Not every yard has room for large outdoor play equipment. You can, however, make your yard a magnet for children with outside decor that engages their curiosity and imagination. The rhymes, stories and magical creatures of childhood offer decorating ideas that will entrance children and stimulate a love of the outdoors that will last long after they have stopped believing in fairies. Use ideas from the inner world of childhood to create real outdoor magic.
Decorating on a Child's Scale
Much as children may enjoy seeing tall trees and running on broad lawns, they are more attracted by objects that relate to their size. A child-sized picnic table and chairs, a path of closely spaced small stepping stones or an easy-to-reach flower bed or container garden let children feel particularly welcome in the garden. You might border a flower bed with 12-inch-high decorative fencing or shells and stones for a children's garden or arrange a cluster of sand-pails, in which you have poked drainage holes, on a low wall for kids' container gardening. Park a narrow window-box-shaped planter on a bench to hold a fairy garden, kid-friendly annuals or even a patch of grass that can be sculpted with children's scissors.
Peter, Peter, Jack and Cinderella
While you can find many commercial items for storybook decor, the plants featured in many nursery tales make wonderful summer-garden decorations. From miniature "Jack-Be-Little" (Curcubita pepo "Jack-Be-Little") to coach-sized "Dill's Atlantic Giant" (Curcubita maxima "Dill's Atlantic Giant"), there are pumpkin varieties suited to almost every yard in United States Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. In USDA zones 3 through 10, grow a row of Jack's bean-stalks in your yard, supported by 5- to 8-foot poles or trellises. Pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and runner beans, such as "Scarlet Runner" (Phaseolus coccineus "Scarlet Runner"), are vines with varied colors of foliage, flowers, with edible beans hiding under the leaves, making them child-friendly, even without a giant. Include a child-sized garden with peas (Pisum sativum), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 11; carrots (Daucus carota), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10; and lettuce (Lactuca sativa), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9. Don't forget the watering can.
Hay and Straw
Ornamental grasses add the textures of hay and straw to a nursery-themed garden. A narrow, curved path between clumps of grass can lead wherever the imagination suggests and invites little ones to play hide-and-seek. Fall-dried grass can be cut to stuff a child-sized scarecrow. Ornamental grass seed heads can feed unicorns or become fairy wands.
One of the recurring themes of nursery rhymes and stories is that of safe shelter. Bowers and arbors can decorate your garden while bringing the this concept home to your children. A cardboard-box castle or blanket-over-clothesline tent makes a wonderful garden shelter. A wood garden arch planted with a flowering vine like trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervivens), hardy in USDA zones 4 though 9, provides another refuge, especially with a child-sized bench beneath it. Scatter pebbles and shells under low-hanging tree branches and add play chairs and a table. Your children's imaginations will turn outdoor shelters like these into castles, caves and pirate ships. For an extravagant shelter, tie long strips of colorful fabric to an embroidery hoop hung from a tree branch. Provide stones or wood scraps so children can anchor the fabric walls of their home in the shape they desire.
Birds and Animals
In nursery stories, people and animals often live close together in harmony. Add magic to your yard by decorating to attract wildlife. Find places for bird houses and feeders, roosting pockets and a bird bath. County extension departments or environmental centers can offer guidance on plantings and landscaping to attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife in your specific area.
Sun, Moon, Wind and Rain
The forces of nature figure large in many nursery stories, and nursery-themed decorating can sharpen awareness of their presence in the garden. Both sundials and rain gauges can be made at home or purchased. A gazing globe offers both young and adult visitors new views of familiar landscaping. Adding wind chimes can make visitors aware of the breeze or add a variety of melodious sounds. While many plants are responsive to sunlight, a moon garden brings the magic of night into your yard. Group plants with white flowers and silvery foliage with late-day blooming annuals like four-o-clocks (Mirabilis jalapa). Add night-fragrant flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) for a scent that becomes intense after dark; both plants are tender perennials in USDA zones 10 and 11.