BY LINDSAY CUTLER
I’m trying to live my fullest life with a passionate career, solid friendships, and a meaningful relationship to the man I love and the planet we live on while also trying to provide the same full set of opportunities to my children. It’s downright exhausting. So this summer, I’m giving up in hopes of finding a slower life with a lot less driving. I want to provide them with the ultimate gift – boredom – and see if I survive the messes and entanglements that ensue as they adjust to this reality.
My designer self is chiming in – without opportunities for meaningful play, this may be an exercise in futility. My budget self says – why invest money in something that they’ll just grow out of? What are child-friendly design features that aren’t an eyesore and that kids will actually use and that will grow along with them? The following guidelines can be adapted to almost any size yard and are drawn from both my textbook landscape architecture education as well as ongoing implementation across a wide range of budgets, age ranges, and personality types.
Hook. Something that can be seen from the house that motivates your kid or their friends to open the door and head out. Check out the view from your windows and place something there. In our house, it’s the zip line but it could be a cool bird house, a swing, a fire pit, or an easel. From that point in the yard, see what they can see and encourage exploration deeper into the yard with easy paths and hidden views. Think of it like a scavenger hunt or an episode of Dora the Explorer (to get to the purple mountain we have to cross the rainbow river…)
Scale. If you’ve ever used the bathroom at your toddler’s school, you know that in environments designed for children, everything shrinks. The same is true for outdoor spaces – steps become seats, pathways get more narrow, tables shrink, and even plants seem larger to your children. An unused corner to you could be a magical pathway to them with a few stepping stones and small tree stumps put in the right place.
Security. Cozy corners in preschools are so comforting because they are just the right size with just the right amount of visibility to make a child feel safe. Children of all ages crave privacy away from adults yet with the comfort of knowing that adults are not far off. You can create secret hideouts using tall grasses as a screen or you can use that giant spruce tree as a fort – just climb on under and start your imagination. Bean, sunflower, or willow teepees are fun ways to grow shelter. Even putting a cozy corner in the yard or on a deck gives shade and a nook to chill in.
Feedback. Kids get wound up from too much input, whether that be the intense social schedule of summer camp, video game overload, or fatigue from swim team followed by a park and a pool. Sometimes they need an outlet for all this pent up processing. As a kid, I used to hit the tennis ball against the wall of the garage. Trampolines, hammocks, basketball hoops, zip lines, yoga routines, and jump ropes can all fit the bill, depending on your child and your space. We have a single rope hung from a balcony that our nine year old likes to climb while our 8 year old prefers throwing the baseball into a net. Focus on one or two simple additions that let your kid get into a rhythm while building his or her skills and strength.
Comfort. Sun or warm bricks, cool water or deep shade, soft grass or cushions, hard table or patio, shelter from wind, access to breezes; plants, stones, and mud that invite birds, bees, and butterflies, good smells, and even a stereo. We get some weather here in Denver and it’s nice to be able to enjoy most of it outside in whatever niche meets our needs.
Exploration. In a garden where everything is in its place, kids get bored and you get frustrated. Loose parts like sticks, dandelions (the stems and the seeds), small to medium rocks, even ropes and whittling knives lead to engagement in hours of activities and focus. Let it get a little messy – a collection of natural materials laying about will look much more attractive than another plastic toy.
Adult zone. Where can you sit with a friend while your kids play and feel connected yet distanced? Movable chairs and small table allow you to sit, have a conversation, enjoy a cocktail, and supervise all at the same time. That’s a win.
My yard is a mess yet I consistently hear that it is kid heaven and I feel that our friends are comfortable here. Maybe it’s that feeling of relaxation that comes when you realize that we are all imperfectly muddling our way through this busy time of life but maybe it’s some of the design choices we’ve made as well. Yes, we do have some larger play elements because we are the type of people that decide to put in a treehouse and, before you know it there’s a photoshop rendering and we are tearing down the neighbor’s 50 year old playhouse and re-building it halfway up a tree. That big stuff might be the initial attraction when new friends come to play – the hook that gets them out the door but it’s the smaller stuff that keeps them there, lifting rocks to look for bugs, building dandelion chains, and sitting and chatting with their feet in cool water. And it’s the great cushioned adirondacks and killer Manhattans that keep my friends bringing their kids over to play because good friends really are the ultimate salve to boredom.