Want your kids to play outside? Rip out the lawn!

Want your kids to play outside? Rip out the lawn!

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Pam’s kids loved their lawnless front yard.

Guest Rant by Pam Penick

Lawns are for kids, right? After all, they need that big, green carpet to enjoy the outdoors. Would it be an exaggeration to say it borders on neglect not to keep a lawn for your children or grandchildren to play on?

Some people think so. In a recent article in the New York Times about drought-prone cities paying homeowners to rip out water-hogging lawns, one critic implied that families should keep their lawns for their children’s sake. “It’s getting to the point where kids live in apartments, and they don’t even see grass, except in magazines,” a Los Angeles mother was quoted as saying, vowing to keep her emerald turf. I hear this a lot: kids need lawns so they can go outside and play.

As a mother of two, a garden designer who works with plenty of young families, and a former kid myself, I think that’s hogwash.

The sad truth is that most kids hardly set foot in their own yards today thanks to the indoor lure of video games, texting, Instagram, and whatever the latest cool app is. Sure, kids still play a lot of sports, but these activities are scheduled on school and municipal fields. They’re not the casual pickup games with the neighbors’ kids in the front yard that some of us remember. Heck, kids aren’t even at home that much these days. After school they’re at piano practice, karate lessons, and tutoring sessions. If the family lawn is meant to entice kids outdoors, it’s clearly not working.

The bad news, much lamented by wellness experts over the past decade, is that kids are spending less time than ever in nature.

The good news is that means the yard is yours! Even you young parents can feel justified in ripping out the lawn and remaking your yard to your gardener’s heart’s content.

The really good news is that doing so can actually make your yard more enticing to your kids than a lawn ever could.

Here’s why. Kids like big rocks to climb on. They like bushes to hide under. They like trees to climb. They like water to splash in. They love trying to catch lizards and holding out a sweaty hand to see if a passing butterfly will land for a moment. They love riding trikes and scooters on circuitous routes through a garden, the junglier the better. They like digging in dirt.

I remember as a kid my favorite spot in my big, suburban back yard was the woodpile stacked between two trees, which my friends and I, caped like superheroes, climbed onto and pretended was the Bat Cave. The lawn was of no interest to us. Next door lived the luckiest kids in the world, or so it seemed to me, because the recent construction of their home had left a 6-foot mound of lumpy soil, overgrown with weeds, which was perfect for creeping up commando-style and spying on grownups from the high, secret perch. When we moved a few years later to a house in an established, more landscaped neighborhood, I loved to hang out in the woodsy, overgrown area at the back of the yard, not the open lawn. During the mild South Carolina winter my sister and I raided our garden’s pine trees and Camellia sasanqua hedge to make tiny bark boats adorned with frilly, pink blossoms, and floated them on the waterlogged cover of the pool.

My own kids, when they were little, confirmed my memories of what children find to be fun. They loved scampering on boulders at the local park, leaping from rock to rock. They barreled around our lawnless front garden on their scooters, cruising the garden paths that I’d paved with ramps rather than steps, ducking under overhanging branches and crazily skirting my planting beds as I hollered, “Watch out!”

They taught me, and I remembered from experience, that the best yard you can create for your kids is one that they can explore. An expanse of lawn gives you no reason to step outside and see what’s going on. You can see everything there is to see from the window. But a garden! A garden beckons and entices. Flowers and seeds attract all manner of entertaining and beautiful birds and insects. Leafy plants offer touchable texture and help hide parts of the garden from view, making even a short garden stroll an adventure: what new bloom or butterfly will appear around the bend? And, if you like, a small lawn fits quite nicely into such a space, offering a restful spot for the eye and the body – and even a game of catch.

So I say to those who reject the idea of a no-lawn yard as detrimental to children, think again. Unless your children are playing on that lawn regularly, you could transform your yard from a lawn desert into a diverse, interesting, enticing place of discovery for your whole family to enjoy, and likely conserve water and create wildlife habitat in the process. When you think about it that way, a lawn is depriving your children of experiences with nature that they’re unlikely to get elsewhere.

But don’t worry – it’s an easy fix. Just get out the shovel and start digging. Find a few extra shovels, tell the kids it’s OK to get dirty, and they may even join you.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Whether you’re ripping out your lawn for you or your kids, you may be interested in my book Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard, which I wrote for beginning gardeners and anyone concerned about the environmental costs of maintaining a lawn. Filled with how-to information, design ideas, plant suggestions, and plenty of inspirational photographs, it’ll show you how rewarding a lawnless or less-lawn garden can be.

How to enter? Just leave a comment on this post; one comment per person, please. Entries close at 11:59 pm EST on Wednesday, August 21. Winner must reside in the U.S.

Pam Penick is a garden designer in Austin, TX and blogs at Digging.

Posted by

Garden Rant
on August 15, 2013 at 7:50 am, in the category Guest Rants, Lawn Reform.

    • cricket
    • 8th October 2016

    It is very refreshing to read this. I have a big yard with a lot of grass right in the center. We play croquet and bocci sometimes, but I think I would really like to have some meandering paths and hideaways for my kids. That seems like a wonderful idea. It is really hard, though, to take that step into the unknown.

    • Aleae Smith
    • 9th October 2016

    I was lucky to grow up on an acre with the grandparents’ and also the cousin’s house sharing the space with our own family house. The lawn areas were fine, but all the exploration took place in the wild areas of “weeds” out beyond civilization. There we discovered the toads and horny toads, rode the nearly horizontal mesquite branch like it was our own wild stallion, and were free to explore the wild flowers and rocks like it was our own magical kingdom. Lawn be gone, indeed.

    • MaryEllen Krautter
    • 28th October 2016

    My yard is the most interesting place for children and adults to explore! No lawn but lots of plants, rocks, water features, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, toads and lizards create surprises everywhere you look. I already have the book and if you are looking for ideas, inspiration and practical advice about transforming your outdoor space you should get a copy for yourself.

    • Tamara
    • 12th November 2016

    My favorite place to hang out in the yard was in the “side” yard where it was mainly sand and dirt. I spent hours in the sandbox. I used to cover the sprinkler head closes to the box to create a flood. I played in the mud a lot. Mom used to make us strip by the backdoor and hose us down before we were allowed inside.

    • Lizabeth
    • 14th November 2016

    Growing up we had lawns but my favorite stop was a huge (or at least it seemed to me) rock that was in the middle of the backyard. Great place for my Little Kiddles to have a camping trip! And our guinea pigs loved to sit in the lettuce patch and eat (with a laundry basket over them to keep from wandering).

    • Adrianne
    • 15th November 2016

    When we’d walk around our neighborhood, our favorite place to go was the “yard with the jungle” – they had beautiful, tall perennials and grasses that would flow over onto the sidewalk a bit, and it was like walking through a jungle – well, probably not for the adults, but for us kids it was magic. Nothing sparks the imagination like a landscape that invokes a faraway place to a child. There are plenty of places in the world to throw a ball, but the places that make us (even us adults) imagine something else seem fewer and further between.

    • Davud Carr
    • 15th November 2016

    Fun read. I have been working with our HOA about this for sometime. Yes we need to get kids outdoors more for sure. I appreciate the blog. Keep it up.

    • CindyP
    • 15th November 2016

    When I was a kid our favorite outdoor play area was the backyard of an abandoned house. No manicured lawn there, the grass was high and the bushes were overgrown. There was one particular bush that grew in an umbrella shape down to the grown, with a marvelous large hiding area in it. We spent hours in there, giggling and playing Lost in Space. Yep, that Lost in Space. Our imaginations got a huge workout in that yard, we were castaways, pirates, explorers, heck, we were kids.
    As an adult I don’t want to abandon my yard to overgrown shrubbery, but I have gradually been eliminating lawn through the years. Now I’m at the point where I would love to find some way to get rid of what’s left, but I don’t want anything high maintenance and really don’t know how much more weeding I can deal with. I’d love this book!

    • Laura
    • 15th November 2016

    I am replacing my yard piece by piece. Every year we add something new. I’m planning a mazelike installation for the back so the dogs have somewhere to run and hunt bunnies. Up front I want to build butterfly and bird habitats.
    We used to play all over the neighborhood wherever there were weeds or washouts to explore. We’d come home filthy and happy.

    • gmarieb
    • 15th November 2016

    I wold love to replace our “greens”. Your book sounds like a wonderful read.

    • Laurie
    • 15th November 2016

    Kids don’t like lawn. Parents do, because they can spy on their kids easier, I mean “watch” their kids and see what they’re doing and keep them “safe”. In a lawn, there are no dangerous trees to climb and no secret hiding places and no berries or flowers to pick and no dirty dirt.

    • Grace
    • 15th November 2016

    Rock on! Love it.

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 16th November 2016

    Pam, thanks for this excellent rant. Right on!

    • Ally
    • 16th November 2016

    I couldn’t agree more. My son always enjoyed playing in the woods behind our house. The lawn was the evil thing that Dad made him mow from time to time. We still have a small portion of that lawn today, but most of it is gone. The birds and butterflies have flourished as a result of replacing the lawn with native plants. I don’t miss the lawn at all!

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