When I advise schools and preschools about planters, containers and raised beds, I do this from a practical learning and play perspective. My advice varies according to specific needs of the children and the space, but there are matters I ask practitioners to consider including the following.
Height of containers
Make sure containers in outdoor spaces are low enough for little children to reach or use for gardening purposes. Variety is good as toddlers may need to pull themselves up on lower containers. Babies need access at ground level and/or ramps to crawl up. The container below has edible plants and is located just beside the access to the outdoor space.
Variety of shapes and sizes of containers
This leads to comparative work, discussions about similarities and differences and investigative and exploratory play. Below the containers have been used for different sorts of plants, with the edible ones in the lower raised bed, closer to the path and more accessible.
Width of raised beds
Make the width narrow enough to avoid creating a strip down the middle that children can’t access. In the photo, the planter in the foreground is suitably narrow. In the background the big container has a tree planted in the centre so this is one solution to big planters. Grow plants that do not require much attention in the centre.
Spacing of containers and raised beds
When a large group or whole class is outside gardening, there are health and safety issues about working in confined spaces with tools. The raised beds needs to be spaced far enough apart to allow for the safe use of tools whilst enabling as many children as possible to work in the garden area. Below, the layout is spacious.
The spacing also needs to take account of accessibility issues e.g. by a child who is less mobile or who may be using a wheelchair.
The design features of raised beds
Ones which have a broad edge offer higher play value. Children and adults can sit on the edge, walk along, balance and jump off a broad edge. They can be used for small world play as a wee track for cars, a stomping path for dinosaurs, etc. In the photo below, the principle can be seen for a sandpit!
The use of locally sourced natural materials as much as possible and recycled materials too. Below an old kitchen sink has been re-used:
Wellies are handy in that each child can take his or her boot home to look after the plant during the holidays. Remember to put a hole or too in each foot to allow water to drain out!
The raised bed below is created from stackable wood palettes. These were made by Wood Recyclability that re-uses scrap wood from industry. The wood has been painted and the vegetables growing are depicted on the side of the planter.
The gardening area must complement rather than compete or conflict with other play and learning zones within an outdoor area. For example planting a bed of nettles in the middle of a space where children like to cycle or play with balls may create a conflict of interests! In this photo, the containers were placed around the boundary of the outdoor space to prevent balls and other objects rolling under the fence and out of the space.
The surface of ground around planters, containers and raised beds. This needs consideration too, in order to avoid muddy areas which are slippy when children are working with tools and to ensure access for all.
Outdoor play spaces and school grounds need to be welcoming and attractive places that are irresistible to children, bearing in mind that children’s perceptions can differ to adults. Below I like the re-use of white buckets to mark the path.
Variety of purpose
Sometimes, bespoke containers can be used in creative ways. I’m fond of raised beds put on slopes. This means that the bed gets progressively higher as you move down the slope. This means children of different heights can access the bed at a height that suits them! I rather like this “container” which is more of a seat than a planter!
The criteria above can be used with children who are undertaking a gardening project to decide what planters, containers and raised beds are needed and where to source the materials. This can help children make practical choices and take an interest in what is going to grow there!
Finally, I’d like to flag up Lynda’s blog Out2play in the garden which is a good starting point for advice when it comes to gardening with children.