Family Garden Design — Go Outside and Play

by Steve & Cathy Lambert

Swing open the doors and skip down the steps! Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Steve and Cathy Lambert,’s Garden and Landscape Design Experts, and our newest Contributors. I can’t wait for you to read the fabulous ideas and advice Steve and Cathy have planned for you and your outdoor spaces.

Whether you’re starting from scratch, re-landscaping or just looking to make a few kid-friendly changes, planning for the evolving needs of your family will allow your garden to grow and change with you.

Small Play Structure

With some forward thinking, you can develop a long-term design with landscape features and plantings that can easily be changed to suit your needs as your kids grow, and as time and money become available.

Sand Box with Climbing Wall

Using our own yard as an example, here’s how our garden has evolved with our family.

One of the first additions we made was a fenced deck off our master bedroom. This served as a safe outdoor play space when our kids were toddlers. Later, it made a great spot for a wading pool because we didn’t need to drain and remove it each time we used it (like you’d have to do on a lawn). We could just pull the plug & let it drain right through the Trex deck.

This deck space is still enjoyed by our daughter and her friends who spend lots of time in her playhouse and outdoor kitchen.

Trike Path to Deck

Here’s where we planned ahead. We built this deck with dreams of a future secluded hot tub spot for mom and dad. It was framed to allow a hole to be cut and a hot tub dropped in.

Next, since we live on a busy street, we decided our children needed a place to push and pull outdoor toys and ride tricycles. To accommodate this need, we installed what we now refer to as a “Trike-Track.” We positioned this curvy, circular path within view of the kitchen window so we could keep a watchful eye while still getting things done.

We used stamped, colored concrete and for added interest, pressed in leaves, dinosaur bones fossils (from a 3-D wooden puzzle) and dino tracks (made from a clay mold). The path was built to circle around an existing tree and planted mound.

When our kids were old enough for a play structure, we removed some of the plants from inside our Trike-Track and added a simple structure with swings, a fort, a slide and monkey bars. We chose a small structure that fit the space while allowing for a safe border between it and the hard surface of the path.

Arbor and Play Structure

Our future plan for this spot is to transform it into a family entertainment area with; built- in barbecue, bar seating and a fireplace. We keep asking, but our daughter is not quite ready to trade in her swings just yet.

The next kid-friendly addition, when they were old enough to be trusted in the front yard, was our pond and waterfall. Aside from being a great place for the kids to enjoy fish, turtles, frogs, birds and dragonflies, our water feature helps to mask some of the street noise.

Koi Pond

Another favorite family spot is our vegetable garden. It’s a great place to spend time together outdoors since we all enjoy planting and picking fresh fruits and veggies. If you have the sun, the space and dig digging, a veggie garden is a fun and educational way to enjoy your yard with your kids.

Free Form Family Vegetable Garden

If you’re into composting and recycling consider getting a worm farm composter. Your kids will love feeding their worms food scraps and be amazed how quickly the worms eat through everything.

Free Form Vegetable Garden

The largest play space in our yard is our lawn and it gets plenty of play time. It’s only about 800 square feet, but every inch gets used for catch, football, Slip and Slide, and sprinkler play.

When planning your own yard, keep in mind that lawns are not a complete necessity. That said — if you have the room, leave as large a space as possible for ball play and tag. For a nice plush lawn, choose an all purpose seed mix that will stand up to the wear and tear of kids. Our favorite is a 90% tall fescue and 10% bluegrass blend.

Trike Path and Fenced Pool

Our next plan to get the kids outside is to install a zip line. If you have the right spot for one, the sit-and-zip lines are safer, especially for younger children, than the hand-bar style. Also important is a large, level launching pad and a clear, flat landing spot.

You’ll definitely get your kids outside more often if you include a play structure in your yard. Install it well away from hardscape areas, walls, fences or large bushes. Ideally, any play equipment should be on a dedicated play surface like play yard or recycled rubber mulch.

Trike Path to Play Structure

Pay attention to the recommended age range when choosing a play structure. Because of the relatively short time your kids will be using it, be sure to factor in a replacement plan for your play structure space.

Swings and Slides

Children are drawn to water. When clients ask if they should keep or add a swimming pool, we remember the hours we spent in pools growing up and usually respond, “Yes!” There are so many safety features available these days including sonar alarms, removable fencing and nets which make having a pool much less worrisome.

Play Fountains in Pool

Other ways to add water to your yard include; fish ponds, or pond-less waterfalls. Even a water faucet placed near a lawn can create hours of fun when attached to water-play toys.

Younger kids love sand boxes and these don’t have to be a plastic garden eyesore. We’ve built sand boxes into garden borders with rock or concrete edging and large climbing boulders. This gives a much more natural look while allowing the space to be easily converted into a planting bed later on.

Rock Sand Box

Outdoor spots equipment and toys will get your kids outside too, but containing the clutter can be a challenge. Hinged wooden bench seats or storage cabinets built in under a barbecue counter make great dual-use storage spaces.

The term “kid-friendly garden” may have brought mental images of brightly colored plastic play equipment, but after reading this post, we hope you have a much different view of a modern family garden.

Sand Play Area

It can be fashionable and kid-friendly, providing an environment that’s stimulating to children and enjoyable for adults. A family garden should offer a reason for everyone, no matter their age, to go outside and play.


Cathy and Steve LambertSteve and Cathy Lambert have created distinctively dramatic, custom gardens since 1989, through their award-winning Garden Lights Landscape & Pool Development in Orinda, CA. They share with us their advice and expertise on all areas of garden and landscape.

Landscape Designer/Contractor and Master Gardener Steve envisions and creates romantic, welcoming and functional outdoor living spaces. His writer-wife Cathy wordsmiths Steve’s technical advice into something easy to understand and fun to read for the everyday DIY gardener. Together they also write the “Way to Grow” column for The Orinda News.

(Chief Design Junkie’s commentary: Cathy and Steve are two of my closest friends and most fun humans on the planet. That said, the gardens they create are extraordinary.)


How do you enjoy your outdoor spaces with your family?

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12 Comments for “Family Garden Design — Go Outside and Play”

Your designs are stunning…can I move in?!
I have a new log home on 3 acres with ZERO trees, shrubbery, stone, etc…and can’t wait to dig in to the landscaping. I only wish I had you here to tell me where to begin! Looking forward to more of your lovely posts.

What a beautiful piece of property you have, I love the blue pathway it’s so chic 😉

Hi Sherri & Patty,

They make gorgeous outdoor spaces, don’t they?

And Patty–just to clarify–a few of these photos are from Cathy and Steve’s own yard, but many (including that fab, blue pathway) are from gardens Steve designed for clients.

Thanks for your comments!

Could you tell me what that blue pathway is made from? It’s beautiful, but it says it’s made from blue glass, but I am unsure how that could be done near a play area.

Hi Michelle,

I wanted to let you know I’ve got a message in with Steve and Cathy to answer your question.

Thanks much!

This glass is tumbled and has been in for almost 2 years with no breakage/broken piece problem. It is made from recycled blue bottles, i.e. Sky Vodka. The path worked really well for those years, recently this client adopted a Elk Hound (great dog) who does have a tendency to spread it around when he runs through it at 60 miles and hour (very fast dog). It is manufactured by ASC glass. It is important when installing glass like this, or other tumbled material to use no more than 2 inches on top of 4-6 inches of road base. To avoid them giving under foot.


Thanks Steve. That glass path is such a striking feature, and very cool about the recycled bottles. Funny about the new dog — guess you can’t plan for all possibilities.

Happy Sunday!

Fabulous ideas, guys– thanks for sharing! My toddler wants nothing more than to go out and water the plants, so these progressive ideas are hitting home!

Thanks Sonu for your positive feedback! I’m glad our article could give you more ways to enjoy your yard with your toddler. My daughter used to love to help me water with her own watering can too. There is just something about kids and water that is a natural attraction so anytime you can add a water play space it’s always a hit with the kids. Cathy


I just love the sandboxes too, and that kids’ areas in the yard don’t have to be all plastic, and can be part of a beautiful design.

Good stuff!

I loved it all- very beautifull as it catrs for all the family. Good on u !!!

How wide did you make your trike path? Would you have done anything different? Thanks

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