DIY Backyard Design for Family-Friendly Outdoor Spaces

January 30, 2019


To hear them describe it, the Pyles family’s backyard was “meh.” Behind their East Boston triple-decker, there was a picnic table, a small vegetable garden, and some spotty grass underneath a canopy of evergreens and a mature cherry tree. Rob, Juliet, and their daughters, Alessandra and Aria (6 and 4), would occasionally eat meals out there, and the girls had room to play. But there was, of late, a suspicion that the yard was not living up to its potential as a sparkplug for the kids’ natural curiosity and outdoor exploration.

“We have this outdoor space, we live in the city, we love nature, and we want more nature in our life. We have two growing kids, and we want them to love nature. How can we transform our backyard into something special?” Juliet recalls asking.

For families looking to raise children who develop a love for the outdoors, experts say the Pyles’ question was exactly the right one. “It’s more common for people to be able to identify logos from corporations than leaves from trees or edible plants,” says Ben Barkan, the founder and owner of HomeHarvest, a Massachusetts-based landscape design and construction company. “An outdoor space, whether in a city or the country or suburbs, is a gateway to the natural world and can serve as an outdoor classroom for adults and children.”

Put another way, we cannot expect our children to dream of backpacking Katahdin Woods and Waters if they haven’t already been captivated by the natural wonders under the tree out back or at their local park. Angel Santos Burres, the director of AMC’s Outdoors Rx program for Boston-area families, says starting with simple outdoor activities close to home increases the likelihood children will want to explore farther afield.

“If it’s really hard to go outside or it takes a long time to get there and it eats up your whole Saturday, you’re less likely to do it as frequently,” Burres says. “Whereas, you can do something in your backyard that is fun and makes everyone feel great any day you want.”

Winter can be an ideal time to dream about and plan new and revamped wild spaces that don’t require a seatbelt to visit. And kids, with their wide-eyed curiosity and creativity, are perfect planning partners in this endeavor. Here’s how one urban Boston family engaged their girls in transforming their unremarkable backyard into an outdoor oasis that is now a place to play, relax, entertain, and relish in nature. The Pyles’ experience in DIY backyard design reveals insights into how your family can do it, too.


Start with the End in Mind

“How do we want our backyard to look?” is the wrong question for families seeking to ramp up their outdoor activity. Instead, Barkan recommends starting with a different set of questions: How is the space currently used? Which areas of the landscape are working well, and which are not working well?

For the Pyles family, the leading question was, “What do we want to do in our backyard?” Wanting their daughters to feel empowered in every stage of the process, Rob and Juliet launched their backyard brainstorming by giving their 6- and 4-year-olds paper and crayons and having them draw their perfect day in the backyard.

“It was awesome,” Juliet says. “Definite themes emerged. It wasn’t just a playground with a swingset. They were doing things like building mud pies, holding bugs, and building fairylands—unstructured things. That told us that we need a play space but not necessarily just a structured playground. They want a place where they can free-play in the backyard and do their own thing that’s really unstructured.”

Using Alessandra and Aria’s drawings as a guide, Rob and Juliet wrote their own list of backyard values, deciding they wanted their urban backyard to become a low-maintenance “magnet” that pulled the family out of the house and into nature; a social space “to share time, conversation, food and drink”; an unstructured natural environment for their girls to run around, climb, dig, and revel; a source of beauty; a source of food; and a spiritual, contemplative space.


Understand Your Space

With a list of “backyard values” as a road map, the Pyles family sought to understand the space with which they were working. They started by measuring everything and creating a to-scale diagram of the backyard using the free program SketchUp, showing the location of trees, which areas get sun and shade, and the like.

“Now we have two pillars: our values and a detailed understanding of the physical space we have to work with,” Rob says. “Let’s see how we can arrange that physical space to meet the values.”

Use What You Have

Next it was time to site the values-led components in the right spots in the yard. For help with this part of the process, the Pyles began calling landscape consultants, a step that didn’t go quite as planned.

“The first one [landscape specialist] came out,” Rob recalls. “She was wonderful. She spent 30 minutes in the backyard, and we showed her our values. She was like: ‘This is great. I totally get what you’re going for. Let me get back to you with a quote.’ Three days later we get an e-mail from her, and [her estimate for the work] was $38,000. I was like, ‘Well, that’s out. Dammit, we’re going to do it ourselves.’”

So they did. They picked areas of the yard to implement their values: a section where their girls could engage in unstructured play; an area for growing food, including garden beds that their daughters could tend themselves; a revamped outdoor dining area; and the centerpiece of the yard, a deck and pergola for outdoor entertaining and relaxing.

The couple did nearly all of the work themselves, sourcing materials free or cheaply, including cobblestones that had been found in the yard, rain barrels from a local urban farm, and mulch discarded by the neighborhood health center. The Pyles did pay to have the deck built, but Rob dug the postholes to keep the cost down, and friends and neighbors pitched in hauling materials from the sidewalk to the backyard.

Many homeowners may be unable or unwilling to plan and build a revamped yard themselves. That’s OK. Plenty of landscape professionals, such as Barkan, are available to help turn backyard dreams into a reality. Still, Barkan says that before his team comes out and measures the amount of sunlight a yard gets, assesses microclimates, or tests soil for lead and other toxins, it’s helpful for homeowners to have clearly articulated goals for the space.

“Landscapers tend to settle into a particular style,” Barkan says. “Look at prior projects of whatever professional you bring in and make sure those examples harmonize with your own personal goals.”


Enjoy Your Oasis

Nearly two years after the Pyles identified their backyard values and the girls drew their perfect day, does the family spend more time in the yard than before? Absolutely, they say.

The girls obsess over their garden plots, picking out the varieties of vegetables they plant and keeping up with the watering and weeding. The family spends time together on the covered deck, sketching and writing about the flowers, trees, and wildlife they observe. The girls even play around an old pipe protruding from the ground, experimenting with blocking it off, seeing how water flows, and, of course, making plenty of mud pies. They occasionally use a slack line installed between two trees for its intended purpose, but more often it becomes the spine of a fort, with an old sheet thrown over top, for the girls and their cats. Speaking of the family pets, they’ve become outside cats as a result of the yard upgrades, Rob says. The family has even put up a tent on the deck for an overnight camping trip or two.

And to her parents’ delight, Aria, now 5, spends hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the yard in a never-ending quest for strange and fascinating bugs.

“When Aria has friends over, she loves to pick up bugs and show them to her friends,” says Rob, laughing. “They usually freak out and run away, all grossed out. And there’s Aria, holding the bug, looking at it—and smiling.”



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Steve Holt

Steve Holt is the associate editor of AMC Outdoors and edits AMC's Running Wild blog.

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