Backyard play structure with wood chips and edging

Landscaping Tips : Tips for Designing Play Areas

Designing kid's play spaces

Backyard garden space is a wonderful gift to children. How better to introduce them to nature then in the safety of your own enclosed yard?

To begin with the obvious, you'll need boundary fencing and fencing to keep kids from any potential danger. Kids' natural curiosity can't be contained, so fence off tools, garden supplies, and places you don't want them to go.

Part of planning play spaces for children is a function of their age. As common sense would dictate, keep very young children close to the house so they can be easily watched and heard. Sandboxes (covered when not in use are a guaranteed hit, as is anything to do with water. But keep in mind that even shallow water can be a danger for little ones. Don't include a pond or pool until the kids are older and reliable around water. Similarly, as you choose plants, avoid those that are thorny, and certainly any that are poisonous.

Of all the opportunities you can provide for you children in the garden, perhaps the greatest is a space of their own. Screen it if you can, for at least the illusion of privacy, and so that their messes aren't an issue when company comes around. But for as long as supervision is critical, make the space easy to see from the house or an upper-story window.

Take sun, wind, and shade into account. Hot sun increases the risk of sunburn and can make metal slides or bars, as well as concrete walks, burning hot, so install slide surfaces facing north. If your property is in the path of strong winds, locate the play yard inside a windbreak of fencing or dense trees. Dappled shade is ideal. If you have no spreading foliage, position the play yard on the north side of your house, construct a simple canopy of lath or canvas, or play structure that includes a shaded portion.


Many public playgrounds feature metal play structures rather than timber, because wood eventually rots. Still, wood is a warmer and friendlier material--and a good-quality wooden structure that will last as long as your children will use it at home. If you choose wood, make sure it is not treated with CCA preservative, which is being gradually phased out in favor of safer alternatives.

Allow at least 6 feet of space around all sides of swings, slides, and climbing structures for a fall zone, then cushion it well. Sand is probably the best, for its safety and entertainment value--unless you or your neighbors own cats. In that case, take a cue from elementary school playgrounds, where interlocking rubber or foam mats are popular. Mulches of virgin wood last longer than bark and aren't hard on young feed. You'll need an edging to contain sand or mulch.

Lawn is perhaps the ideal play surface. But if it's going to take the abuse that older children can dish out, make sure to choose a grass that's tough enough and has some capacity to heal itself. Keep in mind that lawn and the desire to shade the play area are mutually exclusive. No lawn will survive for long under a swing or in a shaded area. Another caution is to avoid lawn seed mixtures that contain clover, creeping thyme, or the sometime weed called lippia. Bees love their flowers, and there's no sense increasing the odds of a bee sting.

If your child is among the many fascinated by wheels and all toys that have them, a section of smooth concrete will get plenty of use. Consider making a circular path, at least 2 feed wide, so your child can ride round and round.

You can buy plans or kits for playhouses at home-improvement stores. (Some are designed to convert into potting sheds). Nestle the playhouse into a secluded corner and landscape around it.

When children are little, it's difficult to imagine them growing up. But when they are older, you'll need an exit strategy for whatever play structure you've lived with for the past dozen years or so. Consider structures that can be converted to another use or removed with little difficulty.

Natural Landscape and Irrigation is located in Lake Oswego, Oregon and specializes in landscaping for backyard playgrounds in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area. Please feel free to contact us for more details.

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