Our Front Yard Family Room

I’ve written previously about how I had been planning to remake my front yard into a “front yard family room,” to become a neighborhood hangout – a sort of outdoor suburban version of “Cheers.” Well, we finished it this spring and have been enjoying it all summer, so it’s time I wrote about it, both what we created, and how successful it’s been.

In this article, I’ll give an overview of the features we created here. In future articles, I’ll describe some of these features in more depth and discuss our progress in making it into a real neighborhood hangout. I’ll also write about our back yard renovation and how we’re trying to open it up to neighborhood kids to make it a hangout.

I tried to take a completely fresh perspective on our front yard design. Front yards, by and large, are not designed for people to use. Certainly, they have features like walkways and driveways to move people and cars in and out, but architects and builders hardly ever think about people actually passing time there. When I started to think about what kids and adults could do with our front yard, I quickly realized how much wasted space we have in front yards in America.This is a shame because, assuming your back yard is fenced in like mine is, your front yard is the only place where you can be right next to your house and socialize with neighbors at the same time.

Front porches used to be this “transitional space” between the private home and the public, but they largely disappeared in the late 20th Century. They’re making a comeback these days, but still, many of the new porches are set back far from the street, so they’re far more private than public.

Besides, even porches right next to the street can’t give kids back their streets, which are much less accommodating to kids’ play than they used to be. My hope is that we might be able to exploit our front yards to give us what both our front porches and our streets used to provide to Americans.

In choosing the features for our front yard, I placed a priority on providing a wide range of activity options both to keep individual people coming back, and also to engage all members of groups who might stop by, from adults to teenagers to tweens to young children to babies. Below is a list of features we’ve installed:

    Our whiteboard is for drawing and projecting from our media system (see below).  Here, Zach is writing over a photo from a computer-generated slideshow.

  1. white board: We put outdoor-capable whiteboard material on the existing fence that runs along one of our borders. The entire stretch of white board runs over 30 feet. We also keep a wooden box there with dozens of dry erase pens.
  2. picnic table with storage benches: Our sturdy 8 foot long redwood picnic table lies under a redwood tree about 10 feet from the sidewalk. The picnic benches all have weatherproof storage, meaning that the top surfaces are hinged and can be opened to store things inside. We store things there like disposable plates and cups, books, and board games.
  3. media system: We also store a media system inside one of the benches. This consists of a computer, TV set top box, projector, audio amplifier, and speaker. The projector shines through a piece of plexiglass installed at one end of a bench and is aimed at the white board. I completely control the computer from a couple applications on my iPhone, so I hardly ever have to open this bench. I’ll say a lot more about this media system in a future article.
  4. fountain: The most prominent spot in our front yard, bordered by the sidewalk and our driveway, is occupied by a circular millstone fountain. The fountain is very low profile – about 15 inches off the ground – so it’s very easy for toddlers to play with. They often go wild on it!
  5. None of this would have been possible on our old, attractive paver driveway.

  6. concrete driveway: I tore out our driveway’s “pavers” – stones with somewhat convex surfaces laid in a pattern – and laid smooth concrete in its place. Everyone I mentioned this to thought I was crazy because they thought our pavers were much prettier than concrete. Well, I was concerned with our kids being able to do things like scooter, skateboard, play basketball, and draw with sidewalk chalk on our driveway. Kids can do all that and more on concrete, not on pavers.
  7. basketball hoop: These are common, but often not very well used. Ours may get more usage because of all the other stuff we have going on in our front yard to draw kids here and keep them engaged.
  8. sandbox: This is another big draw for toddlers. I’ve placed it right next to our driveway and about 12 feet from the sidewalk, so it’s prominent. I often come home to see a toddler playing there with a parent hanging out close by.
  9. Posing next to our neighborhood mosaic are mosaic artist Jaying Wang and my son Marco.

  10. neighborhood mosaic: Kids at Camp Yale, my neighborhood summer camp, made the tiles for the buildings, and a friend who’s a mosaic artist created the overall design and the other stuff. That quote in the white box is a favorite of mine. It’s from a book called “The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Pinkwater, famous not only for being an author but also for being a humorous commentator on NPR. The quote says, “Our street is us and we are it.  Our street is where we like to be and it looks like all our dreams.”
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13 Responses to Our Front Yard Family Room

  1. DMensch says:

    Very nice! I’d pictured some of this from your earlier posts and our correspondence, but the fountain was a surprise. That’s fabulous! Glad to see the media system worked out well.

  2. nancys says:

    It’s so great to see your dreams realized! I just got back from Portland, Or., which included a bike ride to Share-It Square with my brothers. We left with a copy of “The Killer Angels” from the book exchange box, and new ideas for making our street people-friendly.

  3. etobicokesouth says:

    Your front yard sounds amazing. I love it. You give me lots of ideas…. I like the ideas on so many levels 🙂

  4. So I was inspired by your front yard family room and decided that I would move the kids picnic bench and art supplies onto the driveway and invited the boys across the street to come over and play with my son. Guess what happened? They played with the art stuff for about five seconds and then proceeded to just jump off my front veranda the entire play time… LOL

    Boys will be boys!

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    funeighbourhoods – The point is to get them out there playing, not for them to do any one thing in particular. So, I’d say your moving the picnic table and art supplies was a success!

  6. monica says:

    Love your front yard! Our new house has a huge front yard, much bigger than the back. You’ve given me some great ideas. Thanks!

    We have a large tree in the front and I was thinking of hanging a tire string. I also want to put a patio in the front with a bench swing — especially for the grandparents who visit quite often. For our driveway, we’re trying to choose between pavers and cement. I like cement b/c the kids can write with chalk, but the pavers look so nice.

  7. Mike Lanza says:

    guest –

    I have to tell you how happy we are that we’ve torn out our pavers and put smooth cement in instead. It’s even better than we expected. Our driveway is a play venue every day. Just yesterday, our 2-year-old rode a bike (he’s just starting pedaling!) and pushed his toy car around for an hour or two there.

    Our kids wouldn’t spend any time there if it were covered with pavers.

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    Huckfinn – What you see in that photo is tape on smooth concrete. I make life- sized mazes there. Believe me – pavers are very anti-kid.

  9. Mike Lanza says:

    huckfinn – The lines are magic marker lines I drew to create a grid for my maze making. Then, I taped over some of them.

    Flat, gray concrete is all I have now because I’ve gotten rid of this – the tape was leaving a nasty adhesive residue on my driveway. I’m loving it because my kids are using it like crazy every day. Your yard in general, and your driveway, in particular, are *vital* for determining your kids’ lifestyle. It’s aesthetics-for-parents vs. fun-for-kids. I know where my vote goes, noooo doubt about it.

    I’ll say it again, our driveway is the part of our yard most by our kids, and if it were still pavers, it would get hardly any use.

    Is the look of your driveway more important than that???

  10. Mike Lanza says:

    Mayasmom – I bought the water fountain. Here’s the web page.

    Regarding our street, it’s not that crazy, but I must admit that we do let our oldest go on the street, which inevitably exposes him to danger. He’s gotten pretty savvy about it (he’s 5-1/2 now…).

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am so inspired by your front yard ideas! I came in search of a white board fence idea for outdoor art and am glad to see it in action. Never thought of the projector idea — so neat (and high tech!).

  12. Melodie says:

    That is just beautiful. We just moved and you have given me some greta ideas. Many thanks and enjoy that gorgeous fun space!

  13. bethy says:

    so cool!
    I should try it!