Sunday, 26 June 2011

Plants - children need them!

Plants are an important element of any child's outdoor environment. They provide, texture, colour, scent and also a stage for various insect interplays.

Often in child care centres, preschools and schools, the plants selected for use are done so with little thought as to how children may interact or "play" with them. In terms of landscape design, if you walk around your neighbourhood you see the same types of plants planted in most gardens. This lack of plant diversity happens over a period of time and results in a landscape full of murraya paniculata - murraya/orange jessamine hedges, buxus spp - box and phormium spp and cordyline spp in every garden. To the casual eye this may all look neat and tidy but a level of boredom may be experienced so that when a plant we have never seen before appears in someone's garden we "oo" and "ahh" about how interesting it is.

Children love diversity. When planning an outdoor environment for them, the plants selected need to display attributes of colour, texture, seasonal change, size (in relation to leaf, flower and seed) and shape (strappy versus rounded, etc). This gives children the opportunity for multiple play use and demonstrates a level of newness every day in their environment.
Plants also need to be-

  • as local (indigenous - meaning originate in your area/region) as possible because therefore their chance of success is greater
  • be as hardy as they can be in a number of ways - managing during a drought, surviving a frost now and then and also be able to suit being planted in various soil types
  • climate specific - a plant from a cold climate being planted in a subtropical climate may not be successful 

As adults we look for plants that have as little maintenance as possible but even a plant with low maintenance needs some care. There is no such thing as a plant with no maintenance - it would be great if there was but it's just not possible. The level of maintenance differs from plant to plant. Some may need a quick trim once a year, others pruning after flowering and if a more structured look is required, eg: a hedge to a particular height, then a monthly prune and shape is a must. Once a space is completed a good idea is to do a list of the plants in the playspace and the maintenance they require. Allocate how this maintenance can be done - some can be done by the children and staff, ie, picking off any dead leaves and then using the specimens on the collage trolley, etc, and some can be done at family working bees or by a gardener if need be.

Plants need care when they are first planted and this means WATER - on average, for plants to establish they need to be watered every second day with the hose held on them for no less than 30 seconds. A commitment needs to be made by staff to take on this task for a minimum of six months or so in partnership with the children and also families if possible. If this isn't workable then a low cost drip irrigation system is a must.

Plants being as unpredictable as they are makes them a secondary consideration when designing an outdoor playspace for children, however, plants for me are the most important part. Yes, the paving looks good, or the decking but it's the plants that make a landscape and a children's playspace is no different.

Also if children aren't used to plants being in their space then a period of introduction is all part of making them aware of their new environment. Have children adopt a plant to look after which may include watering and monitoring it's care (even warning other children about not treading on the plants!). Put a label on the plant with the child's name, document the plant's progress, identify any pests/diseases, undertake any maintenance and photograph the results. The plants are there to be used and are a useful learning tool.

It may be beneficial, if naturalistic play is a concept you wish to to introduce to your centre, to utilise the presentation, "Enhancing Children's play in the outdoors" at your next staff training session, together with Plant adoption certificates and plant labels to encourage children to bond and care for new or existing plants.  

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