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How To Design an Outdoor Space Everyone Can Enjoy

Every family needs a place to hang out: somewhere to play, entertain and catch up with each other. What better place than your own backyard? Making the most of your outdoor space means focusing on your family's favorite things. Here's how to create an action-packed space for all to enjoy.

Decks that Dazzle

Start your backyard with a functional and fun deck. "Decks can be made of either wood or wood alternative products," says Beryn Hammil, owner of Beryn Hammil Designs in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you choose wood, the most popular options are cedar and redwood, which naturally resist decay and termites. Pressure-treated pine is a less expensive option. All types of wood need proper sealing and maintenance to survive rain, sun and snow exposure. Wood alternative products, which are made of recycled plastic, virgin vinyl or a composite of recycled sawdust and plastic, are a bit more expensive than traditional lumber, but require less maintenance and are attractive and durable.

The deck itself is your launch pad for all the activities you enjoy in your backyard. Make this the refreshment station that provides everything from sizzling barbeques to a quick snack between soccer games. "A trend in the design of [newer] homes includes an outdoor kitchen area that has not only a barbeque range, but a full prep area and even a sink and small refrigerator," Hammil says.

Every kitchen needs plenty of seating, too. "When designing a deck for entertaining, make sure you allow for adequate seating for guests," he says. "Built-in benches that double as storage space are useful."

Don't forget a few special touches that make the deck uniquely yours. A smoothie bar with a blender and a cutting board for fresh fruits makes a tasty addition to your outdoor cuisine. The fisherman in your family might like a dedicated cleaning station to quickly take his catch from boat to barbeque. John Choisser of Anna Rodi Designs in San Diego, Calif., even incorporates a palapa – a sort of thatch umbrella reminiscent of your last tropical vacation – near his family's backyard pool for shade and ambiance. At the very least, hang a few strands of lights or position some festive torches around the perimeter of the deck to reflect your family's personality.

Backyard Brilliance

No matter the size of your backyard, it should be a refuge for everyone in the family to cut loose, get some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. A yard that's beautiful to look at as well as functional is a big plus. "Keep your yard uncluttered and neat," Choisser says. "The lawn should be a mix of grasses that allows kids to play on it, with no exposed sprinklers to injure falling bodies or flying feet." To add interest to flat grassy areas, use plants and trees that have minimal shedding (less raking and clean-up), no thorns and can withstand some abuse. "Don't forget that balls don't stay in the grass," he says. "The surrounding plantings should allow kids to find and retrieve toys easily and without damaging the planting."

Hammil suggests that parents make the areas for "grown-up" entertaining and those for family fun distinctly separate. "There's no reason for the socializing area to be filled with toys all the time," he says. "So make sure there's appropriate storage that fits into the design of the space [to stow toys and sports equipment]." He reminds parents to keep the children's play area easily visible from wherever parents might be relaxing and to keep kids and pets secure by installing attractive fencing systems that suit the natural environment of your yard.

Playground Paradise

Speaking of family fun, no yard is complete without a play structure designed to meet your family's needs. "I start the creative process by brainstorming with the kids and the parents about what their ideal play structure should include," says Barbara Butler, designer and builder of unique custom play structures in South San Francisco, Calif. "I try to create 'loops' of play that encourage kids to run up and down and round and round the structure, wearing them out for a good night's sleep!"

Butler's "kid pleasing" ideas include sturdy swings, fast slides, rock climbing walls, secret escapes, rope net ladders and high-up clubhouses – "preferably with a roof," she adds. "Younger kids are amused for hours with opening and closing doors and sending and receiving mail through a mail slot [on a clubhouse door]. Older kids are more interested in scaling castle walls then flying through the air on a 100-foot cable ride while being shot at by a water cannon."

If a personalized playground sounds interesting, ask your kids what excites them about a play structure and seek out plans to match their interest. (See sidebar.) Work with your yard's landscape to make the structure most effective. "A slide often works better on a slope, a hillside can be terraced to create a multi-level play area, and nestling a clubhouse next to the branches of a tree gives the kids a magical feeling of living in the treetops," Butler says.

Gorgeous Gardens

To enhance your backyard even more, think about adding a flower or vegetable garden. Adults and kids alike can enjoy a special spot set aside to nurture plants and watch edible rewards come to life. "Get the kids involved in planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting," Choisser says. "Don't let them overlook the miracle of getting dozens of yummy tomatoes in the fall out of that tiny seed they planted in the spring."

Hammil reminds that the flowerbed is a place for admiring the fruits of your labor, not for roughhousing. "Make sure there is a clear definition between your garden and the walking area, and teach children where it's OK to walk and where it's not OK," he says. "This helps them learn to respect things that need special care."

Your backyard is fertile ground for family fun. Make this the season you'll go out and plant some memories.

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