With the right garden design you can foster in your children a love of being outdoors
Words: Natalie Raad
Designing a child-friendly garden is a clever way to encourage outdoor play. And with myriad play apparatus choices available, from cubby-houses, swings and slides to sand pits, monkey bars and a rock-climbing wall, creating an outdoor play area is easy. But it isn’t just a matter of adding store-bought play equipment. There are many natural inclusions and design feature you can integrate into your garden to encourage imaginative play and a spirit of discovery.
Creating a garden the whole family will want to use is important in this age of high-tech indoor pursuits. Getting the kids outside and playing will be an easier proposition if you’ve designed a suitable garden or created an appealing play area.
As with any landscape design project, planning is the key to success. Taking the time to design a garden that is suitable for both adults and children will ensure your outdoor space is enjoyed by everyone.
Play areas should blend in
Ideally, outdoor play areas should be designed to blend in with your house or any outdoor structure such as a pergola or gazebo rather than be the first thing that is seen. Plantings and structural elements such as screens or features that are sympathetic with the surrounding landscape will help the play area become part of the backyard environment.
To make play areas less obvious, it’s recommended you position them to one side of the backyard. Of course, the location and visibility of the play area will be determined by the age of the children who will use it. Parents need to be able to see young children at all times, so only partial screening of the play area is possible, whereas older children can play without supervision, so the play area can be totally screened if need be.
It’s also important to look at the traffic flow around any play structure, whether it’s a playhouse, cubby or swing set, and make sure it fits in with your landscape design. For example, there’s no point in having plants nearby if they’re going to be trampled by children coming off a slide.
Given that backyard come in all shapes and sizes, one swing set configuration is not going to work in every setting. Which is why playground manufactures offer flexible designs that can be adjusted to accommodate any situation, be it a hard-to-fit area or an unlevelled yard.
Playground equipment manufacturing has come a long way. These days, you can find equipment manufactured from a variety of materials to suit all environmental conditions, such as powder-coated galvanised steel, plastics and treated timber and environmentally friendly, chemical-free softwoods such as cedar and redwood. This means no matter what your landscape design, you’ll be sure to find some play apparatus to suit.
Yard size is not an issue
When it comes to play areas, the size of your yard need not be an issue; all it takes is some clever thinking. In small outdoor rooms, the key is to make some parts multifunctional. That way, when the kids aren’t playing, the space can be used by adults. For example, you can integrate a timber daybed in a sandpit and have a removable lid on rollers embedded in the deck.
Creating multi-purpose areas will maximise the play potential of any outdoor room. Driveways (suitably fenced) and rear tiled areas can be used for bikes, skateboards and games of handball, while portable items such as trampolines and basketball/netball hoops can be used and then moved to one side or stored away.
The size of the yard will, however, determine the size of the play apparatus that can be used. While a small yard might have space for only a single swing or small cubby house, a larger outdoor space will be able to accommodate a sprawling maze of play items.
In larger outdoor rooms where space is not an issue, a designated play area can be created where play equipment can be fixed and readily available for kids to engage with at any time.
Most modern play equipment is versatile and compact, meaning you can easily adapt and add to your play area to suit the needs of your children as they grow.
Plan for changing needs
When planning your children’s play area, it’s important to plan ahead and make sure you get the maximum use of the area over time as the kids are growing up. Most people start with a basic structure and add to it as the offspring get older and are able to handle more climbing and more adventurous play.
When buying a play system, you can ensure longevity by selecting a modular and expandable design that kids will grow into rather than grow out of.
Play areas should be designed with a contingency use once the area is no longer needed as a play space. This may involve simply extending garden or lawn areas to reclaim the space or a specific alternative use, such as an area for a spa.
Things like sandpits can later be converted into garden beds once the kids have grown up. The more elaborate the play area, though, the more extensive the transformation will be.
This is also the time to consider what plants you will include in your garden.
Remember, young children (and the family dog) like to put things in their mouths, so take great care not to use any poisonous plants in your planting beds or pots. Similarly, don’t plant thorny or spiky plants near play areas. Children enjoy rough-and-tumble games and there will be the inevitable falls and spills and you don’t want your child stumbling into a thorny bougainvillea or prickly cactus.
Create a safe place to play
Safety in your outdoor room is a priority, so it’s important to keep views of play areas unrestricted, especially if the area will be used by small children. Keep all wooden play equipment sanded and well-oiled to avoid splinters. Avoid using treated pine and make sure nails are hammered in on any timber structures or decking. Ensure all structures in the garden, whether they’re designed for play or not, are robust and won’t deteriorate quickly due to the weather.
Safety surfaces are also essential for play areas, with the choice of material dependent on the type and height of the playground apparatus. With higher structures (over 500mm) it’s recommended that some sort of soft fall material be used. There are three main types: sand, bark and rubber. Bark is the most popular in residential play areas as it’s cheaper and blends into the backyard more naturally.
Playground equipment should never be placed on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt. Grass is also not a good safety surface as it may quickly turn to hard earth in areas of high traffic. Shredded bark and soft play mulch are considered acceptable shock-absorbing surfaces when installed and maintained at a sufficient depth under and around playground equipment.
It’s recommended that you have weekly and monthly checks of your play area, as this will ensure your children’s safety. And the appeal of creating a play space in the backyard is that children can play freely and safely in the comfort of their own home.
As with any landscape project, the cost of a play area will be dependent on the size, complexity and quality of the materials used. A play area can be as simple as a commonly available swing set positioned on a sandpit costing around $600, or a detailed labyrinth of swings, bridges and climbing towers that could cost many thousands of dollars.
Include natural design elements
Designing a child-friendly, family oriented garden need not be all about play equipment though. Providing a patch of lawn where the kids can play with the dog, play ball games, pitch a tent or ride bikes is a great idea. You might also like to include an area of long grass for stalking games, a wildlife pool for discovery, a vegie patch so kids can have the fun of watching what they plant grow or include butterfly and bird attracting plants so kids can enjoy getting in touch with nature. Add in a bird feeder and bird bath if you want to really create a haven, just make sure the bird bath is high enough to small children and pets can’t get at it.
If you have established trees, make good use of them by creating a tyre swing or a tree house. If you have the space and the resources you could include something like an outdoor chess set, which kids and adults can play with.
There are several books you can use for ideas and inspiration, including Family Gardens by Bunny Guinness (published by David & Charles) and Small Fry Outdoors by Caroline Webster (published by ABC Books).
If you have a DIY enthusiast in the family, you can find plenty of books that show you how to build fun structures for the kids. One example is Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff by David & Jeanie Stiles (published by Gibbs Smith, distributed by Bookwise International). It includes instructions for building everything from a tree fort and nature hut to a Tarzan swing and a seesaw.
Ultimately, the key is to create something that will appeal to the age of your children, something adaptable that can evolve as the children grow and your family’s needs change, and something that encourages interaction and sparks the imagination. Get that right and it will be playtime all the time.
Safety comes first
- – Keep views of play areas unrestricted, especially if the area will be used by small children.
- – Keep all wooden play equipment sanded and well-oiled to avoid splinters.
– Avoid using treated pine.
– Make sure nails are hammered in on any timber structures or decking.
– Ensure all structures, whether designed for play or not, are robust and won’t deteriorate quickly due to the weather.
– Safety surfaces are essential for play areas. For high structures (over 500mm) a soft fall material is recommended, such as shredded bark or soft play mulch.
– Play equipment should never be placed on hard surfaces, including grass, which can quickly turn to hard earth in areas of high traffic.
- – Weekly and monthly checks of play areas are recommended.