How to design a family garden

Swings and tepees are great features for kids in gardens, and can be easily moved, removed or updated as they grow older. Photo: The Great Little Trading Company

Dawn Isaac MSGD offers expert advice on creating a garden shared by kids and adults

Designing family gardens is good practice for any wannabe diplomat: you have territory claimed by two groups, adults and children, each with very different agendas, and if you don’t keep everyone happy there could be a war – or at least the mother of all tantrums. When you take the brief you’ll probably be able to identify one main decision maker but also remember if it doesn’t answer everyone’s needs it won’t be deemed a success.

Photo: The Great Little Trading Company

How the garden is used

Finding out how and when everyone uses the garden is key – and outdoor dining is a good place to start. Sometimes meals are the only time families get to sit down together so an outdoor option is usually important. I’ve seen a big rise in recent years in outdoor kitchens and pizza ovens because parents can then be outside near the kids whilst prepping and cooking too.

I always discuss hobbies and sports. For example, if kids love football, trampolines or basketball you need to build a garden to take this – and you have to be realistic. Football-crazy kids will ruin your beautifully designed garden in a heartbeat if you don’t give them space and a tough enough surface. But the garden can also cater to less bombastic hobbies – children may be interested in wildlife, or cooking, or even gardening itself.

Supervision, especially with younger kids will be important to parents. If there’s any high, or potentially dangerous, play equipment, check that it can be seen from the main rooms in the house.

Artificial grass is now available in many textures and shades. Photo: Hi-Tech Turf

Things to consider

I also try to create places for adults to sit outside when they’re watching the children – preferably with somewhere to rest a cup of tea. Usually you are dealing with a family’s ‘forever home’ but it’s worth double-checking if there are plans to move and in what timescale. If they’re staying put, you have to think about how needs will change – a garden suitable for a five-year-old is very different to one that’ll appeal to teenagers.

I also ask how much time the client is prepared to commit to maintenance. Unless they have a gardener, this is usually ‘minimal’, so it’s worth reminding them that features such as a vegetable garden or cut-flower patch might become a burden given busy family life.

Dawn introduced a hopscotch element to her own family garden path. Photo: Dawn Isaac

Common issues

One of the biggest dangers with family gardens is shoehorning too much into a space. This is particularly easy to do with play equipment. Swings or trampolines, for example, are large in themselves but also need a lot of clearance room so you’ve lost a huge chunk of garden in one go. This is where prioritisation comes into things, as well as having realistic discussions right from the word go about what is possible with the space.

Another issue is being overly prescriptive about children’s play. If you load a garden with off-the-shelf play equipment and use this to fill every inch of a ‘children’s area’ you risk missing out on all the unplanned and creative play that can happen with a few natural materials and a child’s imagination.

The other problem can be forgetting to find a balance. A minimalist space may answer the aesthetic desires of some parents but for children this often feels stark. Equally, a space should not feel so child-centric that adults no longer feel it’s a place for them to unwind as well.

Treehouses and playhouses can be made bespoke to suit any project or be adapted over time. Photo: The Playhouse Company

Successful space

A successful family garden answers everyone’s needs. For younger children this means providing lots of play opportunities. Yes, it’s great to have big items such as climbing frames, but there are many things that will fit into a smaller space and be just as appealing.

It’s also worth remembering that kids don’t like to feel as if they’re constantly being watched, so apart from the features that need policing, there’s room for secret dens, stepping-stone paths, insect shelters, outdoor blackboards or mirrors and mud-pie kitchens tucked away out of sight. Imaginative play is far easier when children can lose themselves in their own world.

Room to grow is also important. If your client is investing in a high-end playhouse then make sure its design is not too young – and there’s plenty of head height inside. Equally, if you’re raising one up on a platform, why not add a decked area below that can later be strewn with outdoor beanbags, as a part-hidden hangout for older kids? And a space vacated by a swing set or climbing frame could be reconfigured as a conversation pit in a few years.

And don’t forget that when the kids are in bed, the garden should still be a grown-up haven. I like to add a ‘sling space’ to family gardens – a hidden area where large play items and outdoor toys can be hurled at a moment’s notice so your client can sip a gin and tonic without staring at a Peppa Pig paddling pool. 

Top tips for designing family gardens

- Raised playhouses (including treehouses) require planning permission, so be careful how near to boundaries they are and if they affect neighbours’ privacy.

- In-ground trampolines are now readily available in the UK – these can improve safety and will stop the equipment dominating a garden.

- You can plant a garden capable of surviving marauding kids without having to resort to borders of boring shrubs – try tough but attractive perennials such as Stachys ‘Silver Carpet’, weed-smothering spreaders such as Lamium, polite selfsowers like honeywort and low-cost bulbs such as Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’.

- Water makes parents very nervous, but you could include water features with hidden reservoirs, shallow rills or even an old raised sink near a tap for simple water play.

- If possible plan for a good-sized lawn – with families, there is always a birthday or celebration brewing and you need somewhere to put marquees or bouncy castles.

- Artificial turf is useful not only to survive daily football practice but also because shock-absorbent material can be added underneath it to improve safety in areas around play equipment.