Create a space to spark children’s imagination

Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton

Children seem to have a natural love of the outdoors, a connection if you will. As parents and grandparents, we can nurture that love by spending time and providing opportunities to experience what nature has to offer. One way is to incorporate play with plant life by growing living playhouses.

A living playhouse doesn’t have to be big or complicated or fancy – children have wonderful imaginations. Use the space you have and materials you already have if you can. In fact, it’s best to let children help with this process. I can promise they will have ideas that will surprise you. 

If you already have a playhouse, make it come alive by adding plants to it in the form of vines that will cover or window boxes that can hold edible or scented plants.

Sunflowers (Helianthus) have long been used to create children’s play areas by simply planting seeds of tall sunflowers in a circle (4-5 feet in diameter) and then gently training the tops to grow toward the center by encircling with twine to pull them in. Tall stakes can also be formed into a teepee shape and tie the sunflowers as they grow to the stakes. 

Teepee stakes can be used as forms for all kinds of fun projects. Grow vines such as runner beans, or hyacinth beans or make it more of a permanent structure by adding thornless roses.

Cattle or hog panels are 16-20 feet long by approximately 5 feet high usually available at your nearest farm store and are easy to bend or curve into different forms. Add vining plants such as mini pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers, squash, beans, and the like to have a living summer playhouse while also increasing growing space for food.

One of my favorite ways to create a living playhouse is to use large shrubs or curly willow (Salix matsudana). Planted in rows with just the right amount of space they will form their own covered play area naturally. Some pruning or trimming on the inside may be necessary as the shrubs grow.

My two granddaughters wanted a play area that had a kitchen garden on the outside. They had fun helping create and build a simple playhouse with living vegetable walls. We used materials we already had plus, as they put it, “girl power” to build this living playhouse. The shape took form as we scouted for materials around the farm. At first we thought we would build a playhouse out of pallets with three walls and a roof, but later it was decided to use two longer pallets that could be angled to hold soil – thus, the chalet veggie house idea. 

We started by gathering materials: Pallets, screws, safety glasses, landscape fabric, cedar fence panels, a 2 x 4, stapler, cordless skill saw, and drill.

The real fun began as we built our semi-vertical veggie garden. Should you decide to build this, realize that it may vary based on your materials. Here are the basic steps we used. Please keep in mind that we are not carpenters or engineers:

Step 1: We found a sunny out of the way area to place our playhouse. It was decided to build it near our existing garden and a water source. We then rolled out landscape fabric on the area because no one wanted to weed or trim later around our little project.

Staple the landscape fabric to the backside of pallet.

Step 2: We took two 6-foot-long pallets and leaned them up against each other to get a visual of our idea and to see what kind of angle we thought would be best suited to fill with soil and not have it just fall out.

We stood the pallets up to determine the angle we wanted.

Step 3: After deciding which side of the pallet to use for the outside planting, we stapled 4-foot-wide landscape fabric (7 feet long) leaving 6 inches on each end to later wrap around ends to hold soil.

Step 4: For extra support for soil, cedar fence boards were added over the fabric-covered backside and screwed in securely.

Landscape fabric was stapled on the backs, leaving 6 inches. Cedar fence boards were added to the back of the pallets, on top of the landscape fabric for extra support for soil.

Step 5: We placed pallets in an upward angled position then screwed them together at the top where they met. The girls decided to add plates from leftover pieces of cedar fence boards to each peak for added support. I followed that with a piece of 2 x 4 about a foot under each plate for added support as well.

Cedar fence board pieces were added to peaks for a little more stability and for decoration … an important feature for a girl who likes birds and flowers.

Step 6: (Optional) Blue paint was sprayed on the top and black spray paint covered the cedar fence boards inside. Vegetable labels were stenciled in the dried paint with white paint and a sponge dabbing brush. Cut out birds and stenciled flowers were added to end plates.

Stenciling letters and flowers is optional, but fun for children and a good way to organize seed planting.

Step 7: Extra fabric on the bottom was wrapped and stapled. I pounded two rebar stakes into the ground, one in the bottom center of each pallet to keep it from moving. Compost was scooped in, seeds planted, and watered. For smaller children beet, spinach, and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) seeds are nice because they are fairly large and can easily be pushed into soil.

Compost was used to fill the pallets.

We planted cool-weather crops on the labeled side and flowers and herbs on the other to help attract pollinators and to season our veggies. The girls helped with every aspect of this project and loved learning how to hammer nails, staple, and use the power drill to put in screws (with supervision and safety glasses of course). It’s not perfect, but they are very excited about it and can’t wait for the seeds to germinate and sprout. For me, spending time outside with them and having the opportunity to share a little more about gardening are memories you cant make indoors on a tablet.

Our veggie chalet is finished … it’s not perfect, but it was built with “girl power” where learning, hard work, imagination, and play converge to make a living playhouse that will be at the top of the “what you did on summer break” list.
A nice cool spot for some playtime with furry friends.
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