Plants for Play in Public Spaces


Fallon Henry

Landscape Architect Intern

Children love to explore. Whether that's at a park specifically designed for them or while they are tagging along to an outdoor space with parents, kids find features of play anywhere. Plantings within areas frequented by children can add an element of play, or they can create hazards cities would rather avoid. When designing outdoor spaces, one should always consider which guests are expected to visit there. When the target audience or even the occasional visitor includes children, landscape architects must factor this into their design criteria, specifically the plant material.

Children are incredibly imaginative; touching lamb’s ear may remind them of their favorite stuffed animal, while investigating the hummingbirds or butterflies invited to the butterfly bush may pique their sense of wonder. A shady arch of trees could be a playhouse. Vines can be twirled into crowns. Flowers become a gift.

Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantine) is safe to use in areas frequented by children.

As a mother, I can speak from personal experience. My children once found some amazing “swords” to play with while at a child-focused area and suffered intense skin irritation from a Lords and Ladies plant (these contain oxalate crystals prone to causing a burning sensation to skin). Did it look colorful, bright, and inviting? Yes. Should it have been in an area where kids play daily? No.

Hazards aren’t always what adults think. Kids generally avoid thorny plants, but enticing flowers may not be safe for them. Hydrangeas are poisonous, and daffodils may tempt a child to pick them, but they can present a mild irritant. Foxtail grass isn’t dangerous because of toxicity; rather, their barbed seed awns are dangerous if inhaled. Poppies and oleanders are toxic if ingested. Some berries are safely edible and may invite exploring, but unless you have ensured they are not toxic, avoid adding them to a space for children.

Plants suitable for child play areas

Common Name Scientific Name Sunlight Preference Hardiness Zone
Crepe Myrtle Lagerstroemia Full sun 7-10
Japanese Snowball Viburnum Viburnum plicatum Full sun, part shade 5-8
English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Full sun 5-10
Lamb's Ear Stachys byzantina Full sun, part shade 4-8
Zinnia Zinnia Full sun 3-10
Spiraea Spiraea Full sun 4-8
Weigela Weigela Full sun 4-8
Coral Bells Heuchera Full sun, part shade 4-9
Astilbe Astilbe chinensis Part shade, full shade 3-8
Purple Coneflower Echinacea Full sun, part shade 4-9
Butterfly Bush Buddleja Full sun 5-9
Verbena Verbena Full sun 7-11
Silver Sage Salvia argentea Full sun, part shade 5-9
Snapdragons Antirrhinum Full sun, part shade 7-11


Plants to avoid in child play areas

Common Name Scientific Name Sunlight Preference Hardiness Zone
Begonia Begonia Shade, partial shade 9 -10
Holly Ilex aquifolium Full sun, partial shade 6-9
Peonies Paeonia Full sun 3-8
Azaleas Rhododendron Full sun, partial shade 6-9
Oleander Nerium oleander Full sun, partial shade 8-10
Lantana Lantana camara Full sun 7a-11a
Daffodil Narcissus Full sun, partial shade 3-8
Daphne Daphne odora Full sun, partial shade 4-9
Foxglove Digitalis Full sun, partial shade 4-9
Hydrangea Hydrangea Partial shade 3-7
Golden Rain Tree Koelreuteria paniculata Full sun 5-9


Please note that these lists are not exhaustive. It is always a good idea to check poison control databases before adding plants to spaces for kids to ensure that they are non-toxic.

While there are many toxic plants to avoid in spaces children frequent, effective plant selection can make for a safe, child-inclusive environment that is beautiful and sustainable. When landscape architects prioritize interesting, safe plants, public spaces are more conducive to kids' imagination and play. With proper planning and preparation, safe plant selection can easily be incorporated into site development, and your next outdoor space can be a magical playground for children.