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Nature’s classroom

Published Nov 4, 2017


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November 4 is National Children’s Day. The day is observed to promote and highlight the strides made towards the realisation, promotion and protection of children’s rights.

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Have you considered your own child’s health and wellness? How long do your children spend in front of screens every day? Too much time on computers, tablets, televisions or cellphones has been linked to a number of health and social problems in children.

Nikki Bush, creative parenting expert and co-author of the book, Tech-Savvy Parenting (2014), asks parents to consider what screen time is displacing in their child’s life. What activities or experiences are placed second or even excluded in favour of time spent on various devices?

“Children are multi-sensory human beings,” says Bush. “They need a three-dimensional, concrete, multi-sensory experience of the world and a garden provides the perfect example of that, a place where they can explore using the five senses.”

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Therapeutic garden

The design and landscaping of the gardens at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg received the green industry’s top award for 2017, the prestigious SALI Shield for excellence in landscaping. Annamari Comrie of GREENinc Landscape Architecture worked with Ida-Marie Strydom of Life Landscapes on the project.

Comrie says from conceptualisation to completion, as a tribute to the life of Nelson Mandela, the intention of the project has been to serve the children of South Africa.

“We felt it important the landscape of the Children’s Hospital contributes to the purpose of the facility and for the garden spaces to fulfil a therapeutic and healing function,” says Comrie. “Children spending time in the garden spaces of a hospital are either in need of physical and psychological stimulation or the solace provided through contact with nature.”

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Gardens for children

While a garden provides the perfect space in which a child can learn, it also needs to be fun and engaging in order to pique attention and curiosity. Comrie says the outdoor play space should be visually appealing to kids and provide both free play and structured learning activities.

“Play in a natural setting not only provides positive sensory stimulation, but also gives children the opportunity to participate in the cycle of nature through activities such as planting, pruning and harvesting.”

Choose colourful statues that encourage imaginative play. Picture: Lukas Otto

Safety first

Avoid plants with thorns especially near play equipment and swimming pools. While bees do provide excellent learning opportunities, a sting can be painful. Heavy pollen and nectar plants should be planted away from children’s gardens.

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If your child helps you in the garden, be sure to apply plenty of sunblock and ensure that he or she wears a hat. Purchase children’s gardening tools and allow your child to use them only under your direct supervision. Never use pesticides or insecticides in gardens where children play.

For the five senses

1 What you see

Consider play equipment in bright primary colours or a colourful fence that defines the boundary of the children’s area.

Include statuary that brings the fantasy of children’s books to the garden. The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, The Three Little Pigs or everyone’s favourite meerkat and warthog duo, Timon and Pumba.

The mini world of bonsai can be especially intriguing to children. Consider a collection of these dynamic trees in colourful pots on a bonsai bench.

2 Something tactile

Play elements should be tactile. “Include a sandpit, tracks for ride-on toys or balancing and climbing structures,” advises Comrie. “Children love playing with loose material such as pebbles, sand and bark-chips." Plants provide a way to bring texture into the garden. Consider those with fuzzy leaves like lamb’s ear or succulents. Check the plants you choose are non-toxic.

3 Stop and listen

Encourage your child to be more mindful, by taking a moment to stop and listen to the sounds of nature in the garden. Include a bird feeder to attract birds, a wind chime on the patio or natural veld grass.

Strawberries are a favourite in children’s gardens. Picture: Kay Montgomery

4 Grow, then taste

A vegetable patch can provide hours of learning and fun as your child discovers how food is produced. You don’t need a large area. You can grow vegetables in wooden crates in a courtyard garden.

Visit your local nursery and buy vegetable seedlings for a quick start. Get the children involved in the daily care of the patch and when the time comes, let them help with the harvest.

Choose vegetables and fruit, like strawberries, that your child enjoys, but also include some other vegetables to encourage your child to try new flavours. Consider kale, eggplant, asparagus and beans.

5 Take a deep breath

The sense of smell is powerful. But if you have a small garden, too many scents can be overpowering. Consider lavender, rosemary, scented pelargoniums or a lemon tree. Herbs like mint and thyme are aromatic and can be planted close to the vegetable patch.


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