be small, but they can be wild and abundantly planted. Small gardens currently planted with grass or just areas of bare soil offer plenty of opportunities. One amazing idea to consider is landscaping that creates new contours in the space, rather than sticking with a flat, level area.

Reclaimed materials can sometimes be used to create mounds and undulations for play within the space—vegetated slopes to roll down or earth banks molded and planted up to look like a sleeping giant. If you are prepared to work hard and move some soil, the only limit is your imagination. You might even create earth-sheltered spaces—a hobbit-hole den or tunnel through a raised area, covered with soil and planted up with a range of plants.

Even where earth-moving is not possible, you can still create enticing tunnels using the plants you grow to give kids a sense of magic and adventure. Willows, dwarf fruit trees, shrubs, or canes can be placed in rows and arched together, shaped to create a space to kids to play in or pass through.

Mini Habitat Patches

Remember, a great wildlife-friendly garden will be a child-friendly garden, too. Even in small urban gardens you can bring in wildlife with a range of mini habitat patches—a small garden pond or water feature, a small area of wildflower meadow, a perennial flower garden close to features like bee or bug hotels. 

Little habitats, however small, will help you rewild your garden—and your kids—even in the heart of a city.