Child's Play A garden can be a wonderful - and educational - place for children. And there's no reason it can't appeal to kids as well as their parents.

July 26, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Dirt is great, and water is wonderful. Also good are arbors dripping with vines, sinuous paths, trees with broad limbs low to the ground, and stones or hedges in a maze pattern.

These are the things that can turn a garden from a space forbidden to children to one that welcomes and entices them. And getting children into gardens where they can fulfill their natural inclinations to "poke, prod, nurture, jump, hunt, whack, climb and hide" - is a major goal in the life of Molly Dannenmaier, Washington writer and former children's editor of Garden Design magazine.

It is, she argues, a goal that ought to be tops on the list of all gardening parents.

"They will be learning a huge amount," says Dannenmaier, whose new book, "A Child's Garden" (Simon & Schuster, 1998, $35), explores the ways that interacting with nature can enrich the lives of children and adults. Getting children out to play "offers them a canvas to explore their natural instincts," she says.

Children are more tactile, more physical, than adults, Dannenmaier says. Adults care about vistas and color schemes, about order and control, about results. Children care about touching and smelling, about taking things apart, about picking up rocks and looking underneath.

There is no reason both points of view can't be accommodated in a garden, Dannenmaier says, and her book contains some sterling examples: the quarter-acre garden of a home in Glen Echo, where East meets West with a meditation area, a moss lawn, a waterfall and a pool, a wooden fort and walkway; the long, narrow back -yard of a Carpenteria, Calif., house with a three-tiered deck (children can reach the yard by slide, fire pole or curving steps), a lawn for games and a 50-year-old pepper tree perfect for climbing.

The child's garden space doesn't have to be large, Dannenmaier says; it just has to be varied. Children need places to run and places to hide, and places to dig with abandon. Containers should be made of wood, not clay - "ages 2 to 4 are a major turning-over-the-pot stage."

Hiding places - Dannenmaier calls them "refuges" - are very important, and may be the easiest element to provide.

While tree houses and play houses are nice, simple arbors made of half-hoops of electrical conduit and covered with fast-growing vines also offer great hiding places. The vines can be ornamental, such as love-in-a-puff, or productive, such as purple hyacinth beans or squash.

Because these vines are fast-growing, it doesn't matter when they're planted, she says. "Last year we didn't plant until the second week of June, and by August we had a lot of beautiful things that lasted until November." ("When you've got kids, your life is already hectic," she notes; there's no need to make more rules for yourself. "Don't say, 'Oh, I can't plant now, it's August.' Just go ahead.")

The illusion of seclusion can also be created with tall plants such as bamboo, or grasses, or even sunflowers. Sunflowers are easy to grow and come in great variety; they grow from 2 or 3 feet tall to towering over adult heads. Planted in a square with a small break on one side, they create sunflower "houses," perfect for tea parties and make-believe.

Paths - made of stones, bricks, concrete, grass, or bark chips - can be stretched out by making them curvy. "It stretches out the amount of space they have to run," says Dannenmaier, who is employing the sinuous-path technique in a 40-by-15-foot side yard at her Capitol Hill house.

Water is an important element in a child's world, Dannenmaier says, in part because it's a key ingredient in mud. But besides that, water is a habitat for all sorts of fascinating creatures, from frogs to water bugs, that can help children learn about the world around them.

Dannenmaier is active with George Washington's River Farm in Alexandria, Va., administered by the American Horticultural Society, which has 10 demonstration gardens for children. One of them is an alphabet garden, with 26 types of plants from asters to zinnias.

Children love theme gardens, she says. Other popular types are a "dinosaur" garden, with existing plants of ancient heritage, and a 'round the world garden with plants that originated on every continent.

But perhaps the most important element of an children's garden is one that can't be planted: Time.

"Fearing for our children's safety in a more dangerous world than we parents grew up in and frenetically busy with our own lives," Dannenmaier writes in "A Child's Garden," "many of us today are unwittingly cutting children off from seminal life experiences available only during lazy outdoor afternoons."

We encourage children to think that life happens in offices and on television screens, and not in yards, fields and forests. But that eliminates the natural world, where intuition and instinct, rather than erudition and experience, hold sway.

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