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Charlie’s Outdoor Play Area + A Shop The Look


I grew up way out in the country in Oregon. We may have only had 2 acres but it was backed up to a forest  so it felt like 1 squillion acres of backyard with streams and rivers and just endless nature and fortmaking. When Brian and I bought this house I was pregnant, desperate for a home that I could actually make better, but fairly realistic about what we were and were not going to get for our money. On my top priority list were 1. good natural light and 2. enough space to live/function, but what failed to make top priority was a backyard. Instead we got this deck and while this deck is decent sized (600 square feet) on its own it wasn’t exactly going to make Charlie’s childhood fort-making dreams come true. But lets face it – parks exist down the street. Kids don’t need acres to play in,  in order to have a happy childhood. Is it wonderful to have mother nature at their back door, opening her arms for a big exploratory hug? SURE. But it’s also wonderful to simply have a home of any size with any area dedicated to playing.

Basically what I’m saying is that while it’s not my fantasy childhood backyard for Charlie and his sister, a big deck isn’t exactly a stick in the eye. But it took some work to turn it from what it was into what it is.


The retaining wall was crumbling. The hot water heater was crumbling and gross, it was dark and shady and then the floor was concrete. But there  was so much to play that clearly needed to be utilized. At one point I thought that it could be a dining area but ultimately where we want to hang out is by the view and out in the open.

So we started fixing the major problems (which was pretty simple, by the way):


We opened up the ceiling so it was just a pergola and repaired and painted the retaining wall and the pergola. The hot water heater closet is still a hot button issue for us – we really want to switch it to a tankless heater but its $2500 – $3k and then I’d have to figure out what to do with the siding behind it (which is a much larger, more expensive problem that I’m going to have to start addressing soon). So we replaced it with a non-toxic-paint-crumbling closet, which I think cost $200. It’s still not my favorite thing to look at.

That was 2 months ago and here we are now:


I can’t tell you how happy this space makes me now. Charlie LOVES it. We play house, read in the forts, blow bubbles, play in the water table, wrestle all over the grass … it’s just so awesome.



How cute is that playhouse. VERY VERY CUTE.  We actually just put together two playhouses to form that larger modular house. Those gray cement tiles in front of were the heavy tiles that held the old umbrella down that we had on the front patio. Not necessary but we thought that it looked cute.

Let’s talk grass. Real sod wasn’t really an option here. It would need to much water to grow, then if/when was watered it would make it muddy and there was cement underneath it so I have no idea if it even could grow there. Plus California is in a major drought and putting IN grass was just not even an option. There is such good artificial turf out there these days so we knew we were going to go that route.


We ordered 15 feet of it (its sold anywhere between $30 – $50 a foot) and then cut it with a razor blade to fit. I thought that the install would be super annoying, but it was actually totally fine (although to be fair Brian and Brady did the bulk of it).


We saved the area under the hot water closet for when we replace it. A couple of things to think about: you can piece it together but you have to make sure that the ‘grain’ is going the same direction, and then as you are initially placing it make sure that all the grain is the direction you want because like carpet it looks different from different angles. From one direction (looking at it from the patio to the pergola) it looked really dark and pretty but looking back at it, towards the patio it looked like fake grass. So just make sure you lay it out. And no, we didn’t prep the floor at all besides cleaning it.



As much as he loves this space sometimes I think all we really need are bubbles and balloons at 18 months. We read in the fort and cuddle and it’s just pretty much my perfect Saturday.

Yesterday I promised that I would chat about the deck being kid-safe. I need to write a whole post on the big old debate about how safe we need to make our homes for our kids. Inside the house I think we overdid it – we hired one of those companies that comes out and recommends every single thing you could do to prevent every single bruise and scrape. We listened to some (possibly too much) and skipped some other stuff. When it came to the outside I was waiting for them to tell us that we had to plexi the entire deck but they quickly told us that all the ironwork is too small for a head (and subsequent body) to get through and fall. So strangely the deck is actually totally kid-proof for now. At some point he is going to be able to climb up and over the sofa and he could fall over there (although it’s not a huge drop off there) and obviously we are out there for the most part with him so its fine. But it was such a relief to know that one thing about this 1964 house on a cliff was kid-safe (unless the floating cement stairs inside the house:)).


So there you have it. Once we figure out what we are doing with the exterior of the house and we update that and the water heater I’ll show you an update, but I’m thinking that won’t be til next summer anyway.

All in all it was ABSOLUTELY worth any time, energy and money that we put into it – and I can’t always say that on my own home projects. But it really did give us a whole other room to play, be messy, roll around and sometimes just simply getting outside for 1/2 hour is all you need to change the mood of a bored child. And this little play area certainly does that trick.


1. Play Cube 2. Rug 3. Trike 4. Lantern 5. Bird House 6. Sand & Surf Table 7. Tall Planter 8. Ride-On Excavator 9. Iris Planter 10. S – Chair 11. Play House 12. Astro Turff 

See the deck over the years: Our First Home, Part 2 + Our Deck Progress + The Patio Makeover

*All photos by the lovely Tessa Neustadt c/o Lonny Magazine. Hair and Makeup by the always lovely Danielle Walch.

Fin Mark


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Looks like so much fun! I love this area. What type of plant is that at the entrance to the play area?


yes, please tell us!
and where can we get one?


It looks like what I would call a Fiolfikus (in Swedish) – in English I think they’re named Ficus Lyrata.


Ficus Lyrata is the name in Latin, but I didn’t find an English name.


It looks like you’re talking about the fiddle leaf fig.


Cute play area – how are you going to keep that cute little fort outdoors – took a look at it on-line – pricey and its for indoor use. I guess you could throw a cover over it when it rains.

Sarah D.

What a cool spot for the kids & friends to play! I can see a chalkboard or paint area along the brick wall in your future! xo


It’s adorable, safe, and outdoors. You’re right, Charlie does not need a whole forest in which to play. I love that you can be sitting at the table enjoying your dinner or even working while Charlie can play with full supervision. This is a great set-up for your family!

Erika K

This space is SO cool and stylish! I have an 18-month old myself and he would go crazy with all those cool toys!! Is the playhouse ok to be outside in the elements? Where is the wooden grill from?

Sarah W

This is perfect! It’s beautiful, completely perfect for Charlie, close enough for you to see him while you are elsewhere on the deck, but separate enough that he has his own space. I love it!


Love it and so glad it’s turning out to be such a great space for your family! Way to make the most of every inch!


Is the new closet magnetic? I’m not sure how hot it gets, but if it stays cool, why not put some magnetics on it. Also, could you paint one side with chalk paint and let Charlie go to town.

It looks like a lovely play area.


I love this space. Like, a lot. All the green, and the blue, and the light, and the Charlie. 🙂


Looks great and I’ve been coveting that playhouse for my 18 month old. My question is hoe do you get Charlie to keep all of the whit rocks in the planter? Tips please 🙂


Love the Deck! Would love a post on how you picked the plants! 🙂

This looks so good! My two-year-old son would be all over that yard and would never come inside. Quick question: did you replace the entire water heater or just the cabinet that holds it? Because $200 for a water heater seems really cheap! 🙂 (we have a tankless in our house which is at the end of its life, so we’re looking for affordable options)


It is an awesome space and it sounds like you made a great decision for your circumstances. I do suggest you read “Last Child in the Woods” to understand what kids miss out on by not having a place like you grew up and how to give them the same experiences.


Highly recommend that book as well!


What happened to those four awesome chairs in the two-months before photograph? They’re so much lovelier, and more interesting, than the ones that I assume you are being paid by Target to shill. As the generic, corporate-style postings increase, I’m less and less inclined to read. Please bring back the original, resourceful, vintage-loving Emily!


Emily addresses her old chairs in yesterday’s post–they didn’t survive the elements.

I love Emily’s partnership with Target! It makes home design so much more approachable and has taught me a lot about mixing mass goods with vintage finds.


whole heartedly, agreed!


I don’t like generic corporate style postings either BUT I don’t find Emily’s connection with Target tiresome as everyone can afford Target and really no one can continue to work as she does for free.


Too snarky for this blog. Please stay civil, I don’t appreciate your use of the word “shill” .


So, does that mean if she’d spent hours sourcing vintage (and classic, btw) s chairs you’d have liked them more?

We live in the real world. Vintage is my go to, but inevitably you need to fill in with things that are functional, and a plastic chair outside is a big fat YES. That you can use a timeless classic vintage knock-off and still have what amounts to a plastic chair outside? Double yes.

Also…we live in the real world. People have to earn a living. You don’t pay bloggers for reading their content, so who the heck is going to keep the bills paid without sponsors?

Maybe I’m just not as cool as you, or independently wealthy, but I actually appreciate it when someone is straight-up about how they get paid and how they live in the real world. Lifestyle blogs are so phony sometimes, no?

I love the look of your outdoor spaces, but it seems you’ve used some items that are intended for indoor use. In your last post you mentioned you would bring the extra pillows inside but how do you protect the playhouse? From land of nods site, it doesn’t seem like it is designed to go outside.


How cushioned is the artificial turf on top of concrete?

Whole project looks great!


My twin 19-month-olds would zero in on those white stones in the potted hinoki. Take them all out and put them over here – then put them over there – then put them in this bucket – then in that hole. Arrange them like this, arrange them like that … on and on and on. For hours. Rocks. That’s all they need. (It’s actually kind of awesome.)


Oh, this whole area just delights me. I’d gladly trade a smaller, indoor space, for a huge, functional outdoor space like what you’ve installed. So great for all of you! Room(s) for every age and stage. How about a sandbox for Charlie to dig in with that excavator? I still worry about him and those railings (my guys were total climbers), but you obviously have it under control. Carry on, and think pink!


Hi emily, the space looks so fun and just what I’m looking for for my son, only it doesn’t really look very weather proof, it looks like an indoor toy! Could you tell me how it’s holding up out in the elements? Thanks!


sorry was referring to the plywood fort there:-)

I love this so much! It looks so cute and fun. Also, I’m pretty fond of fake grass. We live in a big building in DC and there’s fake grass on the roof, and I love that it’s green year-round!


I agree with others. While this looks great, all of the wooden structures and toys are going to be ruined outside. Gorgeous but not practical.


Maybe, in a place that rains all the time but in LA? I am sure that Emily and her family could get the pieces inside before a downpour happened. 🙂


Beautiful and adorable!

Okay, I’m just thinking out loud but you talked about figuring out the exterior. You probably already looked into your insurance company covering the cost of new siding? We accidentally got new siding for our whole house last summer when we called a contractor about a small roof leak and he told us that we also had storm damage to our siding and our insurance company would pay to replace it (the whole house!). The storm damage wasn’t even visible to us – just little dents from hail in two areas. But the insurance company came out and assessed it and approved new siding. It didn’t even affect our rates or anything. Anyway, you probably already looked into that and maybe it varies by state, but could maybe be an option?


What a lovely transformation! What paint did you use on the retaining wall? I have a very similar one and am not sure what to do with it. Painting is the first thing that comes to mind but I am afraid the paint might start peeling due to the moisture in the soil behind the wall.


what happens to artificial turf when it rains? does it drain underneath? just curious b/c i’ve been thinking about it and would be great for our little one!


I would love for more information on the plants you use, the pots you put them in, and their light requirements. Plants really make a home and you do such a great job decorating with them. I love plants but I’m not as great as styling them into my home and deck.

WOW WOW WOW! What a major transformation! Love it! Great job!


This is probably the ultimate before and after! The after is truly breath-taking, it looks like a catalog for The Land of Nod or a sound stage somewhere! So beautiful! That before picture, I’m not going to lie, made me shudder a little, probably because my southern brain immediately thought “snakes and skeeters” (which I’m sure is not really an issue there). You are a miracle worker! You give me hope I can turn my house into something like a show piece (and not for too much money or a ton of work)!

What a gorgeous and fun area for little Charlie (and his baby sister eventually!). I just love it – thanks for sharing all the resources as well. This patio project is full of inspiration for whenever I attempt to tackle my own.

I think is the most envious I’ve ever been of any of your spaces–too cute!


Just be very careful with the astro turf.. I’ve read a lot of bad review of it off-gas-ing. Also found many articles how a lot of soccer players, especially girls/women, would get cancer after playing in fake grass. I changed my mind about using it because of that. Though Charlie’s space doesn’t look that big at all.. just a caution. Great patio!

That looks like tons of fun what an amazing idea for fun !! My neighbors child would simply just love that thing : )

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