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Water works: How to get the kids outside this summer

From water sprinklers and paddling pools to "mud kitchens" and nasturtiums, Emma Townshend reveals surefire ways to get children playing in the garden

It can't have escaped the notice of the good people of Great Britain that our big institutions want us out and about in the summer holidays, not sitting on our bums playing about on an iPad. One supermarket is offering a wallchart with tick boxes for seaside crabbing, creating treasure hunts and making a nature table. The National Trust, meanwhile, has its list of "50 Things to do Before You're 11 and ¾", a "Wild-Time Challenge" that rewards kids with points for participating in various outdoorsy activities, from bird-watching to cooking on a campfire.

Amazingly, children seem for once to be in agreement that this seems like a fun thing to do, as revealed by a 2012 survey that asked them to rank their top summer-time stuff to do. The nippers created a top 10 that would bring succour to the heart of any depressive wondering what's happened to the youth of today, featuring as it did, mucking about in the garden, climbing trees and feeding ducks, with "playing on the computer" nowhere in sight (perhaps that's because modern children would rather play on something with a more sophisticated games card, but there we go).

But encouraging kids outside still does take some doing. Most grown-ups require little more persuasion than a bottle of cold rosé or a nice chocolate cake and pot of tea to be placed somewhere outside in their direct eyeline; children can be trickier.

So how to get their interest? A good place to start is, simply, water, a great uniter of the under-18s; even some grown-ups still love running under a sprinkler. For proper rainbows of water, you'll need an oscillating bar sprinkler such as Kingfisher's (£4.35, primrose.co.uk). But I like the varying-pattern ones that don't move: Hozelock makes a good one that offers many different kinds of spray, and it turns out that once you have one of these, you will have little reason to stand there and water your garden ever again. Two of my neighbours have commented over the fence on how green my grass is at the moment: "It's because every child in the street wants a go of the Hozelock," I reply, modestly, but in truth. (The impressively named Vortex 8 is £9.99 from Amazon.)

Other watery treats include slides, paddling pools and water pistols. The latter, however, can annoy liberals who are trying to keep their homes gun-free, and they make more sensitive souls cry if pumped up with too high a pressure, so I prefer household cleaning sprays washed out very carefully and filled back up with water. These cannot soak anyone and offer instead a soft cooling mist suitable even for babies. And plants. Ahh.

Mud pies also rank highly with kids: my cousin, who runs a yurt-based school, has put together an entire "mud kitchen" equipped with old saucepans, sieves and other utensils to give the culinary-minded a full range of possibilities. Again, the hose pipe can be used by the children to muddy up a flowerbed, buying you at least half-an-hour's sunbathing. (Although, possibly, also quite a lot of extra laundry.)

But what about getting the children involved with growing? Nasturtiums are a good late-summer bet, flowering with bold oranges and yellows when you are feeling rather more blue. They take about 50 days from sowing to flowering (plus, if you are in charge of the braver variety of children, they may even like eating them in salad). Or go for an edible leaf: Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz offer plenty of suggestions in their Speedy Vegetable Garden (£14.99, Timber), including a quick rocket pesto that can be made and eaten before the end of August. A real points scorer all around.

Child's play: Four outdoor incentives

The hammock

There seems literally no end to hammock antics; your main problem is likely to be sorting out the rota of turns for lolling in it. Dyning hammock, £25, Ikea

'World's best bug viewer'

An amazing box for looking at earwigs, ladybirds, even moths. There are two magnifications and both work well even for very small children. £3.49, wildforms.co.uk

The tent

Most children camping "for the night" in the garden will be in after a few hours. So go for the cheap, super-easy 2 Seconds Pop Up Tent. £27.99, decathlon.co.uk

The campfire

If you want to go beyond a potato and sweetcorn wrapped in silver foil, check out the Pioneer, which hammers into the ground. £50, campfirecookinggrill.co.uk