Parents (USA)

Blissing Out the Backyard

Simple upgrades for your summertime family room


Even if you have a vacation plan hatched, your yard is the spot where you and your kids will be chilling most of the summer. Luckily, there are simple ways to transform your outdoor space into a place you’ll look forward to spending loads of time. Try a few of these yard improvemen­ts and let the laid-back vibes commence—this is a family staycation at its best.


Create zones.

“Think about what you want to do in your space and how often you want to be there,” says Blythe Yost, cofounder of Tilly, in Pearl River, New York. Doing so can help make even smaller lots feel big. Melissa Michaels, of the blog The Inspired Room, thinks in terms of four sweet spots: grow (a plot for a garden), rest (a lounge in either the sun or the shade, depending on what you like), eat (a paved, wood, or gravel area for dining and/or cooking), and play (a free space for kids to run wild). Decide how much real estate, if any, you’ll want to dedicate to each.

Be smart about grilling.

Situating an outdoor kitchen next to the house makes food prep more convenient. For safety’s sake, position the barbecue 10 feet from the house. Keeping kids out of the way is another matter. “Never leave a hot grill unattended, turn off the propane before walking away, and make sure the lid stays closed as much as possible and barbecue utensils are out of reach,” Yost says. If you have a curious little chef, you may need to install a baby gate or other barricade around the grill.

Work with what you’ve got.

Make life easier by arranging the dining area beneath existing trees to avoid the need for an umbrella or other shade structures. If the lawn is patchy in one spot, maybe that’s the perfect place to plop the kids’ playhouse.


Invite wildlife.

Start with pollinator-friendly plants native to your area (a local nursery can make good suggestion­s). “They’re accustomed to the weather, so it’s easier for them to thrive in your yard,” says Chris Lambton, of HGTV’S Yard Crashers and Discovery+’s Clipped. Kids will love how they’ll attract butterflie­s, bees, and hummingbir­ds. One great pollinator for newbies is the sunflower. “My daughter and I plant sunflowers by seed. The results are fun to watch grow,” Lambton says.

Put foliage to work.

Plants can serve as stunning camouflage. Vines and shrubs block ugly AC units, and clumping bamboo (make sure it’s not an invasive type) is an excellent screen between neighbors. Even a prefab shed can look gorgeous when draped in flowering vines, a trick that designer and mother of one Jenna Leblanc, of Jenna Sue Design Co., pulled off at her Tampa home. Think of container gardens as lush dividers. Baltimoreb­ased designer Saudah Saleem uses colorful ceramic planters to flank walkways or delineate seating areas.

Go low-maintenanc­e.

Kids will adore playing on a patch of grass, but consider other natural lawns that require minimal mowing like fescue, ornamental grasses, or moss; they may mean less yard work, says Scott Mulholland, of Creo Landscape Architectu­re, in San Francisco. They’re soft for running and rolling in and are meant to look unkempt.


Make it cushy.

“The key to enjoying time outdoors is including all of the creature comforts of indoor living,” Saleem says. For her own deck, she leaned on colorful patterned pillows as well as floor cushions to layer in character and coziness. Consider hanging canvas curtains along a deck or a porch for shady privacy that gives off resort vibes.

Add color underfoot.

A rug pretties up a patio and zones off the yard’s “rooms.” There are indoor-outdoor options at various prices, so finding a stylish one that can be hosed after an ice-pop meltdown is easy. Saleem prefers a turf rug, which is a combo of sophistica­ted and fun: “The grass texture is perfect for kids who love to hang on the deck barefoot.”

Choose sturdy materials.

Stick to weatherpro­of chairs and tables (made of powdercoat­ed steel, aluminum, teak, acacia, resin, or plastic) and treated textiles from brands such as Sunbrella and Revolution Fabrics. If you aren’t able to reupholste­r or buy new, spray textiles with Scotchgard to keep them safe from spills and muddy handprints, Saleem adds.


Embrace the do-it-all bar cart.

Use one to keep essentials within reach so you don’t need to repeatedly run inside to fetch the burger flipper and then the Uno cards. The cart can carry utensils, dishes, and drinks or wheel out ice-cream sandwiches and lawn-game supplies. Stock it with bug spray and sunscreen and position it near the back door to encourage everyone to layer on protection before venturing out, or park it next to the grill as a prep table. While you’re at it, place a planter of fresh herbs on it so you can tear off a sprig or two as you cook.

Invest in space savers.

Furniture that can do double-duty will save precious real estate. Try a bench with built-in storage for stashing toys or tools, or a stool that can act as a side table, an ottoman, or spare seating, as Mulholland did for a San Francisco family home.

Provide relief from the hot sun.

A patio umbrella is, of course, the classic choice for offering some muchneeded shade. But think about other solutions like an awning, a wooden pergola, or a shade sail, which is a strung-up swath of fabric, often in a bright color, that can cover a lot of ground (or even part of a pool) for less money than an umbrella.


Install some magical illuminati­on and the party can rage on after dark (or at least until bedtime). If you have a tree with sturdy limbs, that’s a good place for downward-facing LED fixtures. Yost says, “Mount a few in the canopy so that they are angled to shine down over the space. We call this moonlighti­ng.” For less of a lift and a little twinkle, Saleem likes affordable, waterproof solar lights that automatica­lly turn on at dusk using energy collected during the day. “They give off a warm glow,” she says. Then add a fire pit for gathering around to make s’mores—you can DIY a rustic one by stacking curved paving stones in a circle.

Let the kids entertain themselves.

Ask anyone under 10 and they’ll tell you that a giant wooden playset complete with swings and a slide is the backyard holy grail. But you may want to take into account that your kids could outgrow it before you know it. Save some money and buy from a family looking to unload one. You can check local socialmedi­a marketplac­es to find a used set and refinish it, Yost points out.

Build in secret nooks.

Kids will love to hang out in their own special alcove. Simply tuck a chair or a hammock among shady trees or tall plants to create a mini reading retreat that they can hide out in. Laying down stepping-stones (Yost prefers sturdy pavers, at least 2 by 2 feet) creates charming pathways that little ones can hop along and explore.

Add some flex fun.

Lawn games such as cornhole, croquet, and jumbo-size Jenga don’t take up much space, are safe for young ones, and can easily be stored away in the garage when not in use. Saleem, whose kids range in age from 6 to 19, has found that outdoor movies are the ultimate unifier. “The novelty of watching movies under the stars never wears off,” she says. A projector (try the Kodak Luma 150 Ultra Mini Pocket Pico Projector, $200; amazon .com) and a taut white sheet or blank white wall are all you need for a memorable summer night with family and friends.

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