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.
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)
- Kids can get bored quickly and move on. If there is only one play area…then there is no place to move onto.
- 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.
- 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.
- Create multiple areas with simpler, more natural, and less obtrusive garden-based features.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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.