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Ideas for the most family friendly backyard EVER

As we are finishing up the inside of our new house (shooting the kitchen on friday!!!!!) we are starting to think about the backyard. Brian and I are both OBSESSED with giving our kids what we had growing up – acres of nature to play in all day every day. This can’t happen with a 2500 square foot plot of land in the heart of LA, but my God we are going to do our best. The house I grew up in backed up to the national forest (with no fence) so as far as we knew we had 20k acres to play in and explore. Brian had 2 acres and his nearest neighbors are horse farms. Someday we will have a country house, but for now we are going to try our hardest to recreate our childhood for our kids, despite the fact that we live in a densely populated sprawling suburban neighborhood.

My hope is by spring it’s pulled together and ready for those kids to lose hours and hours playing while Brian and I just sit and relax up on the courtyard (That’s how parenting works, RIGHT???). I pulled together a deck (as you do) to pitch out the project for a video series, so I figured I’d share it with you to get your feedback and give you a little peek as to what we might have planned. We’ve only had kids for two years so I thought many of you could weigh in on what kids really do, what keeps them the most entertained and how we can implement those things in a way that looks integrious to the house.

The goal: To have the most family friendly backyard ever (despite its small foot print) with nature oriented activities that can stimulate imagination and zones that can help them create worlds of their own, all while having enough space to of course run and play and be 100% safe without our supervision (no pools, etc).

*Quick note/Update – this is my fantasy list and we are probably doing 1/3 of the ideas. So don’t worry, we aren’t putting a creek/splashpad and 3 playhouses in this backyard.Β 


Brian is obsessed with having a large grassy area for the kids. I’m more into creating zones of wonder – so we are trying to make both happen. But there will definitely be a large portion of the grass dedicated to running and sports.

For the landscaping we want color, texture and a very layered and ‘been here forever’ look. We want English Country meets California – wild but more drought friendly than what would actually be in an English Countryside. Like so:


We want stone paths or fencing with old stones or brick – both to create privacy and add a path to the guest house.


My true fantasy is this:


But we’ve already nixed the creek because there truly isn’t space. I grew up playing in creeks in Oregon (just outside our backyard in the woods) and spent hours and hours building bridges, chasing frogs, etc. I’m desperate to give this to our kids, but they’ll survive regardless, I’m sure. Brian doesn’t like the idea of them getting all murky and gross (fair) and even if its 10 – 12″ deep I might worry about Elliot out there alone and I really want them to be able to play without us. So for now, no creek. We are putting a fountain in the front yard, however, so we’ll have a tiny water feature to keep me happy.


We need some things for the kids to climb on and hide in, etc, and I love all of these more nature inspired ones. Since pulling this together I’ve honed in on what we are thinking but these were my initial ideas. We spend probably 10-15 hours a week playing hide and go seek, pirates, Robin Hood, etc. and my hope is to move these activities outside so we need places to hide, climb over, obstacles, etc. We are definitely getting some boulders and I LOVE the idea of that hollowed out trunk.


We might put a slide from the courtyard to the backyard. HA. I’m sure 1/2 of you think that is a TERRIBLE idea and the other half might think it’s awesome. We obviously are part of the IT WILL BE AWESOME!! camp. The only issue I see so far is that the ironwork is really pretty and you can’t really buy metal slides anymore. The idea of putting a plastic slide on the metal sounds ugly. Stay tuned (or any ideas???)


This is our other fantasy – a splash pad, that we aren’t doing but how fun would this be?? You can buy them now for around $3- 4K which isn’t nothing but it’s WAY less than a pool and for kids it’s so much better and safer (IMHO). I’m pretty terrified of toddlers and pools but this is just so safe and lets kids get so much energy out. We don’t think we have the space so this idea has been nixed but how fun is that!!?? Also two of our best friends that live near us have pools so we are covered on that front when we do decide that it is time for some family pool time πŸ™‚

I’m obsessed with this idea:


We don’t have room for this either (we want to do more of a structure) but I LOVE the idea of these natural forts that allow the environment to grow in and around them organically.


I’m thinking that we will build one that is two story – where the bottom story can be a hiding area, with vines growing up the sides, etc, but I love the three above (you can find full photos on my pinterest board by the way).


I grew up with a huge vegetable garden – like a quarter of an acre and all summer long we were down there weeding, watering and pulling vegetables. We would then can or dry any vegetables we could and use the rest for our meals. Man, my parents were good parents. So, for our kids I want there to be a sense of growing your own food, but we don’t have room for much. I think the side yard we can put a few fruit trees and then a little box in the backyard for everyday veggies – tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, etc. I loved watching my veggies grow from seeds when I was a kid, so by gosh so will my kids.

Now for our space, the courtyard:


Since we can eat outside 60% of the year, I plan on really decking this space out and making it look so elegant and functional.


Having a built-in BBQ is really adult for us and I have no idea how much it will cost, but based on how much I think we’ll use it, I’m going to pursue it and get some quotes so we can potentially make it happen.

Last but not least – ambience. Since we want to be able to play out here after school even in the winters (its still 65 degrees at night here) we need some lights.


I don’t want it to feel like Disneyland (which a couple of those photos do) but some landscape lighting and string lights will make it feel safer and and more inviting once the sun goes down.

So let’s ask the audience (YOU). For those of you who have had children (especially kids under the age of 10) what have you found to be the most fun for them, that keeps them entertained for hours and hours? I for instance grew up with an epic sandbox and my mom said we spent a couple hours a day in it during the summer. Brian thinks that sandboxes are gross what with their attraction from certain animals. I concur but i’m so tempted by them. My parents raised 6 kids out in the country and some summers we only went to town once a week. Somehow we all stayed busy, had fun and that was even before cable (we watched a LOT of musicals). Nature and the outdoors entertained us all day, every day – building forts, creating worlds, running through sprinklers, riding bikes and jumping on our trampoline. Brian was more athletic and played sports with his dad and brother in his backyard everyday but it was the same idea of creating a safe space for us to play as a family.

So what do you think …. Monkey bars? Sandbox? Small trampoline? (None of which we’ll probably do but I am curious what your thoughts are). What am I missing or what do you think we could do to make it even more kid/family friendly? Is there anything here that you wouldn’t do if you had two young kids? Weigh in below and let the conversation begin, would love to hear your input.


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353 thoughts on “Ideas for the most family friendly backyard EVER

  1. These are all wonderful ideas! But! And I say this with love, such overkill. Your kids will have fun and use their imaginations if you make them. Basically send them outside and say, play! Provide a sprinkler in the summer and sandbox (they have some that can be critter free, and you can get very sturdy covers) and maybe a swing set or little play gym. I’d go with a big grassy area, and then a vegetable garden. Make your patio for you and landscape for you. Your kids will have fun just having grass, and dirt, and space to play. I promise! My kids (5, 3, 2, 6 months) play outside for hours in my fenced in city yard with just a few toys. And when they ask to go inside, I say no until it’s time. They learn to make their own fun. I’m sure many will feel different and in order for you to get blog content you will probably do your original plan, but I would worry about overly spoil your kids and setting their expectations for life quite high. Truly, kids don’t need as much stuff as we like to think they do. Fresh air and loving parents is just about all they need!

    1. What Danielle said!!! I don’t have kids but well remember my own childhood. I had a huge grassy yard and a small swing set. Plus a bike when I was old enough. My parents said go out and play and that’s what I did. I made my own fun and used my imagination. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    2. I’m with you Danielle. My 5 year old does like some structures to play on, but mostly he enjoys playing imaginary games that only need space from mom and dad to really get going. The hours won’t probably be spent on a swing set, but exploring behind dense bushes, at the base of trees, and anywhere else they can get that cozy, kids-only feeling.

      Bravo on the drought-resistant plantings. Grass needs so much maintenance and watering (usually) so any ways you can reduce that coverage works in your favor.

      I’d caution against trampolines and monkey bars – during an ER trip for a broken arm on the 5 year old after a fall from monkey bars at school, we got an earful from the doctors and nurses about those two structures bringing in the most young patients with broken bones or other bad injuries.
      Sorry for the Debbie Downer moment – your boards look so lovely overall!

      1. Ditto on the trampoline warning! Not to scare you, but my brother recently broke his neck on a trampoline (don’t worry–he’s okay now!) so I consider it my duty to warn people away from them! Especially if you don’t want to have to keep a close eye on your kids while they’re playing in the back yard.

        That’s my friendly anit-trampoline PSA. πŸ™‚

        xx Hannah //

    3. I second this comment. My kids are now 9 and 12, and have truly come to believe that the less is more idea is not just economical, but really allows their imaginations to expand and fill in the gaps. I grew up in a suburb where if you walked around you had the sad spectacle of all these big, expensive play structures sitting unused. The novelty wears off quickly for kids — someone else’s playground or backyard is always more enticing. I like the bunch of log stumps or something really simple like that they can then imagine to be anything they want. A big tree with long flowing branches is a perfect “Winnie-the-pooh” make believe place, or magic castle, or whatever. Plus, kids quickly want to play with what is real, not made-for-kids stuff. Also, once they start pre-school and school, they have playgrounds and play structures all the time. One other thing: one of the biggest hits in my yard is what my boys call “the digging hole” — just a big area near our compost bin where they can dig and fill holes to their hearts’ content. I gave in and stopped trying to make this area attractive and just shielded it as best I could — but it has been a hole to China, an archaelogical dig site, a Halloween graveyard, and all other kinds of things.

      1. Love the digging hole! Totally want to repeat let them use their own imaginations and create their own fantasy. All these ideas are wonderful and expensive and will fulfill your fantasies more than theirs. The wild stuff is great but maybe in this case less is more. You are awesome and no doubt will come up with a great mix. Ditto nix on the monkey bars and trampoline.

      2. Agreed on the digging hole area!!! My kids are older now – 10 and 13, but for years all they wanted to do was dig and “garden”. Also agree on the less is more – lots of grass to run and when they are older to play ball – a swing set is great when they are older too. Leave the rest to imagination – their needs/wants change so quickly.

      3. The hole digging! I was going to suggest this, but wasn’t sure if a designer with such beautiful ideas would be into that…! When my kids were around 8 or so, I showed them how to use a spade, showed them where they were allowed to dig, and said go for it. We had an agreement: the front yard is Mommy’s, the back yard is yours. I had nice flowerbeds in front of the house, and the backyard was a bike obstacle course with holes and bumps and spare tires and scrap lumber (not saying you need those things, we are just weird people who end up with stuff like that???) and lots of other kids ended up there. It was so much fun, even for me, watching them from the kitchen window or the deck.

        1. This. Things they make will attract other kids both as building projects and as play areas. it can look pretty messy … but if you make them put away the tools at least it’s natural mess.

    4. I agree with Danielle. Less is more. Avoid the temptation to overwhelm.

      I think the garden already looks fantastic for the kids. Yours are young, so an age appropriate swing set, a water table and/or sand pit are plenty, alongside cars/dolls taken from inside.

      A large grassed area is a must, especially as they age, grow physically and have friends over to play rounders, cricket, football etc (ie by the time they start school.) Mine would have loved a trampoline but I’m not a fan unless they’re built in to the ground and the best ones are very expensive. If you do this, make the pit depth suitable for a 100kg+ bouncer and large enough for adults too – kids grow very fast! They will outgrow anything aimed at young kids (eg a tiny playhouse) very, very quickly, so personally I’d avoid a lot of that.

      1. Totally second this — they grow so fast – invest in things that they won’t outgrow in 3 years….

    5. Can I just say how much I love that you typed “And when they ask to come inside I say NO until it’s time” Amen. So good to see parents telling their kids no. I feel like I come across so many kids who have never heard this word. Rock on to you.

    6. HA. You guys we aren’t doing all of them! This is just a fantasy list, as I was pulling together ideas these were the ones I loved the most but obviously I can’t have a creek and a splashpad and two playhouses in the backyard nor would i ever want that. I do want to create zones for imagination but that’s not really adding stuff, just plants and some boulders. I’ll edit the post so its clear that these were ideas, almost like deciding between a sofa and a sectional, but not both or all. Because yes, I totally agree with you.

      1. Mom of two adult children here. If you only did one thing, I’d say the splash pad. LA is hot! You’ll use it too:). And the splash pad also works for pretend play. Alternatively, a huge sandbox with a cover, close to a faucet and hose. Kids can build rivers and volcanoes and on and on. Kids will tire of built structures, and would rather construct their own. Plant low trees for climbing. Oh, and when they are little, if you don’t have a circular driveway, lay a path that kids can ride around and around on bikes, playing that they are adults going to the candy store.

    7. I agree completely with Danielle. Keep it simple bc what they want to do will change so much over time. We spent about $2000 building our son a fort in our yard with a swing on it, a ladder and a climbing wall up the side. He uses it…sometimes. He’s almost 10 now and has mostly needed a space (grass!) to play and bring in his new interests as they grow/change. (over time these have included bows and arrows (not pointy ones), woodworking/building, gardening, and soccer soccer soccer. I’d also personally advise against a sandbox if there are any critters nearby, plus they are a pain to get rid of later on. Water tables are awesome!

      I do LOVE the hollow log idea and something that you can turn into a garden feature later on is not a bad way to try something out and then have it turn into something else if the kids don’t use it. And, I love the slide idea too… there’s a cool metal (covered) slide here in DC at the Beauvoir School playground. I know it is a huge structure, but maybe a source of inspiration? (It’s also generally an amazing playground/kids love it so here’s a link for fun:

      1. Wow. That playground is so beautiful and yes, such a source for inspiration. I’m pretty disappointed in the LA parks at least in the Silverlake/Los Feliz area – some are good, but Brian and I go park hopping all the time trying to find something like this. Very good inspiration.

        1. Silverlake / Los Feliz has “a” park – like one, right? Oh and Griffith Park. But yea, totally lackluster. We moved to LA from Chicago about a year ago and we ultimately decided on Studio City. There are lots of pretty good parks in the valley which is awesome. Anyway, I came to your site (as I often do) to see some recs on dining chairs and I’m obviously now sidetracked…..Anyway, can’t wait to see your new house come to life – so exciting. πŸ™‚

        2. We live on a hill and have been totally wanting to put in an embankment slide and cargo net up part of the hill for our 3-year-old…would LOVE some roundups/resources for some of these ideas you have above. Slides are ridiculously crazy expensive! (And hideously bright)

          1. Here’s another enchanting park, that is even closer to your neighborhood –

            The big hits in our backyard is the basketball hoop and small sport court (which my boys wheeled their trikes, wagons and other toys on when they were younger), the raised bed garden (in all its phases), the trampoline (such a great mood lifter, even for my now teenage son and we’ve never had an injury), big grassy area, a slide down a small 10 ft. slope and tree swing (it has a fantastically long/low swing arc). My husband made a convertible water, sand and train/lego table and the kids loved playing with it outdoors. I love our backyard movie nights (we just had one on thanksgiving night) with all of us piled outside on rugs, blankets and outdoor chairs.

            My son’s preschool had a wonderful sandbox area and they used a tent like structure to protect the box from critters and provide shade for the little ones.

        3. As your future Los Feliz neighbor and the mom of a 5 year-old, I recommend Shane’s inspiration playground in Griffith Park:

          Have you been there? It’s very close to your new home, has great equipment for a variety of ages from babies on up, is surrounded by lovely park land & views, and — this is important for me personally — is frequented by an incredibly nice, diverse population of families (racially, socio-economically, etc.). Also, it’s within walking distance of the beautiful antique carousel (but not within sight of it, so kids won’t incessantly clamor for a ride). It’s worth venturing a bit further into the park to reach this lovely playground (past the ponies & train at the Riverside entrance, which kids love but can be a bit much for regular visits).

          Also, while I don’t love the playground at the corner of Riverside & Los Feliz (across from Griffith Park entrance) because of its proximity to such a busy intersection (and the 5 freeway), kids around your Charlie’s age & older really seem to adore it. It was recently refurbished with cool new equipment, including new zip-lines (very low and safe) which keep kids miraculously enthralled for hours.

          Thank you so much for sharing your journey with this new house, and welcome to the ‘hood! I’m certain you’ll LOVE it here.

    8. Do you know Westmoreland Park in Portland? The hit there is an old fashioned water pump. It’s also a favorite of my daughter when she visits Grandpa in Cave Junction. At the park, the water flows down some rocks and the course can be altered by little pieces of wood. There are also piles of smooth, peeled branches/logs that kids use to build forts, large peeled logs as slides and piles of rocks to climb. It’s a beautifully designed experience that lets kids do what they would do in nature.

    9. I totally agree. My kids are 4 & 6 (third one is on the way), and since we rent in a city with just a patio we ended up buying a weekend place on 25 acres to give the kids the outdoor freedom you’re talking about. But even when they can’t go in the woods (too much poison ivy still in the summer), we don’t have a play structure or anything–they play under the low bushes, on a couple boulders (nice if the boulders are close to some trees for clambering and grabbing onto), etc. I’d try to landscape a back section of the property as more “woodsy”–a friend is looking into doing this in a really small space in her yard, having a grove of trees and some boulders and stuff so the kids feel like they’re somewhere more wild and a bit hidden. You’ll be amazed at how long kids can spend just digging in dirt patches and building stuff with sticks of you give them some space you don’t mind leaving messy.

    10. I agree. I grew up in a suburb in Pleasant Hill, CA. We mostly played with our imaginations. We played all over the neighborhood including front yards. I didn’t matter what toys we had. I remember racing our big wheels down our steep street. That was awesome.

    11. I was thinking the same thing. Maybe swings, but really kids don’t need much. I have a 3.5 year old and she likes just running around in the grass.

  2. My experience has been that providing kids with options that can be reconfigured and manipulated leads to the most use, once they are past age 4. So rather than building everything in, think also about having space where you can have a stack of bamboo poles and fabric and pulleys and rope, mud kitchen, something you can attach a climbing wall to, perhaps a pergola that looks nice in the evening but you can attach webbing to for climbing and attaching fabric to as well. The backyard should be a good place for mess as well as the playhouse and playing ball if you really want to be able to send them out and not have to observe πŸ™‚

    1. I totally agree. All I did growing up was make forts. But we had acres to do that in the forest so Im trying to add depth and create a little more of a sense of privacy to do that. But nothing too big or permanent is happening.

  3. I have never commented before! But, we have three active kids under 10 and I certainly have tried LOTS of backyard setups over the years. The best thing we have bought (when our first son was 18months) was a large set of soft play equipment. Like the things you get at indoor play centres. They are expensive, and we bought in a neutral color, but they are amazing. 6 years later they are still in great condition. We store ours undercover, but you can get special cases made. Every day they can be an obstacle course, fort, join two arches together and you can roll someone down the hill, put a board across an arch and you have a surfboard. Anyone from crawling to teenagers can use them. We also bring some into the playroom in winter.

    For climbing structures, we love our climbing frame from TP toys. It is sturdy, inoffensive to look at and you can move it around the yard if you need to to make more space for an event etc.

    Our kids love swings from trees. They love the big round platform swing that they can all go on at once and also hanging rings.

    The last hit with my kids has been their mud kitchen. We have a high tolerance for dirt so this might not work. Pinterest has loads of cute ideas.

    We also have a trampoline which they love. My kids spend all their time at home outside and these things keep them entertained for hours. Also, they are not permanent structures and this has worked really well for us with entertaining. Also, as our kids outgrow them, they will be easy to pass on without leaving a permanent mark. I think boulders and logs also fit into this category as they are beautiful even if they are being used for play.

    For what it’s worth, sandpits kind of gross me out too. Good luck!

    1. Just looked up that company and their stuff is GREAT. I wonder if they ship to the US. The tower is exactly what i was thinking and I love that the footprint of it is so small. Also, you guys, I had vaguely heard of a mud kitchen but not really … i’m VERY excited and absolutely going to try to find a place for that.

      1. In LA, do people have outdoor showers? I love them at the beach and always wish we had them at our house in the summer. Our kids, 8,6, and 3, are very good at getting dirty.

      2. They sell on so no need for international shipping. We have the challenger and one of the monkey bar type extensions. I think the other version is the explorer

    2. I want those blocks. We play with them ALL THE TIME at KidsSpace and The SOCAL childrens museum and they are amazing. IT is so good to hear that your kids played with them for years and that they kept up. VERY tempting. xx

        1. We bought ours from a company in South Africa when we were living in Southern Africa, but I am sure there are loads of places in the US that make them. My advice would be if you do it, do it properly. We have lots of different size cubes, two big arches that stick together and a balance board that goes on one, a couple of big wedges (can be slides for little kids, now my big kids use them as a bike ramp, and a balance beam. It seemed like a bit of money at the time, but they have been used every day and by every child who comes to our house. It always surprises me what they come up with, but like anything, you need enough blocks to build stuff out of

  4. I am a mom of two boys, 4 and 10 months. We live on an acre in Oklahoma, I am originally from Bend, Oregon but grew up on a Ranch in Oklahoma and my childhood was very much like yours. I would stay away from the trampoline, we have one and it is rarely used plus it is ugly and takes up a lot of space. We have a playhouse with a sand box underneath and a slide that comes off of the porch. We also have an airplane swing my dad built hanging in one of our big trees. I would say the swing is by far the most loved and used, the sandbox is also a favorite. My four year old loves sports so he is always playing soccer, t-ball or football… I am a Commercial Interior Designer so I understand the desire to make a beautiful and inviting space that also gives the freedom for little minds to explore and be adventurous in a safe environment. Plus anything that helps subside our irrational mom minds about accidents and safety is always an extra bonus!

  5. Kids love a BIG trampoline. I know that they are ugly but it could be our best buy ever. They love it moore than the Ipad, wich says a lot (at least about my kids).

    1. I agree. Get a trampoline where kids can burn off all their energy, especially as they won’t have fields and woods to explore. Make sure it’s large (for about four people) and high quality so that when friends are around they can all pile in. Adults can even use it to burn calories and do cardio!

      Most kids I know love them and when not jumping up and down, enjoy just sitting on them chatting cross legged (almost like a playhouse). They also grow with the kids – loved from a young age all the way through to teenage hood.

      The swing set, slide and climbing frame are used significantly less than the trampoline – partly because the former can be found in playground whereas the latter rarely so.

        1. Trampolines can always be added later – your kids are probably too young for them now anyway. There’ll come a stage where they are invited to a friend’s place with a trampoline and all they’ll want is one too.

          I wouldn’t prioritise it yet but if you end up with high energy kids, you’ll want to make them go outside and jump before bed! πŸ™‚

        2. My sister has a small trampoline and it has been a lifesaver for her. She has four kiddos (three very active boys) and when they start to get crazy she makes them go out on the trampoline and jump for 2 minutes straight. It’s a great way to release energy and while the kids outgrow them quickly, they aren’t that expensive.

        3. A few of my friends with kids under 5yr (including our daycare lady) have the cheaper small version with the bar and every kid I’ve ever seen around it LOVES it! Easy to move indoors or out and burns off a lot of kid steam! Well worth the minimal price.

        4. My daughter loved a trampoline we had for her that was about 8′ across and maybe a foot off the ground. It felt safe, too. Kids also love my exercise rebounder for indoor play.

          Others probably mentioned this but a sprinkler is probably about as much fun as a splash pad. Or a Slip n’ Slide. Or a hose. ; )

        5. Emily- I don’t know if you have the space inside, but we got a (small) 8′ netted trampoline for our daughter who is Charlie’s age- and we put it in the basement. It won’t be usable when they get to be 8 or 10, but we LOVE that trampoline right now- it helps her blow off so much steam. I wouldn’t do an outdoor tramp, but I love having one inside! Here is a link to the one we got:

        6. It all depends — my sons are now 12 + 10 and we still have both a small indoor tramp and a humongous outdoor tramp, and both get used frequently. (we live with severe winter so the only time the outdoor isn’t used is when it’s filled with snow)

          I cannot adequately describe the joyful reaction of the kids who come over who can’t wait to get on the (big) tramp: the kids make up all kinds of funny games in there, sometimes taking a (soft) ball inside to throw, although “popcorn” seems to still be the favorite group trampoline game. In the summer I put a sprinkler under the (big) tramp and the kids wear swimsuits and l-o-v-e it. Even I love it! Although the joke chez nous is after a few bounces I have to go inside to tinkle …. Happens.

          For many people, the most typical of us to the most disabled (like my younger son), the (proprioceptive + vestibular) input provided from a trampoline (he cannot bounce himself so I bounce him and he still receives this benefit) is soothing, it is organizing (as in helping focus), and it’s fun! I know Emily’s children are too teeny weeny for academics, but in many elementary, middle, and high school classrooms there are small tramps so the kids who need the help can do a few (or more than a few) bounces and their Systems feel not so scattered. Listen, I am a Special Mama so this makes sense to me, and I’ll bet all the other Special Mamas will know what I mean, but trust me, it’s true.

          If your kids liked bouncing in their baby jumpers, then they’ll most likely be excellent candidates for a tramp. Like another sage mama wrote above, get the biggest and best you can fit and afford — they’ll use it for years. We had a (seventeen year-old) exchange student and he and his (local) friends also loved it. Even though my children are still young I already have so many sweet memories of being in there with them and bouncing them, or watching my older child bounce his little brother.

          One more thing: early in my younger son’s life I, too, made the considerable investment in the soft buildable pieces someone above mentioned (sorry), and they were the gift which keeps on giving. I purchased them through a Special Needs toy store, but there is nothing Special about them: from the moment they arrived my older son, who was then only three years-old, loved them, as did his friends. They built obstacles courses (a favorite) and whatever their imaginations could fancy, and then my younger son’s therapists and I would use them for fun therapeutic activities.

          We loved a sandbox and just covered it. I would do it again in a NY minute.

          We also loved Aquaplay (, which I think is now available in the States. We loved Aquaplay for hours every warm day and we loved it for years. You know who else loved it? Every single child who came over. And me. I realize that’s a specific toy but it’s a good one!

  6. A water/sand table that you can connect the hose to and let the kids make dams, mud pies, moats, whatever. My kids spent hours at one before they were old enough to leave our fenced-in yard and play in the creek.

    1. Yes! A water/sand table with a cover and adjustable height legs is a must have. My kids choose to just dig in the dirt these days (we have lots of space in Oregon) but when we had a small lot in Portland the water table had constant use.

  7. Let the kids get dirty sometimes. It’s good for them. Ever hear of beneficial soil organisms (BSO’s)? The are good for the gut. The garden might do the trick for that. The sandbox is actually a “cleaner” alternative when it comes to tracking in mud/dirt and you can get a cover for it. If you have an exterior faucet, you can clean them up a bit before bringing them inside the house. My kids loved carrots and pumpkins the best. My David loves pulling carrots. I like potatoes. I’d mix gold pirate coins into the soil (or sandbox) to encourage them to dig.
    My kids also liked our zipline and the trampoline AND the neighbor’s pool, but the zipline ended up being a potential liability so we took it down. No need to get too fancy to quick though. Kids can also spend hours just playing with leaves and sticks and climbing trees.

  8. A key is to have a secret place for the kids, where they can’t be (or think they can’t be) seen. Those natural forts are great options, or the play house, but it could also just be a section of the backyard that’s behind a hedge or a dark corner where they really get ownership over what they want there. As kids, we spent soooo much time clearing a little spot under a massive tree in our backyard, and building a fence out of sticks, and the magic of it was that it was just ours and parents didn’t come and play there. In retrospect, it was literally a patch of dirt with a few rocks for chairs, but at the time, magic secret hideout!

    1. This was my childhood. We had a big backyard with nothing but trees in it and I rememeber making my own little fort behind the big trees. My friends and I would hang out there for hours playing with dolls and as we got “older” pertending to be in the babysitters club.

    2. This was totally our childhood. Our yard wasn’t huge but backed up to an old alley that was overgrown with honeysuckle plants. We would play for hours back there. Our parents let us know later they could always see us but always let us think we were hidden. Plant some large grassy plants that they can climb through!

  9. My daughter is 11 and my son is 7 now. Neither really ever played in the fort type swing set we had, but they did use the swings. The rope swing my husband hung from a tree was the favorite though. We could have not put up a big swing set and been just fine with just the tree swing. They do love the trampoline. When they were the age of your children, we bought one that was closer to the ground but about the same circumference as a larger trampoline. It was used constantly and we now have a larger one that still gets used by both kids (of course safety nets are a saving grace). I would have to say the most popular thing in the yard that we have had over the years was a dirt pile we had for some construction. Constant hours of play with trucks and gardening tools. Balls, trucks, swings, and maybe a soccer net and you have hours of entertainment without all the extra. The less you have the more it promotes imaginative play. I love what you have, but make it for you and your husband, just with kid friendly plants and paths. A gardening box or two is great everyone!!!

  10. I love some of these ideas, but I agree that it might be a bit much. We added a playset to our backyard for my kids’ 4th birthday this year, which I thought made us the best parents ever. (We have 0.23 acres in suburban Boston, so not room for anything other than that and some yard to run around.) The kids love going to the playground, but frankly they haven’t used the playset as much as I would like. I think on the one hand kids like novelty, so you may be disappointed that they don’t continue to use everything in your yard as much as you’d like. On the other hand, they can use their imaginations to make anything fun so you don’t have to supply everything. I do love the “cave” idea though.

  11. I grew up in L.A. but now I live in central NC.

    When I was a kid we had such a tiny backyard, but I have enduring fond memories of a huge hibiscus that was big enough to play under.

    Now we have about a third of an acre. A swingset with fort and slide is always fun for the kids, but they LOVE the paths we’ve mowed into part of our yard we let grow wild.

    If you’re doing zones and a garden, I think you’ll find they’ll have so much fun creating little worlds and hiding among the paths etc.

    1. Agree with lots of the comments here about toning it down. The thing I’ve noticed the most as a mom, and maybe I remember as a kid too, is that everything is better at other people’s houses (i.e. kids love novelty). That said, Jenny Komenda’s play houses are inspiring and her girls of different ages seem to love that structure, so I would consider that (and I am considering one myself!). Otherwise, I would stick to landscaping because that will inevitably spark the imagination (as others have said here) and add stuff that isn’t permanent/structural.

      FWIW, I grew up in the suburbs and my favorite memories of playtime are from playing make believe with what was around us – almost NEVER with a commercial structure.

    2. I am a preschool teacher, and I teach and learn with children in the outdoors all the time. I have a couple of thoughts for you.
      Your instincts for natural materials are spot on! Tree trucks, stumps as seating, etc, are perfect!
      One thing that I KNOW children use and enjoy for many ages/stages of development is a stage. Instead of a playhouse, consider a stage. I know it seems like a playhouse is endless fun, but it is really more limiting than you think. It’s a house and not much more. Instead, build a stage- simply a slightly raised deck/platform with a simple pergola or fabric awning as cover. I promise you they will use it to play house, and for “shows”, and more importantly they will use it in ways you never imagined.
      My other suggestion is for paths. Please consider making your path meander around the entire perimeter of your yard so that it makes a continuous loop or circle – no dead ends. Make it smooth enough for trikes, bikes, scooters, skates, play cars, skateboards, etc. If your children can ride in your backyard they will use your yard for more years. You can let them out there and not have to go out front to the sidewalks and monitor the traffic, etc. Cobblestones are lovely, but a smooth path will get used far more.
      Being both a mom and a teacher, I can say you have a very ambitious plan. I think you should choose a few important features, and press pause on the rest. See how you and your children and their friends use the yard before you fill it.

      1. Emily, take note! Best advice from a teacher above!! 100% agree on the smooth path for riding. My husband grew up in LA and rode the path around his backyard that was continuous for his entire childhood. Definitely function over form for the path, it is such a free thing to let them ride in the backyard on a path that isn’t bumpy. If Emily takes note of any of these suggestions, I hope it is this one.

      2. I love the paved path idea! My kids, 7 and 3, would love to be able to scoot or ride around our yard. Doesn’t look as cute but if you line it with durable plants it could be camouflaged.

      3. Great comment! I love the path idea, it makes so much sense but not something I would have thought of!

      4. I think the stage idea vs the playhouse is a great idea! We had a playhouse for our kids and while it was adorable in our yard it really didn’t get used all that much and was kind of dirty inside all the time. I also love the natural elements like the tree stumps. There are some great parks in Seattle that use natural elements that we loved.

      5. 100% agree on the path idea. My childhood backyard had nothing but grass surrounded by a path made from smooth, flat stones. We spent hours and hours riding bikes, scooters, and skateboards in endless circles. As I got older, it became a favorite place to walk and talk with my parents.

      6. I LOVE the stage idea! i created so many plays and musicals with my neighbor friends, in addition to intense games hiding in moving boxes and playing street hockey and building forts. I rarely used our swing set, and while I was a gymnast, my parents got a trampoline for my sister but i would never get one for my kids. It’s too dangerous and big and a pain IMO. BUT I can’t emphasize enough about the stage. I’m pregnant now and am thinking about a playhouse for our backyard, but now that you mention it, the stage is amazing and I love that so much more. Thank you!

      7. When we were looking to buy a house 8 years ago, we laughed at all of the “stages” we saw in the backyards! I think they were supposed to be wine decks (which is now on my backyard to do list…)

  12. I love all of your ideas! And can totally relate, I grew up with free reign on a 100+ acre farm and am raising 4 kids in a city. (First London and now Edinburgh.)

    Your kids have a different childhood and there’s no way you can replicate that. It might help focus on the feel you want (freedom I think) rather than too many ‘areas’. Our kids (all under 7) enjoy different things but the top hits are: their own shed to access scooters, spades, chalks, etc and store treasures like leaf collections. It doubles as a clubhouse and they are solely responsible for putting things away. I have an active child who is constantly scooting, kicking, climbing and a little creative who will collect all sorts of natural things and ‘decorate’ anything not moving with chalks and watercolours. Maybe keep things simple based on personality?

    A play/mud kitchen could be a winner since you’ll be eating outside a lot. Every kid loves ours.

    I love the slide idea!

    1. Yes! Mud Kitchen. Do people recommend this over the water table? It’s an either/OR thing, right? We had a water table and it rusted (even though it was indeed meant for water, so weird). And frankly I did find it a bit boring, but a mud kitchen … that sounds VERY fun.

      1. My 3-year old loves his (ugly, plastic) water table, and uses it like a mud kitchen, so there’s no need to over design it (just hide it in a corner where it’s not visible from the courtyard!). And I actually have found that the less we do the better– I had grand ideas of how I was going to build him a mud kitchen, and then one day I just moved his water table into the shade between two trees and stretched his digging toys and trucks along the space between the trees (so I didn’t have to look at it), added a 5-gallon bucket with a dispenser tap for water, and now it’s a mud pit/mud kitchen/water area that’s not just limited to “kitchen” style play. It’s far enough from the house that most of the mud drips off before he reaches the deck and back door. It is definitely the most-used part of our yard.

        My one other recommendation would be to avoid vines that grow forever– morning glory and ivy and jasmine are a life time of maintenance and extremely difficult to eradicate if your needs change. I’d go for plants that are durable over ones that are fast growing, as fast growing often = out of control.

        Looks so fun! There are plenty of great ways to use this space and it looks like you are on a great path. You might consult with a local landscape designer on plant selection, but your ideas and vision are solid. Can’t wait to see!!

        1. Yes to this comment about plants that grow too long/too much. Please research invasive plants and avoid them, plant native species. In the Pacific Northwest ivy is invasive and when it spreads into the natural ecosystem (which it does through wind and birds) it suffocates the forests. Invasive plants are a major cause of biodiversity loss. So be careful with viney plants and don’t plant morning glory!

          Also, I broke my leg on a trampoline as a kid and don’t recommend them

      2. Mud kitchens are wonderful and so easy to make, an old sink and a few bits of wood. Instead of a water table I had one of these for my son – huge hit! Not sure if it’s available in the U.S. but I recall playing with something similar at kindy when I was a kid. I put it out and pack it away sporadically to keep the novelty up, and it doesn’t need a permanent space.

      3. I should also mention – I had a sandpit and turned it into a veggie garden. My son loved it but it was just disgusting and I was forever cleaning it out, picking out spiders and leaves and finding piles of sand inside the house. Some people have mentioned rocks/pebbles – brilliant!

  13. My almost 3 year old son loves to swing. We also have a little area with rocks instead of sand that he likes to use his construction trucks in.

    1. YES. Right now there is a big pile of pea gravel in the backyard that they love. With so many of you suggesting it instead of sand, we are sold. THANK YOU.

      1. I would not recommend pebbles instead of sand. With sand you can build castles, dig and add water to make mud. Yes there is dirt. But that doesnΒ΄t hurt and kids love mud. Pebbles can also be a choking hazard for toddlers.

        My sister and I had a cute wooden play house growing up and didnΒ΄t use it so much because it got pretty hot in there in summer. And we live between the alps in Europe so I guess we cannot even imagine the summers you are used to.

  14. Chickens, chickens, chickens…even if its 2 or 3. I had 3 boys in 3 years and the time they spent chasing and playing with chickens and hiding in the chicken coop was priceless. The eggs are the best part. THE best move….also and a trampoline…when they get a little older, was hours of fun per day. Also just plain dirt and water…if you go fancy, then you will care when THEY WILL mess up your flowers or pots or whatever you purposely created. Give them an area of free dirt, sticks and water to make a mess.

    1. OMG believe me we talked about it. A lot. We both want chickens. We have friends of friends in LA who have them and their toddlers FREAK OUT over them and they are so entertained by them… I can’t imagine we’ll fit it in, but I WANT CHICKENS!!!

      1. You have to talk to P. Allan Smith about chickens. Maybe you could do a show together on this. Don’t overthink your kids play area, let them show you the way. Enjoy your yard for a good year then make your plans.

  15. Mine are 7, 5, 3, and eight months. We have a big square of pea gravel rather than a sandbox (been there, done that) and it is working brilliantly. No need to cover, no nastiness, so so much less mess, and great for trucks. It also is the base for our climbing dome.
    You also need to figure out the spot for the water table. Ours was a first birthday present and is still my seven year olds favorite. Sometimes we add bubbles.
    Two other considerations are storage for all the outside toys, from big to little. The other is some sort of mud kitchen. Simper the better.

    As long as you have a good fence and hard for them to open gates they will had a blast with not much more then their imaginations.

  16. A swing set is a must. Swinging is a brain-developing exercise and my kids, who are 10 and 13 still love it. We have 2 swings hanging from a giant oak and it is so unobtrusive, much less obvious than the 4K giant play sets. My kids had one of those at a previous house and guess what? They basically only used the swings. I played constantly in a playhouse at my grandmothers and my kids have begged for one of those, so that would be my #2 must-have.

    But truth be known, if you want your kids to enjoy the outdoors, what’s most important is to go outside with them all the time and don’t let screen-time pull them away from nature. Make screen-time (especially tablet time) a RARITY. Trust me, do it now and you will never regret it.

    1. My kids(4 & 7) could swing for days! I think both figured out how to pump their legs and do it themselves around 3.5 years. I can’t imagine a backyard without swings. It’s the best feeling when they go out to play together (without me) each day and swing and dig in the dirt.

  17. We had a side yard that I’m sure was a mess when we moved into our house so my dad filled it with gravel and I STILL (25 years later) remember how much fun that was. As soon as we have a real backyard, I’ll be doing a gravel pit for my boys to play with all their trucks in. Could even be as small as a sandbox, but less dirty…

  18. We made a bed of pea gravel under one of the eaves of our house instead of putting up a gutter, and had grand plans of a succulent and container garden in it, but our kids play with it all the time instead. It’s like a sand box, with out the issue of it being a litter box and with out having to deal with sand in diapers and all over the house. So, if you still like the idea of a sand box, maybe just put beds of pea gravel around one of their play areas.

  19. I see you’re saying “relatively drought friendly” about the landscaping, and yet you’re talking about a lawn and a splash pad. That seems incredibly irresponsible to me – California is in a historic drought and many people are doing whatever they can to conserve. You’re talking about possibly creating a man made creek in your back yard!! Please consider being more environmentally responsible πŸ™

    1. We have nixed both of those ideas (which I wrote up there) because of that – although the splashpad is supposed to just recycle its own water. Those were just fun fantasies which this whole post was about. Clearly we aren’t going to do 1/2 of these ideas because it would be insane, I was just collecting ideas and looking for feedback. Anyway, yes we will have a bit of a lawn but otherwise it will be drought friendly.

      1. I’m also from California. I would like to put in a plug for fake lawns. My grandkids love theirs for running around and playing on. They always look great and have no maintenance or water. If you want a lawn, look into the new fake lawns they have out there.

      2. In terms of landscaping, I highly suggest planting herbs, or other scented plants. As a kid, I loved being able to rub a leaf between my fingers and smell the scent it made. Rosemary, curry, sage, and mint are pretty easy to grow. I love the idea of planting mounds of lemon grass – it’s pretty, smells good, and you could make tea out of it together. Also- kiwi vines are beautiful if you have a good place for one!

      3. What about deconstructed granite? The kids could still play on it and it is environmentally responsible.

  20. This is amazing, but so much! I also am the laziest ever at maintenance so a splash pad and lush garden seem like so much work. Also beautiful. I still vote splash pad.

    A friend of ours recently did their yard with a grassy area wrapped by a sidewalk of sorts. Excellent idea because of scooters, tricycles, etc. that kids will get into, and then be playing freely under supervision instead of circling you and Brian in the courtyard as you frantically try to get them down to the yard.

    The slide with the tree stumps is magical. Sandboxes or a big dirt area are also big hits with my kids…

  21. I agree with Danielle. Your kids are in the phase of plastic houses, water tables, sprinklers and sand boxes. I know these items are a nightmare for a designer but kids love them. If I were you I would concentrate on making the adult area beautiful and as they grow spend the money on their areas. The way you use your outdoor space will change as they grow so let it happen organically. I spend more time sitting in a plastic chair in my driveway than anywhere else despite all the elaborate outdoor spaces I created. You mentioned you want them to play outdoors alone then I would spend the money on a beautiful fence and then landscape to make it look like it has been there for a million years.

    1. Your last sentence is basically what we are doing. All the landscaping with all the flowers is mostly in the front yard, but some in the back near the fence.

  22. (Posting again – this time without the links – just Google if of interest)

    In one of your English garden inspiration pictures you used Great Dixter in East Sussex. I’ve been there and is it is a truly beautiful house and garden. Their website has lots of useful information about the garden and how it is planned and designed.

    My parents (and their neighbours) had English cottage gardens and I think they are tricky to replicate exactly (box hedges, climbing roses, delphiniums, foxgloves, honeysuckle, clematis, etc. etc. ) unless you have the English climate i.e. lots of rain and mild winters and summers! However, it’s probably possible to get the β€œlook” by using native Californian plants BUT this look is probably not very compatible with kids, footballs (read soccer here I’m using the English version πŸ™‚ and if you get a dog your lawn is a goner!

    Another place for lots and lots of garden inspiration is the Chelsea Flower Show run by the Royal Horticultural Society.

    Hope this is helpful!

    1. I think you are right. We are going for bouganvillea instead of climbing roses, etc. I don’t know exactly what we are doing but I’m hiring a friend/expert to help me. I guess the idea is to have it layered and romantic, but probably more California inspired plants instead. I want to move to the Great Dixter!

      1. Bougainvillea is pretty and photographs well, but gets nasty thorns. Might be better for the adult areas. Honeysuckle could be a good option & would attract humming birds and butterflies.

      2. It is possible to get the English garden look using drought resistant plants and now (winter in California) is the perfect time to get them established in the soil before the heat of summer strikes.

        Here’s a link to a website with some good advice – and the image used is very “English Country Garden”

        The other good thing about English cottage gardens is that they use a lot of containers which is probably better for the drought conditions you have in terms of saving on water. Use lots of lavender and geraniums (pelargoniums) in dark wine or white colours (avoid bright reds and pinks which are more Mediterranean), lobelia and petunias from hanging baskets and window boxes / planters and it’ll be possible to achieve the look.

        It’ll be best to use this in your courtyard area (although the images with the tiles you’ve used look more Middle Eastern / Spanish to me). A more English look would be brick or York stone. The paths in the garden could be made from gravel bordered by inset bricks. I say this because English cottage gardens are labour intensive and it’ll be a lot easier to water if closer to the kitchen door / outdoor tap. Also less likely for a kid’s football to trample your lovingly raised flowers and you get to enjoy the scent as you sit there in the evening.

        From the photos, I can see that under the trees there is a large amount of dry shaded area with no grass. These are the worst areas to try to plant something! Perhaps Agapanthus (sometimes known as bears paws) will work (used extensively in Roman architecture and very sculptural) but maybe best just to resign yourself to the dirt and a good place to kick a ball around. Perhaps also raised stage or patio area for there where you can put a chair and read a book?

        Hope this is some foot for thought …

      3. A warning about bougainvillea: my sweet daughter walked into a bush in our backyard when she was two and still bears the scars from the cuts on her face. πŸ™ Some people get very bad reactions from the toxins in bougainvillea too. It’s beautiful and some can be found that have a singular trunk and the thorns are up high to avoid the danger!

  23. We live on .25 acres in the (albeit smallish) city. Most of the back yard is open grass for play and sports. We also have a small back deck with string lights, dining, and grilling. My husband built a sandbox that I was not totally on board with, but the kids love it. And I actually haven’t seen many critters mess with the sandbox. I would love to have a swing set or playhouse, but we have too many low hanging wires that cross our backyard for this to be safe.
    I’m glad you nixed the creek thing. You probably don’t have to worry about it in Southern California, but it would be a breeding ground for mosquitoes where we live.
    Good luck!!

  24. Sprinklers work great as a splash zone. Little kids are magnetically drawn to water so very shallow ponds or fountains? I’ve seen tiny frogs living in plastic sidewalk ponds! Something splashing brings hummingbirds. Love the pile of log sections.
    As a kid, we had big lots and were surrounded by vacant lots … dig pretend caves and forts, make houses with cardboard. Stamp paths in the weeds. A little bit of messiness is fun for kids. How about a zipline from the future playhouse upper story? (when they’re a tiny bit older). Something to climb up … a net or rope ladder? Someplace to make their own dioramas with plastic dinosaurs or build their own zoo with twigs and a bucket of plastic animals? A pile of dirt + kids = messy fun.

  25. We have a “rock pit”. It is a 16″ square fenced in play area filled with about 8″ of gravel. We have a sun sail above and it’s right off our laundry room. My boys are almost 4 and almost 2. They spend hours out there. It is more attractive then it sounds. We also have a massive garden and fruit trees. I can send pictures. We are on land but on a lake which makes me nervous with toddlers so I wanted an area of complete freedom.

      1. Oh my gosh. This just brought back such a memory. There was a narrow space next to our house in an old established neighborhood. A chain link fence separated it from our neighbor’s driveway. The previous owners had surfaced it with little rocks (large gravel ?) so we had a plastic climbing house, slide and toys out there. It was right outside the kitchen window. The kids spent many, many happy hours out there. We called it “the rock area” hahaha. I’d almost forgotten about that…

  26. I have 4 kids and the youngest is 11. Looking back I would say that the kids would really be into one thing each year. One year it was the trampoline and they were obsessed with it. Another year they just wanted to have those cheap plastic slip and slides. Another year some of them had new bikes and barely went in the back yard because they just wanted to ride their bikes. Their interests changed from year to year. You don’t need to start with everything at once. Sometimes it was good for my kids to have to beg for something. They would be more grateful to receive it if they had been waiting and wishing for it.

  27. I agree – simplicity is best! I have 3 boys, ages 8, 17, and 21 so I have seen what they enjoyed through the years. A flat grassy area to kick/throw around a ball or run and play tag, or set up a sprinkler to run through is a must. A swing or two is good exercise and fun. If not hanging from a tree, maybe hang a couple of kid swings from a simple pergola that you can later convert to a porch type swing? Facing West to watch the sunset? Also, instead of a sand box, for our youngest we did a “rock box” & filled it with small pea gravel. He could still have loads of fun scooping it & piling it with shovels and toy trucks, but it didn’t get him as messy and we didn’t have to worry so much about critters getting in there. And in spite of the safety concerns, all 3 of my kids have LOVED the trampoline and so have their friends (boys & girls alike). We’ve only had one injury in all these years (a strained muscle from landing wrong). I would love one that is built into the ground. Love your designs and I’m sure it will all be wonderful when you are done!

  28. Emily, you are awesome and I appreciate your internet presence and real, personal views A LOT! However, I agree with most of the previous comments, it’s way too much. Kids don’t care, and planning so much of it may take away some of the wonder for them. Way to go on drought resistant plants, but they still do require much more water than plants or cacti that would grow naturally, plus water to keep the grass and gardens alive. A splash pad and a man made creek in the middle of a backyard in LA (a desert) is not environmentally conscious or ecologically responsible. Especially when you have 2 friends in the neighborhood with pools! I hope this doesn’t come across too harshly, but I remember appreciating your concern in past blog post about raising grounded kids in LA, and this backyard plan doesn’t seem to represent that value.

    1. HA. Not harsh. Although I did write that we already nixed those ideas but they are fantasies of mine. Maybe i’ll put that part in bold … πŸ™‚ These are elements that I want, but sadly can’t have. I could also put a lake up there because lord knows i want to live on a lake, but no, we aren’t putting a reservoir into our back yard πŸ˜‰

  29. So we are having the same conservation right now since we are moving houses soon. Currently our kids (6 & 4) have a swing set with monkey bars, climbing wall, fort, and sandbox, along with a small trampoline and slack line. They love the fort, swings, and slack line. For sanitary reasons I would never do a sandbox again (we have a cover but it’s still a problem) and the monkey bars are another petpeeve. Ours are too high for the kids to go on without a grown-up so normally don’t let them use them (even though they can both do them). At our new house we will simplify to a tree house/fort (maybe with a zip line) and a tire swing. Hope that helps:)

  30. I love when you ask the audience about something I actually have some relevant input on. πŸ™‚

    My kids are 11, 9, and 8. I loved having our smallish back yard until the oldest was about 7. Around that time, he/they started playing with neighborhood friends around our (safe, low-traffic) neighborhood. They still did some playing in our yard, but more and more (and now almost exclusively), they’re riding bikes with friends. So I do think whatever awesome kid plans you have for your yard (which isn’t much bigger than mine) won’t last forever. Oh, but if we had a trampoline, I know they’d be out there on it.

    My first thought when I saw that awesome teepee-playhouse is SPIDERS. We also live in Southern California and have brown widows all over the place outside. As long as you’re good at cleaning/sweeping out the play structures, it could be so cute.

    So far I think my comment is kind of negative (sorry), so here’s what I love! A slide from the courtyard to the backyard sounds AWESOME. Gardening is a huge yes, in my opinion, as something the kids can always help with. And I LOVE all the landscaping ideas. πŸ™‚

    1. THank you! And not negative at all. I wish so badly our neighborhood was biking-friendly but its a bit too trafficy and no sidewalks (at least on our street) but who knows. Thanks for your comment πŸ™‚

      1. Per your bike-riding comment above, one more plug for your local Griffith Park “Shane’s Inspiration” playground: they have a flat, paved space for beginning bike & tricycle riders, featuring painted “roads,” pretend gas pumps, a small “store front” where riders can stop & play, etc. Also good for scooters. It’s small, but great for young riders just starting out. And it’s right next to the baby swings, so if your son is ready to ride, you can watch him while pushing your daughter on the swing!

  31. Your kids will be fine no matter what, don’t drive yourselves crazy. You’re giving them a beautiful home and plenty of room to run around and play, many kids don’t have even a quarter of their prosperity.

  32. Worth it-
    We had one of those fort/swings/slide combos with a sandbox underneath. It was a pirate ship, a rocket, etc . The sandbox could be covered, so nocturnal animals were kept out. Best investment ever.
    Garden boxes for veggies( science, good fresh food,etc) and a sunflower “house.”
    Deck area just for them-with kids sized outdoor furniture, a place to paint etc/make a mess πŸ™‚

    If I were doing this now I would have monkey bars for chin ups/etc and some giant lawn games ( chess/checkers/scrabble).
    Splash pads are fine but honestly kids love a sprinkler. I know how judicious we have to be with that here in SoCal ( I’m in San Diego)but still, it;s a universal plaything.

    LOLing though at you thinking that you’ll set up this awesome playspace and the kids will just go off and do their thing…I don’t care if you have Disneyland JR in your backyard, what they really always want is you and your time πŸ™‚ My twins are 30-and they wouldn’t hang out in their play yard without me/dad/grammy and the dog until they were around 8 or 9ish.

    It will be fun no matter what you do ( LOVE the slide idea btw!) and if you have a chance, check out my son’s design/art website in the link πŸ™‚

    1. I know. I keep saying – here’s how its going to work – you guys plan and Daddy and I drink coffee up here. I know that is not going to happen but I’m going to keep saying it to myself!!

  33. I live in California too, drought country, and I wanted some lawn. So I kept the lawn zone fairly small and seeded it with stuff called Eco-Lawn. It’s a blend of sedge grass that takes 1/4 the amount of water as a normal lawn and looks amazing. You can leave it longer so it looks like swales of grass, or trim it a few times a year for a classic lawn look. It has worked out really well for me.

    1. Awesome. Great to know. Our landscaper was going to give us some eco-options but I’ll make sure to ask her about this. THANK YOU

  34. I am LOVING this post! We just built a new house on half an acre and have NO trees (well, 2 tiny ones we planted last spring) and no natural barriers, etc. I’m desperate for a fun, attractive back yard but I know it takes time (and not to mention the $$$ it takes, which after building a new house we do NOT have – boo)

    Anyway, at our old house my kids LOVED the cheap plastic tree swing – it was the neighborhood favorite and one of the things we miss the absolute most about our old place πŸ™ My husband is desperately trying to figure out how to recreate that without a large tree. Just not the same, though, and it kills us. But we did create an area in the back yard to build our 7 year old son some sort of fort. Our 13 year old daughter also wants it to be for her as an escape – she wants a 2 story structure. I want to design it so that it is fun for the kids yet attractive and functional for us when they grow up and before grandkids come around.

    One other thing – I love the idea of brick or flat stone paths in the back yard so kids can ride trikes, scooters, or push trucks, etc, without worrying about them being in the drive way out front.

  35. So, I’d strongly consider putting your water feature in the backyard. I actually always thought they were kinda cheesy, but our last house had one and my kids (2-5) were obsessed with it. I’d have magically long conversations with people while they filled buckets and dumped them. Put it out back so you don’t have to worry about them.

    My new house has a built-in sandbox. It’s huge, wood, with a custom cover. Again, I’d never have done it myself but my kids will play in forever. As long as you do a nice one with a cover, it’s not that gross.

    1. I like the fountain idea! Kids can play with the water and you would have something beautiful for years to come even when and if the kids tire of it.

  36. Love these ideas! In order to keep our sand box (we did a pea-gravel box, but same idea) clean, we screened it in on the bottom section of our play tower! No animals can get in and the kids get a moment of bug-free respite and shade while they play. Here’s a photo so you can see what I’m talking about.

  37. Emily, I love all your fun ideas! I can’t wait to see the plan come together. I live in AZ so I’m trying to figure out how I can make our backyard (for a 6 year old), look lush with drought resistant plants. I want a patch of grass (which everyone has warned me against, but dang it, I’m from Spokane, I need some green stuff in the backyard to survive the desert!). I love the idea of making it a place for kids to explore. So it’s funny, you talked about how you worried you wouldn’t be able to make this land of wonder in suburban LA and it reminded me of my great aunt’s house in Brentwood. When I was a kid and we had moved from Spokane to Arizona, (which I hated) we would go visit this aunt. She and her husband had bought the land and built on it in the 1940’s, so their house was a beautiful but just a normal house off Sunset Blvd, surrounded by huge mansions. Anyway, the yard was not big, but it had these tall trees and it sloped up in the back. It had plants and dirt and hedges you could try and peek through. I LOVED her backyard. As a 10 year old I thought it was amazing and I loved hiding out back there. So you can do it! Your kids will love whatever you do. (Just have trees!)

  38. My advise would be to keep the designs simple and allow them to change as the kids grow. My family had a small playhouse when I was a kid and it was basically 4’x8′ platform with walls that was raised off the ground so you could also play under it. My favorite part of it was that it was a shell and my parents let the kids come up with ideas for it. I was always buying furniture for it at the dollar store and we repainted it every summer. One year we added a basket with a pulley, one year we covered it with a tarp for shade. It was our own little DIY wonderland πŸ™‚

    1. I think Ana White has plans like this for a raised playhouse. I’ve had it pinned for years. Sounds awesome.

  39. Much like your kids growth your backyard will evolve to meet their interests and age. While a full on pond may not be realistic in the square footage you have you can do a mud/sand play table. They are sooooo easy to DIY and please do let them get dirty – that’s what fond memories are about. You ABSOLUTELY CAN have a garden! You plant fruits and veg in all those pretty pots you’ll have peppered around the yard and courtyard and everyday it’s a built-in activity to water and tend to them! Do a small tee-pee with snap peas when the season is right, it will be so fun with them and it doesn’t have to be big since they are so little right now. You’re baby swing with change to a regular swing then a rope swing. The slide sounds awesome – kids and adults will love it so bonus. You know what’s the same a splash pad – an old school sprinkler that spins. No kid ever had a horrible childhood because their home didn’t have a splash pad. I love all the organic play elements, the tree slices, boulders, balance beam etc. Integrate some of those in now and they will use them for years. I love all the landscape lighting in your inspiration and it doesn’t feel too Disneyland to me. You’ll use the whole backyard more (kids AND adults) if it is well lit and cozy.

  40. Your backyard is already so beautiful and fun for kids! I love your nature fort idea, sand box or dirt/sand play area. A tree swing. Veggie beds! Paths leading to different garden zones. Plants to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, other birds and bees! Succulents and cactus. Rocks, big and small! To rearrange and use for playing with cars, trucks and small figures or animals. Our trampoline has been in continuous use (with new parts as needed) since we set it up 6 years ago, my son is now in 6th grade and still uses it with his friends. Teens love them too. A great antidote to video games, a big challenge at his age. A large lawn seems insane in dry LA, although I know that is typical there. A small lawn for tumbling is enough. Perhaps there is a neighborhood park you can walk to for playing on a lawn. Ball throwing doesn’t need a lawn! Basketball hoop for your driveway is great with bigger and smaller kids. I say go old school with your yard play ideas, let them use their imagination and be active. And create the patio area you want to enjoy. And let it evolve.

  41. Sand box 100 %
    We live in the Midwest and it’s not frigid today so my son is digging away. Best babysitter ever. It’s 8′ by 8′ and fits all sorts of trucks, shovels, and his super sand digger. We use tarps to cover it but I know they’re more attractive options.
    I know your yard will be the jam!

  42. We just did a slide in the hill that goes from our patio to the bottom of the yard, we love it! From my research you can still do metal slides, they just cost a bit more… although you might have better luck in California, I am in Michigan. In the end we had someone custom make ours with sheet metal because I couldn’t do plastic. In the end it was the cheapest option. Bottom line, do the slide! Both kids and adults will enjoy it!

  43. Trash pile.
    I grew up on 11 acres in the country surrounded by farms and when I was older I explored the countryside. But when I was younger I mostly stayed around the house but since we were country we had a trash pile. We ALL had trash piles with things like old broken down cars, empty 50 gal drums, tires, etc. I have fond memories of crawling all over that trash pile playing and pretending.

    (I know you can’t really have a trash pile in silver lake) but point is imagination thrives in “safe” chaos like that so take care to not make it too curated and precious.

  44. Both my son and daughter are the same age as yours (holla at those parenting posts – loved them because I am going through the same stages). I live near Brian’s parents and we moved into our new construction house that had a backyard with zero landscaping before my oldest (3) was born. Some of my “lessons learned” won’t apply to you because you have mature landscaping and probably no HOA. But I will tell you the best landscaping choices we made that paid off big time when it came to kids were not things that we intentionally put in for kids – we picked them because we liked them and it ended up working out perfectly for kids.

    It’s not sexy but the best decision we made was concrete. Lots and lots of hardscape for the kids to play with toys, push things, run around, and eventually ride bikes. Chalk is also a big hit and bonus it is easy to clean off.

    Pergola (covered) or another shade structure has been AMAZING and it has basically extended our living room outside. We made it into a comfortable seating area with outdoor furniture, area rug, etc. It is great for kids because we can move the water table or other toys under it during the oppressive Nor Cal summer heat.

    Least sexy and possibly not applicable to you is fake grass. Not like mini-golf fake grass but the soft kind that looks real. I am allergic to everything + limited maintenance + drought = good choice for us. We put our inflatable bounce house (totally recommend one of those too) on it for parties and it briefly makes us feel like above average parents.

    Love your blog!!

    1. Thank you! We have debated fake grass. Brian Henderson is VERY pro real grass (so am I but I’m more easily swayed to the other side). Thanks for commenting and so fun that you know his wonderful parents. If you know their house then you know that we have a lot to live up to. It’s not fancy, its pure magic.

  45. I think these are some cool ideas! I love that A-frame playhouse. Definitely get a playhouse and some swings. And GET A SANDBOX. You can get one that’s covered. My little girl (just turned 3) plays in hers non-stop. She builds with the sand, she pretends to cook with it, she mixes it with flowers from the yard–it is her favorite thing.

    Basically, kids can have fun in any open space with some nature around, so you really can’t go wrong.

  46. I love the picture of the little boy with the hose. The more you can veer toward that – things that are moveable and changeable based on the kids’ ideas – the better. Give them a grassy area, trails, a garden (sort of a natural structure to work within) and then freedom to make it their own. A slide they can move around sounds particularly awesome. I live in the PNW where it is muddy all the time so we have a different attitude toward dirt, but try to let yourself let go of “preciousness” and cleanliness out there, and let them go free. The more you do that the more they’ll want to be out there. Get dirty. Make a mess. Eff up the landscaping on occasion. And then hose off outside. A hot water tap on the hose is really helpful for that. πŸ™‚ Yay! Congrats!

    1. HA. I’m from Oregon and I love dirt. I’m my mothers child and I’d much rather play in the dirt than play inside. Sure, I don’t want to be spending most nights cleaning up sand in our living room, but otherwise I’m with you. They just shoved us all in a bath together every night. xx

  47. My only tidbit to add is to plan ahead….the kids get big quicker than you think…mine turn 5 and 8 soon and are far too big for standard playhouses. I’m not sure how that happened so quickly, but it did. I looked at the houses to the TP Toys link above and they are already too tall for them. Better to have something for them to grow into than something that only lasts a short time.

    1. Oh that’s interesting. those playhouses looked awesome, but they are too big for them now? Yah, that’s not good… ok something to think about.

  48. So I’ll begin by saying that I love your enthusiasm – but I ‘m of a certain age who has watched dozens of friends build and install climbing, play house areas only to watch them sit unused and eventually removed at quite cost – plus they have those things at school .So my thoughts are as follows- first a garden that all the fam can work in a BIG one with florals and veg -second- yes, yes, yes, on a lovely patio to have lots of family and friend meals- your children will learn about how important it is to be a good host and eventually will be comfortable about entertaining which is a huge life lesson. Thanks for the opportunity to be bossy.xo love your blog btw

    1. HA. I love this advice. Right now our plan is to plant some stuff, put in a path to the guest house, fix the landscaping in the front (it has gotten RUINED by the construction) then see what we think. you may be right about the playhouse. xx

  49. Trampolines are always a kid favorite. And dogs. Kids love to play with animals. Sandboxes are big hits too. Messy and a pain but provide hours of entertainment.

  50. Raising a 9 y.o. and 3.5 y.o. in a city lot. love all your fantasy ideas.

    For us, by far most used items are (1) sand table (we have a plastic ones, but there are really cute wooden/rustic versions on pinterest). The 9 y.o. still uses it even though she’s way too tall for it. Kids ask for it every nice day in the winter (because we have to put it away for snow – you won’t).

    (2) Chalk. Try to incorporate a sidewalk or surface somewhere for chalking if you have any artists. It’s also used to create rooms, towns, villages, pirate maps, etc. on our driveway to our backyard garage.

    (3) Hose. If you can’t do a natural water feature (what about a small natural trickle area instead of a “stream”?), or the splash pad (which is awesome and would give you the chalking surface (and extra surface for parties) – try to plan for how to incorporate the hose accessibility. I know CA has a water shortage, so perhaps this is not an option at all for you.

    (4) Play structure/forts of some sort. We have the temporary indoor/outdoor forts that you make from sticks/balls and sheets, but my kids love the neighbors little house.

    Vehemently against the trampoline. Too many injuries (even the non-serious ones) and used too little to take up such space.

  51. I would spend most of my money on the adult spaces; BBQ, outdoor kitchen, furniture, lighting, etc… It gives me such great pleasure to enjoy my outdoor living space. My kids are now in college and but when they were little, the did love their swings and slides and I did a dry creek bed (living in NV at the time). We had a fort, but they didn’t use it as much as I hope. I love the idea of a slide from with the tree stumps, etc… While trampolines are fun, the liability and homeowners insurance was too much for us and I knew they would grow tire of it.

  52. We have a small, hilly backyard, but we’ve managed to squeeze in a tiny above ground pool (it’s about 3 feet deep and has a hard cover so kids can’t get in without an adult), a trampoline and a geodesic dome jungle gym thing. Oh, and a rock box. Instead of sand, we used gravel AND we have a cover, so cats don’t get in. Kids love digging and scooping gravel. We basically spend all day outside in the spring, summer and fall, less so during the rainy season (I’m in the SF Bay Area, so similar temperate climate, though a bit cooler). Also lots of grass wherever we can fit it, chickens, and a little bit of a garden when we get our sh– together (i.e., not every year). Oh jeez, and a porch with a dining area, and a gas BBQ. It’s pretty nice outside! We spend a lot of time there.

  53. I have a 3 yo granddaughter who has an outdoor mud kitchen. Basically the folks bought an old wooden play stove for $2 at a yard sale and put it under a tree. Then they pulled up a bench from the picnic table and collected some tiny tin plates and miniature cooking utensils and pots at garage sales. A bucket of water and a spade so she can make mud. I tell you I have sat under that tree for hours with this darling girl while she endlessly makes soup, butters biscuits, and brews coffee and tea. She works quietly and independently and is completely engrossed in this. She collects nuts and leaves and if the folks give her an empty egg carton…well, she’s pretty much set for the day.

    My other grandchildren, ages 3 and 6, live on 7 wooded acres. They have swings and a platform built under a cedar tree which provides for great fun. There is a pile of rock, a digging hole, a secret garden, a veggie and berry garden, fruit trees, and plentiful running/bike riding. There is a fire pit and they are both proficient in making fires and roasting their own spuds or apples. There are two seasonal ponds with hundreds of tiny jumping frogs to catch for months in the spring! Yes, it’s a children’s paradise (in the PNW).

    The home I live in and where my two sons were raised is an in-city (double) lot. When they were boys, we had a tire swing and trampoline and lots of room to run and play ball. We’d set up a badminton net sometimes in the summer for ongoing tournaments. There was a basketball hoop on the garage and a pingpong table in the garage. When the youngest went off to college, our lovely yellow lab died the same year. We realized it was time for the garden of our dreams and we spent the next year and over $100K bringing in boulders and a landscape team that created five “rooms”, including two terraces with dining areas and a pond. It’s a full time job doing the maintenance, no lie. But it is natural exercise and we do enjoy the space. We’ve had some epic parties over the years. And yes, lighting is a MUST. It completely changes the look from inside the house as well as out. If you don’t have lighting and look out your window at night, all you see is your reflection. When there’s lighting, you see magic.

    1. Love the sound of all of these gardens Cynthia, I’m saving your comment for when I have a garden of my own someday!

  54. I grew up in prime suburbia, but was lucky to have a big backyard! It definitely wasn’t natural. It was a long football field length slice of yard, fenced in, with two hunks of concrete patio near the backdoor. There was no lush landscaping (minus a few bushes in the back corner of the lot) or “imagination zones,” but playing outside never felt dull.

    I had a swing set, which provided endless hours of entertainment. I used the top of the slide as a lookout point and the double swing became a carriage or time machine always propelling me to my next adventure. Since our yard was so long, I had plenty of room to explore, run, and practice my cartwheels. Our neighbor directly next door had a playhouse and trampoline that were HUGE hits. I went over there often and those structures were often the center of our play. Whether it was showing each other new tricks on the trampoline or using the playhouse a secret club, there was never a lull.

    My recommendation is to get a swing set or play structure of some sort. I love the idea of the obstacle course or natural fort. I think it’s very important for kids to have “secret” play spaces to use as clubs, houses, or whatever. I never met a kid who didn’t love a trampoline and would highly recommend, but I understand your concerns as a mother about it being dangerous. If you can’t make it safe enough for your liking or get one quite large enough – then save the heartache and pass on it.

    I know you’ve nixed the splash pad and creek, but a good old fashioned sprinkler and water hose can do wonders! My parents always put the sprinkler out while doing yard work and I was always delighted to run through it. Friends and I would often use the hose (with a nozzle) to chase one another and have “water wars.” For smaller kids, I think a water table or mud kitchen would be a really fun addition! I’m also very pro-garden if you have the space! Some of my fondest memories with my grandmother involved helping her tend to the garden in their backyard.

  55. About vines in the landscaping…we bought our house from a professional landscaper that had an English garden theme…and there were some different types of vines in it…And they are a nightmare! They aren’t contained, so maybe that is part of the issue (?) but they just take over anything and require way too much maintenance. If I had to start from scratch I would request the lowest possible maintenance plants and landscape plan…Trust me, even with that there will still be tons to do outdoors!

  56. I have a 5 year-old son. We have a small sandbox with a lid that has provided hours and hours of independent play for the past three years. If I had the option, I’d build one with a lid that can support weight and so it could be used it as a platform for play when the sandbox isn’t in use. Between our sandbox and big swing set, my son doesn’t need anything else to stay entertained in our yard. Though I do really want one of those natural play houses! John and Sherry from Young House Love built a sandbox at their second house with a hinged lid, and blogged the process, that they filled with gravel rather than sand, which is also another cool idea. Keep the landscaping to the sides of the yard so you have unobstructed views of them playing. Can you build a slide into the ground so that even if it is plastic, it isn’t such an eyesore?

  57. I love your ideas and your yard will be beautiful! I have 5 kids ages 1-10 and dreamed of them going outside and playing. Well they do but only if I go out with them! What?! I think young children generally want to be wherever you are. So when we built our house we focused on grassy areas, trees, big rocks for climbing/sitting, fire pit seating, lighting, beautiful plants, and a garden. That way adults want to go out more and kids follow! Can’t wait to see your awesome yard come together!

  58. A swing! A baby swing hung from a tree can be upgraded to a wooden, rope, or tire swing down the road. Definitely stick a garden somewhere. Growing things is magical to kids. I have no idea if you have pets, but a dog instantly makes any backyard 300% more fun.

    1. Wow! This post has generated so many wise comments from seasoned parents. I didn’t read every post so I may have missed if it was recommended: a rope hammock. I cannot say enough about how awesome this was to have, for adults and kids. It’s a napping snuggle place, a reading spot, a potential tent, a swing, a stargazing lounge. And it never gets old and boring, no matter the age of the kid. I certainly agree with the less is more philosophy. You might spend a lot of time and money putting in what you think your kids will want, yet come to find they never use it or ask for other things later. When my child was young we had a very small fenced city lot with two small trees. We fit in a small sandbox, garden, and hammock. The things she remembers most are what we grew and the games we played together. And the hammock. We don’t have one at our latest house and we all miss it.

    2. Your ideas are magical! I am not a parent, but I have a degree in landscape architecture (and a childhood full of playing outside). Forts are the best thing. Perhaps instead of providing the completed product, creating a “shell” of a fort so your kids can add and subtract on a whim…to construct their own worlds as needed.
      One of my ABSOLUTE favorite books on the subject of family gardens is Creating a Family Garden: Magical Outdoor Spaces for All Ages by Bunny Guinness. I highly recommend.

  59. What a fun mom! I lived with many acres as well and was drawn to the natural mystery of woods & organic landscaping. I love that all of these ideas blend in with the natural landscaping of the house. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  60. As a veteran parent, I say this: Kids have an uncanny way of NOT interacting with things the way you imagine they will want to (which often leads to disappointed/confused parents). Yes to the playhouse/fort/treehouse, yes to swings. Yes to lots of plantings and cool spots to hide and play, and yes to a large, flat grass area for sports and games. NO to the splashpad (imagine maintaining it and getting work done on it?!), NO to the creek (try a hose instead, lol). Since your babies are still pretty small, maybe even a cool sandbox would be fun for them. When they’re older, a large tree swing, a zipline and a treehouse are fun additions.

  61. Square foot gardening is so great for small spaces and gardening with kids! Highly recommend the book. We’ve had a play structure before but transitioned to a simple tree house (a lower platform in a tree) and my kids spend way more time making their own fun (building pulleys, making swings, decorating it, etc) in there than they did on the play structure. We also recently got a big trampoline and it is fully worth the ugliness and space it takes up. But my kids are 6 and 8 – I wouldn’t feel comfortable with younger kids unsupervised on it. And I’ll add that outdoor toy storage that is easily accessible for kids (taking out and putting away!) makes a big difference in keeping the yard clean and the toys in good condition. Good luck! Having a safe backyard where they can get lost in play and be free is good in all kinds of ways!!!

  62. I grew up in the country on 10 acres that backed onto forest. We had a dinky swing set (nothing like the fancy ones today) and a playhouse that never got used. I spent all my time climbing trees and hiding under trees. Seriously, trees and space to run around on are all kids need. You don’t need zones of imagination because nature is a huge, ever-changing zone of imagination even if it is just your backyard. Kids will play and explore, and they can be pirates or princesses or cowboys or wolves or whatever they want without all sorts of “toys.” Honestly, if you have a few trees or rocks for climbing and a place where they can hide, I think that’s enough.

  63. it doesn’t get much of a write-up above, but even with just those inspiration pics i think the courtyard space is going to be amazing. cannot wait to see it all come together but that space could be gorge and a bit of a reward / entertaining / outdoor family dining heaven for you and hub!

  64. Such gorgeous shots! I have a two year old and a tiny patio with no grass. It’s beautiful, just not kid-friendly. I grew up on 30 acres so this is a bummer for me. We have a small patch that didn’t get enough light to grow anything so I made a super easy mud kitchen that my son loves! I also made a small gravel pit with fish tank stones for the gravel. He has a sandbox (get or build one with a cover). In the spring I’m going to make him a music wall. Even though our space is tiny, lots to keep him busy.

  65. Our herbs are planted near where the kids play and they constantly pick leaves to eat or mix into their play cooking. Sandboxes and or rocky/gravel areas provide incredibly flexible space for imaginative play, especially with any access to water. Mixing sand, rocks water and grass into various things (With a few approved containers and stirring utensils) is basically limitless play.

  66. My kids play outside A LOT. So our grass and landscaping have been completely trampled. I’ve learned to care less about the looks of things and see that it’s good they are out there. The things they play with the most? We have two little dogwood trees that have low enough branches for them to climb. They’ve broken some branches, but it’s worth it. They have loved those trees for YEARS. We also have one tree swing. And a hose (no drought problems here). Three kids have been entertained by this for 11 years now. They don’t need much — inventing their own fun is good for them.

  67. A trampoline is a must and because I can not stand to see the nets we put in an in-ground one. The landscapers dug a hole as big as the trampoline we wanted then made it a bit bigger and lined the space in a circle with those curved cinder blocks. In went a bit of gravel and then we dropped in the standard frame and attached the trampoline. Top it with the pad and buy the next size bigger pad to cover the cinder blocks. You can hardly see it. No net needed. Perhaps this is an idea for the next house and a bigger yard though. I do worry about the core strength and wobbly necks of the little kids. If you have lots of kids of different ages you do have to monitor who plays on it at the same time.

  68. I also live in So Cal and love your ideas for outside play. When my children were younger we had a water table, play house and slide/play structure in the backyard. They were used everyday!! As my kids got older (5-10) we upgraded the plastics to a larger wooden plays structure with club house. I would also consider a zone for scootering, electric jeep, big wheel, wagon etc. My kids would usually do backyard part of the day and front sidewalk/driveway part of the day. (give yourself a comfy area to view the driveway/sidewalk as well)

    I’m a big believer in less is more but outside play with many options is better then toys and electronics any day!

  69. I say big grassy area with surrounding natural looking landscaping and you are good! Let the kids create and explore and add in more later!

  70. This all looks beautiful. We have a grassy back yard that backs up to the woods and my girls (three and four) love to be out there. They spend most of their time playing in the sandbox, jumping off of a fallen down tree (seriously, hours!), and digging in a dirt patch. We also car
    ved some holes in a tallish tree stump and added little tiny doors and made it into a fairy house. But if I am being honest, I like this a lot more than they do.

  71. Our kids are 8, 6 & 2. They play the happiest and longest when they are given “raw materials” to work with. Open space, rocks, garden tools, mud, trees with rope, random things to climb and jump off, a garden hose. Less is more for them because if it’s already built there is nothing to do but use it and that is only half the fun. And flexibility is best because it provides creative novelty. So cardboard boxes one day, then the sprinkler, the sand toys another, a new hole and fresh toys another day. Blankets dragged out for a fort. Spices and flour for creations and glass jars for collecting. And there is nothing better than a fire. We have a little fire pit that sees near Constant use. I could add one thing it would be more outdoor and kid accessible storage for their outdoor materials. Good luck!

  72. I grew up with eight brothers and sisters in the high desert. We had a yard with two tire swings and lots of dirt. We all have great imaginations and have become very creative people because we had to figure out our own play. We draped our builder father’s tripod in blankets to make tents. We made homemade stilts with cans and rope. We performed endless plays from an old wagon bed at the neighbors’ house. We pushed dirt into walls and furniture and built our own playhouses. One day after years of my stories, my oldest son, who grew up in a lush green suburban yard with a trampoline, told me how lucky I was to grow up like that. He wished he had had so much dirt.

  73. We put in an 8×8 sandbox this summer. We live in the country and our barn cats took to thinking it was a litter box so we cleaned it and added a top. It’s like the beach it’s so big, the kids and friends have played in it for hours and hours. I recommend it definitely. And I’d say leaving spaces natural and undecorated is important too, just to let kids explore and make use of natural nature.

  74. Love this post and the inspiration it gives. Obviously you aren’t going to create Disneyland in your backyard, but the dialogue that ensues when you throw out so much inspiration and thoughts and ask for others to weigh in is awesome. We have 4 kids (ages 3-12) with 2 acres surrounded by fields. This post has helped me to think of creative ways to help my kids play with more imagination and freedom. I love your blog for how it’s helped me to think about my own home in different ways. My kids love trees. They climb trees and swing on our platform swing ( ALL the time. I used to joke that I wondered what they did before they had that. They have whole “rooms” imagined in our willow trees. They tie ropes and swing. My 12 year old puts down a blanket and reads for hours under the trees. They make forts with blankets over the branches… I love the comments above about giving them just enough to let them create and imagine and decide how to play at their particular ages.

    Also, you should talk to the city and plan a park that incorporates all of your bigger ideas.

  75. Hey Emily, I would like to suggest making room for a sand box if possible. I used to hide plastic gold coins in my daughters for treasure hunts. She loved building cities and bringing little cars to drive around. All of your ideas look like great fun, especially the garden for growing food. The kids will love it all!

  76. Swing set! As a kid we had a swing set sort of like this: With an additional bridge to a fire-pole, a pirate rope, and the swings hung on the monkey bars. The bottom was a sandbox (and having it covered by the top portion was ideal since Florida is hot 90% of the time). The cool thing was we could play all sorts of games and we could chalk on it to turn into a princess castle, pirate ship, spy lair, tree house and cabin. On a hot day the sprinkler could be put out to be an attack from another kingdom, jungle rain or snow (we were Floridians, it seemed magical at the time). We played hours of “Indian Jones” with the neighbor kids and even “camped” in the top if you count coming inside as soon as it got dark. My sisters and I had a blast and so did all of our little friends. There was a 6 year difference between the first and the last of us, but no matter the age it was loved by all. The imagination was really able to play on that swing set. I would note, have designated sand box toys/utensils, my mother lost a ton of her silverware to the sandbox (because princess castles need pretty things). She ended up buying cheap spoons and forks, plates, bowls etc. for us to use. Fond memories all around.

  77. I have an 8 yr old, a 5 yr old, and a 3 yr old, with a typical small SoCal backyard. We’ve zoned in a sandbox in the side yard, a Frankensteined half-playset in the corner, a small playhouse, and a firepit. Over the years we got the most play out of the sandbox, (shade & net protecting the sand are essential), until age three when they were over it. The playset is only a draw when friends come over, which surprised me. The playhouse is popular with my kids until around age five. After age 5 I wish I could trade it all for open green space, (which we don’t have because of a pool). My older kids just want to run and play tag and kick a ball without it disappearing over the neighbor’s wall.

  78. Backyards are so personal to your family and so everchanging. I have a 9-year-old boy and his insterests have changed so quickly. It went from trikes to bikes to trampoline to soccer goals soo quick. My advice is landscape in the way you want, leave some areas open and then watch your kids to see what they are into. It will change so quickly or might be different than you are expecting.

    All that said if you do want to invest in something fun… these three things have kept him interested in most ages.
    Trampoline. I know its an eye sore but they will play for hours there….wear them out sleep hard hours. Its really fun with friends.

    Fort/Play house structure. The whimsy and imagination there will captivate them. Also a good place to store their “treasures” so every rock, leaf, and stick doesn’t need to come into your house. They now have their place….outside. As they grow older it can be reading nook. My son loves to go read and do homework outside.

    Concrete slab or walkway. The slab, I know… yuck… right? This might be accomplished by your driveway but kids love bikes and trikes and will scoot around in those for hours as you drink your coffee. Maybe you could have a walkway somehow that circles an area. This will last with skateboards, scooters, remote control cars, skates, bikes, rollerblades.

    I can’t wait to see what you will do to the courtyard!

  79. Search for Waldorf inspired outdoor spaces and you’ll find kids wonder zone ideas that are more organic to meld into your English cottage.

  80. I have a postage stamp of a yard for my 5 and 3 yr old in San Francisco. What they love is digging, growing carrots, picking flowers and watching bees and birds. They haven’t missed grass one bit – we walk to the park for running in the grass.

    If you want to let your kids make mud (mine love this), I would suggest getting your soil sampled for lead since you live in an urban area.

  81. Especially with those last pictures these really remind me of Zeek and Camille’s backyard from the TV show Parenthood – cheesy, but I was always envious of their cozy, fun dinners in the back yard with all those lights over the table on the patio and that layered english country garden look!

    Also, remember how close you’ll be to Griffith park now – real, expansive nature IS really close for you and the kids to go explore!

    1. We just had our backyard in Northern California landscaped this past summer. We wanted to make our small house feel bigger and since our weather is conducive to living outdoors most of the year I can say it was our best investment thus far. We had previously turned an existing shed into a playhouse and put a play kitchen in it and a play table/chairs and cozy rugs and pillows etc. Our girls (both 5) love it and spend a lot of time in their playing restaurant and other imaginary games. As they get older I can see bringing in different types of furniture like a daybed or a swing chair and having it be a place where they can hang out with their friends. When one of the options our landscaper suggested was grass I immediately shot it down as unnecessary…especially due to our severe drought. However, I was persuaded to put in a small grassy area and I have to say our girls LOVE running around on it and practicing their gymnastics etc…it was the best decision we made! I can’t remember what the grass is called but it is a more drought tolerant variety that takes very little watering after it is established (which takes about 3 months). And finally a simple rope swing has been a big hit. Hopefully next year we can put in a small vegetable garden bed as I know the girls will love planting/watching things grow and getting to eat what they grow…they talk a lot about their garden class at school. Good luck with your project…can’t wait to see how it turns out!!

  82. The absolute most used thing in our back yard (5 kids) is the path that goes around it. We poured a cement path when we put our patio in. When the kids were little they rode big wheels and trikes around it, that advanced to roller skates and scooters, and push cars etc. It still gets used all the time when friends come over and the youngest is now 13! We only have 1/3 acre. Trampoline was a huge hit, we went through 2 of them, and definitely swings, when they learn to “pump” themselves it is the cutest. And they played in the sandbox for hours!! For water all you need is a sprinkler and a slip and slide!

  83. I love backyards and yours looks pretty nice already. Having grown up in a small garden 20 years ago in a mediterranean environment the thing I loved most was our wooden jungle gym. It had two swings, monkey bars and a tall slide with a little hut at the top, and yes we played pirates and astronaughts on it a lot!
    Plant-wise I think a fruiting tree such as a lemon, orange, mandarin is really nice for your climate, the flowers smell amazing and nothing beats picking a fruit and eating it on the spot.
    Don’t forget to leave a patch of soil uncovered, it’s fun for kids to use the mud to build snail hotels or “cook” with it πŸ˜›
    Personally I would not do a water feature, the way the climate is going it’s not worth it. If you will have grass and you will use a sprinkler for it you could just lay out a big plastic sheet for the kids to splash around it while the sprinklers are on.


  84. I have one 6 year old and we’ve been lucky to live on a military base on a secluded cul de sac with a huge field full of trees and three parks for differing age groups behind us so our daughter is safe to play out front with her friends and out back too and all we have to do is keep the windows open and we can always see and hear her.

    The one thing we kept from all the yard junk we’ve bought over the years is a trampoline. It’s great to go outside right before her bedtime bath and jump on it with her. It tires her out! She also loves to take pillows and blankets and her klutz guide to the galaxy outside and lay on it and show me constellations. So they can be unattractive and you have to move them to mow but they’re pretty great.

  85. I personally want one of those swurfer swings. For myself! (And I guess I’d let the kids use it too.)

  86. Wow, so many great ideas. Not on your list, but my kids (and their friends) loved their Step2 Extreme Roller Coaster; it’s truly hideous looking but loads of fun. If you are going to add in fruit trees, look for semi-dwarf varieties. They have high yields (which dwarf trees don’t) but take up much less space. You should look at how MUCH food this woman grows for her family in a gorgeous garden on a typical suburban lot:

  87. What great ideas!

    What you will actually “need” will be determined by your kids interests, ex. An 8′ regulation size soccer net, a basketball court, a volleyball area. Leave yourself some undesignated space so that their interests can emerge and you can accommodate them. I have 4 kids and over an acre, but my flower gardens seem to attract every ball and are tackle zones, even though there is room.

    Good luck!

  88. Hi Emily, looking forward the after pics! It will be fun for the entire family!
    BTW, do you know where do I find a strong and sturdy outdoor swing that kids and adults can use and do not take too much space ? Kind of similar to the one in the first set of pics in this post….

  89. I agree with your gut instinct on this, Emily, that less is more. The trees and bushes and grass are what will make this backyard most like your childhood. As someone said, kids always like the real stuff better than the made-for-kids version. Sometimes, as parents, we want to feel like we are hands-on responsible for all the good things kids enjoy… sometimes it’s better, though, to realize that the things they enjoy the best are gifts from God, that we can’t really improve on!

    Re: the sandbox — we have a pea gravel area at the side of our house, and it’s a great place for the kids to dig. They can’t “build” with it as well as with sand or mud, but you’d be surprised how happy they are to imagine things of the tiny little mounds they can produce. It has provided hours of digging play for our kids, without the mess of sand or mud. And, again, was just something “there” vs. something we tried to put in for them.

    All to say, I think you’re heading in the right direction. I’m excited to see what you come up with! I once read about Compassion International using donations to clear out a bit of space within a slum to plant some grass. They said that that grass — just a tiny patch of nature in a very grim place — created more joy and had more impact than anything else they’d ever done in that slum. This backyard is already a beautiful, beautiful gift for your kids! The secret is, as was said, just forcing them to stay out there long enough to realize how much they love it. (You’ll only have to say “no” to coming in a few times before they stop asking.)

  90. This is delightful… reading all these ideas and the enthusiasm for happy childhood backyard memories. Mine are both in college now, and looking back I realize they rarely played alone. They always wanted to be with their friends! Your yard may become a kid magnet… attracting the whole neighborhood (so get ready, ha!)

  91. I love the slide from the courtyard to the yard! My daughters are 7 and they have loved their swings the most. They really want a large round swing that several kids can get get on, but we don’t have the right trees in our yard.

  92. Trampoline! My brother and I used to spend hours on ours. Now I have neighbours with 3 kids aged between 4-9; they have a massive custom trampoline in their backyard that cost their parents over 5K (it’s huge). A big expense but they are out there for HOURS daily, just bouncing around. They have a big backyard with a cubby house, soccer goal, etc but if there’s a kid out there at least one of them will always be on the trampoline! (I have a 1yo. He will have a trampoline one day. I already feel him judging me for not getting him one like the neighbours!)

  93. Holy smokes I am so excited for you! This is going to be amazing!! I grew up in a yard very similar to this and it was the bees knees.

    I grew up in a colonial (style) house in the suburbs of Richmond VA with a ton of kids around the neighborhood and it was so. so. fun. This was also the late 90’s when kids could run amuck – I don’t know if that’s allowed/they do that anymore…

    I think it’s so nice that you want to have the best backyard for your kids to foster growth, imagination, etc. I do think they do the heavy lifting of imagination themselves though. Here are my thoughts after being born and raised in the suburbs, just in case you wanted that version.

    I remember there was a spot where some english ivy was overgrown in the corner of our fenced lot and had some boxwoods sheltering it and I would go and hide with my well worn paperback of The Secret Garden and pretend I was at my own Misselthwaite Manor. By my parents didn’t create that for me – I did. They probably would have been horrified it was overgrown.

    My parents did build an awesome treehouse when I was about 6 or 7 replete with house matching siding, shutters, and cedar shake roofing (it was literally a house in the trees and I’m sure it cost a fortune) but my brother and I barely used it. (Until late high school where it became a tasting room for Boone’s Farm)

    I will say my neighbors had a sick teepee (albeit massive) in their backyard where we played Little House on the Prairie a lot. (My mother is a librarian, can you tell?) As we got older, probably 8 and up, life was much more about bike cruising and the neighborhood pool. Only “babies” played in the safety of the backyard unless there was like a cook out or something.

    Again, things may have changed quite a bit since 1998 when I was 10!

    1. Oh I just saw the comment about the trampoline – agre agree – another neighbor had that and we were on that thing ALOT

  94. Hi Emily,
    One thing I wish we had was a bike path in our backyard. Search ‘bike path in yard’ on Pinterest. You could incorporate it better as a landscaping border. It would be amazing to have a place your kids could ride bikes, trikes, scooters, without worrying!

  95. Some really neat ideas but I agree with a lot of the comments, simple is usually better!
    My kids love their swings and that the only regularly played with piece of man made equipment in our yard till we got a trampoline (which they love!)
    Other than that they just preferred digging holes and hunting for bugs and worms in the garden or making a ‘secret’ fort in the back yard in a well treed corner under a low hanging tree. They pulled crap wood, logs, and bricks in there to build their own furniture and like to play house and all kinds of other things under there.
    One idea I love hag my friend did was using her old stainless steel double sink and building it into a kid size base with little hooks and selves on it. You can fill one side with sand or pea gravel or just leave it open for them to put dirt or whatever they want in it and put the plug in and fill the other with the hose. When it gets dirty you can just pull the plug and let it run out underneath on the grass. Put out old kitchen utensils and dishes and the kids play mud kitchen or use it as a sand and water table for hours. If you’re worried about critters just make a little cover to sit over top of the sand side. So cheap and easy and easy to move out when they out grow it.

  96. My house needs a lot of work. But the one thing we did right, according to many many other parents was our backyard. It’s the place the kids want to be and yes, they hang out by themselves without needing us. That didn’t come until my daughter was about 5. I think our secret has been keeping it very forest/nature like with some controlled areas as well. To deal with the dirt, put in an outdoor shower! You’ll even love it! Then, let your back yard grow with them. At their age an outdoor play kitchen, sand box, swings, and climbing areas are great. Somewhere to draw with chalk. Your bean teepee is great idea as they love little hiding nooks.

    We have a play set with the favorite part being the surfboard swing. We have a trampoline but we got this when she was 5. We have a small veggie and herb garden that they will pick from and eat things like raw kale and carrots. Don’t make this garden too overwhelming for you! We live in Florida so we have as many fruit trees as we could possibly fit in our city like back yard (we live 10 blocks to the beach so we opted to not get a pool and have more space for nature play). We have lots of flowers for butterflies and bees, as easy maintenance and natural to our area. Host plants for caterpillars is a must!! This “butterfly garden” can be done in a relatively small space and they are fascinated by this! We have raised tons of butterfly’s!
    When she was 6, she helped her dad build a tree house with 2 elevated walkways. Their next plan is to build a bridge to another tree, make a small platform and then have a zipline!
    We also have our own adult deck space, of course the kids can use this as well but they are off climbing trees and vines, or bringing a few things from inside to help with their imaginary stories and games they do together.
    Long story short, most of this evolved over time. Children thrive in nature given the chance and just getting them out there is all it takes! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  97. We raised 3 girls who played with all kinds of things. Creek, wooded, hill area. Things they loved the best….air pogo stick(all ages can play on…just looked it up and they still make them, I think); a blow up wheel thingy they rolled in down the hill; 8×8 with 10 ft ceiling playhouse; and dirt, water and hose. Have fun!

  98. Hands down, our best investment was a $15 disc swing from Home Depot, still hanging from a tree in our yard. My boys, now 18 and 16, and their friends still use it! We replaced the bright yellow rope with a camo rope, so it blends into the background.

    Our home came with a beautiful play structure, but it could never compete with the forts the boys built with boxes, sticks, and scrap wood.

    I love the natural play structure – it looks perfect as a trellis for beans, squash, or indeterminate tomatoes.

  99. Definitely an area for sidewalk caulk. My two-year old has learned all her numbers and alphabet by playing outside with sidewalk caulk in the driveway with Daddy everynight. I want to add a cute chalkboard to our fence, but in the meantime any concrete surface is fair game.
    Our under-the-swing playhouse gets daily use too. We let her pick out a concrete animal for her birthday and she has daily conversations with “puppy” in her playhouse.
    We also did a small deck planter and enjoyed fresh salad greens all summer from it. She loved helping to pick dinner… and made her actually excited for salad. Win-win!

  100. I hope you realize you’ve just described a $200K backyard? I am in Florida and just completed a wonderful backyard kitchen without bells and whistles – the basic is $10K in this state. No refrigerator or built-in cooler – which my 20 year old lobbied hard for. Good Luck!

  101. Definitely grass!! I’m a 90’s kid and grew up with three other sibling and lots of neighborhood kids to run around with and we were always playing games on the grass. We also had this awesome play structure with swings, a slide, monkeybars, and a little play house. We would play games there all day. I was also a nanny for years and the number one thing I’ve found kids to love is grass. There’s so much you can do with grass; picnics, tag, sports, water balloon fights, etc. I know us Californians are in a drought but grass will always entertain kids. Kids just need their imagination.

  102. I have 2 boys and they have grown up on 5 acres. They were VERY BUSY as youngsters so they favored riding toys. Bikes, scooters, etc. I would agree with the fact that outdoor favorites change. When they were little they played for hours in gravel pits with lots of tractors and “their guys”. I’ve always provided lots of balls and equipment. In summer we did sprinklers and water balloons. I do wish we had a pool for them. They never really did anything with swing sets. But they mainly played in our trees. They would build climbing walls up to sit on platforms. All their activities were based on their ideas. I just simply said “go play” and they figured it out.

  103. A basic fort with at least three walls and a roof, and a pea gravel pit instead of a sandbox. Let their imagination do the rest!

  104. Teepees, veggie garden, play area, grassy area….all great! Drought tolerant plants are a must and lawns are huge water suckers. Think about a high quality faux lawn. Looks amazing all year and none of the maintenance. Winning!!

    Remember to think of slip factor (wet) when deciding on which tile/flooring you’re using for the courtyard. Super important to check into before it goes down (or someone does from slipping) πŸ˜‰

  105. I adore your blog!

    Regarding all the grass in your yard — I would so appreciate it if you guys could do a post about making a yard kid-friendly during the intense drought that we are surviving here in the West. I was reading your post about a “big grassy area” and of course that’s what we all want for our kids… but are there kid-friendly alternatives that can be made?

    Thanks so much!

  106. Regarding slides, especially metal ones, be careful – they can get incredibly hot in the summer, maybe have a tunnel one or install it in a shady spot.
    No need for a splashpad – there are awesome sprinkler attachments out there! Save that money and buy that fantastic outdoor tile for your patio!

  107. This is all beautiful and it will be wonderful. That said, the beast in our backyard that gets the most passionate, consistent use from our toddlers all the way up to visiting teens is…the ugly-butt trampoline. They love it, and it is unbeatable for getting out wiggles (essential). I would never have gotten the darn thing, but it came with the house, and despite a few minor incidents, safer than I expected. And you can ZIP KIDS INTO IT. It’s like a giant playpen. Obviously not without supervision and whatnot, but very low energy on the parental part, for very big energy on the kids’ part.

    And also, the courtyard! And pretty lights! Because it’s true, kids will make hay with whatever, but grownups deserve a lovely place to sit and watch them at it πŸ™‚

  108. I love the vine tent. I actually think that would get a lot of use from little ones and they’d never outgrow it. It’s beautiful all on it’s own. I think that’s a genius idea! Also a swing hanging from a tree and sprinklers in the summer at their age are great. Maybe a little covered mini “outdoor kitchen” to play in? Where they have dirt and can play restaurant etc. I have two girls so boys are a bit of a mystery to me. Whatever you do I can’t wait to see!

  109. I grew up in a typical 1/4 acre section in New Zealand, one of 6 kids. We had a play house, a very large vegie patch, lots of trees to climb ( and to hide from annoying younger siblings) and a large grass lawn. This was a cricket pitch, a rugby field, somewhere to run with our pretend horses and somewhere safe to pitch tents and have overnight camping sleepovers. Other friends had sand pits and one had a stream so it was always new and exciting to go visit. My cousins had a patch of dirt and they made a bike track with lots of jumps and tricky tracks.
    Just be careful with slides as the surface can get molten hot under the sun. One of my brothers has scars from 2nd degree burns off a metal slide.

  110. As a mom of two young boys roughly the ages of yours, I’ve been pining for a yard instead of the tiny patio we do have. Both sets of parents live close by and have awesome yards so we’ll just bring them there to play sometimes. Some things that they really like are the trampoline, the big tree in the corner that creates a natural canopied play house, a lawn to play ball, a mini basketball hoop, swings, and a large concrete area for bike/scooter riding. They also like the sand box but I agree it can be gross unless you have a cover for it. Good luck!

  111. I’ve never commented, but I have to weigh in on this great question! I have three kids under nine. Like you, Emily, I grew up building damns in creeks and forts in the woods, but I now live in the city with a mid-sized yard. With lots of trial and error (watching my own kids and the multi-age neighborhood pack), I’ve found that there seem to be two keys to replicating that β€œin the wild” experience in an urban/suburban yard.

    First, as someone suggested above, make sure there are opportunities for secret spaces that feel out of adult view. It’s the best when kids feel they discover or create these spaces themselves – areas behind tall grass, under pine trees, or inside hedges can be way more exciting than more obviously parent-made playhouses.

    Second, include LOTS of loose parts. That’s a child-friendly landscaping term for movable objects with no defined purpose: rocks, sticks, big pieces of bark, tree cookies (thin slices of logs), boards, sections of rope, stumps, and logs. If you are brave (maybe when your kids are a bit older), you can even add less aesthetically pleasing things like a few old tires, bricks, and sections of pipe. You’ll be surprised what they create!

    Basically, kids love to solve design problems just like we do, and it’s great to give them the opportunity to create their own space in ways parents might never have thought of! You can find more info here:

    P.S. A little blackberry thicket will keep toddlers and preschoolers busy for hours, and it takes (almost) no gardening know-how or maintenance.

    1. (not blogger Emily ^) love this – secret spaces they feel like they discovered. So key. And you have unlocked for me why I long for a house with “nooks” before my kids are grown up! Also love the thicket idea. Your thoughts remind me of the book Roxaboxen where they create their own town out of stones and broken pottery and plants.

    2. I get to go to a cooperative preschool with my kids as the parent teacher. We do “loose parts” and I totally agree with it. This is my third year there and I guess I have been taking it for granted, but this is exactly what we do. It is a designer’s nightmare, but so fun for the kids.

      Emily, it may be hard with your schedule, but have you thought about doing a cooperative preschool? I don’t have anything but a pretty adult backyard because I get to go to school with my kids one morning a week. You would love it. It’s in a midcentury modern house with a water table, bike paths, sand, pirate ship, doll house. Because we are there, I don’t feel the pressure to do that stuff at my house and instead take the wisdom with how we play at home. We love boxes…

  112. Big grassy space to play tag, wiggle ball etc. swing set with a fort swings and a bar. Start there and add or subtract as the kids get older

  113. I grew up in both California and Arizona and my childhood memories were playing and splashing in the sprinklers in California, and in Arizona my friend and I would collect as many tumbleweeds as we could find and make big dome forts out of them. So, some of your ideas above reminded me of that a lot.

    I don’t think you need to spend several thousand dollars for that splash pad thing, just get a sprinkler! The grass will get watered and your kids will have fun at the same time. You can also easily get or make a teepee with sticks and canvas. In my experience the most fun activities don’t cost much, if anything!

  114. Hi Emily! I don’t think I have ever commented here before! Congrats on the new house; can’t wait to see it all done. My boys are 4 and 7 and love to dig in the dirt and mulch with trucks and shovels. We tried a small sandbox with a cover and my youngest loved it. Me, not so much. It still had bugs and I got tired of cleaning sand out of my son’s hair and everywhere else! Dirt is much easier for me to manage. ? They enjoy a water table and sprinkler in the summer. They would LOVE a trampoline, even though the safety freak in me is a bit scared of them. I love your idea of a little house and logs to climb. Lastly, I had grand visions of our children running in the backyard and playing on their own while my husband I relaxed on the deck, but alas, that isn’t our reality. They very much want us to play with them all the time, or at the very least, be out with them (even though we can see our entire yard from our kitchen/lr and the yard is completely fenced). Sigh. We are working on it and of course want to play with them but also want them to have freedom to explore and be more independent. I hope you will have better luck than we have had with that. Having playmates for them helps!

    1. My boys (2 and 5) love their mud kitchen. They will play there for hours with minimal supervision required. Veggie gardens are awesome and you will find your kiddos will eat the weirdest produce if they had a part in growing it.

  115. I have three boys under 3, 7 and 10. We have a large yard and a creek (on the other side of a fence so I can control access a bit during big rains and times where we don’t want the muck). My advice would be low maintenance native landscape that does not require a ton of maintenance on your part (or expensive landscapers to maintain it). Boulders, tree trunks (a little tree trunk table and stump chairs for picnic and tea parties tucked in the shade), maybe a swing hanging from a tree or a knotted rope swing. My irrigation system acts as our summer sprinkler. I set off different zones and they have to figure out which one will go off next. Practical and fun lol. Maybe in LA with the drought you can’t have irrigation though? We usually have chalk, bubbles, toy sling shots, toy bow and arrows at the ready, but climbing, hiding and camping in the backyard are favorite activities. Also, what about a dry creek bed? Fills when it rains? My kids stack the rocks to make dams, make bridges and splash in it on rainy days send boats down. Birds love it too. Maybe a couple of bird, butterfly or bee houses? My kids love checking each one and leaving little treasures for birds to build with. You are on the right track. My ten year old’s bday party for the last 3 years we have done a Capture the Flag party in our creek area and eaten pizza out of the garage. They play for hours. Its legend in the neighborhood and all ages come and its awesome. Cant wait to see what you come up with.

    1. I second the dry creek idea. We put one in this year (a weekend project –the kids helped!) and it’s really sparked their 5 and 2-year-old imaginations. Some toy boats and a little bridge help, too. It makes a good edge to the grassy area.

      My 5-year-old (boy) is super into his fairy garden. He’s got a little house (homemade birdhouse) and an Irish moss plant. He added gravel to make a patio and has since decorated for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. He got a package of small bottle brush trees at Target for the latter. He’ll spend hours out there just making up stories. Nature boy! Look up fairy gardens on Pinterest –oodles of ideas from in-the-ground to in-a-pot. Super simple. You can find supplies at garden centers, botanical garden shops, craft stores, and from nature itself.

      We’re missing the climbing, swinging, playhouse aspects of a good playscape, but we live a block from a massive community park that satisfies active play and next spring I plan to add a hideaway element –either from climbing vines, sunflowers, or wood construction. And my 5-year-old spends a lot of time climbing the big cherry tree that sits in the middle of the yard.

      We also have two raised garden beds. My kids are so obsessed with the garden that I don’t have much of a harvest at the end of the season, particularly of carrots and beets.

      All this is done in a backyard that is approx 40×40.

  116. I have two young kids, and we’ve been in a lot of outdoor ed/nature/forest school type programs. I’ve also lived with them in a house where we had a 2 acre backyard and apartments where we’ve had no backyard (but great city parks). I’ve also had tons of experience working with kids and have read tons about child development and nature. So that said, here are the elements that I believe, no matter what kind of wild or landscaped backyard you have, are really perfect for kids: some sort of play home (willow, built, treehouse, whatever) with a little table and chairs and maybe a “mud kitchen”, something to climb (ER doctors be damned – I have too many overprotective doctors in my family that won’t let their kids do risky stuff and their kids tend to lack imagination and awareness of what’s too risky or safe enough for them, tbh), some sort of swing, somewhere to dig and build, something to lug around, and something to care for (a little garden plot – though for a number of years “caring” for it will probably include inadvertently killing seeds and plants, but it’s still so good for them). Nooks are great, and free open running space is great but they probably won’t get into that until they are a bit older, like 4 and 6 at least, which will actually come so soon! (sigh). Some people suggest having something from the 4 elements in a child’s life – so that could look like swings, bubbles, silks and streamers (air), firepit (fire, duh), sandbox or mudhole (earth), and some kind of water play. It sounds like hippie jargon, but it really does make a child’s life feel full and magical – it used to be kids and communities just had all that but now we have to be a little more intentional. And do the slide from courtyard to backyard! That’s so fun! You could probably find a vintage metal slide, right? Or an attractive enough yellow or dark blue plastic slide? I love your patio/courtyard ideas, too. Dreamy! I would love to plan a backyard that is kid-loving and beautiful. Enjoy!

  117. Lovely and fun ideas all around!
    As a mom to a 5 and 6 year old – Outdoor fun times = HOLY MESSY KIDS. Which is great. But messy. If you are able to put a hot and cold faucet outside the house so you can hose them down or even an outdoor shower – it is heavenly! We have this (hot/cold hose faucet) and boy, does the clean-up get done with a breeze, and no mud and dirt make it into the house.

    And I am totally rooting for a splash pad. My kids will loose HOURS at our community splash pad. πŸ™‚

  118. I love the passion that people are writing with their comments. πŸ™‚ I’m sure it won’t look this way but those backyard shows on HGTV where they go overboard always make me so sad. I like the idea of respecting the land and making look as natural as possible. I grew up with a big backyard and my favorite thing was a very wide bench that separated the patio from the lawn that I used as my “stage.” That’s all I needed in addition to a very wide path to bike around the lawn. As far as plants go, my favorites are salvias which have been attracting butterflies and hummingbirds like crazy – that would be fun in your garden. Whatever you do, I’m sure it will be amazing!

  119. My daughter LOVED the playhouse my husband built for her many years ago.

    My husband owns an outdoor lighting company here in Southern California. They have great outdoor string lighting options. Some even have copper shades. Here is the link

  120. Sandboxes forever! My girls are 7 and 5 and still spend so much time in it. We have a light weight netting and pvc pipe cover that goes over it to keep cats out and that’s light enough they can take it off and on themselves.

    Another thing we have that they love that might not be feasible with your kids being younger is a scrap wood pile that they get to do whatever they want with. They have used it in more ways than I could ever have imagined. Then there’s just a big bin for them to put it all in when they need to clean up.

    Also, if you can have them, I recommend chickens. They’re fun to watch and easy to take care of, plus- EGGS!

    Love the garden and playhouses you posted!

  121. Looks like Danielle hit the nail on the head! Our sandpit was the best thing we did for our kids (boy & girl) and 8 years later they still play in it & love it. Its been wonderful watching how their play in there has evolved over the years. We put a cover on so you can keep animals out. And because we have such a small yard we built a fort over the top so the sandpit has shade and they have to climb up into the fort. A monkey bar has been a favourite for the last few years too (also attached to the fort). The rest they just have to make up. They love playing with water on the grass; they go exploring for small lizards in the garden; they come up with all sorts of wonderful adventures & games. The only other thing i would add if we had the space would be the vegetable garden. Dont over think it, just put in the grass for now and perhaps a cubby/fort and then add as you start to use the space and see how your kids like to play. Good luck!

  122. Water is a must in SoCal to cool down and actually use the yard in the summer months! So some kind of splash area if you are not into a pool (you can have it fenced!). We live in SoCal, inland from LA so hotter, but the kids are in the pool April – Sept/Oct. We don’t heat it. My kids are 9,7 & 2 and even the youngest can kick about on his own now with a floatie.

  123. Love these ideas, but kids are creative all on their own. A great tree for climbing and shade, a fort, and we have a mud kitchen that our boys still love. Hammocks and reading nooks spread around make a great place for kids to getaway as well. Looks like a fun project. Have fun!

  124. I love all of the natural play ideas! My husband & I grew up with the boreal forest as our playground. Unfortunately for our kids, we now live just outside a prairie city. As a result, we’ve tried to incorporate imaginative play into our landscaping.

    The biggest hit for my kids (4 & 7) is the rock pit area. We created little rock pathway “road” between two pits. The pits are bordered with large rocks and one is filled with smaller rocks and one with sand. It blends nicely along our dry rock creek bed. Next year I plan on have beautiful flowers and plants overgrow around the area to make it look like it’s always been there.

    We do have more space than you but I think smaller rock pit/play areas weaving through and blending in the landscaping would look amazing in your yard!

  125. Wait wait wait – you have a guest house?? I don’t remember mention of this. That’s awesome! I was wondering how you were going to handle guests.

  126. Just keep in mind that they grow so quickly it will blow your mind. Try to keep long term in mind. I have two boys the same age and we had to take down the giant play structure after only two years because they were climbing onto the roof of the elevated play house (slide was accessed from house) by the time they were 5!
    The teepee fort idea seems like a winner. My boys are now almost 10 and they would still play in it.
    Also, they make toys and play out of things you would never think of so open areas are key.
    I nixed a sandbox and took them to the beach instead…the sandbox is a nightmare with dogs.

    Their imaginations will lead to endless days of fun no matter what you do with the yard.
    Best of luck and enjoy it all!

  127. It sounds like you’re putting lots of thought & effort into your outside space, which is wonderful. Don’t try & compare your backyard to the one you grew up with. Whilst your upbringing sounds amazing, your children will also have access to so many other exciting cultural events that you wouldn’t get out in the countryside.

    I think it’s really important to create a space that will function for all stages of child/teen hood & that’s where I would invest the big dollars – landscaping & the courtyard area.

    In terms of specific items for younger kids:
    – Splashpad: I’d forgo this if you have access to friends’ pools & are also able to use a sprinkler at times.
    – Sandpit: I’d go with gravel and mix it up in terms of sizes.
    – Swing: if possible, I’d hang one from a tree as I think that would get more use long term (as opposed to a stand alone play structure).
    – Slide: I’ve only got a young toddler so I’m not sure at what age they can use a slide safely without parental supervision but that’s something to consider.
    – Veggie box/es: fantastic idea! I’m not sure what grows easily where you’re located but I’d try & go for things that your kids can pick & eat straight away – cherry tomatoes, beans etc. Herbs are always useful as well for your cooking.
    – Cubby house/mud kitchen: this company ( does cool ones. You may be able to find a US equivalent or get your builders to knock something up for you.

    Personally, I would try and go with a very low maintenance garden (plants wise). Otherwise you’ll be spending all your time maintaining it or paying lots for someone else to.

    Best of luck with the planning.

  128. So I have a 5 & 2 year old and we have lived in 4 houses with four very different backyards (military). What I have found is this: Playhouses/fort structures are rarely used, filled with bugs and a supervision nightmare if you want to let them roam, esp with friends. What have been huge hits are mud kitchens, tree stumps, edible bushes/gardens. At the moment, the big wins in our neighborhood are- a paved storm drain area that my kids have dubbed the “scooter loop” and by the entrance there is a semi circle of landscaping rocks that scale down to pea gravel. They LOVE to climb on them and play with the gravel. In the summer they turn into a trickle water feature to the absolute delight of my son. My only note, about pea gravel is that its best to hard scape around it. They WILL throw it and picking it out of the grass to mow is frustrating. Platform swing= more fun. Kid sized wooden picnic table=very versatile. And don’t forget that metal slides get super hot in the sun. Either way, Im sure its going to be awesome!

  129. Everything that Reagan said!!! That gal is speaking such sense…..focus on making it a beautiful garden that ticks the boxes for the WHOLE family i.e entertaining family friends etc…..the worry with making it to “kid-centric” is that kids ALWAYS ALWAYS want to play with the things/in the areas that you didn’t INTEND for them to play with… much as we would love to give our children the best of everything and the MOST perfect space, you will be doing MORE for them by giving them LESS. I also think you need to take a research trip (ha ha) to Berlin and/or Amsterdam!! As a family those cities have our kids most fave play parks anywhere….mainly because of the materials used, they feel so organic and almost like the kids have made them….very very simply done. Can’t wait to see how it all turns out. All the best. xx

  130. Hi! My family lives in Ojai – lots of land, trees, and not so much water. My boys, ages 4 & 7 (and another due in March), love doing what everyone else had already mentioned – playing in the dirt, climbing trees, and using their imaginations to create their own little worlds and games. My recommendations are go for turf instead of grass (expensive, but worth it), a tree swing (if possible), a playhouse (that you like the looks of and will be big enough to last a number of years, and put in a bunch of paths around the backyard for your kids to run, play, and ride bikes/trikes around. We have a mix of DG, mulch, and dirt, and lots of drought tolerant plants that flower and attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. It works for our kids as well as our dogs. πŸ™‚ We also sandwiched a bocce court between metal raised planters that we’ve been able to keep full of producing vegetable plants (thank you CA weather), which the boys love and can be used for other lawn games as well. We dream of getting our own bee hives and a zip line…

  131. I’m not a parent, but when I was 5 my dad built me a playhouse (he even took it all down and put it back up when we moved two years later). The best thing my parents ever did was to put a full size dutch door in as opposed to a small kiddie sized door. It was simple square structure with a windows on all of the sides. That playhouse grew with me and my siblings from tea parties to playing “McDonalds” to having sleepovers in it when we were teenagers. We used our imagination and made so many memories. Now my own nieces are reaping the benefits and hosting their own tea parties in the same playhouse. My parents regularly say it was the best thing they put in our backyard and I fully agree!

  132. I am a mom of 3 (15, 12, and 10 year olds) and a landscape architect. I have been in your shoes personally and professionally. I love,love, LOVE your imagery for the courtyard and can’t wait to see what you end up doing!!

    Regarding your master plan, I think the way I would approach your project is to first categorize your yard into different zones. For example, the areas closest to the house would be the more designed and “built” zone (like the courtyard.) The further you move away from the house, the zones become less structured and wild. Then I would figure out the space planning in a conceptual way; like adult entertaining area, active play area, quiet play, imaginative play, farm area (veggies, chickens, etc.) After that I would populate the spaces with the age appropriate activities that you can change as their interests evolve (like furniture!)

    We did our yard when our kids were toddlers, and the one thing that I regret was opting for more lawn over a paved area to ride bikes, scooters, jump rope, shoot hoops, draw with chalk, paint, whatever…. The lawn was definitely more pretty, but my kids never played on it.

    The trampoline…my kids still love the trampoline, even the teenager. They jump on it, sleep on it, make forts on it. Dangerous and ugly, but a perennial favorite! πŸ™‚

  133. I have 5 kids age 5-15. My kids favorite things to do outside are: climb trees, make dangerous and structurally unsound forts, play in the dirt, help in the garden, chase the chickens and/or the dog. The trampoline and the basketball hoop get a lot of use as well as the little playhouse we had when they were younger. Less is more. Their imagination can do more with a blank canvas.

  134. For sure green space. If it doesn’t keep well, look into artificial grass. Our lifesaver. Also, a bounce house is a huge hit (Amazon). Packs up small and easy to set up. We are on year 3 of ours. If you’re building a play house, consider open air. They tend to get gross and buggy and kids don’t want to go back in them. for some reason my kids 5, 3 can play with rocks for hours! String lights are a must. Every night feels like a party. good luck!

  135. Great ideas! I’m sure it will turn out fabulous. I will say this: we as parents always refer to what we did/had growing up and expect to replicate those experiences for our kids. We think because that’s what we loved, they will as well. As much as we try to guide our kids, many times they have other plans and end up guiding us. When our son was born we tried about every outdoor activity and sport known to man but he was more “indoorsy” and had a real knack for technology. Now his is twenty and in college studying software engineering and premed. They are all unique and it is so much fun to watch their personalities and interests develop. Just keep an open mind. πŸ™‚

  136. Lots of great ideas in the post and in the comments! My favorite things as a kid were monkey bars (great for playing super heroes), swings, sprinklers in the summer, and building forts. We had a rather wild corner of the yard where I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. One time it was using big sticks and a tarp to make a tent, another time it was taking extra bricks and building a wall, and another time it was digging a really giant hole. I don’t think it looked great, but it was sort of hidden and felt private and magical. As your kids get older, having a safe space out of sight from parents becomes really important.

    I also second the suggestion to use sedge instead of grass for a more drought tolerant lawn.

    P.S. Integrious is not a word in modern English (unless you count Urban Dictionary). Maybe you are looking for the word integral or integrated? Or congruent? I’m only commenting because you’ve used it in multiple posts and it makes me cringe to read it.

  137. We always had a sandbox…from a plastic turtle on an apartment patio to a wood edged one in the woods, to a hardscaped one in So Cal that could later become a planter. Dirt is good for kids, and a cover keeps out the cats.
    A splash zone could just be a hose and a sprinkler on the lawn. If the kids will be able to ride bikes out front, make sure you put a bench in the front yard, you’ll need to a place to sit and watch them.

  138. We had a trampoline and our girls spent hours upon hours on it. They would set up a tent on it and sleep under the stars. Some nights I would look out the window and all the neighborhood kids would be just lying there talking for hours. They are 12 and 15 now so are both on to other things but we loved having that thing.

  139. When we built our play structure for our kids we made it two levels, a top clubhouse section (as our yard didn’t have a good treehouse tree) with several climbing options up to it (rock wall, ladder, rope) and a shaded area underneath where we had a sandbox with a hinged lid. It kept the critters out and the kids happy for hours. We also put the swings on an adjustable boom arm so that they could be raised up as the kids got bigger.

    I had a love/hate relationship with our man-made pond that we inherited from the original owners. I loved the sound, seeing the frogs, and watching the fish…but I hated the worry of kids falling in and when it looked scuzzy due to algae bloom when the eco balance wasn’t exact.

    In all honesty, less is more. My kids are now 11, 8, and 4, we have recently moved and no longer have the pond or playscape and they have just as much fun (if not more) running around and making up their own thing.

    Just make sure you have a nice space for learning how to ride bikes if your driveway or neighborhood doesn’t accommodate.

  140. So many wonderful ideas here, and in the comments. I grew up running wild in nature, too, and tried to give my kids the same. It’s one of the greatest gifts of my childhood.

    The most fun I had (and my kids had, and now my grandkids have) was in private spaces where we could create our own worlds away from our parents. Much of the time this involved bushes with space under them (lilacs, or rhododendrons mostly). But also paths that turned a corner around bushes or trees, to create a screened and private area where we could play away from adults. I now realize, we were completely within the safe overview of adults, but they seemed private. So I guess I’m saying create ‘private’ spaces for the kids and let them do the rest.

    Although my grandkids and all the neighbor kids also love their huge wooden play frame with swings, slide clubhouse. which is not at all private.

    Have you thought about a butterfly house or a bee hotel etc. to welcome nature into your yard? These take up no room, and you are planting flowers anyway so why not things bees and butterflies like? They are so vulnerable to drought that it’s nice to help them and also a great way to start to teach the kids about the natural world. Bird feeders and bird baths, too, are fantastic. And, unlike chickens, you don’t need to find someone to look after them when you are traveling.

  141. What I remember most from my childhood growing up in the Portland suburbs was when my dad put up our tent for about a month each summer. I would sleep out there, sometimes with the family, sometimes with friends, sometimes even alone. It is a cherished childhood memory.

    What my son remembers most from his childhood growing up was building a fort in the backyard with scraps of stuff we had around and blankets, fabric, etc. He was able to use his imagination and build something and then play in it. It was not attractive to look at, but now that I know what strong memories he has from it, I am glad we let him go with it.

  142. My kids probably use their bikes more than anything do a smooth continuous path would be great! Also the stumps and boulders for climbing. We have a truly ugly tree in our front yard that we have decided to wait to replace because the kids climb in it so much. It also has the tree swings in it which our kids have used a lot. And the plants that attract butterflies are a great idea. I totally underestimated how much my kids would use their butterfly nets to catch anything from butterflies to falling leaves! So cute to watch! The only thing I would mention is a fire pit. Not necessarily one that is built in and I don’t know if you can do this in California because it’s so dry, but we have had so much great family time roasting marshmallows with the kids in the evenings!

  143. I remember being’totally flawed that my child’s friend was jealous of our garden, which I thought was a total embarrassment it had gotten so out of hand, and I couldn’t imagine her mum agreeing, but kids like wild.’ I would recommend a bee waterer so bees don’t drown in the water feature and those bees and other pollinators can stay around and pollinate your garden.

  144. Keep it simple, organic and nature inspired. I grew up on 1 acre full of trees with no structural playhouses or swingsets. I did get a trampoline when I was 9 that I used fiercely for about 1 year. Then it was a waste.

    My memories were playing house and building forts and playing cops and robbers with toys I already had for indoors and bringing them outdoors. My neighbor had a playhouse that I thought was cool at first but it’s pretty limiting and boring after about 5 minutes. The open nature inspires so much more creativity and mind use then playing a house. Although they are adorable. I remember loving anywhere that had trees…lots of trees for climbing, hide and seek, pretend runways for fashion shows, pretend shopping, pretend house, pretend kitchen – all of this was done without structures or fixtures – just trees and imagination.

    I don’t have kids nor live in LA but I’m very familiar with the area. I would create more of a nature retreat to feel like you’re not in the city and you have a decent sized backyard! Grassy area, vegetable garden, beautiful plants, stepping stones, trees, maybe a sandbox — all natural organic elements. I think you’ll be surprised by how lovely the simplicity will feel. Xx

  145. Emily check out the Steiner education for ideas. My son went to one of the schools in Australia and the outdoor areas were magical and really blended with nature. They are designed for imagination and the simplist thing like a paint brush dipped in water can keep them happy for hours. The climbing frames are a great idea. Outdoor kitchens are also good…. mud pies! Anything where they can become lost & create their own world is good. Fort like structures that they can cover with sheets become castles…. I could go on… I’m going to play in my fort now!

  146. Hi Emily! My little family (kids age 5 and 2.5) moved from Portland to Sacramento about a year ago & have noticed a couple things. Our neighborhood park in PDX was called “Westmoreland Nature Playground” it’s definitely worth looking into for inspiration, as is the Portland Children’s museum- a couple years ago they remodeled their outdoor space and it’s amazing. My kiddos couldn’t get enough of either places. So, since moving to Sacramento, I can’t believe how much time my kids spend outside in our medium size backyard (our top critiera when moving was “no pool”, and now we’re reaaaaalllly regretting it going through our first Sactown summer, yikes). I bought a cheap IKEA play kitchen off Craigslist, donated all the play food & they spend hours making mud pies and “birds nests” with the cookware etc. It’s by far the most used toy in the backyard! We also set up a small swing set with playhouse attached (put the kitchen inside to stay out of direct sunlight), and my five year old spends hours swinging. We also did a small raised garden box, which has been fun as a family to grow things together- love your idea there. My latest dream is to make a little bike loop for my kids in our yard, I’ve seen this done a lot & love how hands off it is as my kids get older and are more into their bikes/scooters. Good luck, they’ll have a blast with whatever you end up doing!

  147. If you are putting a garden in , which is great for kids consider putting in an old fashion hand pump the kind you would have for well water and they can use pails to fill with water and carry all over to water the plants My grandkids loved this and spent hours doing this. Good luck it all looks beautiful and I am sure your children will love it

  148. Childhood highlights for me include making mud patties near the roots of a tree. Anywhere where you can have a tap to get water and make mud is a plus.

    We had a platform in the trees that my dad made from our old garage (moms idea of course). I would sweep it clean. We painted and wrote all over it. My sisters made me a cardboard oven and I’d busy myself. Being in the trees was nice, but the height could be scary with toddlers.

    My other fav memories were lying on a blanket in the grass or running through the sprinklers. No need for anything but sprinklers πŸ™‚ I remember even having fun when my dad would mow the grass in serpentine paths and we would follow behind him. I highly recommend grass, even though it’s not the most env friendly choice. Having a place for soccer was nice too.

    Our home in San Diego explodes with tangerines and lemons, I highly recommend these fruit trees. You even grew avocados in a couple years. I also remember lots of snails coming around for strawberries.

    Lastly, props to your parents

  149. My kids are 4 and 1 now, but the neighborhood kids are at our house all the time. We live in NC and I’m a stay at home mom too, so our yard gets lots of use. We have a sandbox and cover it with a tarp to keep animals out. Our sand is 2 years old and still pretty clean, and my daughter will spend hours out there digging. We also have several swings, one of which has long chain so she can go higher. She will swing for a really long time too. The other swings are on a play structure that has a slide/fort thing that I got for free from someone in the neighborhood. It’s not the prettiest, but they all love playing pirates and hide and seek up there. In the summer, I bought an Intex pool that just takes 12-18″ of water and she would go back and forth from pool to sandbox while I watched from the kitchen window. Our summers are far too hot to ask her to play outside without it.

    Also, now that my daughter is four, she doesn’t really nap anymore, so some days I let her have her “quiet time” outside. With the sandbox, swings, her trike and a box of chalk, she can easily entertain herself for several hours. On a good day she’ll only come inside for a drink and to use the bathroom. With a four year old two hours of minimal interruptions is huge! I’ve always wanted to do a pea trellis fort like you posted, but we don’t get enough full sun in that part of the yard. Great ideas!

  150. Swings! My kids have always loved swings. We have a regular wooden swing set and they still go out and swing on it and so do all the neighbors since we’re the only ones on the block with a swing set. They would love a tire swing or a circular piece of wood hanging from a tree but we don’t have a good tree for that.

  151. I NEVER would have bought my kids a trampoline but we were handed down one. Hands down the one thing in my yard my kids use the most. It’s interactive and good excercise. No one has ever gotten hurt.

  152. Hi Emily! I really love how you engage the audience in so many of your design decisions- one of the reasons you’re my fave! I have a 3 1/2 year old daughter and a two year old son. We live on a 1/2 acre in the burbs in Ohio. My kids are generally just thrilled to be outside, but some of their favorite things in the world are the sprinkler, the slide portion of our swing set (I personally despise a swing set) and a tire swing at my neighbor’s house. If they aren’t playing on those few things, they really love to do what I do when I’m outside (water flowers, rake, Windex the outdoor furniture πŸ™‚ I highly recommend decking out the yard in the gorgeous landscaping that you’re describing, hang a few charming wooden swings from a tree, have a sprinkler available/built into the landscaping, but other than that, get a very sturdy, hidden bin where your kids can store their own (tiny) rakes, watering cans, shovels, etc… all pretty ones, of course) and I’m sure they’ll be in HEAVEN! The slide does sound slightly amazing… and would probably be enjoyed for years, by kids and adults alike! πŸ™‚ Congrats to you on this journey… it sounds like a dream! So exited to see all of the amazing things that you do with it!


    1. I second the zipline if you can find the right trees and amount of space. We installed one 2 years ago for our four girls-11,9,7,6-and they absolutely love it. They never get tired of it, and it’s a big hit with friends. It’s such a fun activity. Good luck with all your plans- I love your blog!

  154. I have 2 boys who are 6 and 3 and by far their favourite thing to do outside is ride their bikes/scooters/electric quads etc up and down the driveway.
    So I would say have some sort of track/path around the yard they can ride on would be awesome.

  155. The most enduringly popular thing in our backyard is the trampoline (do you get Springfree trampolines in the US?) It has a basketball hoop on it too. In summer we put the sprinkler under it so the water shoots up through the mat πŸ™‚ Apparently very entertaining.
    Also, hanging egg chairs are pretty, and appealing for grownups as well as kids.
    Sandpits were immediately abandoned after toddlerhood. And watch out for metal slides in the sun!

  156. I have a four year old boy. We built a large Rick box instead of a sandbox. It’s awesome. (Inspired by young house love). Our tree fort is super fun too. My sons preschool has some tires in their playground for the kids to move around and hide in. It’s not pretty but they love it! A teacher there also periodically hides plastic jewels in the sandbox and then the kids dig for treasure. That is soooo fun! We started hiding some in our rock box. I would say a place to run, a place to swing, a place to climb, and a place to hide are all great! Have fun!

  157. I feel Ike for us it’s been better to know our kids and add things as we go that we feel like they will like and use. We thought we wouldn’t do a swing set because we both had them growing up and never used them but our 6 year old LOVES to swing. It’s all she does at the park and recess. So we got a swing set and it is used all the time. Our 4 year old son has shovels and trashes our yard digging various holes. I’ve tried to give him designated digging areas to no avail. Whatever-he loves to dig for worms and one day we will have nice grass again. Our friends made a zip line in their yard and I want to do it for our 2 1/2 year old for her birthday. I am a gardner and the kids love growing with me, so much fun for them! In addition to all our veggies I’ve let my daughter plant her favorite color tulip bulbs and it is her favorite thing to wait for them in the spring. Excited to see what you do!

  158. Check out this small footprint chicken coop sold on etsy out of southern cal (thesmartchickencoop)
    I’ve seen it in person, its tiny and adorable and can hold up to 4 chickens. I’ve been wanting one for a year, but haven’t made it happen yet. Its my next yard purchase for sure.

    Also, I would try to make sure you’ve got a couple of sturdy trees that can hold a hammock or 2, and maybe a slack line down the road. My 3 teenagers are loving hanging out in hammocks lately and playing the guitar with friends. We also just recently added a firepit & wood-fired pizza oven. Both are getting tons of use and are so fun for both teen and adult get togethers. The teenagers spend HOURS around the fire chilling with friends. Something to think about for the future!

  159. We have four kids, ages six and under and have tried to do the same with our backyard. We have a large grassy area which our kids love – mostly for building stick forts. What we didn’t count on was our kids’ love of our paved driveway out back. It’s gated, and we keep the gate closed. The kids ride up and down from the garage to the gate on their bikes and scooters all the time. We live in an urban neighborhood and have to take them to our local greenway for long bike rides, but our older three were riding 2-wheel bikes thanks to the balance bike and that driveway before their 4th birthdays. We never had to use training wheels. They also LOVE our trampoline. We have a 15′ round one, and it gets used daily. So grateful for that thing. But I was not grateful for our very short-lived sand table. I couldn’t take the sand in the house 24/7. It gets everywhere. I think it’s great that you plan to make your backyard such a kid friendly space – they will get so much use out of it, especially with your amazing year-round weather.

  160. Emily, if you have not yet visited Carpinteria with your family, now is the time for a fun day trip. It’s also a great place to camp lightly. There are decent vrbo’s and the Holiday Inn Express is very family friendly. I know that Montecito and Santa Barbara are very close by, but now that you have children, Carpinteria is the place to go. The town is completely walkable. You won’t have to get in your car the whole time if you stay over night. From where you live, this is a totally possible day trip with the kiddos.

    I am suggesting you go because the Tomol Interpretive play park is my favorite park anywhere I have ever visited.
    The train goes by it. The “world’s safest beach” is within view and walking distance from the Park.

    Right behind the park is another family friendly spot, Island Brewing Company. They have excellent craft brew and a dedicated play room. They feed your kids pretzels while you relax. We stop there before dinner. Dinner is walking down Linden avenue at any of the family friendly spots. Without kids, Sly’s is my favorite. With kids, there is every type of food you could want.

    A great place for lunch is Padaro Beach Grill. You have to get in the car from the park though. The food is ok (awesome for children) and there is a giant sand pit. They have a decent wine/beer selection. When we go back and forth from Nor Cal to So Cal we stop here and let the kids play and eat before trudging away in the car for a few hours. While you are there, check out all the design stores such as Porch on Padaro Lane.

    Though you don’t know me, I read your blog and therefor I feel like I have a strong sense of you. I used to live near Sunset Junction on Hyperion. If I stayed, we could have met at the Casbah for coffee! But anyway, I have two kids three and five (and I’m your age & political soul mate) and Carpinteria is a great day trip or weekend jaunt for you with the kids.

    I know that you get so many comments and I hope that you read this because if I was your real life friend, I would be forcing you to check this town out–especially with your backyard project coming. The Tomol Interpretive Play park has the vibe that you want for your house. The pictures online don’t do it justice.

  161. My almost three year old loves to garden with me. He loves digging for worms, catching bugs, weeding, picking veggies, etc.

  162. Less is more and they outgrow a lot quick (little playhouse never used – kids 5 and 9.)We have a new park by us (We live in Portland OR)- very natural with tons of logs, paths, boulders and Beautiful new play structure. Kids play more on the natural landscape then the structure. Hide and go seek, picking leaves, running, jumping, etc.i would suggest cool courtyard with table, fire pit to enjoy as a family with comfy sofa. Then simple nature, lawn, and veggie garden.

  163. I love how expansive and creative your mind is.

    Of course it didn’t surprise me that you want to put thought and energy into providing beauty and entertainment into your outside environment for your Family it makes perfect sense it is what you do and how you express.

    My contribution would be multi use areas, just like in a house how a library that is also a guest room, make the areas outside dynamic e.g. The downstairs of the playhouse, be the play pit (in the shade:) as well as the hiding place, as well as the foundation. Or the veg garden being incorporated into the rest of the flower garden, or up the poles of the swing, or in window boxes of the playhouse, rather than in a separate box. Or even better totally substituting some single use plants to Berry bushes like blueberries ( they now have ones that grow great in LA, plus the bushes are beautiful, plus they produce more bountifully each year.
    I like the dynamic use ideas so you can get even more of your great ideas in your family backyard, as don’t forget it is for the 4 of you, ( not just the 2 little ones).

  164. I would say a hammock for the kids. Not the kind with the poles at the end to hold it open. Kids love being fully enclosed and swinging around.

    My kid’s favorite things at the park are a big hill to roll and run down and a little bunch of 5 or so bushes that they hide/play/whatever in.

    Also, don’t forget they won’t be little for long, so have something that will grow with them.

    Check out Hearthsong outdoor toy catalog. My kids love the WonderWave.

    Can’t wait to see what you do.

  165. My kids are 5 and 1.5. The best thing I’ve built for them in the yard was a very simple play house out of sticks– it’s about 1.5 sq meters and has empty sides, but enough to give the suggestion of walls. It has a peaked roof so it looks like a proper house, and I built a counter out of an old pallet and hung a hanging pot for a sink. Both kids have used it almost every day for over a year! I love that I can see into it from far away (something to consider about more elaborate play houses). I also love that I don’t need to clean it like i might a real play house… They do all kinds of cooking there with mud and plants and rocks. That’s the huge advantage of outside play kitchens /mud kitchens… They can really get dirty and it’s so much more sensory and fun. We also have a swing set they love… A swing for two (we have one of those swings that looks kind of like a seesaw) is great for friends! I think it’s helpful socially to have one really cool attraction in your yard to break the ice on playdates. I love all your natural plans… Good luck!!

  166. I didn’t make it all the way through the comments, so I apologize if someone has already said this, but every play house I have ever used or seen except for one has been first and foremost a spider hotel that children are afraid to enter. At first very exciting- and then taken over by spiders. The one that wasn’t rife with spiders was at the preschool where I worked for seven years- it was meticulously maintained and cleaned out often by a phenomenal, well-paid grounds crew. There was a lot of debate about the playhouse at my school, because potential parents touring the school always thought it was so cute, but you know where the children actually played house? In the sandbox, mud kitchen, bushes, or play structure. This was especially true as the children got older.

    The wooden play equipment pictured in your post probably has a strong chemical smell because it’s treated to last outdoors, but over time they will GIVE SO MANY SPLINTERS ALL YOU WILL DO IS PULL SPLINTERS OUT OF YOUR CHILDREN’S PALMS. I’m sure there are cases where that’s not true, but that has been my experience with young children and wooden play structures like these.

    What would I guess your children will love and play with/in? A good quality swing set, bushes and tall grass/plantings, a mud kitchen, a sandbox (but with a hose added or the potential to add buckets of water), a water table, outdoor blocks.

    Check out Kodo Kids and Community Playthings for the most beautiful, expensive, and tried and true outdoor equipment for children. I’ve seen their things be well used by hundreds of children and still look great and function well.

    1. I agree – spider city!!! Let the kids build their own cubbies/forts. They’ll love them more anyway!

  167. My parents gave my kids (ages 3 and 9) a wooden horse 2 years ago and it gets played with every single day – even in winter! They also love their sandbox (it has a good cover). A slackline is great for older kids and, um, their parents.
    A lot of playgrounds in Germany have hand operated (old-fashioned) water pumps for the children to play with. A pump doesn’t take up much room and water only comes when the child wants – it could work well in a backyard.

  168. Early childhood teacher here: totally down with the “less is more” concept–give them some space and some junk and they’ll be happy πŸ™‚
    What I do have to say is that especially as they get more towards 5/6 you should be sure to have some opportunities for them to really use their muscles in a lot of diverse ways. Heavy logs for them to carry around and build see-saws, balance beams, etc. with, monkey bars or something to climb on, maybe a swing. There are all sorts of developmental reasons why young children need to use their muscles like this, but trust me, they’ll love it. And you can introduce things slowly so they gain confidence and competence at a pace that feels safe to you.

  169. By the way – and I know you haven’t even asked – but I realise that at some point the outside of your house will need tidying up too (i.e. the window frames and possibly even the walls). If you would like some genuine English Medieval / Tudor inspiration it might be worth looking up images of Lavenham in Suffolk. It is a village with one amazing Tudor house after another.

    It’s was also used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.

  170. That super-sturdy pipe swing set up is extremely cool. I find even the most expensive wood sets don’t measure up to the old fashioned, metal, concreted-in, diesel sets of the 70s and 80s. On that note, remember merry go rounds? All that great equipment you could actually get some leverage off of and propel yourself? And giant see-saws? What ever happened to the simple stuff? Oh yeah, lawsuits.

  171. Everyone told me a sandbox would be a waste of money, but when our neighbors put their perfectly good one out on the curb we snatched it up! We’ve only had it one season but my 1 and 3 year olds have not tired of it yet. In fact, we had unseasonably warm day in Ohio recently and my little guy (almost 2) spent, no joke, 45 minutes quietly playing in there. We keep it covered when not in use and I sprinkled some cinnamon in the sand to keep spiders/bugs out and it’s actually quite surprising how clean the sand still is.

    Also, invest in a $10 stomp rocket. Haha hours of fun!

    Love your blog and your style, Emily. Can’t wait to see your renovated home!

  172. Agree with others. Save your $ and encourage natural play. Kids know how to do that when we adults don’t interfere. Remember your time as a kid playing outside? My best investment when my kids were small was a sprinkler attachment that was cheap at the local hardware store. HOURS of fun. That and things that get them to appreciate the natural world … veggie garden (with spots for trolls and fairies), bird feeders and baths. That’s it and it will be heaven for the kids and you!

  173. so, so smart of you to NOT put in a pool. Our current house has one, and it is a constant suck of time, chemicals, money, and effort. Something is always breaking, there’s always algae or whatever, huge pain in the tush. Even our “pool guy” tends to say that the best pool is your neighbor’s pool!

    agreeing, lovingly, with the overkill comments. But do a full-sized basketball net while you’re doing it — your kids will grow faster than you think and the basketball hoop will be a huge draw for all the neighborhood kids if you have space for one.

  174. I read your note on sandboxes but I am going to say it anyway. I have a three-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl (Charlie and Elliot!) and they will play for HOURS in a pile of dirt with a few trucks.

    We want to do some kind of fort/playhouse in our yard, but I do concur with a previous comment that they do like to manipulate/build on to things like that so eventually accommodating some DIY options might be nice.

    And now I want a small creek in my yard…

  175. With your being both a designer and a blogger, I can understand your desire to finish the yard in one go. I would caution against it though. We spent one full summer in our existing yard so we could feel the needs. The next year we spent a decent chunk of money on a swingset/fort combo from Home Depot. It has yet to be a hit. My guy is only 3 so I have hope that it’s not a complete monetary waste and he will grow to use it more as he ages. Right now, he really likes his bike and a dirt pit that we haven’t dealt with yet from having an old tree stump ground. It’s his “garden.”

  176. Love all the ideas, but please dont forget that part of the challenge and opportunity of childhood is figuring it out yourself without mom and dad. some boredom is good, how about area to make mud pies and dig for worms. Not design-worthy, but so much more fun for kids.

  177. These aren’t very sexy ideas….but,
    (1) storage space for toys. I’m so sick of digging around tools and lawn mowers for tricycles and balls. Just consider that as your kids get bigger so do their toys.
    (2) A place outside to clean up before going in the house. I grew up on a big farm in the Midwest…at the end of long summer days, my mom would meet us at the hydrant near the back door with old towels. She’d scrub our hands and feet and listen to our adventures.

    As a kid, my 4 siblings and I spent HOURS in our sandbox…so I definitely think a variation of that would be great(mud kitchen, gravel pile, etc.) Plus it is great for 2 year olds and 12 year old alike.

  178. Oh man, I need so much help in this area. I have no problem with interior design but our backyard has me stumped. Add to this problem that we have a big, beautiful tree shading the backyard and yet at the same time we want drought-tolerant plants (also in LA). If you have any local referrals for landscapers, please include them since I don’t even know where to start. We had someone come out to give us an estimate but I could tell we had completely different aesthetics and they wanted to turn my backyard into a model home.

    1. GOOGLE!!!
      You can find anything by searching. You don’t need a landscape designer…even local councils have information about local plants that do well. Another idea to see what works, grows well and needs little maintenance is to look at local parks and street verges. Check out what the plants are and try them!

  179. I like the idea of a big enough grassy area for soccer games, steal the bacon and fun stuff like that. Another idea for the natural place space (that I saw at a school here in Portland) is jumbo, rustic, hand-cut lincoln logs. They definitely inspire creativity and I always see the remnants of bridges, teeter-toters, forts, mazes etc. They go great with the stumps and the possibilities seem endless.

  180. I love your creek bed idea why not make it a dry creek bed that becomes wet when it rains. Am sure you can add a splash pad if you can hide piping under paving that is a patio just have lightweight chairs n table and move onto lawn to watch the kids. Grow beans peas tomatos in beds around areas you would like privacy or to create hidden spots for hide n seek. Try teepee material tent let the kids build it or move it around provide branches and create lean to structures together let their imagination build the playhouse. Use river pebbles instead of sand in a pit. Line creek bed with pond liner and add water to their play (we have rainwater tanks can run a slow hose on to garden) can play and water at the same time. Cut wood slabs from tree trunks can be stepping stones. Rough planks or sleepers on the ground can be pretend high balance beams and create garden beds and walkways in vegetable beds. Watch kids play in this garden give them rakes shovels watch them get dirty and enjoy bathtime when they tell you about the adventures they had.

  181. Just be careful of ANY water feature. Even a few inches of water can be VERY dangerous as too many people have learned. Good luck it’s going to be GORGEOUS and I can’t wait to see it all!

    1. Chinese Maple Dwarf trees are the best ‘fort’ shrubs anyone could ask for. They offer bright, bold, striking colors as their deep purple leafs change seasonally and mine growing up had a 7 foot diameter with 2-1/2 to 4 foot interior height umbrella like coverage under the tree!!!

      Native to Portland, Oregon at the urban growth boundary, where life at the edge of a forest w/creeks, a river, food from the yard are apart of daily life. Its been difficult to replicate that here, even after 8 in L.A. but a few elements are totally possible; You’ll nail it.

      Having a big garden that can do double duty as food is top element attainable in Southern California; Think plenty of greens, tomatoes, squash, edible flowers, rosemary, blueberries tucked around the yard or in a concentrated zone in a lazy layout to hit the English garden notes and live on a drip system. Ideally your schedule allows for daily watering/weeding or conceited effort to transform family time outside to do it, watch grow/enjoy the nutritional benefits.

      Out of all ideas presented in this post it be wildly fun to combine a splash pad with boulders, that drains like a mini creek bed to water the surrounding for-food garden. Depending on the water table/run off directions present on the property there could be a spot perfect for placement of such a dreamy set-up to flow. Have fun!

  182. Beautiful ideas you posted! Can’t help loving the creek and splashpad! We have a big grassy yard and we are in the process of my husband making a simple wood tree fort which has a telescope attached (to ‘spy’ on neighbourhood!) and a steering wheel and also a brass bell to shake (we are in Australia and bought the telescope etc from a hardware store called Bunnings). He wooden raised vegetable beds and a wooden rope swing that hangs from the tree and is finishing a very (!) basic mud kitchen which has a hose attached to the sink we found on a verge throwout. Rest is open grass and big climbing trees. Kids seem thrilled to bits.

  183. MY son is 35 now but he was young most kids just played outside. It is hard to believe we have to have structures for children to have fun outside. We were overseas when my son was young. Playing outside was a really big deal. He loved to be able to be set free and enjoy time with his American friends and Italian ones as well. Amazing how there is no language barrier when children are playing hide and go seek, riding their bikes and just playing and horsing around. The only time he had any play equipment was at school. He tells me today he wouldn’t have it any different he had a choice. He knows he would never have had the freedom if we were in the states as he was able to have overseas.

  184. I’m just tripping out because we have just rented a house in San Diego with a huge backyard (our fist yard since having kids) and I have pinned ALL those same pins as you!!! The creeks, slash pads gardens and all! Made me laugh. I even have “designed” a two story playhouse with vines growing on it (hideout on the bottom). Made me laugh out loud. I have three girls 8,

  185. I’m just tripping out because we have just rented a house in San Diego with a laid back landlord and a huge backyard (our fist yard since having kids) so I have been searching for ALL those same backyard ideas as you. The creeks, splash pads, climbing logs, sweat pea teepee, and all! Made me laugh. I even have “designed” a two story playhouse with vines growing on it (hideout on the bottom). It made me laugh out loud. I have three girls 8, 5, and 1. I think you really could do all your ideas at least on a small scale. It’s clear you want to create a magical little world for them and you absolutely should. It will still be beautiful enough for you to enjoy having in your backyard and you might want to play too πŸ™‚ maybe just do it all on a smaller scale. I loooove the creek idea. Could you do a really small shallow one? They would have fun with it and they’re so soothing.

    What I would love to know is where do you get huge tree stumps and logs like that?

  186. My oldest is only 1.5 years old so we’re very much on the young end of playing outside as parents. But some of my best memories as a kid were simply playing in our open backyard (mostly sports/tag) and climbing one of my neighbor’s trees. It was a huge magnolia. We had a fort & swing set, but I mostly remember the yard and that tree as a young, under 10 kid. Looking forward to what you guys do with the space! The slide from the seating area to the ground sounds awesome!!

  187. Hey Emily πŸ™‚
    I love all of the ideas you have – a trillion of great ones!!

    There’s a book you might be interested in (yeah, like you have time to read now) – “Last Child In The Woods” (just looked on my bookshelf to find the author, publisher, etc. and remembered that I loaned it to my brother. It’s the backbone of a free-play movement that’s thankfully taking the western world by storm, because city kids have so little exposure to woodlands, real creeks, rivers, etc. We live opposite a primary school and they built a new playground for the littlies a couple of years ago by a company called “Nature Play”, based in Perth, Western Australia. Google them and see some alternatives for man-made creeks and the like.

    Besides all the great ideas you’ve shared, tadpoles, need to be the right kind of frogs for your LOCAL NATIVE FAUNA and need slow flowing water, etc. So many issues with this.

    Lurve the patio/courtyard ideas!! Very chill! The outdoor BBQ area is another great idea that you will actually use! Everyone here (Aussie) has these and they are an extension of the house. The built-in concrete ideas are great, no long-term maintenance needed and everything just flows easily when you’re entertaining.

    Before we moved to this house, I was a crazy Superwoman, workaholic and had never had time for gardening. Since we’ve been here, I have created a woodland in the front yard to give some privacy from the walkers-by and incorporated loads of bird attracting plants. One thing I’ve learned, is that if you don’t want to weed garden beds, over-plant the beds and use mostly self-seeding perennials! That gives the English cottagey vibe, without the work after a couple of years. Another good idea is to have scented herbs and other plants overhanging the paths, so they give off their aroma when they are brushed past or stepped on.
    Only two years after I started on the front yard, a passer-by stopped and stated “You can tell that you know what you’re doing!!!” Thanks Google!! πŸ™‚ I knew nothing when I started. Now I know we have a fantastic garden! And, I actually DO know what I’m doing.

    Another 2 wah-really handy words are COMPANION PLANTING!!! Keeps pests at bay – good for organic veggie patches too! Aussie natives (Kangaroo Paws, Bottlebrushes and South African Proteas love the Californian weather, so maybe give them a go and have something different that flowers attracts birds and crates conversations with visitors?

    Go get ’em Emily!!

    I’m excited for you. Having the space to plan is fantastic. Just remember that is a plant is doing poorly, dig it up and move it, or ditch it. It’s just not worth trying to grow something that doesn’t wanna be there.

  188. We just moved from a big city to a suburb with an acre lot. All we’ve done for our three boys (2, 4, 6) is 3 tree swings and some logs that we had from a tree that fell over in a storm. Less is more with littles. I’ve been surprised how much the swings have been enjoyed over this past year. They keep coming back to them along with exploring in the garden.

  189. My kids have outgrown the sandbox, but it was a hit for quite a few years. You can build it out of wood with a lid that can be secured when open (perhaps to a wall or fence), and easily closed at night. Lots of holes were dug there with all kinds of construction trucks and lots of sandy cakes were baked. We built a sandbox with a bench around it, so I would sit and read a book and the kids would bake sandy cakes for me, it was a delight. Otherwise, I second many other commenters, a sprinkler to run under, grass and dirt, perhaps a little planting bed, that’s all they need. Enjoy your beautiful new yard! (And when they are bigger perhaps a Ping-Pong table).

  190. I frequent Alms Park in Cincinnati with my kids where there’s a great old concrete slide from the original playground built sometime in the 1920s or 30s… might be a good alternative to a plastic slide. It’s super fun to slide down and could blend pretty seamlessly into some lovely landscaping. This one’s at least 20 feet long and looks a bit daunting from the top, but my 3 year old could play on that slide for hours, and I don’t ever feel the need to hover for safety (really, watching her run back up the steps at the side is scarier!) Big kids are always there with sheets of wax paper to sit on so they FLY down it! I don’t know how big your hillside is, but I’d be confident my children wouldn’t die if I left them in my backyard with a slide like this, sans concrete stairs πŸ˜‰

    Here’s a good photo of it…

  191. I have a tiny yard and we built a loft playhouse. It had both ropes to climb, and bars to swing from
    , which extended on one side for swings. It had rope walls to prevent falling, rubber chips below. It had a roof,( in seattle! ) and I later made sunbrella walls so it was a hideout later for pre teens.

  192. I don’t have kids, but harkening back to my own childhood, my family had the crappiest, pokiest, stickiest grass imaginable. They bought a house in a new subdivision (think, Levittown, NY) and there were no trees, no sod, and only tiny nondescript shrubs. (sounds dreadful, but I actually had a great childhood) Anyway, soft grass is essential to being able to run amok barefoot. We–me and my cousins–also loved to play in the sprinkler. I know you aren’t planning to do a splash pad, but I recommend you rethink that. OR, you could just do a sprinkler system for the grass, but use heads that can be adjusted for kid play. A swing set. Loved to swing, still do, in fact. And a garden. My grandfather had one and I used to walk the rows with him and we’d eat vegetables right out of the ground–turnips, peas. I learned how to snap beans at a young age. I recommend planting things they like to eat and will get instant gratification from (like strawberries and edible flowers). Thanks for sharing your plans with us and asking for input!

  193. Have you seen these “wild” kindergartens that are getting so much press recently?
    I ❀️ the idea of outdoor kindergarten but mostly wanted to share with you so you can see what the kids play with the most!
    Also, when we moved into our home the backyard was unfinished – totally weeds. We spent months with a backhoe leveling and preparing for sod. My son (1.5-2yrs old at the time) absolutely adored all the dirt, rocks and water. When the first load of sod came was laid down he went right over and tried to lift it up and get it off his precious dirt and rocks. ? He is 8 now and has a 6 yr old brother and 3yr old sister. They continually play in the large dirt patch we left un-sodded. They turn on the hose and build elaborate channels, bridges, islands for their toy animals. So I’ll add my vote to the growing tally for a dirt area.

  194. Hi Emily. Don’t worry about comments saying less is more – you can supply all the toys and structures in the world and your children will still use their imaginations and find ways to build their own forts or grind your favourite garden flowers into perfume – no forts and sandpits and trampolines are strictly necessary but a designer is going to design, right? Each parent has different strengths and talents that will shape their children’s childhood and make it special in different ways. You’re Emily Henderson and creating amazing spaces is what you do, so OF COURSE you’re going to create a memorable, playful and beautiful outdoor play space for your children. And they will adore it and be proud to show it to their friends, and they will remember the love you put into it.

    In order of most-played-with at our place (I live in New Zealand but kids are still kids, right?):

    1) The trampoline. It’s a circular 10ft one with big netting sides, so it’s very safe compared to the one we had as kids, and it gets daily use. An 8ft one would be fine too. I’d say it’s a must-have – and you could recess it into the ground to reduce its visual impact.
    2) The playhouse/shop. We built a natural-looking two storey “treehouse” (no suitable tree!) fort with slide and cargo net (for climbing) attached, plus a hammock that we sometimes hang within it, but it gets minimal use – once the kids mastered the climb and the slide the novelty wore off. It’s still an attraction for visiting kids but doesn’t keep ours busy. The playhouse is a different story. We built it ourselves and I can just stand up inside it – which is fabulous as if these things are too small for grown-ups to comfortably spring-clean they get spidery and horrible quite quickly and it’s a pain having to crawl in there to help tidy up. Our playhouse has a play kitchen inside, fully stocked with cute cups and plates, sieves and washable IKEA play food (fruits, veges, extremely popular cupcakes!), though the kids also like to roll pretend sushi from leaves and sticks, and make extra cakes in the adjacent small sandpit). It also has a cash register and a little brass bell for ringing when the shop is open, and a sliding window at the side for taking orders. There’s a collapsible blackboard and chalk and the kids delight in renaming the cafe and putting out the blackboard sign and updated menu. So much fun. We are going to mount a couple of hooks on the front veranda posts of the playhouse so that we can pop a curtain rail across and use the front part as a stage – we’ll pop an extra section of decking in front of the curtain too. We have visions of grown-ups sipping G and T on the lawn while the kids put on shows. We’ll also be able to suspend a screen from the curtain rail and project outdoor movies in the summer! The playhouse is incredibly versatile – it even became a temporary tattoo parlour for a pirate birthday party.
    3) A flat space to scoot or, if possible, bike. We live on a steep site but make do with scooters on our front deck. An actual circuit would be so much better, though.
    4) Rope swing from tree.
    5) Firepit – it’s a portable metal dish on a tripod stand. It looks cute in the garden but can be taken on holiday or shifted into a shed over winter, and it’s great for toasting marshmallows. Obviously supervised by adults.

    We also have a vege garden and untamed bits of garden that the children explore. As for creeks – you can always holiday somewhere where they can spend a summer building little dams etc and creating memories. The sandpit we have is used occasionally but really the sandpit phase is quite a brief one – just knock one together out of four pieces of wood (we used old railway sleepers), line the bottom with PVC and have a black shadecloth cover that can roll over to keep cats out, and then it is inexpensive and can easily be removed in 3-4 years when the kids have lost interest, or converted into a vege bed. Another awesome thing at a friend’s house – pea shooters! Once your kids are past the age where choking is a potential problem. My friend had a broken beach tent and with collapsible pvc poles made of sections about a foot long. She gives her boys a container of frozen peas and they charge around the garden blowing through the pipes and firing the frozen peas.

    Have fun!

    1. Oh – I forgot the monkey bars! We have a small climbing frame we bought on the NZ equivalent of Craigslist and it has been the best thing ever – first equal with the trampoline. Plus my children’s teachers claim the latest educational research shows that hanging from monkey bars is really helpful in developing arm muscles which then help the children with the finer motor skills required when they start writing. The school actively promotes monkey bar time for preschooler and new entrant children for this reason. Plus – monkey bars are easily removed when the kids have outgrown them.

  195. I have an 8 yo son and 5 yo daughter and we live in the city, although I grew up in the burbs with a large backyard. At this age, just having open space to run around with friends is HUGE. Son is also a jock and so a soccer net and place to kick a ball or play baseball is our dream. Consider growing two trees near each other to make a natural “goal.” I had that as a kid and it was great for backyard games. Also, all kids in the hood still play with a neighbor’s playhouse (and it’s one of those junky sun-faded plastic ones). I love the stage with curtains idea.

  196. fibreglass slides are much prettier than plastic and don’t get as hot- I vote one of those! Kids love sandboxes- just get a cover, you can use shade cloth weighed down with chain in the hem or timber. We have a teepee for the kids (4yrs and 2yrs) made from bamboo that has snow peas and sweet peas climbing up it the kids love playing in there and it comes with it’s own handy snacks, peas straight from the vine taste the best! Yeah wise not to do a creek, little ones can drown in 2″ of water if left unsupervised. plans look amazing!

  197. Honestly… our favorite toy in the backyard was a tree. Our second favorite toy was an old swing set with a slide and when my husband built a fort/swing set for our boys, it was their favorite, too. But… they really loved digging in the dirt, building mounds for their cars to climb and jump, raceways and GI Joe war scenes, etc. The large grassy area was used mostly for wiffle ball, football, badminton, running through the sprinkler… and a sidewalk/deck for riding toys and hopscotch. Their imaginations were utilized more when we kind of stayed out of their way….

  198. My kids are 8 and 10 and this I know… Most kids prefer to play in the front yard. It’s where there people are, it’s where bike riding happens, sidewalk chalk happens, basic running amok happens. I would say make your backyard with a space for fun that doesn’t make you worry about them getting hit by a car, and where they can play while you make dinner, but if I were you I would mostly make it a place for the whole family and for adults. Does that make sense? I always thought the backyard was the kids place, but truth be told, my kids love setting up a dance party in the garage and racing on their scooters with their pals waaaaay more than the backyard. Yours are little, but time moves fast and you’ll soon see the front yard is where the action is. Good luck, your new home is just lovely.

  199. I meant to comment last week. I love creative outdoor play. I keep a box outside that my young girls can grab shovels, chalk, or spray bottles out as they wish. They have free reign to dig in the backyard anywhere but grass or garden. They love having little hideouts in shady corners of the yard. We do have a swing set, only because it came with the house, but I could live without it. I love an English garden inspiration, but watch out for too many plants that attract a lot of bees. Those are better for the front yard so you don’t have to worry about kids getting stung. Having a fenced in space is amazing for young kids to have some freedom while you crack a door or window to listen while you are working inside.

  200. Late to comment, but honestly, if you want to give your kids a place of wonder that helps them exercise their imagination, then don’t plan it all out for them. Everything is so incredibly structured for kids these days. Let them create their own zones, and their own worlds. And if you just can’t help yourself, do minimal things, like a swing set and sand box.

  201. Look at what the Danes do with “nature materials”. Raw logs to climb on, log house style construction, and more. In AAlborg i fell in love with what they do if a large tree has to come down–they take the branches off and invite in a sculptor. So statues are carved in place, still rising from the ground, to age gracefully not leaving an ugly stump that needs to be drilled out.
    I want to have a wooden throne myself, what better for playing the elven queen?

  202. Definitely do the slide. Because I’m 33, and I would definitely use it, and i’m pretty sure your adult dinner guests would love it too! I want to do a spiral one off of our deck! I think a few swings would get a lot of use, but usually the big play structures sadly don’t get used all that much. I love all of your ideas!! We just moved as well, and I painted my lower kitchen cabinets F&B Lichen, with honed marble called Onice White (it has green veining throughout). You have been a major inspiration…i didn’t realize how much so until my house & your new house are turning out to have so much similarity!! Thanks for sharing all this with us! Good luck with your move!

  203. I have two boys, newly 3 and 5, and live in San Diego. We recently worked with a landscape architect, designer, and contractors to turn our dirt backyard into our dream. I told them I wanted Parker Palm Springs.

    We ended up building a backyard for the parents (us). We’ve learned that we cannot anticipate how they will play. We bought them a teepee, they prefer to make their own forts out of sheets and their bunk beds. We buy them games and they make their own (we have two Memory games and they only play a third, that they made?!) We bought a soccer goal–they want to hunt for Rollup polies. A painting table–they are now into weaving. Kids are moving targets. (Donald Robertson’s #buythemnothing is accurate). So don’t put anything in your yard that you wouldn’t enjoy looking at even if your kids never went near it.

    My other advice–I am obsessed with our designer turf (fake grass) and also our pool (we have an electronic cover that holds 1k#–so no hideous pool fence chopping up the yard.
    Regret=got a fire bowl and didn’t plumb it bc we wanted to be able to move it if the kids needed more space to run–should have plumbed it.

    Have fun! We use our yard daily and love it.

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