Families are rediscovering the backyard as a great gathering space. Pleasurable times with friends and relations dining on food hot off the grill, playing volleyball in the side yard, or just relaxing and enjoying life make lasting memories. Children laugh and exercise while playing in the yard, and learn life lessons by planting seeds, waiting for germination, and watching in awe as sprouts mature and bloom.


Put a play space where adults can supervise it unobtrusively from a nearby deck or patio. Create play areas that contain more than a jumble of oversize primary color plastic toys and play equipment to stimulate your child’s imagination. A rock garden filled with pea gravel invites digging with miniature backhoes and dump trucks. When planning a new deck, integrate a slide that lands in a soft sandpit.

Keep in mind that kids grow up quickly, so consider the effort involved in removing the feature later. Think in terms of conversion rather than replacement. Perhaps a playhouse can convert to a tool shed, or the gravel pit for toddlers can become a bog garden that may hold the children’s attention for a few more years.


A family-friendly landscape calls for an open, level area where people can play games and practice sports. An area of the flat lawn may suit your needs, or you may want to install a backyard playing court with a concrete base. Unless you insist on strictly playing by the rules, most lawn games require only a flat area of turf free of trees, poles, and other obstacles. Informal games of golf, softball, soccer, football, kickball, Wiffle ball, bocce, croquet, cricket, volleyball, badminton, and horseshoes require only a modest plot of lawn.

A lawn area for games requires good drainage. If you already have a lawn, choose the most level area available. If you’re starting from scratch, grade an area so that it crowns in the center and pitches toward the edges – this will create the fairest playing conditions for competitive games.

Experts recommend a minimum elevation change of 1/4 inch per foot of horizontal distance for lawns and unpaved surfaces. (For paved surfaces, which drain more easily, a 1/8-inch elevation change per foot suffices.) With some imagination, you can even create a backyard golf course where you chip the ball out of the “rough” of ornamental grass, over the “trap” of the children’s sandbox, past the “water” in the garden pool, and onto the “green” of velvety lawn.

Backyard athletic courts add another dimension to the possibilities for outdoor play and having a backyard court cuts down on the wear and tear on your lawn and bordering garden plants. Backyard courts come in a range of sizes and surfaces. Most consist of a concrete base topped with a smooth finish surrounding by sturdy mesh fencing for keeping stray balls and players out of the planting beds.

The playing surface depends on the climate and the sport or game. A polypropylene surface, or one made of acrylic-coated rubber mats, cushions joints and prevents injury from falls. Acrylic surfaces offer the least cushioning, but are sturdy and withstand abuse from roller blades, tricycles, and street shoes. Search the Internet for athletic court manufacturers and the proper size and surface for your use. Install the court so that water drains properly and install fencing, goal posts, and other fixtures so they are safe and secure.

Disguise a regulation-size court or field by rounding off corners, adding decorative edging, and surrounding it with plants. Consider a separate garden room for your play area and surround it with retaining walls or terraces if your property slopes. Designate a terrace for delicate plantings such as a prized hybrid lily collection. Surround your court with tough plants that can withstand abuse from stray balls and players, and avoid plants with thorns.


It takes imagination – and some luck – to pique a child’s interest in gardening. A child’s world is so full of impressions that it’s sometimes hard to focus on a single project, and gardening moves at a slow pace. Giving kids their garden area may provide the right incentive. Help them prepare the soil in a sun-drenched area that’s close to a hose. Give them their tools and rubber boots, and be sure they have gardening clothes that they’re free to get dirty.

Help children grow some fruits, vegetables, and herbs in the garden so they can enjoy the reward of eating what they’ve grown. Kids are drawn to plants that have large seeds, that sprout and grow quickly, that produce something good to eat, or that have textures that are fun to touch. Plants with interesting names or fragrances also intrigue them. Start a children’s garden in your yard when your kids are young, and you may spark a lifelong love of gardening.

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