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The Beginnings of Our At-Home Playground

June 26, 2017  —  Written by Julia 

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We’re a couple of homebodies, working to uncover the home our home wants to be. And we’re so happy to have you here. 

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We basically have two big projects we have to finish before this baby gets here (in about a month!): the girls’ bathroom, which we feel confident we can get done now (latest update on that here), and the side yard–something we’ve only talked about briefly, so let’s dive into that a little more.

Our property is an unusual shape. The “backyard” as a whole is made up of essentially three triangles. The smallest triangle is in the back of the house–which we converted to a large deck.

And then there are two side yards that are much larger triangles. One side has a grove of 4 mature trees (we have a hammock on that side) and the other, more used side, is this embarrassing mess:

You can see this side out the the kitchen windows and the deck leads right to it (I’m standing on the deck stairs taking this photo) so we knew we wanted to turn it into a kids’ play paradise from the beginning. Not only for our own girls, but for all the neighborhood kids that seem to end up at our place on the daily. This terrible before includes a gravel pad where our old shed used to sit (with piles of railroad ties and weeds taking it up), a concrete basketball pad (and hoop! that’s never seen a basketball). Our tiny trampoline and a few small play toys.

We knew we needed to bring in someone to help us get the concrete out and lay sod and then we were just going to put a playset on the grass and call it good. We called a few local landscapers to get bids. The first one gave us a bid on the concrete removal and sod and left. The second one (Spruce It Up, for you locals) asked us a lot of questions, including, “what are your plans for this space?” When we told him we were going to add a playset, they gave us a lot of advice and solutions, including the main point being, “Your yard is not level.” “You’re going to have to move some sprinklers” and “Putting a playset on grass will eventually give you a big muddy spot under the swings.” They walked us through some possibilities, talked to us about “fall ratings” of different bark and mulch (we eventually decided on a rubber mulch that is soft and rates the highest for fall ratings) took measurements and told us they’d send us some ideas.

The truth is, landscape design is something we are not very comfortable with or knowledgeable about. Chris and I both felt so much more confident having them on this project than the other landscapers that came by. When they left, we felt excited about what this yard could be. And maybe they are just really good at their jobs (they are), but we even felt good about handing over a little more money than we were originally going to to get this part of the yard looking top notch the first time, before the baby comes, especially if it meant we didn’t have to do all the work ourselves.

A couple days later, we had a plan in our inbox:

This includes a full-sized, in ground trampoline (!) and the playset, with some decorative and functional boulders that will help get the play set level. A pretty flagstone path along the side. A much smaller slab of concrete for trash cans and our tool trailer. And even some plant ideas. We love it! We were hoping there would be room for a tree on the right side of the play set, more for privacy and a little shade from the street view,  but we decided we’d just plant a tree or two in front of the fence, so there’s still a nice border of grass around the perimeter in back.

This whole process has taught us a valuable lesson about the importance of knowing when to bring in a professional. We love to DIY more than the average person, but in this case, we had so little knowledge of what needed to be done in our yard and what the potential could be that it was 100% worth it to us to get some advice. Even if you aren’t going to hire someone to do the work for you, many landscape designers will charge a small fee to just draw up some ideas that you can then implement yourselves.

We hope to have it all done in the next few weeks as a big gift for Greta and Faye as they become big sisters (and, honestly, mask the fact that they are getting a little less attention those first several sleep-deprived weeks). I can’t even imagine how wonderful it will be to have a beautiful place for them to play right out the kitchen window–I can barely wait. While we’re handing over the big work to Spruce It Up, I’m focusing my efforts on how to make this play set from Wayfair we have coming a little more chic with a paint job.

I’m thinking a warm gray with white trim and a black roof to match our home, and keeping some of the wood, too!  And since I’ve never seen our kids play with those tic tac toe things on any playground, ever–swapping it out for a chalkboard? My mind is racing with possibilities.

Can’t wait to share this project with you as it unfolds!

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What do you think?

  1. Sarah Ridenour says:

    It looks great! I’m just wondering about the big, heavy, hard boulders next to a play area though. It seems like it would be hazardous for a child to fall into them and get really hurt? My daughter is 2.5 and seems to be falling a lot lately. She hit her head when she fell last week which resulted in a trip to the ER. Thankfully, she is totally fine but I’m so hypersensitive to falls and potential injuries that seeing big boulders next to a play area immediately makes me think about someone knocking themselves into it. Love, love, love your blog and everything you guys do. Just thought I’d point that out as a potential hazard.

  2. Annette says:

    Might want to research rubber mulch. We decided against it because it’s generally made with recycled tires and there are nasty chemicals left over on it. We went with playground mulch. Not as pretty or long lasting but it works and is all natural. Good luck! Awesome space!!

    • Courtney says:

      Have you heard of the Jelly Bean Rubber Mulch? It is not made of recycled tires and wire and paint free. I have not done a ton of research was just curious if anyone else has heard anything on it!

  3. Jackie says:

    I think it would be cool to make stickers or decals to put over the tic tac toe that would let them “design” the interior of their play house for different themes of play. For example, you could have food items, different types of flowers, emoji faces, or maybe something like animals, flags, bugs, etc. You could also make it a big phone with house number stickers too.

  4. MEL says:

    it looks awesome!! you guys have inspired us so much with our home we just built! keep up the amazing work! oh! and if you haven’t ordered that playset yet — DON”T FORGET TO USE YOUR eBates!! you earn 4% back at Overstock!! https://www.ebates.com/r/MELISS36579?eeid=28187

  5. Allison says:

    The site is working so much better for me! I normally read at work and I couldn’t get it to load at all these past few months. It would work in an RSS reader, but the actual website I couldn’t get on at all. This is so much nicer… I enjoy reading he comments and I had been missing out these past few months!

  6. Sara says:

    Loving the blog makeover and can’t wait to see the finished bathroom and play area! :)

  7. Monica G says:

    How about some type of rubber matting like they have at schools? That would get my vote. Lots of options on-line. Love the design and your girls will be so excited!

  8. Erin K. says:

    The new site design looks great and very user friendly. I think you accomplished your goal! I love the mix of fonts you are using and simple color pallet. Thumbs up!!!

    I did notice one small thing on the mobile site, since I sometimes read on my phone like tonight. I have an iPhone 6s for reference. On the main page showing the blog feed, each blog image has a lot of additional padding above them. I also noticed the content on the podcast page is missing, but this could just be because you guys are still working on it ;)

    And as always, everything looks awesome. I love to see how you were able to use a landscape architect to get you started. I hadn’t thought of that before! Can’t wait to see how it turns out, and hope you are feeling well coming up on new baby day!

    • Julia says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Erin! I don’t see any padding on my phone, but we’ll definitely look into it. If you have time to send me a screenshot (an insta DM works!) that would be really helpful.

  9. Kala says:

    Will the green slides be painted as well? If so, how and what color?

  10. Nani says:

    I love the idea about painting it I saw this a few weeks ago on instagram and have been dreaming of doing a play space revamp https://instagram.com/p/BUuLDd2hyvC/

  11. Staci says:

    Our neighbors put in rubber mulch with their playset. It was soft, but the kids always came home black from the tires. Truthfully, there is no perfect solution. Sand is a mess, especially when it rains, small pea gravel makes its way inside and scratches floors, bark blows away or is sharp, tires make kids get black smudges all over. Guess you have to pick the lesser evil. We went with pea gravel.

  12. Jennifer says:

    The new blog layout/format looks good. Maybe it’s just me but it’s super slow to load on Safari. It’s faster in Chrome (reading at work….oops:)).

  13. Ginger says:

    I ca’t wait to play in your yard!

  14. How exciting! I love the idea of painting the play place! We only have a tiny deck, so I’m having major backyard envy!

  15. Jordan says:

    So glad to see I’m not the only crazy pregnant lady taking on home projects before baby! Due on July 17th and I currently have no flooring on our main floor or a kitchen… EEK! It will be done by the time I have this baby though! (Fingers crossed, positive vibes ;) such a fun project you guys are working on!

  16. Rosie says:

    I am so looking forward to seeing where you take the play set (and the whole area). We’re shopping around for a play structure and, of course, I fell in love with some NorthAmerican cedar sets made in Maine. They are so beautiful and so much money. And the less expensive ones are just so, um, plastic. We’re planning on setting it where we can see the kids play from the great room inside of the house, so having a beautiful set that doesn’t break the budget would be so nice. It never occurred to me to repaint or tweak the set!

  17. Not sure if this is intentional or not, but I’m getting a pop up scrolling ad in the middle of the page of your blog each time I load a page. It’s really obnoxious and interferes with the enjoyment of reading your blog!

  18. Shelley says:

    It all looks great, especially the in-ground trampoline! Also, your plans to doctor up the play set are fantastic! I think you are smart to switch out the tic tac toe for a chalkboard…it definitely seems like something that would get more use. Looking forward to seeing the finished project.

  19. Kristen says:

    Are you worried about the environmental impact of rubber mulch? Something biodegradable could provide a positive impact. Lovely designs, looking forward to the reveal :)

  20. Molly says:

    This is going to look great, and so functional for your family! Do you by chance have a sketch/drawing somewhere on the blog that is perhaps an aerial view of your house in relation to your different side yards? I’m having trouble piecing together how everything meets and I mostly just end up confused. Thanks!

  21. Bethany says:

    Really excited to see it come to life! But the main reason I wanted to comment was because of your site design, hah. It’s great! I liked it before but now it seems so clean and straight-forward. I hope that sounds like a compliment, it definitely is!

  22. Erin says:

    This is going to be such an amazing space for your girls and the neighborhood kids to play! It is nice when your yard is the one all the kids feel comfortable congregating in. Definitely speaks to a warm, caring family environment. Just my two cents, but I am surprised you are painting the playset so many different colors. Your astetic is very clean and modern. However, with all the different trim colors plus the wood, it seems like a lot is going on and the eye has too many places to look. I’m sure whatever you do will be beautiful though!

    • Julia says:

      Gray, Black, White and Wood kind of sums up our color palette, so we hope it will be just right. But a photoshop rendering vs. real life will always look different and we’re definitely open to changing it up when we do it in real life.

      • Thalia says:

        I had a thought – the wood on the playset looks almost like the original colour of the porch swing. Would you consider staining it the same colour as the porch swing to fit with the colour palette of your house? I know it’s a lot more wood to stain though!!

      • Monica says:

        What about painting all the wood in your grey, white and black color scheme? I love the direction you’re going, but the wood kind of throws it off for me. Anyway, just a thought. I love how your yard is shaping up. Your deck is awesome and I like the interesting shape of your yard, and how you’re creating different zones. Very cool!

  23. Liz says:

    I don’t have an idea for the scale of the playset vs. your yard but it seems tight. I’d like to hear your opinions on when it just becomes “too much”. I’d consider myself a minimalist so seeing a lot of your recent activity makes me a bit anxious haha! I’m referring to having so much furniture on the deck – and so many pieces inside too! It’s hard to judge scale from pics but my mind feels overwhelmed and cluttered when looking at many of your spaces recently so I’d like to know how you feel about it – like, does it feel so tight in real life? Do you wish you had more open space or do you prefer to have a lot of pieces?

    • Julia says:

      Totally understand. If you were on our deck, I don’t think you’d think there was too much furniture. In “open concept” type spaces, it’s hard to guage with pictures alone–something I’ve always struggled with in photographing our spaces since so many of them are open–something we LOVE in real life, but doesn’t always come through in photos. But the deck has a LOT of breathing room. A nice spacious walkway and before we added the swing chairs, a third of it was bare. 100% bare. As for the play side of the yard, we are dedicating it to play (although, I imagine we’ll have a bench or chairs for adults to sit, too) so it’s intentionally filled with play with enough grass to still run around in–but we don’t intend to entertain over here. However, with all of these projects, we expect our readers to adapt the ideas for their own spaces.

  24. Nicole says:

    I can’t wait to see the yard finished! I’ve been trying to plan what to do with our space and we’re thinking of hiring a professional to come in and help us with the planning. I love the idea of painting the play structure. ❤️

  25. Amanda says:

    Much better with a paint job. Why are play set always orange and green?!?!?

  26. Hillary says:

    Kudos to you for knowing when to outsource a project! And for being honest with yourselves about your strengths.

    I have a question about the rubber mulch. Is it made from recycled tires? And what was the thought process on choosing it? I’ve heard the recycled stuff is full of heavy metals, but it’s used so widely these days it is hard to know how serious the problem is. Here’s an article: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/rubber-mulch-safe-surface-your-childs-playground-n258586

    • Erica says:

      I was going to also mention that rubber mulch can be problematic from a toxicity point of view. It would really bother me to have my kids play on it.

      Love the design, I would just rethink the mulch.

    • Julia says:

      The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) endorsed the use of rubber mulch for children’s play areas because it’s so far superior at cushioning and they found that no adverse human health or ecological health effects are likely to result from these beneficial reuses of tire materials. I think if it is used in HUGE quantities you might see more effects than the advantages it brings to playgrounds. We are choosing to look at it as reducing the regional and global carbon footprint by reusing materials that would otherwise end up in landfills.

      • Jess says:

        To be completely honest, the EPA has okayed some horrible things in its past and I would encourage you to look at studies outside of the what the EPA has done.

      • Julia says:

        Check out the one John just posted.

      • Natalee says:

        I am all for rubber mulch if it is recycled and have been thinking about getting it. I absolutely hate how fast my playground mulch decomposes, so filling it every two years ends up being more expensive than rubber mulch. I am curious if anyone who has rubber mulch can tell me if it is a headache to keep leaves and other debris out of it. I noticed a neighbor with rubber mulch in her flower beds spending painstaking time handpicking leaves and other junk out of it. That would KILL me. I am curious if it can be blown? Or do you just have to give up and be ok with it not being pristine? Also, my husband mandated we do grass under the swings for all of those reasons and I thought for sure there would be mud wear marks. Not a mark. Just beautiful lush grass even with tons of use. Just throwing that out there. And as for in ground trampolines, heres a shoutout to trampolinesdownunder. We love ours!

      • Julia says:

        So much good info in this comment, Natalee! We do have a lot of trees surrounding our yard and the leaves dropping isn’t something I thought about. You are lucky about your grass under the swings! Where do you have your mulch vs. grass if you don’t mind me asking? My in-laws have grass under their entire swing set, which is originally why I liked the idea, but even only getting used once a week for family dinners, the grass is already wearing.

      • Natalee says:

        Hah – come to think of it – the grass isn’t wearing because neither of my kids can touch the ground! I had mulch under my previous set – and it was a PAIN to keep the mulch fluffy enough each season. It got expensive replenishing. My husband also hated the kids throwing the mulch onto the grass and we had totally old weed barrier underneath so he was convinced weeds grow through all mulch.

        Hence the battle he won at our new house having grass under the swings and then a large (larger than the original playset footprint) sandbox. I still like the rubber mulch idea for all my beds and stuff, (because so lazy about replenishing the mulch) but have been really glad I didn’t pull the trigger on the rubber yet until I see more examples of how to care for it. The neighbor has little bits of it blown all over the place if it is windy, and then it looks bad (to me) if leaves and other natural yard stuff gets in it. If you find anything helpful about how to care for it, link it please! (I wonder if just hosing it down washes it off? ) Or if eventually it fades enough that yard debris looks natural in it and doesn’t stick out like an eyesore?

      • Natalee says:

        I just found this video showing that you can blow the larger pieces of mulch – but it isn’t very convincing that it is easy to do!
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-FLQsJtK6XA

      • Natalee says:

        Obviously I am enthusiastic about this topic :) If you had the money or sponsorship to do those built in, bouncy rubber mats that would be SO great. I’ve seen them in some home applications. They seem the best of all worlds.

      • Allison says:

        Agree – I would do grass except for the foot area under the swings. Put some poured rubber or mats under where the swings will inevitably wear.

        I know a couple people that have put in rubber mulch (flower beds) and haven’t heard great things. For an active place like the playset I’d probably pass on it.

      • Devlin DuVall says:

        Hi there! We live right next to an elementary school which has used rubber mulch under their play equipment. I have noticed that the tiny bits have really migrated into the grass around the perimeter of the playground. It actually looks pretty bad and I would imagine might make mowing that area a concern. Weeds are growing up through the mulch too. I feel for any groundskeeper that has to maintain that area. And Natalee is so right – leaves get caught everywhere in the rubber. I guess one upside to the mulch is that leaves can decompose more quickly if they get caught or turned over in the mulch (and vice versa should the mulch creep out into the grass). Just wanted to let you know what’s happening at our local school play ground. P.S. The site and projects are all looking fabulous!!!!

      • Michelle says:

        The EPA’s website actually indicates that the study on tire mulch is still ongoing and findings have not yet been released: https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/federal-research-recycled-tire-crumb-used-playing-fields

        I am an environmental remediation professional with a degree from MIT, so I am all about sound scientific research. I love the concept of beneficial reuse of tires, but the research isn’t in yet if it is safe. I have done enough work professionally at tire recycling facilities and auto wrecking yards to know that they are operations that typically involve significant environmental contamination. I certainly would not expose my children to tire mulch with the existing research. Although your play area is small in footprint, your kids will be out there daily, exposed to any contaminants that may be present.

        It’s your call in the end, but I think the risks are significant enough to look at other materials like rubber matting or mulch

      • Natalee says:

        Um, awesome street creds Michelle, thanks for your input.

  27. Dawn says:

    I can’t wait to see the finished area! Your girls will love it, and how nice for you both to have something extra to hold their attention while mom and dad are busy (and exhausted) :) with the new baby.

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