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Creating a kid-friendly yard to promote outdoor play

One of my favorite parts about spring and summer is how much more time my kids are able to spend outside. They argue less, use their imaginations more and sleep better after a long day of playing hard outside.

When it comes to our yard, our goal is to create simple landscaping that invites our children to explore and enjoy being outside. For this reason, we try not to include plants or features that will leave us constantly saying, “No,” “Don’t touch that,” “Be careful,” et cetera.

Here are a few tips of my tips for creating a kid friendly yard.

1. Emphasize open space.

The size of your yard obviously plays a role in how much open space you have, and for some people it just might not be possible to leave much. But open space invites children to explore, imagine and just play. It also leaves them more room to run around and get their extra energy out, which is always a good thing!

2. Plant a variety of flowers and plants.

Having a variety of plants – and/or fruits and veggies – growing in your yard or garden allows kids to watch the natural progression as plants grow, bud and flower. They get to see the flowers fall off and the plants go dormant in the fall and winter. They’ll see firsthand the effects of different amounts of rain and sun on the plants. And the flowers will attract butterflies, honeybees and other insects for kids to observe as well.

3. Be aware of safety concerns.

Avoid plants and flowers that are poisonous and landscaping that poses a danger. If your children are young, this would include water features (no matter how shallow the pool of water) as well as stone work with sharp edges. Keep children out of tall grasses until they’re old enough to watch for snakes.

Avoid pesticides and fertilizers, especially in areas where kids may play in the grass or pick flowers. Providing a safe environment means your children will be able to enjoy the yard more often because you won’t have to hover over them when they’re outside.

digging in the dirtPhoto by Robert Terrell

4. Have a space to build or create.

Most children love to dig and build and discover. Provide a sandbox or an area of your yard that can be dug up without ruining your beautiful yard to satisfy this natural curiosity. We don’t have many outdoor toys, but shovels and buckets are on the must-have list!

5. Engage their imaginations.

I love the idea of creating a sunflower house or hideaway for my kids by planting a border of sunflowers and a flooring of soft grass. If you live near the woods or have old trees in your yard, you can use those to create forts and hideaways as well.

We recently played at an outdoor area that simply had large rocks placed throughout an open area, and my kids would have played for hours if we’d let them. All of these ideas have one thing in common: they use natural materials to invite children to use their imagination to create a magical place of their own.

6. Create a space to relax.

Having a place to rest and relax outside is just as important as having a place to play. On the hottest days of summer, we often have to coax our girls to stay outside when they’d really rather not. Instead of forcing them to continue playing (because, really, that tends to take the fun right out of it!), we invite them to sit on the porch or the patio — whichever happens to be in the shade at the time — and read books, have a picnic snack or do a craft.

Do you have a kid friendly yard? Have you found the balance between having a beautiful yard and one that the whole family can enjoy?

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  1. Rachel

    Good post. Along the lines of safety concerns, fence your yard if possible. Knowing your little one can’t dart away will help *you* relax in the backyard.

    • Mandi @ Organizing Your Way

      I think this is a good thing to keep in mind depending on where you live! I actually read a report about how Swiss playgrounds don’t have fences, but the children respect the natural boundaries provided by the changes in landscape, and we’ve had that same experience at our house, but we live in the country and don’t have to worry about them wandering into traffic or someone else’s yard either!

      • Mousume

        How I wish I had enough space in my backyard for my little monkey.

  2. Heidi @ The Good Stuff Guide

    I love these ideas! Lately I’ve been giving the kiddos an early dinner (my husband is not home until late) and then we head outside for a couple of hours before bed. I find its the best antidote to the “witching hour” doldrums.

    • Mandi @ Organizing Your Way

      We’ve started eating dinner earlier too to make time to play outside afterward, and I agree completely!

  3. cagey (Kelli Oliver George)

    Great ideas! While I don’t want our kids digging up the entire yard, I have designated areas around the landscaping and such where they can get crazy with their shovels.

    I’d like to note that if you stop using pesticides and herbicides , you will begin getting fun bugs again. This will be our 4th year and I have been amazed at what is coming into our yard now.

    Also, I keep a box of clear plastic containers in a cupboard for my son that he knows are his – he runs in and out grabbing containers for new “specimens”.

    • Mandi @ Organizing Your Way

      Ooh, what a great point! We’ve never used pesticides on our land, and we definitely get some funky bugs!

      I love the idea of having containers ready for collecting specimens. Gonna go look through my stash right now to designate some for this purpose.

      • cagey (Kelli Oliver George)

        I use old plastic containers that would have been recycled otherwise. I did come across some smaller ones at the dollar store last year and purchased those as well. When the bug dies, if it is not mushy or stinky, I rinse the container out and put it back in my son’s stash.

        Also? This method keeps him and my husband OUT of the good Tupperware. Trust me.

  4. Stacey

    We have a large yard, most of which is open space. I was always worried that my three children would be bored in our yard because it does not have a pool or playground equipment. But our children really enjoy our yard! We have a vegetable garden and we play lots of sports like soccer, baseball or kickball. The biggest hit, however, is a circle of tree stumps in a shady corner of our yard. We had to have a tree cut down in our yard because it was very close to our house. I chose five interestingly shaped slices of tree trunk — four small ones which we placed in a rough circle and a larger one for the middle. The kids love to see if they can hop between the stumps. We also have story time, tea parties and picnics there.

    • Mandi @ Organizing Your Way

      I love your description of the tree trunk area — what a fun place for the kids to use their imagination and practice gross motor skills!

  5. se7en

    Just yesterday I asked my kids what a garden was for… We are doing a lot of planning as we long for Spring!!! And everyone had their own idea: building, mud, resting, reading, growing vegetables… funny really, playing was never entered into the equation. Play is work after all!!!

  6. Cara @ Natural Family Crafts

    We just got a back yard (used to be in an apartment) and I loved setting it up for my kids! We put some planks in and some log rounds, a sand box, and a bike.

  7. djinny

    We have such a problem with mosquitoes in our yard that it’s hard to let them play outside once it gets warm. I don’t want to use pesticide, of course, or slather them in Off every day. We usually just take the bikes to a nearby park instead.

    • Mandi @ Organizing Your Way

      Oh, that’s hard! We have a huge tick problem, but those are a lot easier to deal with than mosquitoes, since they don’t leave an itchy bite behind most of the time!

      Have you tried California Baby’s natural bug spray? Or Graham Garden’s bug bar? Or maybe there’s a natural one you could make on your own that would keep the mosquitoes from biting?

      • djinny

        Thanks for the ideas! I’ll have to give those a try.

    • Stephanie


      Have a look online to find out more but if the children eat a lot of oranges this works as a natural mosquito repellent – almost as if citronella were coming out of their pores!

    • Janine

      My folks spray an all-natural garlic bug repellant all over their yard, especially at the borders of the wooded areas, and in high-traffic spaces. Keeps the ticks away, and works on mosquitoes too.

  8. Nadene

    My kids love our plastic picnic set, buckets and small pots and pans. They “cook” all sorts of amazing “foods”. They love playing with cheap plastic food, but will also use plants and flowers (with my approval first!).
    We hung a hammock on a lovely big tree in the back yard. The kids lie in it and read, chat and giggle. Add an extra long piece of cloth and they create rooms/ castles and spaceships.
    My kids love some strong nylon rope. They use it to make swings and tie and pull things. I gave them a few plastic tea strainers and colanders for hours of fun with water or sand.
    Of course, with some dress-up clothes, they can be anything … anywhere!

  9. Alison B.

    Good article. We are trying to fix what the previous owners of our house did to the yard. We have so many yucca plants, cacti, and thorny shrubs that I just won’t let our daughter run barefoot. If I accidentally run over some cactus that I hadn’t dug up yet and it falls out of the mower in another spot, it takes root! I can’t believe what all these people planted. So many sharp things!

  10. Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith

    When my oldest daughter was two, my husband and I decided to delay an addition of our small ranch, in favor of refiguring our backyard to make it more child friendly. We removed some flower beds to create a large open lawn space, replaced our aging concrete patio with a larger brick one that is perfect for relaxing or tricycle races, and dug a 24 X 24 mulch playground on which we placed a large wooden swing set. Our girls LOVE our backyard, and it has become a favorite of our neighborhood. Somedays, I wish I had a bigger master bath or bedroom, however when I see my kids play, I know we made the right choice.

  11. Alissa

    We are currently staring at a lot of bare ground in our backyard, courtesy of our running, digging dog. My 3 year old is loving the ability to dig ANYWHERE he wants, but we need to restore some function.

  12. renee @ FIMBY

    Good post. I’d say, yes we have a kid friendly yard AND it’s beautiful. One thing we invested in is a trampoline which helps huge in our small, small backyard. Other ideas: each of my children has a small garden space, a back awkward corner was converted in the outdoor “kitchen”, there is a digging corner, my son has a small pond we built last summer and there are lots of edibles they can munch on. Flowers edge the fence and the house leaving the rest of the space open for vegetable gardening, laundry line & play area. It’s small but we maximize all the space.

    • Kika

      Can you tell more about the outdoor ‘kitchen’?

  13. Kelly Be A Fun Mum

    I’ve really struggled with this. You see, we’ve never owned our own home, and are constantly moving. Although I’m sure we could use the tips in our rental homes to some degree.

  14. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    Great ideas! We have a large open yard and have been talking for the past couple of years about actually doing something with it. Now that we have a new baby, we’re definitely interested in making it kid friendly too. I like the idea of having a place where little hands can dig and make a mess without tearing up the landscape. thanks again!

  15. Just Plain Joy

    We’ve all heard about bringing the outdoors inside…I like to bring the inside outdoors as well!
    My daughter and I enjoy playing with her regular toys – blocks, books, kitchen stuff, stuffed animals, and pillows – outside.
    Somehow, she becomes even more creative with these items when she is outside!

  16. Julia

    I really enjoyed this list. It’s a good reminder to me that just having a new play set isn’t enough. We need to install a new sandbox for imaginative play since our former one is getting overgrown with weeds. I’ll pass along these ideas to friends too. =)

  17. Kika

    I think our yard is fairly kid friendly: bubbles, chalk, hoolahoops within easy access, basketball net for older kids, large netted trampoline, pretty apple trees, my daughters’ flower & veggie pots, long driveway for our youngest to bike on… what I do need is an area for our youngest to muck about. I really like this photo/idea:

    • Kika

      After posting my girls and I did get ‘our’ act together and create a “mud kitchen” using supplies from the home & garage; it turned out fabulously and they’re loving it. Hurray!

  18. Jodi

    This is an excellent article, and having 3 sons under 5 years old, I’m grateful for it. I need some ideas for what to do about pine needles. We can’t cut down the existing tree, but it’s needles are so sharp that my sons cant play in the ground comfortably. Obviously we cant help the needles that get blown across the yard, but directly under the tree is a neat play shelter. I feel like I’m asking a stupid question but here goes…. Is there anything i can do to make the area nit so uncomfortable, or some way to better manage the needles so the boys can play there ? Thanks in advance.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Jody,

      What comes to my mind is raking them up if they are too sharp to play with and then laying down some old blankets or comforters. You could also create a really neat fort under the tree – perhaps with boxes or tarps (insert own imaginative ideas here!) to lessen the amount of needles that fall directly on that area.

  19. Amelia

    I think that when it comes for baby safety, especially if they are smaller, a playard is the best solution or some gates and doorways for playing outside.

  20. Kirsten Branch

    We bought our house because of the yard before we ever had our boys, and now even as I write this they are rampaging through it. Agree with all points, and would add that having a place to quickly and cleanly store all the toys that get strewn around the yard has been a sanity saver for me. Also if bugs, like Mosquitos, are a problem, consider adding plants like lavender for mosquitos around places you sit or play, natural and beautiful.

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