Structures are the workhorses of the garden. They do at least triple duty. First, as a safe place to play, they're where the action is. They form a backdrop or support for plants. And often they're eye-catching. Kids run to them, adults wish they were small enough to climb up or crawl into them. Some structures are colorful, whimsical, and humorous to look at.
I'll skip major construction projects like decks, swimming pools, Victorian playhouses with gingerbread trim at the gables, and the like, in favor of inspirations you're more likely to try.
- Everyone knows about bean teepees: five or more poles bound at the top and underplanted with pole beans. For variety, consider a tunnel: insert 8-foot poles every 3 feet along both sides of a path; lash horizontal poles at 2-, 4-, and 6-foot heights; and then plant and train vines along this corridor. You can make anything -- from wigwam to dome -- with willow or plastic tubing and then plant it with vines. Try bamboo, angling the poles like interlocking fingers. Instead of beans, grow gourds, cucumbers, miniature pumpkins, morning glories, or love-in-a-puff.
- If you have space for the well-known sunflower houses -- planting sunflowers in a square to form a "room" -- next try corn houses. Map the rooms out on paper first. Create walls of corn (at least 5 rows thick per wall), leaving spaces for entries. For windows, break up the walls by planting peas instead of corn.
- Willow or other bendable twigs, such as dogwood, can be fashioned into rustic arches, walls, nests, and free-form sculpture with the woven technique known as wattle. Bury one end of vertical sticks sufficiently into the ground, and simply weave twigs between them, overlapping as you add new weavers.
- Kids treat a simple platform placed on the ground as a dance floor, stage, or house. If it's not too big, it can be stored in winter. Raise the platform about 4 feet onto in-ground posts, and you've got a lookout. Add a coated hardware cloth arch from one side to the other, and it's a hut.
- Don't relegate the sandbox to a corner of the yard. It could be a cut-away from a stone patio, a heap of sand in a grove, or simply a deep, wide path -- the illusion of a moment at the beach.
- Landscapers are fond of "decorating" with boulders. Put them to use as a kids' mountain. Add a log and stump, and it's a wild place.
- Skip traditional scarecrows. The right clothes can make a man or woman instead. Underneath, any stick or wire frame will do. Mimic popular characters (if you really want Pikachu in your backyard) or match the scarecrow to a theme garden. I helped school children build a "ski-crow" who appeared to be in mid-air above their garden to honor Olympic gold medalist slalom skier Barbara Ann Cochran. Straw is the stuffing de rigeur. Check it periodically to make sure rodents or wasps don't call it home.
- In an afternoon your clan can make a chicken-wire animal and train ivy around it for a nearly instant topiary. Heads will turn.
All of these projects can involve and reward the whole family and make your garden the most kid-friendly place on the block.