Gardens are a wonderful way to incorporate vegetation in an outdoor play space. They provide infants with plants and flowers to look at, touch, and smell. Toddlers can help with digging in dirt, dropping in seeds, watering, and harvesting. Gardens may be planted directly in the ground or in raised beds. Soil should be free from any poisonous chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and other toxic contaminants. This is especially important when growing edibles to be shared with infants, toddlers, and pregnant women. If space is an issue, use the center of tires, planters or other containers, or window boxes. If available, participate in community gardens where children, staff, and families can plant and harvest fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

An adult and three children gather around a garden plot, planting flowersIn home-based programs, talk with families about vegetation. Find out what trees, shrubs, plants, and flowers are available to them. If none, how might they gain access? Discuss the kinds of plants would they choose and why if they could have indoor or outdoor plants.

Grass, trees, plants, and flowers stimulate children's senses. When selecting vegetation, consider:1

  • Safety (e.g., vegetation that is edible or safe if chewed and swallowed; safe to touch with no thorns on stems or sharp points on leaves)
  • A variety of:
    • Shapes, sizes, and heights
    • Textures (e.g., plants with leaves that are smooth, rough, or fuzzy and different types of tree bark)
    • Colors (e.g., trees and shrubs that stay green year-round, trees with leaves that change color, and plants that bloom at different times of the year)
    • Scents (e.g., plants and flowers that give off scents while growing and herbs that give off scents when dried and crushed)
  • Effects in the wind (e.g., how it looks when the wind blows and what it sounds like when the wind blows through leaves)
  • Vegetation native to the local area. This helps young children identify with the natural beauty of their community. It also costs less to maintain because vegetation is better suited to the soil and climate and may not need to be treated with chemicals 
  • Cultural significance for children, families, and staff (e.g., plants that are traditionally used for ceremonies, medicine, and arts such as basket weaving and plants that are familiar to migrant farmworker families)
  • Multiple purposes (e.g., trees and shrubs that provide beauty as well as shade; plants such as sunflowers, corn stalks, or tall grasses that act as a natural boundary for a quiet nook while still allowing for visible supervision; and plants with branches that can be pruned and woven together to create a crawl tunnel)

1Keeler, Natural Playscapes, 74, 91, 112; Lally et al., Guide to Setting Up Environments, 58.