Residential - Tips & tricks - A safe and practical backyard

Turning your yard into a... fun place whare everyone can play

You’ve finally decided to rip down that old gallery, tear out the overgrown shrubbery and turn your yard into a rest and recreation centre the whole family can safely enjoy. Here are a few ideas for really doing it up well.

A yard that invites fun and good times should be built with play areas that meet the interests and needs of each age group in your family. The first thing to do is to put your ideas down on paper. Then choose one and make a plan to scale that blends the different ideas in a pleasant presentation – as you well know, it’s a lot easier to correct mistakes on paper than once something’s built. Next you’ll be ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Before long you’ll be ready to enjoy your hard work for many summers to come.

Kids are always on the move. They just love to climb, run, jump, crawl, roll around, and throw and catch balls. They also like to build stuff and explore the unknown. What your little adventurers need, then, is an environment that is elaborate, varied and stimulating. So how do you create this dream space? By being creative.

“Many children’s areas are furnished with prefabricated games, which they get tired of quickly,” says landscape architect Chantal De Menezes. “What I suggest is integrating elements that allow children to rediscover the very essence of play and to use their creativity and imagination to develop the scenarios and productions they love to do. But first of all, ask our kids to tell you exactly what they like and who their favourite cartoon TV characters are so that you can create a space where they’ll want to be.”

“For example, in one layout, I designed a little trail with cocoa shells, which for those children - with its crunching sound underfoot - became the witch’s path. It led to a staircase made of blue stones – magic blue stones, of course – beyond which lay a vacant space for them to play. All it took was some crates, tires, bits of wood, cardboard boxes, some fabric for making a tent, plastic building blocks, and balloons for creating a place that invites adventure. A few large rocks for them to climb is always sure to please. You can help them develop new interests by giving them something like a patch of ground where they can plant vegetables or flowers. And if there’s a wooded area on your property, you can blaze a bird-watching trail with birdfeeders ans signs to help them identify the various species.”

If your property is very big, the kids will surely be thrilled to have a path laid for tricycle riding or roller skating. And any hillocks on the grounds are bound to attract the small ones for rolling down! Another good idea is to set logs into the ground at different distances for the kids to hop from one to another. And don’t forget the pic-nic table, of course, a must for when you’re working in the yard as well as during family summer meals.

Safety measures
Beware of treated wood Since December 2003, wood treated with copper and chrome arsenate (ACC) for residential use – in pic-nic tables, decks, walkways and fences, for example – is no longer sold in Quebec as it is considered a carcinogenic. But if you already have structures made of treated wood, cover them with stain or oil paint every two years to isolate the contaminant.

Prevent risk of injury Pierre Rousseau, inspector for Consumer Product Safety at Health Canada, recommends inspecting playground equipment once a year. Look for any screws or bolts that may be sticking out, check the spaces between the various components, look out for sharp edges and damaged parts, and make any needed repairs. As for clothing, keep your children’s trim – no hoods, scarves, loose belts or baggy clothing that could catch on something and strangle them. Likewise, watch out for buttons and cords that might get caught in a narrow opening and hang a child. One trick is to attach a large button to the end of a string and slide it into all the openings. If it gets stuck, close up the space well. And don’t let a young child play with a bicycle helmet on his or her head, as the straps could get stuck.

Coverings for play areas Lay some ground covering under the play modules to absorb shocks in the event of a fall. Materials such as gravel (smooth and round pea-sized pebbles), wood chips and rubber-based synthetics are recommended. But make sure that the protective ground covering is thick enough – approximately 30 cm (12 inches) – and regularly replenished, especially under the slide and swings. Quarry sand is not recommended for sandboxes as it can become packed from rainfall and tiny feet. Concrete sand is better, as the grains are of equal size and do not pack down. Forget grass. It gets hard during draughts and cannot withstand too much wear.

Make space Keep a sufficient distance between the equipment and surrounding objects, like trees and fences.

Fence-in the pool According to the Agence de la Santé et des Services sociaux (health and social-services agency) of the Montérégie, Quebec’s death rate by drowning among children under 14 years old is the highest in Canada! Ensure that a fence at least 1.2 metres (4 feet) high prevents access to any kind of swimming pool. Also be sure that the fence gate is equipped with a static security device (spring hinges) that shuts ans locks it automatically.

Beware of trampolines While the net keeps kids from landing on the ground next to the trampoline, it is not attached tightly all the way around: there are openings in which a child could get caught. Not to be used without supervision.

Protect the sandbox Use only sand that is washed and filtered to reduce the risk of kids coming across refuse or pebbles, which could choke very small children. You can find this sand at garden centres. And to keep animals out, cover the sandbox with a tarp or lid when not in use. Cat and dog faeces can transmit infection.

Plan wisely Some plants, such as the cypress, azalea, anemone and elderberry, are poisonous. Ban them from your garden if you have young children. Also avoid plants with red or white berries, as kids may be attracted to them.

What teenagers like is to have their friends over to chat, swim and play. Their space could then take the form of a private deck or patio with a porch swing and a game table.

“Turn an old table into a game table,” suggests Ms De Menezes. “You can draw a checker or chess board, then apply a coat of acrylic to protect the designs and colours. It can even be used by your teens to have dinner on with their friends! Another idea is to make a giant tic-tac-toe game by imbedding pieces of square wood into the lawn. You can make Xs and Os out of wood, Styrofoam or thick cardboard.”

For the pool, they might like accessories such as air mattresses and water-polo balls.

If your property is big enough, they might also want to have their friends over for soccer games. This requires a grassy area with no trees or shrubs.

As for the ever-popular basketball, that has to take place on the driveway as you need a paved surface on which to bounce the balls. But try to arrange it so that there’s little risk of breaking any windows.

Safety measures
Reinforce the equipment Make sure that the basketball hoop is well anchored and solid, as kids have a habit of grabbing onto the basket and hanging from it when they play.

Establish safety rules for around the pool Each year teenagers become seriously injured by jumping into the shallow end of the pool or falling off a trampoline. Explain the rules and make them respect them to the letter.

And what do adults want? A quiet corner for a hammock or a deck chair, a place to read, and a place where they can chat with family members or friends around a good meal. To ensure a pleasant atmosphere, keep your rest area far away from the pool filter or the heat pump. For visual privacy, erect some vine trellises, being careful not to block your view of the children. You might also want to reserve a spot in the shade for summer naps.

What about a game area for grown-ups? You can create a gravel area for a game of pétanque, for example. All you need to do is zone off a shady slice of the yard, or even better take over the rarely used side of the house that leads from the street to the back yard. Mark the playing surface with a border, then cover it with fine gravel. Or, to keep weeds from popping through, use gravel containing a polymer stabilizer that almalgamates the particles and provides a more rigid surface.

Have a great summer!

By Jacqueline Simoneau
Translation : John Woolfrey