Think back to the last time you relaxed or played in nature. The calming presence of trees… the rich aroma of earth…the invigorating tickle of sand or grass on your feet.
As with the arts, nature immersion provides a healing experience for mind, body, and spirit. You may even agree that it’s an essential element in the art of life!
While time outdoors is good for everyone, the benefits for children are especially compelling. Hundreds of studies show that spending time in nature is essential for their development, including helping them develop:
- A stronger immune system
- Improved cognitive development
- Better memory and attentiveness
- Lower risk of myopia
- Lower stress hormones
- And many more benefits
Sadly, children are spending less time outdoors in nature than ever before. And it’s taking its toll in skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity, attention difficulties, depression, and other physical and mental disorders.
A Natural Solution
Most parents don’t intentionally separate kids from nature. It’s a byproduct of the world we live in. Gone are the days when parents could safely let their kids roam the neighborhood unsupervised. And with most parents now working full time, it can be tricky to find time for a daily nature walk between juggling work, school, after-school activities, and life in general. Fortunately, there’s a very simple (and delightful) solution: plant a food forest in your backyard!
What Is a Food Forest?
Permaculture food forests, or forest gardens, are becoming the next big trend in landscape design. The concept is simple: an attractive woodsy garden that provides an abundance of food right in your backyard. Food forest design aims to mimic the beauty and feel of a natural woodland area—with the added benefit of providing fresh, healthy, delicious food for your family. For kids, this can be life changing.
Why Plant a Food Forest for Your Family?
Food forests provide nourishment for mind, body, and spirit. The three main benefits of a backyard forest garden are:
Clean, healthy food: Perennial plants such as berry bushes, hazelnut shrubs, and fruit trees produce a yield of uber-fresh produce year after year without toxic sprays or intensive labor.
Low-maintenance beauty: Just as traditional landscaping beautifies a space, so do forest gardens. Food forests often include flowering plants, shrubs, and trees that attract essential pollinators such as butterflies. It’s food for the eyes!
Sanctuary space: Forest gardens provide a safe environment for the whole family to play, relax, and gather. Plus, unlike a hike in the woods, you don’t have to worry about getting lost!
Kid-Friendly Food Forest Design Tips
Mindful planning helps ensure that your food forest meets the needs of both plants and people! Planning a food forest with children in mind can be a lot of fun. But there are a few things to think about that adults might overlook.
We can’t talk about family friendly food forests without touching on safety. This can become a bit of a gray area because each child has different needs. For example, incorporating a pond may work well for older children, but can pose a drowning risk to babies and toddlers.
One safety element that stands out for all ages is a fence. Adding a fence around your forest garden gives children a clear boundary and helps them feel confident that they are safe within the garden space. It’s also a great support for climbing vines such as arctic kiwis, pole beans, or grapes!
Another important consideration is plant toxicity. Some food plants, such as rhubarb, may have toxic parts. Use your discretion and either avoid these plants or take care to teach your children respect for them.
Incorporate the Senses
Kids are meant to interact with the world around them. A food forest gives them every opportunity!
When planning your forest garden:
- Think about fall and spring color as well as different visual textures.
- Incorporate the wonderful aromas of many herbs and flowers. Kids love them!
- Add wind chimes or bird-attracting plants to create a musical garden.
Because all the plants in a food forest are edible, children can also explore taste in a safe way. A food forest garden is also the perfect place for sensory play. Consider adding sensory materials for children to play with, such as sand and potting soil. You may be surprised at all the creative things kids will do with earth, flowers, twigs, and seeds as inspiration!
Sanctuary Space for Kids
Sanctuary space for adults may look like a space for mindful meditation or hanging out with friends, but children’s sanctuary needs can look quite different.
Incorporating structures for hiding and/or climbing can make children feel more at home. This could be a temporary structure like a sunflower house, or a more permanent space such as a treehouse or a clearing inside a circle of shrubs. Or, help them create a fairy garden or a little playhouse for their dolls or trucks tucked under the leaves.
As Children Grow
As kids grow up, their needs change. A five-year-old may love making mud pies, but a teenager? Probably not. When planning a backyard food forest, consider not just your family’s needs in the moment, but also five or ten years down the road.
One of the best ways to do this is to involve the whole family in the planning process. And if you have a family friend who is a few years older than your own children, consider consulting them too!
Planning Your Family Friendly Food Forest
A well-thought-out food forest plan, or blueprint, can make the essential difference between a bunch of plants thrown in the ground and a beautiful, practical forest garden that will provide maximum enjoyment and yield for your family for years to come.
Consulting with a certified permaculture designer can be a valuable investment in ensuring your food forest benefits your family in the best ways possible. But whether you purchase a blueprint design or dig in and do it yourself, don’t forget to include your kids in the planning. Kids are natural artists. You may be amazed at the creativity they bring to your backyard food forest garden!
Aster Michelsen is co-owner of Great Lakes Food Forest Abundance, an Upper Peninsula edible landscaping company. For more information about UP food forests, edible landscape, and building resilient human and natural communities through gardening, visit us at GreatLakesFFA.com.
Excerpted from the Summer 2022 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2022, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.