Guest Rant by Pam Penick
Lawns are for kids, right? After all, they need that big, green carpet to enjoy the outdoors. Would it be an exaggeration to say it borders on neglect not to keep a lawn for your children or grandchildren to play on?
Some people think so. In a recent article in the New York Times about drought-prone cities paying homeowners to rip out water-hogging lawns, one critic implied that families should keep their lawns for their children’s sake. “It’s getting to the point where kids live in apartments, and they don’t even see grass, except in magazines,” a Los Angeles mother was quoted as saying, vowing to keep her emerald turf. I hear this a lot: kids need lawns so they can go outside and play.
As a mother of two, a garden designer who works with plenty of young families, and a former kid myself, I think that’s hogwash.
The sad truth is that most kids hardly set foot in their own yards today thanks to the indoor lure of video games, texting, Instagram, and whatever the latest cool app is. Sure, kids still play a lot of sports, but these activities are scheduled on school and municipal fields. They’re not the casual pickup games with the neighbors’ kids in the front yard that some of us remember. Heck, kids aren’t even at home that much these days. After school they’re at piano practice, karate lessons, and tutoring sessions. If the family lawn is meant to entice kids outdoors, it’s clearly not working.
The bad news, much lamented by wellness experts over the past decade, is that kids are spending less time than ever in nature.
The good news is that means the yard is yours! Even you young parents can feel justified in ripping out the lawn and remaking your yard to your gardener’s heart’s content.
The really good news is that doing so can actually make your yard more enticing to your kids than a lawn ever could.
Here’s why. Kids like big rocks to climb on. They like bushes to hide under. They like trees to climb. They like water to splash in. They love trying to catch lizards and holding out a sweaty hand to see if a passing butterfly will land for a moment. They love riding trikes and scooters on circuitous routes through a garden, the junglier the better. They like digging in dirt.
I remember as a kid my favorite spot in my big, suburban back yard was the woodpile stacked between two trees, which my friends and I, caped like superheroes, climbed onto and pretended was the Bat Cave. The lawn was of no interest to us. Next door lived the luckiest kids in the world, or so it seemed to me, because the recent construction of their home had left a 6-foot mound of lumpy soil, overgrown with weeds, which was perfect for creeping up commando-style and spying on grownups from the high, secret perch. When we moved a few years later to a house in an established, more landscaped neighborhood, I loved to hang out in the woodsy, overgrown area at the back of the yard, not the open lawn. During the mild South Carolina winter my sister and I raided our garden’s pine trees and Camellia sasanqua hedge to make tiny bark boats adorned with frilly, pink blossoms, and floated them on the waterlogged cover of the pool.
My own kids, when they were little, confirmed my memories of what children find to be fun. They loved scampering on boulders at the local park, leaping from rock to rock. They barreled around our lawnless front garden on their scooters, cruising the garden paths that I’d paved with ramps rather than steps, ducking under overhanging branches and crazily skirting my planting beds as I hollered, “Watch out!”
They taught me, and I remembered from experience, that the best yard you can create for your kids is one that they can explore. An expanse of lawn gives you no reason to step outside and see what’s going on. You can see everything there is to see from the window. But a garden! A garden beckons and entices. Flowers and seeds attract all manner of entertaining and beautiful birds and insects. Leafy plants offer touchable texture and help hide parts of the garden from view, making even a short garden stroll an adventure: what new bloom or butterfly will appear around the bend? And, if you like, a small lawn fits quite nicely into such a space, offering a restful spot for the eye and the body – and even a game of catch.
So I say to those who reject the idea of a no-lawn yard as detrimental to children, think again. Unless your children are playing on that lawn regularly, you could transform your yard from a lawn desert into a diverse, interesting, enticing place of discovery for your whole family to enjoy, and likely conserve water and create wildlife habitat in the process. When you think about it that way, a lawn is depriving your children of experiences with nature that they’re unlikely to get elsewhere.
But don’t worry – it’s an easy fix. Just get out the shovel and start digging. Find a few extra shovels, tell the kids it’s OK to get dirty, and they may even join you.
BOOK GIVEAWAY: Whether you’re ripping out your lawn for you or your kids, you may be interested in my book Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, which I wrote for beginning gardeners and anyone concerned about the environmental costs of maintaining a lawn. Filled with how-to information, design ideas, plant suggestions, and plenty of inspirational photographs, it’ll show you how rewarding a lawnless or less-lawn garden can be.
How to enter? Just leave a comment on this post; one comment per person, please. Entries close at 11:59 pm EST on Wednesday, August 21. Winner must reside in the U.S.
Pam Penick is a garden designer in Austin, TX and blogs at Digging.