The school summer holidays are now upon us and there’s no better way to occupy the kids than to get them out in the garden for a bit of fresh air and closeness to nature.
Studies show that outdoor activity is essential for our children’s mental and physical health, helping to reduce stress and boost self-esteem. Here are 10 fun and easy ways to tempt the kids away from their screens and into the garden while school’s out this summer.
1. Create a sensory garden
Choose plant varieties that delight the senses with interesting smells, tastes, and textures, to create a kid-friendly sensory patch in your garden.
Plants which are especially fantastic for this include Aloysia citrodora (Lemon verbena), which smells of sherbet and Cosmos, which smells of chocolate. Another great option is Mentha x piperata f. citrate (Chocolate peppermint), which has leaves that taste like chocolate creams.
Tactile plants like leathery Bergenia (Elephant’s ears) or soft and furry Stachys byzantina (Lamb’s ear) are also marvellous for getting children to re-engage with nature. My own children can’t get enough of any of these plants!
2. Get crafty
Most kids absolutely love arts and crafts, so a great way to get them out into the garden is to have them make something functional, which they can see being used in your outdoor space.
Real fun can be had painting terracotta pots for use in the garden. For best results, base coat the pot with emulsion first and varnish at the end to keep your kids’ creations looking spectacular.
Let them loose with a wide palette of colours and allow them to choose what gets planted in the pot once they’re finished.
You’ll be amazed at how homely a garden can feel with a few hand-painted gems from the little ones.
Older children may also enjoy making their own plant markers. Recycle the wooden sticks from ice lollies, buy specially designed plant markers from the garden centre, or collect flat rocks for painting or drawing designs onto—it’s up to you.
Task the kids with copying plant names, drawing or painting a picture of the plant onto the labels, and then allow them put the labels to use by popping them next to the right plants out in the garden.
For a noisier addition to the garden, try creating a clonking wind chime using sticks from your garden itself or those collected on a nature trail.
3. Plant for impact beyond the garden
Plant varieties that have an impact outside of the garden, so that your kids can enjoy the fruits of their labour in other areas of their lives.
July is a great time to plant cucumber plants, the fruits of which can be used to flavour water for a refreshing summer’s drink, and many garden centres have mature or semi-mature fruit plants available to purchase in summer, which will provide fresh fruit all summer long.
You could even choose a long-flowering plant, such as the ‘Ferdinand Pichard’ variety of Rosa (Rose), for a constant supply of fantastically striped cut flowers from now right through to autumn. These can be enjoyed inside your own home or taken as a present from the kids to flower-loving relatives.
Show your kids how to feed and water these plants and let them pick the swollen fruits or blooming when ready. It will give them a marvellous sense of accomplishment.
4. Spot our feathered friends
From Great Tits to Starlings, Gold Finches to Collared Doves, the UK is home to an enormous population of colourful bird species in summer. Make your garden extra friendly to birds in hot weather by providing a water source, such as a bird bath, for drinking and bathing.
Tempt them further by making bird fat balls or perhaps a simple apple bird feeder (perhaps using your homegrown apples) and hang it somewhere prominent in your garden. The kids will love topping up the water for the birds with a miniature watering can or mixing up the seed and fat in a giant mixing bowl.
Extend the fun by encouraging your kids to get out bird spotting in the garden. Give them a bird colouring sheet, a bird word search, or a small pair of binoculars and a bird spotting book so that they can identify the birds visiting your garden.
If your kids are partial to the odd computer game, link the two activities with this fantastic ‘Colour a bird’ game from the RSPB. Your kids will be ducking and diving out of the house to observe the minute details of bird plumage before attempting to re-create it on-screen.
5. Give kids an opportunity to earn
A fantastic idea for older children is to give them a way to earn pocket money by doing odd jobs in the garden that are suitable for their age. You could task them with watering plants, deadheading flowers, or even—for responsible teenagers—mowing the lawn.
My great love of horticulture began with me doing these sorts of jobs for local pensioners and I never looked back.
Alongside getting them out into nature, this teaches children about the value of hard graft and what they can really achieve in the garden if they put their minds to it.
It also makes light work of garden upkeep, develops their gardening skills and, if you can get out there with them and work side-by-side, generates a marvellous sense of family accomplishment.
6. Create play zones
I’m always saying that gardens aren’t just about flowers and borders, they’re also about having a great outdoor space for family fun. A wonderful way to make your garden kid-friendly is to create different zones, as is often done at nurseries or in school play areas.
You might, for example, consider creating an area that is mulched with bark chippings and give your kids buckets, spades and dumper truck toys for digging and tipping.
If you have a dog, you could also suggest that the kids bury some treats or a favourite toy in this area for your dog to find.
Another great idea is to pop out some old pots, pans and kitchen utensils next to a disused border and encourage the kids to cook something up in the ‘mud kitchen.’
If you have enough lawn space, turn your garden into a makeshift football pitch by helping your kids to spray paint white pitch markers onto the grass and having a game of footie. If you go this route, you might want to check out my World Cup blog for tips on ball-tolerant plants.
Finally, if your garden is big enough, you could really go wild and create a circuit or obstacle course for kids to race round on bikes or scooters. This works especially well if your garden has raised areas that can serve as little ramps and hills to climb.
7. It's a bug's life
Many children are absolutely fascinated by the mini-beasts that inhabit our gardens and my own kids are no different. They simply love finding woodlice, worms and millipedes out in the garden and always have superb fun hunting them down.
You can make this activity as simple or as complex as you’d like. For younger children, it can be enough to show them how to roll rocks and logs out of the way to find the creatures that lurk beneath.
If you want to add more of a sense of occasion, you could use this minibeast spotter sheet to help toddlers match the shapes of the creatures they see with the pictures on the sheet.
For older children, sending them out to track down creepy crawlies with a kid-safe magnifying glass and bug identification sheet in hand can make for hours of entertainment.
Since many mini-beasts are a gardener’s friend, helping to condition and aerate the soil, pollinate flowers and crops or even eat garden pests, creating a haven in which they can truly thrive is both kid and plant friendly!
8. Give them their own plot
If you have a large enough garden, mark out a section that belongs to each child. My father did this for me and my two siblings when we were nippers and we loved it. To make it more fun, cordon their plot off with a brightly-coloured low picket-fence or paint a raised bed in all the colours of the rainbow.
Let your kids decide what they’d like their plot to look like! If you are short on space, a plot might be beyond you, but you could still give your child their own pot or window box in which to plant things they choose. You’ll be amazed how much difference a little bit of ownership will make to your kids.
Once they have their space set up, pour over gardening magazines and websites together and let your children choose what they’d like to plant in their own patch. I have recommendations for all sorts on this website, with everything from easy-to-grow fruit plants to brilliant climbers.
At this time of year, there are plenty of mature or semi-mature plants that your kids can choose for their patch, but if they love watching seeds sprout there are varieties that do well when sown this late in the season. One option is Penstemon, which has beautiful foxglove-like flowers on an elegant tall stem and blooms right into autumn.
9. Just add water
I don’t know about you, but I find water in the garden to be rather magical. If the kids aren’t too young, adding a pond to your space can make it more tranquil and attractive to beneficial wildlife, such as frogs, toads and even hedgehogs.
Not only can the kids go on yet more nature-spotting adventures, you can also get them nets and send them pond dipping or encourage them to create little boats to race on the water out of natural materials.
In fact, you can involve the kids in almost every aspect of a pond, from its creation to its upkeep. If they’re old enough, they can help you dig it out, line it and fill it with water.
Once it’s in place, you can take them to a local garden centre and buy beautiful aquatic plants and colourful fish together to populate it—I remember doing this myself as a child, choosing a young black goldfish and watching it change colours as the weeks went on.
The kids can even help to keep the pond topped up with water during the summer when evaporation can cause water levels to drop. I find my lightweight, expandable YOYO hosepipe to be perfect for the kids to handle when doing a job like this.
Be sure to supervise your children when they are near water and if you’d like extra peace of mind, a pond safety cover will enable you to enjoy having a pond in your garden, without worrying about anyone falling in.
10. Bring the outside in
Although we’ve been having some fantastic weather recently, I find it always pays in England to have something fun up your sleeve for a rainy day! When all else fails, fascinating houseplants can keep the kids amused for hours.
Incredibly fun are carnivorous houseplants, like Drosera (Sundew), Dionaea muscipula (Venus’ fly trap) and Nepenthes (Monkey cups). Whilst looking exotic and interesting, they will also do the job of getting rid of unwanted insects from your home. If you have a compost bin collection pot, placing one of these plants nearby can be a good way to keep fruit flies at bay. Most of these plants will thrive in a bright spot out of direct sunlight.
Other options for fascinating indoor gardening include building your own terrarium using air plants or planting striking-looking tactile plants, such as Tradescantia zebrina (Silver inch plant) with its sandpaper foliage, in indoor hanging baskets.