Why Wild Gardens for Children?

In the good old days, children played outdoors for hours, only coming home when they were hungry – isn’t that the story? Well it’s not quite how I remember it but apparently, the majority of children today spend less than 60 mins outside a day, which is less than prison inmates.

Richard Louvv in his book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ coined the term ‘Nature deficit disorder’ not as a medical condition but a social one. He is part of a growing movement of awareness and change around improving the relationship that people have with nature. Statistics like those mentioned are pretty depressing with children spending more time indoors at screens, and less time outside, especially for unstructured time.

His later book ‘Vitamin N’, Louvv talks about Nature as an essential nutrient for a healthy human. Its makes sense, our bodies evolved to spend our waking ours outside; working, hunting etc. We have understood that our bodies and minds need exercise but what about the other things we gain from being outdoors rather than in? Reporting from a study on Nature Connection, head of psychology at the University of Derby, Dr Miles Richardson,  explains, “There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle,” in this article on BBC Earth.

Interestingly, Dr Richardson recently published a paper showing that nature based education is not necessarily what we need to feel connection to nature. Learning bird names therefore does not reap the same benefits as enjoying the birdsong.

Forest schools is one successful part of the movement, a Scandinavian concept being used within traditional education settings.

Forest school offers learners opportunities to develop self esteem through hands on learning in a woodland setting. The emphasis is on self awareness, practical learning, team working & independence. Benefits include; learning about risk taking – through opportunities to safely test out a child’s own abilities, improved emotional intelligence, and building comfort and familiarity in natural spaces.

Camo net den building
Kids love a sense of privacy, a camo net provides a quick cover on a woodland adventure.

Wherever possible I design wild play spaces into my gardens, at first I was aesthetically driven, keen to use natural materials and avoid the bright plastic toys, but soon I saw the benefits of unstructured play, of forest schools type activities and wild ‘down time’ with my own children. Now I maximise opportunities within family gardens for this.

When I take my two children to our allotment for example; they don’t do much weeding or seed sowing, when space allows they might build a den, or create a game for themselves, mostly they just dig holes, build fairy gardens or graze on the fruit. In the woods they will play with sticks for hours, clearing leaves out of the streams.

Living Willow
Living willow can provide quick, robust results in creating a wild play space for children.

Wild Child Garden Ideas;

  • The wildlife trusts run ’30 Days Wild’ each July for the month with great ideas of how to get back to nature.
  • Our year outdoors – offers tips for getting more outdoor time as a family, including advice such as ‘don’t let weather stop you’
  • The National Trust has some brilliant ideas in their outdoor play spaces, stepping stone logs etc. Check out my pin board for some ideas.
  • Within a garden I usually identify or recommend a flexible space for kids to play which can be adapted as they grow and change.
  • Utilise sturdy shrubs or trees, where the site has no existing trees – living willow can create a quick, robust result
  • Add a tree swing or some log stools for a seating area, where space allows maybe a circle for chatting and eating, creating opportunities for sharing and listening
  • The youngest children like a mud pit or sand pit
  • Open ended play objects create opportunities for imaginative play and learning. Rather than a swing ball for example, a pile of branches, can be a den or a climbing structure or markers on the ground for limitless games.
  • Use natural materials – logs, rocks, tools, space for a fire – where appropriate, a tarpualin and rope.
This is not a stick
image; WilderChild.com

Kids thrive in natural environments, they are designed to learn and grow in nature. As are adults, of course. Ask yourself what are your best childhood memories?

A Playful & Elegant Garden of rooms – Scampston Hall Walled Gardens

I think a good test of a garden lies in how the space feels in winter. I visited Scampston in early spring on the opening day for the new season so the famous grasses and prairie planting were still dormant. Scampston, designed by Piet Ouldolf, had long been on my must see list and for good reason.

I had a delightful day here with my children (photobombing at every opportunity). The Easter quiz kept the children occupied allowing me to devour the useful plant list issued on entry.

Lining the garden wall, a border walk of pleached limes, beech hedges, cloud pruned buxus and layers of planting including choice viburnums and peonies bursting forwards to mark the turn of the season. I spotted fascinating new leaves unfurling of the jungle like tetrapanux.

The centre of the garden is divided into fun rooms with varying themes, a vegetable plot, formal gardens of symmetrical toparies and ponds.

The wavy topped yew hedges were my favourites, partly because my children squealed with laughter while racing back and forth between them.

This is a garden of style, substance and surprises. We will return.

Beautiful living willow tunnel…..

I renovated  this willow tunnel a couple of years ago, each season it puts on incredible growth providing a lush play space. Willow domes, screens, dens and arbours are planted during the winter months, until around the end of march, whilst the stems are dormant. Email now to register your interest or to book an individual installation. enquiries@reneebrailsfordgardens.co.uk

Malvern Spring Gardening Show 2012

The beautiful strength and durability of wood…. what better material for a natural garden. The famous RHS show provides inspiration for family gardens with timber garden toys, structures and furniture.

In spaces for children, clever use of natural materials can encourage heuristic play, look stunning and provide shelter for wildlife. Think less plastic sand pits more wooden stepping-stones set in long grass. It’s wonderful to see children play in a more simple, imaginative way; using beautiful garden features which are a pleasure to look at and better for the environment.



Above; RHS Urban Oasis garden by Chris Beardshaw show a funky balance walk and rustic pole climbing frame. Greenplayproject.co.uk displayed the stunning hollowed out tree trunk and stunning green oak garden bench by rusticcarpentry.co.uk who also make amazing chunky swings, furniture and larger garden structures.

Below; woodland den and play area at RHS Rosemoor Devon


Woodland Den for Children

Here is a photo of the woodland den I made at home for the children on 6th May. Inspired by the beautiful play area at RHS Rosemoor Devon. Hazel and birch prunings were propped together and bound with wire to create a traditional, old school den. I plan to add moss for a softer flooring, also more layers of poles can be added to create a dense canopy. Noone’s allowed in without a password!

Sow seeds, take cuttings and get new plants for less…..

Inspired by a visit to a beautiful nearby garden. I am sowing seeds with childish excitement.

Louise’s garden (above 1, 2 & 3) was cottagey and naturalistic, incorporating lots of pinks and purples with  aqualegias, sweet rocket, ragged robin (all easy to grow from seed). The hedges, blousy with honeysuckle, work with the old apple trees to frame an idyllic view of lush green hills and Carsington resevoir. I came away with two gifts – some angelica plants (below) and a wild desire to sort out my front border.

I routinely sow veg seeds and a few favourite annuals each year from Jan to April but once these are all hardened off and out of the greenhouse I tend to forget about seed sowing. This year I’m sewing aubretia for a client who needs masses of plants to cover a new area and while I’m at it I’m sowing some black cow parsley (Anthriscus Sylvestris, ‘Raven’s wing) to bring a sense of the hedgerow to my newly widened front border (above centre).

My border includes a red and pink Knautia, Cotinus, Stipa tenuissima, Sedum ‘purple emperor’, hardy Osteospermum, Verbena bonariensis, Stachys byzantine, Veronicastrum virginicum, Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’, Geranium ‘Kashmir White’.  This year I’m adding Stipa Gigantea, Lavatera ‘Barnsley’, Sanguisorba, Angelica and possibly Polygonatum if I can squeeze some in….

In my mind the most captivating thing about horticulture is raising your own plants from seed – its also a great way to save some money. Now is also a good time to take softwood cuttings from shrubs like Buxus and cuttings from Sedum etc. Plants can be far too expensive from your garden centre – it’s well worth learning how to propagate early in your gardening life to build stock of plants for your garden and to swap with others…..

Plants which will seed freely without any effort from the gardener include knautia, centranthus, stachys, verbena – all shown above.

Willow dome in the green……….

new growth…

This is a living willow dome I built on 17th March – just 8 weeks ago and am really enjoying watching it come to life. Its a great den for the children, mine are only 14months and 4years but I built it so that an adult could stand up in it because I didn’t want them to outgrow it too soon. I love its shaggy almost wooly appearance now and I’m fascinated watching it develop.

Willow is fast becoming my favourite plant – it’s diverse, very versatile, robust and vigourous. Most importantly it roots easily – living willow rods are rather like giant cuttings! A thirsty plant – willow also helps to dry up and stabilise boggy areas which are otherwise difficult to use.

After doing a 2 day course and hours and hours of research, I discovered that there are almost limitless shapes, sizes and styles of living willow structure. ‘Fedges’ are a type of living fence which look perfect in a cottage garden setting, you can make furniture, climbing frames, tunnels, arbours, even art – the sky (or the soil rather) is the limit. Regarding domes; there are some basic kits you can buy online to give you a small round den and then there are artistic onion shaped domes, and elegant gothic domes made by craftspeople.

8 weeks in…

You can buy the willow rods via mail order, these are available roughly from oct – march while the plants are dormant (without leaves). The willow canes are then trimmed the bottom and pushed 6 inches into the ground to your desired layout and secure by weaving and tying. Actually this can be fairly strenous work with the longer stiffer rods. But once the hard work is done you can sit back and watch it grow.One of the exciting things about willow structures is how they evolve as they grow. You can either weave the young shoots back into the framework or prune them to suit. Each year the woody stems will become stronger and thicker and can fuse together where they connect. You can even use the new shoots to create living knot and ties for maximum strength.

living willow foliage

A word of caution though – Willows are hungry, thirsty plants – do not plant them near drains or too close to buildings. Living willow structures can be pretty high maintenance depending on variety, site and design – expect to prune them at least once a year.