For many of us, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett will have been a favourite read from our formative years — …and the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.

Indeed, child development experts have long extolled the benefits of garden activity as it encourages kids to engage their senses and pay attention to their surroundings. A few years ago, a study at the University of North Texas found that aerobic activity among kids led to higher scores on reading and math tests. At the same time, scientists at the University of Illinois found that physically active nine- and 10-year-olds had larger hippocampi than their sedentary peers and scored higher on memory tests. And in a recent study, Northeastern University psychology professor Charles Hillman has found evidence that children who run and play for 70 minutes a day exhibit better cognitive skills than those who don’t.

Get creative

The good news for parents is that with its glorious year-round sunshine, the UAE is an ideal place to make a garden an active playground for youngsters, while inspiring them to get creative. “A great idea is to allocate a spot in your garden and stake a claim,” said professional landscaper Gin Wingfield, founder of Gin Wingfield Designs. “Your young ones can then plant their own little garden, which will then not be determined by the aesthetics of your garden, create little hiding spots with trees and creepers, put in a trampoline or jungle gym. It is a wonderful way to teach your children about the seasons, patience, responsibility. Let them sow seeds, flowers and vegetables and they will watch them grow.”

Wingfield advised caution when choosing material for the ground. “You can have a grass lawn or artificial grass (astro), but bear in mind that artificial grass does retain heat. Bark chips are a great idea and add a wonderful texture to your garden.”

She added: “Always consult with an expert or simply search online to determine if your plants are safe; many plants that are commonly used are toxic. I would highly suggest teaching your children to never eat plants or flowers without checking with you first.”

Safety first

While there should be sufficient open space for children to exercise safely, Naser Ahmed, group CEO of Tanseeq Investment Group of Companies, a pioneer in regional landscaping, stressed the importance of employing soft safety surfaces for play. “These surfaces should have been tested with consideration of critical fall height,” says Ahmed. “It is also better to minimise sharp edges.”

He added that planning ahead is a good idea. “The garden should be versatile enough to continue appealing to children as they grow older. If play equipment is purchased for a certain age, it should be kept in mind that in a few years children will outgrow them.”

It’s also nice to have a space where kids can shelter from the elements while still getting the most out of the garden. There are several specialists in miniature garden houses for children in the UAE, as well as fun play structures. One popular trend is swing sets, and they are great for family bonding, says Brian Saquilayan, showroom manager at Dubai’s Parasol Furniture. “They also encourage kids to exercise and develop their motor skills,” he said.

As a bonus, a well-maintained, attractive garden will even add value to your home should you ever want to sell. “Here in Dubai, we certainly see buyers’ interest pique when they find out a property on the market has a great garden,” said Naval Vohra, CEO at Dubai’s Appello Real Estate.