Safe Yard Design
Plan Now to Prevent Accidents in Your Yard Later

By David DeSmit

Most adults don’t generally view their environment as inherently dangerous – until they have children. Then suspicion and doubt creep in; “what if …” scenarios about the outdoors seem to pop up, sparking anxiety even in the most blasé among us. It’s no surprise since, statistically, the most dangerous age for children when it comes to injury at home or in the yard is between the ages of 2 and 5.

Although the “outside” is not really a mine field of incipient disaster, it does have its hazards. You can’t protect yourself or your family from every happenstance, but most potential dangers can be eliminated, or at least minimized, by some commonsense planning and attention to a few fundamental guidelines in the design and construction of your yard.

Design Considerations

Look at your yard as a whole. If you’re starting from scratch or are considering a major redesign, there are some basic guidelines for planning a safe yard.

Functional planning – Determine what you need and what you want in your yard – in that order. Pick an appropriate place for each. Keep active spaces, such as areas around swing sets, separate from passive areas, such as areas for outdoor dining.

Access – Separate the functions but allow for visual and physical access. Being able to see something or someone in a landscape is often as important as being able to get to them. Where children are involved, you may not always want to hear them, but you will want to be able to see them play.

Clarity – The yard should be designed so that it is clear what happens where and how you get from one area to another.

• Scale – Make certain that you provide enough space to adequately serve the functions you incorporate into the design. For example, a patio or deck that is intended for dining and entertaining must be large enough to hold the required furniture, as well as provide enough space for moving around without bumping into things or people.

How Much Space Do You Need?

: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">The size of the play area for your yard will depend on your site, as well as your wants and needs. It will also depend on what kinds of permanent play equipment you have or wish to have in your yard. Different activities require different amounts of space and attention to ground surface.

: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Don’t ever try to cram play equipment into a too-small space. For swing sets, jungle gyms, and even those multicolored activity cubes, allow for a minimum of 6 feet of free space in all directions around the equipment. This means no walls, no objects, no plants, etc. This makes it easier to be certain that children don’t stand too close while waiting their turn and watching other children. In fact, it’s a good idea to allow a bit more room in front of swings and slides as a kind of drop zone. Consequently, even a modestly sized swing set can take up a sizable chunk of yard space.

: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Swing sets must be set on level ground; otherwise, they can become dangerously imbalanced. Swing sets must also be very firmly anchored in the ground. If you have granular, sandy soil, take extra precautions to ensure a good grip in the earth.

: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Any resilient, soft material will do for surfacing around play equipment. Perhaps the best surfacing material is high-quality bark mulch spread to a depth of at least three inches. Grass or lawn is also a good choice, but it will get stomped on, pounded down and probably look rather ratty. Sand may look good, and it’s certainly soft enough, but it tends to migrate into the house via shoes and folds of clothing. Peastone has been used in some public playgrounds, but it is potentially dangerous since handfuls can be thrown. Never use asphalt, concrete or decking as a surface material around swing sets and jungle gyms. Even a deck covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting is unacceptable.


MsoNormal>Paths are a primary site of all outdoor accidents; consequently, they should be given special attention with safety in mind. Paths should provide a clear, safe means of getting from one place to another. Walkways near the house, and to and from a patio or driveway, should be level and at least 4 feet wide. They should be made of durable, non-skid or rough materials.

MsoNormal>As far as aesthetics and ease of maintenance, each walkway material has its advantages and disadvantages. But when considering safety, properly installed concrete is probably the safest material. It provides the best firm, clean and low-skid surface for walking.

MsoNormal>Brick and paving stones, whether natural or precast concrete, are widely used for paths. They must be carefully set, either in stone dust (dry laid) or in mortar (wet laid) to ensure that they are level. Unevenly set or loose pieces mean protruding edges, which usually means someone trips.

MsoNormal>Bluestone and slate paving stones, as well as brick, can become very slick in rainy weather. Furthermore, they tend to “hold” the cold, causing a slippery film of ice to form on them, especially during transitional weather in spring and fall mornings and evenings.

MsoNormal>Many people use asphalt for walkways, particularly contractors. It’s inexpensive, relatively durable and reasonably safe. But, it is the ugliest material of the bunch.

MsoNormal>Peastone paths are lovely to look at, but they should only be used away from the immediate vicinity of the house. They do not provide firm footing. They are also difficult to keep clean, unless you have a staff of gardeners.

Getting Up and Down

MsoNormal>Getting from one level to another in the landscape is a major element in planning and design. Steps are in-ground features connecting patios, walkways and driveways, etc. Stairs are above-ground features associated with decks and front and back doors.

MsoNormal>The two common elements of steps and stairs are the riser, the vertical part, and the tread, the horizontal part. The ratios between these two elements may vary somewhat between steps and stairs. In addition, stairs generally require more careful measuring and cutting than steps.

Safety must be a major consideration in the design and construction of steps and stairs. The tread materials must be non-skid, especially when wet. Railings must also be incorporated whenever there is need for additional stability, particularly for elderly people and children.

• Steps – Steps should be comfortable and safe for walking, as well as attractive. The tread must be wide and stable underfoot, and the risers should not be so high that it is an effort to move up or down. The risers must be of equal height to prevent tripping, although the first riser may be shorter than the others. In garden paths, where steps may be far apart, they should be spaced evenly so people will not have to change stride each time they take a step.

A good general rule: The lower the riser, the wider the tread. (But never use a rise of less than 6 inches.) This will yield steps that are both comfortable and appealing. Also: Never use a single step unless there is no other way to solve a particular grade change. Single steps may be confusing since people often fail to notice them.

While the width of your steps will depend on your own site and design, it’s a good idea to make outdoor steps at least 4 feet wide. To make it easy for two people to walk side by side, make steps 5 feet wide.

• Stairs – As with steps, stairs must have a constant ratio between riser and tread so there is no guesswork about where to place your foot. Again, the first riser may be lower than the others.

• Railings – Railings are often required with steps and stairs. Most building codes mandate railings even in residential situations when there are five or more risers or when the vertical distance between the top and bottom step is more than 30 inches.

Psychological factors are also important to consider. You should probably add a railing in any circumstance where there is the slightest feeling of imbalance or insecurity as you stand at the top step. Whether it is used or not, a railing will provide a comforting sense of reassurance.

Railings are usually placed 32 to 36 inches above the treads. Edges should be rounded and easy to grip.

Railings with balusters are preferable, in my opinion, to those without, for both safety and aesthetic reasons. Balusters should be spaced close enough to prevent children from slipping through or getting their heads stuck in between.

I find pipe railings to be unacceptable in most situations. They usually have no balusters or other vertical elements between the posts. While they may be very sturdy, they are unsafe for small children who see them as a kind of jungle gym.

Gates and Fences

Toddlers are like puppies; they tend to explore and wander. Unless you are willing to monitor a toddler at all times when he or she is outside, or unless you have a vast yard and live where there are no cars, you might want to consider fencing at least part of your yard.

The fencing, whether wooden or chain link, must be secure. Wooden fences are usually harder to climb, and since there is no woven mesh, little digits don’t get pinched. All gate latches should be able to be locked and/or located beyond the reach of little fingers.

Fencing is a long-term commitment and an expensive one, so think it through carefully. If you wish to have an open yard plan, you must be willing to be an ever-vigilant supervisor.

Other Hazards

• Water – Three inches of water isn’t very deep, but a toddler can drown in it. Ponds and other bodies of water should be protected by a fence or some sort of cover if children play nearby. Some folks choose to fill in unused or unwanted ponds. A child under 3 should never be allowed to go near an unguarded pond or into a wading or paddling pool without close supervision. Paddling pools should be emptied when not in use and preferably turned upside down.

• Outdoor equipment Gardening equipment and machinery should be kept away from children and vice versa. Barbecues and outdoor grills should be stored in a level, secure place away from children’s play areas.

• Chemicals and toxins There is almost always an array of chemicals around the garage and shed for various landscape uses. Even if you only use natural, organic or bio-friendly materials, there is a risk involved. All containers should be kept securely closed and out of reach. You should have a locked cabinet in which to store all harmful and toxic materials.

A brief statement on the chemical treatment of yards: Don’t do it! Sooner or later you’re likely to be drinking the stuff you’re putting on the lawn.

Safety in the yard should not be treated with halfway measures. Concerns about safety in the yard don’t apply just to children; they involve adults as well. It’s OK to let budget constraints drive your aesthetic considerations, but don’t compromise around issues of safety. You’ll be able to relax and enjoy your yard more if you know it’s safe!

David DeSmit has been active in landscape design for more than 25 years.

From United Parenting Publications.