Inspire Play


3 Design Concepts Guide How We Envision Family Gardens

April 1, 2020. By Cassy Aoyagi and Isara Ongwiseth: We are nearly a month into Safer-At-Home with at least a month to go. How are you doing? This thing is a whole different animal for those of us with kids!

During the virtual Native Plant Garden Tour, we discussed gardens that draw children outdoors, inspire solo play, and invite organized games. It may surprise you to learn it does not take investments in basketball courts, football-ready lawns, and playlets! While these can inspire organized play for kids of a certain age, gardens without such things can grow with kids’ ever-evolving interests and needs.

Here are some of our favorite design strategies.


Appeal to All the Senses

Visual beauty and variation attract play – involving all of the senses layers in new levels of discovery.

Smell: Kids love finding the source of fragrance in a garden. Natives offer them the chance to do so much more than stop and smell the roses. Roses are so… obvious. Great discoveries are Cowboy Perfume, Coyote Mint, White and Cleveland Sages, all of which fragrance the air when not in bloom. Now those are discoveries!

Taste: Growing herbs, fruits and vegetables delights kids! They love to share, and research shows that kids also prefer to eat what they grow. Here too, natives offer us a chance to layer-in discovery and play to the edible gardening experience. These are unfamiliar tastes, unusual harvests. How does a Catalina Cherry differ from a store-bought cherry? Is an Oregon Grape more grape or blueberry? Because these fruits are seasonal and rare, they maintain their ability to fascinate as kids grow.

Touch: Kids love to touch plants. They’ll essentially pet a soft Sagebrush, run their hands through seed heads, carefully poke at Yucca, and squeeze Dudleya leaves. When activating the felt sense, think beyond hands. Imagine the delight of bounding across crunchy gravel onto a spongy meadow. Feel the weight of a large white sage bloom as you wave it around like a sword or us it to “bibity, bobity boo.”

Sound: When it comes to sounds, bird song is where it’s at. It sets the stage for play by instilling a sense of peace, even when it isn’t actively noticed. As with the other senses, we can build in layers of sound. The crunch of feet on a gravel path. The whoosh of a breeze through tall grasses.


Plant for Change and Discovery

Kids love to discover new things! Rather than satisfying curiosity, discovery inspires more of it, and will bring kids back into a space again and again. Gardens with varied foliage that blooms, fills with edible berries, or changes colors or scents with the seasons are playgrounds full of potential discoveries.

An authentic LA garden filled with native foliage can bloom and berry year round. In kid-friendly gardens, we prize foliage that both blooms and offers a harvest. Great examples include: Catalina Cherry, Lemonade Berry, Manzanita, Oregon Grape and Toyon.

Native gardens will also attract wildlife. There is no better discovery than a Western Fence Lizard doing pushups, a monarch caterpillar casting its chrysalis, or a bee carrying a sac full of purple California Lilac pollen! Well. Unless it is a hummingbird drinking deeply from Hummingbird Sage, the song of a Yellow Bellied Warbler, or… well. You catch our point.


Create a Sense of Destination

Going beyond plant choice to garden structure also presents opportunities. The primary goal for a kid-friendly garden, which also makes gardens charming for all ages, involves creating a sense of destination. To do this, we plan distinctive places to arrive, as well as thoroughfares.

Destinations may be designed-in features… seating nooks, fire pits, spas or edible gardens. These attract us all. Kids have a more fine tuned sense of destination and will seek punctuation-sized places. They love hiding spots, which may be as simple as spaces between large hedges or divots in topography. Boulder piles are always a hit. In creating a sense of destination, the key is to create distinctive, separate space – basically, we want to create the exact opposite of an expansive lawn where one can see at a glance all there is to see.

Of equal interest is the journey to these destinations. Ideally, we want to work in our appeals to the senses and desire for discovery into our thoroughfares too. Rather than take the straight, paved walkways, kids will gravitate to the switchbacks of a crunchy decomposed granite trail, an undulating meadow that connects living-spaces, or a bouldered hillside that begs to be climbed. These invite them to test themselves. How fast can I take that curve? Where can I find a cool hand hold on a sunny boulder?
We discussed these strategies and more during the virtual 2020 Native Plant Garden Tour – a great place to see gardens that fill our city with year round blooms, fragrance, birdsong, new tastes, and a whole new way to get to know the true nature of our beloved city.


More Information

  • Kid-Friendly Garden: Return on Investment
  • Kid-Friendly Garden: Plant Palette
  • Warning: Synthetic Turf and Public Health
  • Theodore Payne Nursery: Expedited Pick-Up