Children at play: landscape with kids in mind

Children at play: landscape with kids in mind

Cheryl Weber

Safety first: It’s the mantra on the job, in the house, and out of doors. While indoor building codes dictate details from the placement of electrical outlets to the design of stair rails, outdoor spaces–residential ones, at least–enjoy a little more freedom. And when backyards include children, fewer guidelines ate both a blessing and a cause for concern.

Litigation-conscious public playgrounds ate filled with prefabricated play sets that don’t really challenge children. By contrast, a well-designed backyard encourages kids’ independence and imagination, inviting them to explore.

“One of the great things about residential landscape design is that it’s not as tied to litigation fears,” says landscape architect Jennifer Booher, ASLA, of Burdick & Booher in Mount Desert, Maine. “The design depends on the parent. You can do a treehouse and climb at your own risk.”

On the other hand, 70 percent of playground-related fatalities occur at borne, according to the National Sale Kids Campaign (NSKC), a Washington, D.C.-based agency founded by Children’s National Medical Center to work on preventing unintentional childhood injuries nationwide. With that in mind, it’s important for residential designers to remain cognizant of potential dangers without sacrificing innovation and creativity.

Define and Soften. Children deserve independence, but they do need boundaries. Creating a border that’s both attractive and suitable for the area is a crucial part of any outdoor design. For example, a 4-foot-high fence is mandatory next to a busy road, but if the yard is next to a quiet, residential side street then something lower, such as a hedge, will suffice. Often, simply defining the area where they’re allowed to play is enough: a change of surface from lawn to mulch, for example. Depending on what’s around them, privacy may be another concern. A screening of trees, shrubs, or a built structure allows children to play without being seen by strangers.

The view from the house is equally important. Lack of adult supervision is a factor in 40 percent of playground injuries, according to the NSKC. So although your clients may not want to see a jungle gym or sand pit right outside the kitchen window, it needs to be within sight of the house. “The trick is designing the children’s area to look appropriate next to a high-end landscape,” Booher says. Play sand is a natural material that can be easily shaped to fit into an elegant landscape. On a recent project, Booher poured sand onto landscape fabric to define the play surface, and pinned it in place with plastic edging, 6 inches deep by 1/4 inch thick. When the children outgrow the play area, [the sand] can be removed and the area can become part of the garden.

Booher also specifies a lot of shredded bark mulch, which blends well with woodland settings.

In addition to defining children’s zones, those materials make good shock absorbers under play equipment. Since falls account tot 90 percent of the most severe playground-equipment-related injuries, according to NSKC data, a soft landing at the bottom of a treehouse of climbing wall is essential, and turf grass isn’t the gentle surface it would seem to be. NSKC recommends mulch that’s 12 inches deep and extends 6 feet in all directions around stationary equipment.

Mary Palmer Dargan, ASLA, of Dargan Landscape Architects in Atlanta and a professor at Clemson University, likes poured rubber made from recycled tires. “It comes in many different colors and is heated and poured in place,” she says. “When children fall on it, they bounce. It’s fun.” Although poured rubber is inexpensive and easy to install, it’s also applied 6 inches deep on a concrete slab, making it a fairly permanent fixture. This may be a drawback for some homeowners.

Universal Design. Garden areas kids share with adults must also be scrutinized with an eye toward safety. Underfoot, Dargan stays away from crushed brick, which is more abrasive than crushed granite and pea gravel. She chooses textured, non-slip surfaces such as flagstone and aggregate concrete rather than polished stone and ceramic tile. She also avoids pressure-treated lumber and dyed wood chips.

Non-slip surfaces that are easy to clean and maintain are especially important around barbecue grills and outdoor kitchens, says landscape architect Austin Tao, ASLA, of Austin Tao and Associates in St. Louis, Mo. The danger from these areas can be mitigated by designing patios that are well-lit, leave plenty of room to steer clear of hot equipment, and incorporate secure storage space for grilling tools.

And although pools are strictly regulated with features such as fences and self-locking gates, there are other ways to reduce the risk of drowning. Electronic pool covers can keep kids out when the pool isn’t in use, though Tao notes that their use is limited to square or rectangular pools. “Although dark pool plaster looks very nice in a garden setting, it makes it hard to see if someone has fallen in,” he says, adding that too little attention is paid to circulation space around water. “You need ample room on the pool deck for walking around of sunbathing without kids getting pushed in,” he says. “I’d suggest a minimum of 6 to 8 feet.”

Dargan has made lily ponds, irresistible as they are, safer by installing an iron grid 1 1/2 inches below the water’s surface. It’s a small gesture, but one that goes a long way toward a client’s peace of mind.–Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer in Severna Park, Md.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Hanley-Wood, Inc.

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