Magazine article Sunset

Choose Your Own Adventure

Magazine article Sunset

Choose Your Own Adventure

Article excerpt

A family backyard makes room for play, wonder, and just the right amount of risk-taking.

An East Coast native, Sari Lehrer had a clear idea of what a backyard should be: "a flat expanse of lawn." But when she and her husband, Eli, moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, their new home challenged that notion. Instead of soft green grass, the yard featured steep slopes and concrete drop-offs-all the more unsettling because the couple had a 20-month-old daughter and another baby on the way. "You haven't known fear until you've watched a toddler try to navigate concrete steps without a handrail," Sari remembers.

Over time, though, Sari let a different vision for her yard take shape, one that was inspired by the book Last Child in the Woods and its notion that unstructured outdoor play is good for kids' development. With the help of landscape designer Samantha Gore (, Sari gave the hillside space an enchanting new look, adding willow tunnels, tree stumps, and a gigantic nest perched in a tree to encourage exploration. "When kids come over, I see this 'holy smokes' reaction in their eyes," Sari says. "They can't believe they can really dig and climb."

Since everything is built from natural materials rather than chunky plastic, the backyard is still sophisticated enough for adult dinner parties. And as her children (now totaling three-ranging from ages 2 to 8) get older, Sari has grown to appreciate the elasticity of the design. The kids often drape climbing structures with fabric for forts. Hideout spots double as reading nooks. "Eventually, I might even get a little time with a book in the willow nest myself," she says. "But we're a long way off from that!"

Kid-tested, mom-approved


A patch of artificial turf softens a concrete patio (page 41) while stumps create a seating area for both pretend tea parties and larger gatherings. …

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