A Landscape Designer’s Ideas for Better Kids Play Areas

December 22, 2023

You know what I dislike more than anything else in the garden?

Isolated garden play areas where some sort of crummy swing set thing is thoughtlessly plopped down to simultaneously compartmentalize kids away – but then, also, not away.  The worst offenders are those horrible are the cheap, garish plastic play sets. 

Swingsets that have more durable and natural materials are better. And better still are those that have made some effort in design. But they all have one common (negative) feature, they relegate kids to one area of the yard and are completely repetitive in their offerings. 

They beg the question – why not go to a local playground?  The setup will be more extensive and interesting than most families could ever afford or have the space for in their own backyards. Plus, kids can socialize with other kids. And in an ideal world – these sorts of amenities would be walkable places that are designed to help build community for young families.

Why most Backyard play areas don’t work well

As a mom, I get the practicality that your own backyard park can have, especially if the play structures are located in plain sight from, say, a kitchen window, but personally, I prefer to integrate the play opportunities with the rest of the garden as much as possible. I also think they should be designed for longevity – meaning that they aren’t useless in a couple of years when the kids outgrow them. Swings and many other features can be functional and beautiful for people at many ages.

swing by blasen landscape architecture via
This swing does not have to be hidden away and can easily stay in the landscape as kids grow up. by Blasen landscape architects

Here is why backyard swing sets and ‘play areas’ miss the mark — (at least from a kid perspective — I assume I don’t need to mention that ‘jungle gyms’ are a general blight on the landscape)

  1. Kids can get bored quickly and move on.  If there is only one play area…then there is no place to move onto.
  2. The play area tends to encourage only one type of play – that is playground play…where kids are excitedly swarming all over the structure like ants.  It is all energy and excitement – and it is good, but there are other things too.  Play structures can encourage kids to interact with their surroundings, and they should — it is possible to provide better options than just a pile of plastic to climb on.
  3. There is no opportunity to move around the outdoors; they just stay in that spot. Sure, there is exercise in climbing, but giving them destinations and ways to move to them is much more interesting, not just for kids but for adults too.

Better Backyard Play Area Ideas

What is better? (Of course, this is dependent on how much space you have) Here are some examples.

  1. Create multiple areas with simpler, more natural, and less obtrusive garden-based features.
  2. Allow for kid engineering – At my house, we have a tree platform with a slide.  My little people and their cohorts have taken it upon themselves to accessorize the platform with their own creations – pull-up buckets (created from plant pots) and variations on rope swings made from found wood and rope scavenged from the garage. While I want to add to this tree house, I am discovering that it is becoming its own thing without me having to spend too much money or imaginative effort. The kids are leading, and we are following, and it is really nice.
  3. Double-purpose Garden Features (for adults and kids) – On the side of the house, we have a gravel patio that doubles as a sandbox. The looseness of the surface works for all of us.
  4. Provide areas for play at different tempos. Around the back, we have a hammock strung between two oak trees.  I can see it from my desk.  My kids love this thing.  Roughly four children can be in it at a time, and you would be surprised by how many hours are spent in this thing with stuffed animals, books, pets, swinging, etc.   It is totally separate from the tree house, and this play is much more contemplative and collaborative (because they are all swinging together). It is not uncommon for me to find my 3-year-old gently swinging and daydreaming by himself here.
  5. Outbuildings can, and pathways give routes to adventures. My garden shed frequently doubles as a playhouse and garden paths are inviting journeys to other things. 
  6. Let Nature Inspire you. I should not forget to mention the ‘play tree’, which is a bunch of giant rhododendrons. They have been denuded from about 4′ down by deer exposing have fun branches to climb in. Let kids lead and see what interests them. Then work to make it easier, safer, more exciting, and more accessible.

Resources for Ideas:

willow play tunnel in the garden
Play area ideas – planted twig tunnels. image from usedcarspecialist

So I guess what I am saying is that when you see all this, you aren’t immediately struck by the presence of a playground in the middle of our garden but rather by an interest to see what awaits around the next corner. I think that is infinitely more interesting to kids and adults.

While at the Blasen Architects website, I saw these two beautiful examples of what I am talking about.
The swings above are so simply beautiful. I would happily sit there to chat with my husband as eagerly as my kids would.  This slide is so pretty; I had to take a second look to realize what I was even looking at. A slide on a hill that blends beautifully with the landscape. Nice.

slide by blasen landscape arch
A beautiful modern design feature and hillside slide by blasen landscape architects

The best book that I have ever seen about this different sort of approach to a child’s garden and better play area ideas is A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children (Archetype Press Books) by Molly Dannenmaier. I mentioned it here before, but it really is worth a read if you are looking to create outdoor spaces that children can interact with.

More Inspiration for creating better gardens for families and kids:

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  1. Tracey says:

    I like your ideas about having different play areas throughout your outdoor living spaces.
    I have a small backyard and an even smaller front yard.
    I currently do not have any play spaces for my children in either yard. My husband likes to keep the entire area simple. He just wants grass, and nothing else.
    What I am finding is that the kids get bored. My son – 6 yrs old, has now broken two of my trees. He was swinging a stick around and lopped off the top foot and a half of my young apple tree, (a month later one of the kids I babysit turned around and lopped off another three feet off of the same tree by swinging a stick.) Then today my son and the same little girl broke a large branch off of my plum tree because she decided to hang on it so my son could get a few un-ripe plums off of it to throw at each other.
    I am in desperate need to find things they can do to keep them from destroying the rest of my trees and flowers. My Husband likes things simple and plain, I like things with color and texture. We both like nature.
    I like the swing set you have in the top picture, but because I really cannot afford to build me one right now, maybe I’ll take your hammock idea and incorporate it into my back patio.
    It gets really hot here throughout the summer, I think I’ll look into ways I could create a recycling water play area. Wish I could get them a trampoline, but that really is an eye sore. Wonder if there is other ways to create bouncy areas for them to play in. Would using an old tent work in place of a fort? Probably not.

    • rochelle says:

      Tracey – good luck with all your ideas…I would love to see them when you get something going. Also….I have been meaning to prepare a post about this, but regarding the recycled water comment you made…. I have rigged up a recycled water system to water my garden (though not needed now as it never seems to stop raining these days) but I am using barrels that I got from the local pepsi bottling plant. It took a few phone calls and some persistence, but I am able to buy them (and I then I paint them green) for 3$ each. something else my kids love…I mow crazy paths in the grass..all kinds of angles and curves. They love to run around the ‘paths’ that I create until they all go away when I am finished mowing….but I have considered putting some more thought to this and actually mowing some sort of game into the grass that I can teach them.

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  3. This garden is amazing, should replace the swing set for a climbing frame in my opinion.

  4. mahjong says:

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