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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. 


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 🙂

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.

Fin Mark


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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… Read more »


Hear, hear! I already see a huge garden where they could have fun for days.


So true Danielle!


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.


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… Read more »

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. 🙂

xx Hannah //


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… Read more »


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.


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.

Heidi the Hick

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… Read more »


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.


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… Read more »


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


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.

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… Read more »

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

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.

Robyn in Chicago

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. 🙂

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)


This is a wonderfully magical park. It enchanted me as a child and still as an adult, when my own boys beg me to take them there again. It is even somewhat local to you:


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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.

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… Read more »


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.

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.


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… Read more »

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.


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… Read more »

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.


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.


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

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


Can you post the link to the blocks? I’m interested too! Thx!


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… Read more »


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.… Read more »


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).


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.… Read more »

I’m on the fence, but we don’t have the space anyway. I feel like the small ones are kinds pointless, right?


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! 🙂


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.


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.


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. ; )


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:

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… Read more »


Our trampoline is 3,8 meters wich is perfect. Smaller than that is pointless.


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.


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.

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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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.



Steph M.

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!


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

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… Read more »


Ditto that.


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Jenny B

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.


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.


Love that path idea!


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


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.


Such lovely ideas! I adore the idea of a path that is a loop.
Thank you!


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.


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… Read more »


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…)


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… Read more »

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.


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… Read more »


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


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.


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!


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.

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.


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 doesn´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 didn´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.


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.

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!!!


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.


beware, my sister loves her chickens but they are noisy!!!!!


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… Read more »

Emily, I think you would LOVE the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden at the Penn State Arboretum. It has all the things you described, of course on a grander scale, but the photos might give you some ideas for your own backyard. Here’s a link to an article about it but I’m sure if you Google image search you can find more photos. Have fun!


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… Read more »


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.

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…


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.

YEP. Sold. Pea gravel instead of sand. WIN WIN. thank you xx


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 🙁

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.


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.


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!


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


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

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.


(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… Read more »

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!


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.


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… Read more »



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. 🙁 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!


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Nicole Roe

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.

OH MAN. That sounds magical. What kind of rock did you put in it? Do you put all different sizes of rocks?

patty blaettler

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…


Can you post a link to pictures?


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… Read more »

GREAT advice. xx

Mary B

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

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 … 🙂 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 😉


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… Read more »


I love when you ask the audience about something I actually have some relevant input on. 🙂 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… Read more »

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 🙂


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!


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.

Worth it- Swings!!!! 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 🙂 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… Read more »

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!!


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.

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


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 🙁… Read more »


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… Read more »

Interesting. Ok maybe we will do that!


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.


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.


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… Read more »

t wilson

Check out Site Design landscape architects based in Chicago – they do lots of amazing ‘nature play’ work that’s pretty inspiring.


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… Read more »


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

We built a sand table with a lid so cats couldn’t make it their litter box. HOURS of play by the entire neighborhood. Such a great solution.


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… Read more »

Amy Madeline

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… Read more »


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!


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!

WAit, can you send a picture?? does the sheet metal get hot?


Have you ever heard of builder boards? We have 4 year old twins and our kids will be getting a set for Christmas. It would definitely be a long-lasting “toy” that Charlie and Elliott could grow into. They inspire creativity, teamwork, and strategic thinking!

Emily K

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… Read more »


Love this

I totally agree. We grew up playing at the dump. It was glorious fun.


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… Read more »

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.

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.

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