Small Backyards Go Child-Friendly in Big, Playful Ways

By June Scott

Play is at the heart of childhood, and an inspiring outdoor play area can give children many hours of enjoyment. But what if your garden is compact? Maybe you would like to avoid having a playset that takes up precious yard space, or you don't want to look at toys year-round from the interior of your home. With some simple strategies, you can still incorporate play into your landscape. Here are some ideas for a range of project budgets.

1. Add child-friendly water features. A stainless steel C-channel (seen at top) pours water into an underground water basin, offering children a safe place in which to interact with water.

Tips to make your fountain more water wise

2. Camouflage the sandbox. Sand provides a potentially soothing sensory experience and stretches the imagination. Nestling a sandbox within a planting bed not only will help integrate it into the garden, but also will let kids get up close and personal with plants and the butterflies and birds they attract.

See stylish sandboxes

3. Keep that fallen log. Most of us love to get out the axe and chainsaw when we spot a dying or fallen tree. However, if a tree in your backyard is dying and must be removed, try to save at least part of it for wildlife. A length of fallen trunk on the ground makes a wonderful wildlife home as well as a playspace and can be attractive in a naturalistic garden. In time it will transform into a new type of habitat.

4. Make use of vertical space. Chalkboards, climbing walls and buckets of toys can be hung from garden walls and fences, making them less visually obtrusive in a small garden.

5. Incorporate a vegetable garden. A bean tepee makes a wonderful hiding place for young children during the summer months. Extra-long bamboo poles would make for an even more dramatic tepee and offer support for the most vigorous pole beans or other vines.

6. Make toys a design feature. Wooden tree swings, teeter-totters and other toys can be an attractive alternative to plastic ones.

7. Build in storage for toys. Let's face it: Kids tend to accumulate stuff. Lots of it. Bench storage is a great alternative to leaving toys in the yard or lugging them inside after playing.

8. Plan for older kids. It can challenging to lure older children and teens outdoors, but gardens can offer teens a fun place in which to relax with friends. Try adding cool seating, a fire pit for roasting marshmallows and a spot for watching movies.

9. Use space efficiently. With its clever level changes and integrated design, this stylish garden packs a slide, rope climber and sandbox into a tiny, steep city lot.

The play area's separation from the adult areas of the house gives the children a sense of their own place. A bench that allows adults to enjoy or supervise the children's play is at the top of the garden, next to the house, at the greatest distance from their world.

More:8 Outdoor Playspace Ideas to Nurture Kids' Imaginations
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