There are two main goals when designing a kid-friendly landscape:
Protect kids from the yard.
Protect the yard from kids.
As designers, we’d add to this:
Create a fun, enriching environment for children.
Make sure adults love the yard, too.
Safety is a clear priority, but so are look, feel, and function. A kid-scape only works when it is attractive, functional, and enjoyable to be in, otherwise neither kids nor adults will use it. Below, we’ll share some tips for how to design a kid-friendly yard that works for the whole family.
Protect the Kids
Fence your pool
This is often required by law. Depending on regulations, you can plan to remove your pool fence once kids reach a safe age. In this event, design pool area hardscaping for use with and without a pool fence, to accommodate present and future conditions.
Fence your yard
Keep little ones from bolting by installing a fence they can’t squeeze through. Keep gate handles high enough to evade toddler hands, and make sure no gaps in the fence exceed 4” to avoid getting hands or heads stuck in the fence.
Keep play spaces in view
Whether viewed from inside the house or from outdoor adult areas, position children’s play areas to be easily visible.
Pro Tip: Locate play areas next to outdoor “living rooms” where the family can gather. This gives children the opportunity to flow between adult and kid zones, and incorporates the family into outdoor play.
Explore safe play surfaces
Lawn is a versatile play surface that can double for adult uses like picnics, but it requires maintenance and lots of water to survive, and suffers under heavy foot traffic. It also offers less fall safety than some other surfaces listed below.
Artificial Turf is equally versatile, and can offer a little better fall protection. It’s also easy to wash – use an antimicrobial solution to clean away pet waste.
Rubberized play surfaces are quite safe, but not particularly attractive. We don’t generally recommend them for areas of high visual impact.
Playground mulch is rounded, splinter free, and installed to a minimum 6” depth. It is perhaps the safest play zone surface, but it requires tall edging to contain it, and is probably overkill for areas that don’t feature tall play structures.
Bark mulch, installed at a depth of 2” – 4” (just as you would in a planting area), is great for play areas without tall structures, and will look “adult” enough to be cohesive with the rest of the yard. Being a loose material, it can get messy – we recommend it for areas where fuzzy boundaries won’t be an issue, such as spaces bordered by planting.
Pea gravel (the rounded kind – not angular gravel) is often the most aesthetically attractive play surface, but it has drawbacks. It’s not great for fall zones, and smaller children are prone to throwing or trying to eat it. Like mulch, it’s a loose material and can get kicked all over. We talk to lots of parents – some love gravel, others are sick of sweeping it up.
Decomposed granite is a viable play surface, though it will skin knees and elbows.
Unstabilized DG is a little less apt to scrape but more slippery when kids run on it.
Stabilized DG feels a lot like asphalt – more grip, but worse scrapes.
DG can be a great solution for spaces that need to double as adult and kid zones.
Paving is not suitable beneath structures where kids may fall, but it is fabulous for certain sports or toys with wheels. Keep gaps between pavers to a minimum for a smooth ride.
Explore safe play surroundings
Avoid sharp objects: Choose rounded plant containers over ones with sharp corners.
Avoid trip and slip hazards: Inspect paving and decking for cracks or defects that may cause a fall. When selecting decking or paving, be sure to consider slip resistance – precast pavers and composite decking products (we suggest Timber Tech) will have slip data available. Concrete can be textured to provide a desired level of slip resistance.
Mind fall risks: Use guardrails, plant containers, or other furnishings to keep small kids from going over the edge of elevated decks or patios. Don’t go overboard – it’s a good thing to have some features in the yard for bigger kids to jump off.
Avoid sharp or toxic plants: Kids are less likely to eat plants than pets, but it’s still best to avoid toxic plants (including plants linked to severe allergies) in a kid-scape. The Bump shares a useful list of plants to avoid (bye bye lilies, oleander, foxglove, and holly). Sharp plants pose a more consistent threat. Choose species without large thorns, spikes, or spines. If you must, position sharp plants in the interior of planting areas, away from path or play area edges.
Protect the Yard
Careful with fragile objects: Don’t put delicate decorative elements near play zones.
Be mindful with loose materials: Kids will kick and throw anything they can. Mulch, gravel, and other loose materials can have their place in a kid-scape, but use them where mess is less of an issue.
Plant appropriately: Pretend you have large dogs. Choose soft-leaved shrubs and perennials that can tolerate basketballs and footsteps, particularly next to play spaces or running routes. Incorporate some open mulched spaces between masses of ornamental plants – this gives kids an alternative to stomping directly over plants.
Use precast pavers for paved play zones: Pavers can be individually replaced should they get stained or damaged. Concrete slabs don’t have this flexibility.
Embrace imperfection: Focus on your kids’ exuberance, not the mess it may create.
For the Kids:
Let them design
Ask your children what they want in their yard, and bring them into the building process. All too often parents install playscapes that go unused. Kid buy-in is crucial.
Include a variety of spaces
Provide spaces of different scales and character to facilitate different types of play – small and enclosed, big and open.
Create a sense of adventure and mystery – use planting to hide and reveal different spaces.
Include both hard surfaces (for wheels and basketball) and soft surfaces (for swings, soccer, and play structures).
Don’t forget paths – provide routes (formal and informal) for kids to sprint.
Work with the land. Use existing slopes for embedded slides or rock scrambles. Utilize existing tree canopies to create shaded play zones that escape summer heat.
Nature play. Natural play features strengthen children’s connection with nature, and look nicer in a yard than brightly colored plastic contraptions. Anchor a few tree stumps or logs in the ground, hang swings or zip lines from trees, or provide a good old fashioned sandbox flanked by planting.
Pro Tip: draw your kids even closer to nature by including plants that attract birds, butterflies, and (unless there’s an allergy) bees. Contrary to popular belief, bees are almost never aggressive, and pose very little threat when at work collecting pollen.
Flexible Space. Create flexible play spaces that can accommodate a variety of temporary structures, toys, or games. Avoid overdoing it with expensive permanent play structures that target a narrow age range – eventually, your kids will lose interest in them and you’ll be stuck with wasted yard space.
Get crafty. Outdoor craft spaces with tables or chalkboard-painted panels can move indoor activities into the fresh air.
Rain schmain. Provide sheltered play areas so your kids can play outside in wet weather. This could mean a structure like a fort, teepee, or yurt, or simply a covered area. A shade sail (or two) tilted at slight angles to drain provides a stylish solution that adults and kids will equally enjoy.
Design for multi-use. Get the most out of your yard by creating spaces that can be used by adults and kids. Choose surfaces and materials that balance adults’ and children’s needs, be they functional or aesthetic.
Don’t sacrifice too much. Compromise is key. Keep the features that make you most happy, let others go to give your kids extra play space. No room for a hammock and a swing set? Go with the hammock and let the kids swing on it.
Plants are important. You may scale back planting a bit to provide more play space, but don’t undervalue your planting. Kids benefit from contact with plants, rocks, and dirt, and play areas look more cohesive when they are intentionally woven into a planting design.
Provide space to store toys. Keep your yard tidy with containers or storage zones that are kept outside of principal yard views.
Keep it natural. Use play structures built with a natural palette: rope, wood, metal, earth tones. Don’t be grim – color lends spirit to a yard, just try to get it from plants instead of swing sets
Stay safe, have fun, and enjoy your yard!