16 ways to make your yard kid-friendly without grass

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Kids jumping into backyard pool

When most of us think of a kid-friendly yard, the image in our head usually starts with a luscious lawn.

You know, a place where the kids can run, play sports, fall without hurting themselves, and play without a care.

But how do you make your yard as kid-friendly as possible without grass?

It’s actually not that difficult, or expensive! And your yard may end up being even better for the kids than it would be with a perfectly manicured fescue.

A great kid-friendly yard without grass needs 3 things: Some semblance of shade from the summer sun, at least a portion of ground-covering where the kids can fall without hurting themselves, and a handful of fun things for the kids to do or explore.

My favorite ideas for making this a reality are:

  • Putting up a play set, swing set, or other play structure
  • Bringing in some nature with bird feeders and bird baths
  • Growing a garden
  • Laying rubber mulch or artificial turf in heavy play areas
  • Erecting a gazebo or using a pop-up canopy for shade

Read on for a complete list of my favorite kid-friendly yard ideas that don’t require grass! (I’ve also included cost estimates for each of them where appropriate.)

1. Lay down wood or rubber mulch ($)

The simplest way to make a yard without a lawn more kid-friendly is to add some soft ground cover that’s good for playing and high foot traffic.

Wood mulch is a good option that’s relatively inexpensive in the short term (a few dollars per bag at most home improvement stores) and great for landscaping in and around flower beds and other garden areas.

Rubber mulch is a better option for kids, in most cases.

The recycled tire bits are soft and springy and require almost zero maintenance. Rubber mulch should last up to 10 years at a time!

Rubber mulch will cost more in the short term (and can be harder to move and spread) but will likely be cheaper and more effective for a play area in the long run.

However, it’s not as aesthetic or useful for garden landscaping… so keep that in mind.

2. Install a zip line or tree swing ($)

Click to see on Amazon

If you have medium to tall trees in your yard, or at least accessible behind your fence or in your side yard, you should consider jazzing them up and incorporating them into a play structure for the kids!

A good tree-to-tree zip-line will cost anywhere from $80-200 and your kids will get endless thrills from it!

Click to see on Amazon

Alternatively, you can go with a classic rope tree swing for just a few dollars, or make one yourself with a board and some rope from Home Depot.

Not only do kids love them, they look gorgeous in your yard.

3. Create an area for chalk play ($)

If the majority of your backyard is cement or pavement, you owe it to the kids to buy some sidewalk chalk (just a few dollars) and create a space where they can go nuts.

If you choose to cover most of the ground with mulch or other covering, keep a small space for chalk play!

I’ve even seen parents install chalkboards onto their fencing to give kids even more space to draw and create.

4. Set up bird or squirrel feeders and baths ($)

Tony Alter/Flickr

When I was a kid, I was way more into nature and exploring than I ever was playing structured games on a perfect lawn.

You can bring your backyard to life for your kids, without any grass, by inviting nature into it.

Try setting up:

  • Squirrel feeders
  • Bird feeders
  • Bird baths
  • Bird houses

And your kids will get hours of entertainment from watching what shows up!

Bird and squirrel feeders usually cost less than $20 while bird baths can run anywhere from $20-200 depending on what style and quality you choose.

5. Get a swing set, play set, or play structure ($$)

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If you have a little bit of room in your yard, but no lawn, definitely consider putting in a play set.

They’re not cheap, but they’re also probably not as expensive as you think and are a fantastic investment.

The one in our backyard from Playnation has:

  • A rock climbing wall
  • A fort with pirate steering wheel and Tic-Tac-Toe game
  • A slide
  • Interchangeable swings on both sides (regular swing and trapeze bar)

Swing sets like these sometimes work even better when there’s no grass or weed present — in fact, your play set will probably see fewer bugs this way and get less rusty.

Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a basic store-bought set, to a few thousand for a higher-end set that comes fully installed.

Click to see on Amazon

For a slightly more budget-friendly option, a lot of parents love these geometric climbing structures. Kids will spend hours on these if they’re old enough not to fall off!

6. Build a tree house ($$)

Treehouse in a backyard

Again, your backyard may not have any trees if you don’t have a lawn, so this won’t be an option for everyone.

But if you do have the option, there’s nothing kids love more than a good treehouse!

It becomes a favorite place to play and hide away when they need a little space.

The best option for your wallet is to build your own treehouse. It’ll require a couple hundred dollars worth of materials, plus a lot of tools and know-how.

(If you don’t know what you’re doing, avoid this! A badly-built treehouse can be really dangerous).

You can also hire a local company to build and install a treehouse. Expect this option to cost upwards of $9,000!

7. Create a gazebo ($$) or use a canopy ($)

Alan Bernau Jr/Flickr

If you want the kids to spend a lot of time in your yard, you’ll need to have at least one shady area to give them some relief from the sun and summer heat.

A pergola or gazebo can be the perfect place for the kids to cool down, eat a snack, have lunch, or do activities outside.

You can buy prebuilt pergolas for somewhere between $1000-2000, or build your own for a lot cheaper if you have the time and skills.

Click to see on Amazon

Alternatively, it might be a good idea to buy a pop up tent or canopy for some shade — one that you can take up or down as needed.

A good backyard canopy should only cost a few hundred dollars max.

8. Use playground tiles ($$)

Click to see on Amazon

If you’re looking for an alternative to rubber mulch or wood mulch (which might need to be replaced eventually and can spread to other parts of the yard), a lot of folks choose to lay down playground tiles in their yards.

These thick rubber pads or tiles are designed to limit injury from falls by providing a firm but springy surface for kids to run and play on.

Put them under a play set, swing, or just anywhere the kids play.

These will cost a good bit more than rubber mulch most likely, costing somewhere between $50-100 for just 4 square feet.

But they’ll last forever and give your yard a really clean and appealing look (since you can buy them in multiple colors!).

9. Install a sandbox ($-$$)

For younger kids, you can’t go wrong with the classic backyard sandbox.

They’re especially great for babies around 12-18 months old. You can plop them in there and let them explore while you relax! (And keep a watchful eye).

You have a range of options and budgets available to you for installing a sandbox.

If you build one yourself (the proper way) with good wood, landscape liner, a fitted cover, and more, you might expect to pay for a $100-300 in materials.

Click to see on Amazon

You can also buy a pretty inexpensive plastic sandbox for kids — this is a good temporary solution you can remove when your children outgrow it.

10. Grow a garden ($-$$)

Child playing in garden

Kids of almost all ages LOVE helping in a garden.

(They also love to find slugs and explore other bugs that may live in and around it!)

It’s great experience for them learning to tend to the plants, be responsible for garden tasks, and getting the reward of watching food grow.

Costs associated with growing a garden vary greatly.

If you choose to build raised garden beds and install a watering system, expect this project to set you back at least a few hundred dollars.

You can also start off with just a few potted herbs, tomato plants, or flowers for much cheaper if you want to try gardening out before going all in.

11. Add a pond with fish ($$)

Pond for kids with fish in backyard

Growing up, I had a small fish pond in my backyard that my parents installed.

It had a peaceful little waterfall and some large goldfish swimming in it.

I loved to sit there and watch the fish or listen to the water, all the way up into my high school years.

If you don’t have a lawn, I highly recommend a pond!

Expect most small ponds to cost somewhere around $1000 and up to install yourself.

12. Buy a bounce house or inflatable waterslide ($$)

Click to see on Amazon

Did you know that you can buy your own bounce house or waterslide for around what it would cost to rent one for a few days?

We own our own bounce house that rolls up nicely into a small bag and uses a large air pump.

We set it up from time to time in the backyard (it also works great in a basement with lots of room) and let our daughter go nuts and wear herself out.

Then it’s pretty easy to put it away and store it without taking up much room.

Most models only cost a few hundred dollars. Pair it with an inflatable water slide (also a few hundred dollars) and you can swap them in and out for ENDLESS summer fun.

13. Build a patio or deck ($$$)

If your backyard is dirt or old, cruddy cement, you could consider budget for and building a really nice patio or deck on the property.

These are expensive additions to your home, but they add a lot of property value and make the outside space far more usable for the whole family, kids included.

You can install your own deck or patio if you’re really skilled, but most people will need to hire a professional.

Expect to pay upwards of $3000 for most patios and well beyond that for larger areas or higher-grade materials.

14. Artificial turf ($$$)

If you don’t have grass in your yard and you can’t grow it there, consider putting in fake grass!

Yes, you can install artificial turf in your yard for the look and feel of a perfect lawn without any of the maintenance.

The downside here is the cost.

Putting in turk is extraordinarily expensive, even for small spaces, anywhere from $5-20 per square foot.

But remember, there’s no mowing, edging, trimming, or watering needed for a decade or two before it needs to be replaced.

Some families choose to install turf only under a play set or swing set instead of rubber mulch or playground tiles, but not in the rest of the yard.

15. Install splash pads ($$$)

Kids playing in splash pads
Virginia State Parks/Flickr

I had no idea until recently that you could put splash pads in your backyard.

Splash pads are play areas for kids where water shoots up out of the ground.

It then goes down a central drain and is filtered, cleaned, and reused.

The reason you don’t hear about residential splash pads that often is the cost, with these structures costing $15,000 or more to start.

But if you have the space and budget, wow! I can’t think of a more fun backyard option for kids in a yard with no grass.

16. Put in a pool ($$$) or an inflatable pool ($$)

Baby and mom in backyard pool

A pool is the Cadillac of backyard fun for kids.

Putting one in is an enormous expensive, and can be a hassle to maintain, but you may seriously never need to leave your own yard again!

You’ll need some space to pull this off, and a big budget. Expect an in-ground pool to run $20,000 at a minimum.

Pools are an amazing investment in terms of family fun, and while they might make your house harder to sell, they’ll likely help you fetch a higher price when do you find the right buyer.

For a less costly alternative, look into above ground pool options or simply buy a kids’ inflatable pool to bring out when you need it.

Wrapping Up

So there ya go — those are 16 of my favorite ways to create a kid-friendly backyard without the need for grass or a lawn.

You can make a few small tweaks and additions for less than $300 or so and enjoy a major upgrade.

Or, if you have the budget, you can invest thousands of dollars in awesome play sets or a pool.

What are your favorite ideas for making a yard more toddler, baby, and older kid-friendly?