Designing a garden for kids? Give it a theme!

Colored gloves on a fence and children's hands in mud
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Many of today’s youth lack a connection with nature or an interest in gardening or growing their own food. One of the best ways to encourage an excitement for gardening is by creating a themed garden. A child’s hands-on, experiential learning style can be encouraged in a themed garden, especially if it’s a garden they help create. Inspiration for the garden’s theme can come from many things: a favorite food, color, or animal; a story – even a historical event! The options are endless, and the result is most exciting when the kids decide. 

A children’s dream garden may not fit the vision of your ideal adult garden. Gardens for young minds should excite the imagination with enchanting plants, unusual textures, and tremendous material variety while remaining safe, and most importantly, fun! When properly designed, it will encourage discovery, exploration and independence—sometimes this means digging in the soil. If created with children in mind, this will be a garden they can proudly call their own, where new discoveries are made every day. And most importantly, their garden should instill a love of nature that will grow into a lifelong respect for the environment. 

When designing a garden for children, remember to consider scale: view the garden at child-size, mimic small hands and scurrying feet. Adult-size attractions may lose their appeal if difficult to see, maneuver or manipulate. Use this thought as a guiding light: is it uncomfortable for an adult? If yes, then it is likely kid-friendly! Again, safety is a priority, raise a child’s awareness of the dangers associated with poisonous plants and avoid having them around, whenever possible. Re-evaluate common plant selections when planning the garden. Ensure they are safe for handling and contain low levels of toxic compounds. Children explore with all five senses and may be more exposed to oils or plant secretions than an adult.  

If your outdoor space doesn’t allow for a garden, take the ideas and miniaturize them for a container or a set of containers—perfect for a patio. Or even bring it indoors with dish gardens or terrariums. Giving kids a space to interact with plants and grow something is empowering.  

Themed Gardens

Animal Garden 

Moo, oink, neigh. While plants don’t make these sounds, some plants have animal names or maybe even resemble an animal, such as bird of paradise. To invigorate the imagination, include plants like lamb’s ear, snapdragons, tiger lily, or catmint in your animal-themed children’s garden.  

Learning Garden 

An educational theme can make learning more fun for young minds. An alphabet garden can help teach kids their ABCs in a fun way; include plants to cover all 26 letters of the alphabet. A rainbow or painter's palette garden can teach colors and varying shades.  

Heritage Garden 

Heritage gardens allow us to recreate the stories of our ancestors while passing them along to our children and grandchildren. Plant some family heirlooms or introduce your child to a different culture and the plants they grow.  

PHOTO CREDIT: Canva stock photos

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brittnay Haag is a Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Her work focuses on youth horticulture education, specifically through school gardens and Jr. Master Gardener programs. Brittnay provides leadership for three county Master Gardener programs and is responsible for developing community programs and providing expertise in horticulture and environmental sciences.