The Obamas’ backyard becomes more people-friendly



Well, that's how I see it when parents buy cool play sets like this one for their yard. They promote physical exercise that's actually FUN and filled with creative possibilities.

But parents can't do anything right these days, it seems.  Child safety fears raised by Obama swing set?  Good grief. 

The White House head usher had been tasked with researching the options.  He chose Rainbow Play Systems, flew to South Dakota to select precisely the right system, and the girls squealed with delight when they saw it installed its new home on the South Lawn, right where the president can watch from the Oval Office.  Gripe about it at your peril!

But gardeners and garden designers, how else would you make the White House grounds more people- and kid-friendly?  A kickball field?  Some cool nature-exploring additions, like a pond or a butterfly garden?  The Natural Learning Institute has a lot of great ideas.  How about some recycled rubber mulch under those swings for a softer landing than hard-packed earth?


  1. Recycled rubber mulch bugs me. I would plant a children’s garden with a bean tunnel, alphabet soup, a sunflower house, etc. Yeah, maybe that has been done before, but when I took started and cared for the Children’s Garden at Fort Ticonderoga, we had NO money, a lot of plants, and a good imagination. We planted our 50×50 garden with all of those things, and the kids LOVED it. I mean, they WOULD NOT leave. We didn’t have a bunch of plastic stuff, slides or widgets. We had plants-cool plants. Even a teeny tiny corn maze. I bet if the girls loved the swing set, they would love a little veggie garden just for them!

  2. You know, referring to the previous item, I think I do belong to the wrong generation! Kids have little enough opportunity to play these days — there are so many precautions and warnings and worries that it sometimes seems that the human race become more delicate every year, and “the authorities” more intent on scaring us all to death. That looks like a lovely play set, and I hope those two little girls have fun in it, and that no-one puts recycled rubber tires on the ground under it.

    I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt, but just why are we so risk-averse now? And, by the way, no amount of swingset precautions could have prevented my brother from falling out of the plum tree twice and breaking his arm each time (left arm once, right arm next). He was Robin Hood and the plum tree was Sherwood Forest, and no regulation would have changed (a) the plum tree, and (b) my brother.

    And to make the White House gardens more people-friendly, let those girls play there — maybe a play house, a private little space for them to play pretend, or a small garden plot of their own. The grounds have to be secure, obviously, so it can’t be made a park for everyone, and I think it should be a special place where the people who live in that house can breathe and feel the sun on their faces without the rest of us telling them “Yoohoo! Just wanted to say Hello! Why don’t you put a (………….insert whatever) here?”

    Reading this over, I realize I sound a little cross! Have watched my grandkids grow up mostly inside the house, with no unsupervised play in their lives, and it seems sad to me

  3. I couldn’t agree more! My dad was a child psychologist and one of his many rants about modern parenting was: Too much structured time, not enough totally unstructured time, physically active and outdoors as much as possible. “Let kids be KIDS,” he’d say.

  4. I wouldn’t worry about tire mulch either, and a attractive and engaging as the play structure is, I think it would be great to have bean trees or a sunflower house. For a family that lives in a fishbowl, surely those little girls would enjoy dreaming in a green and growing shade.

  5. Hey Susan,

    Did you hear about Casey Trees free workshop called “Design Your Yard with Trees”? They partnered with the DC Dept. of the Environment and will be giving FREE TREES to people who attend one of the two workshops, one Wed. March 11, and one the following Thursday, March 19.

    A kickball field isn’t a bad idea, although they could always play with the rest of us across the street from the White House on the National Mall.

  6. How about a sunflower forest, or tomato teepees to play in and around?

    No to the tire mulch. Interlocking tire tiles, maybe, as long as it could all be picked up at a later time. For mulch, it’s more sustainable to use arborists’ shredded wood.

  7. I like the idea of a butterfly garden. Or they can have a portion of the Victory Garden if the Obamas are swayed by the petition going around.

  8. A garden playhouse surrounded by plants that appeal to the senses (eg, Lamb’s Ears for touch, grasses for sound), would be a great addition, along with a little patch of earth where the girls could grow whatever they wanted.

  9. I think it’s wonderful that these girls – I’m betting their parents may be out there as well… 😉 – have this play set. I understand the whole child safety thing, but, come on! I am 38 years old and grew up in a fairly rural area. Climbing trees, playing in the forests, riding bikes (without helmets, though I do wear one now), jumping bikes over stuff, sledding, playground equipment, swing sets, etc and I never, EVER broke any bones or was dragged off to the ER. And so what if I was? Good for them, and I hope they get plenty of use out of it.

    I hope they, if they so desire, get their own garden plots. The butterfly garden idea sounds great.

  10. Make that a butterfly AND bug garden . . . syrphids, tachinids, lacewings, ladybugs, beetles of all sorts, even stinkbugs; maybe not assassin bugs; and the plants that will attract and sustain them. That would be fun. Gourd and bean tunnels, sunflower forest all sound very cool.

  11. Another vote against recycled rubber mulch. Ick!

    I noticed evergreen trees behind the play set in the photo – I’m assuming the Oval Office is behind the photographer. The girls definitely need a private place to play. I’d add more native shrubs and evergreens on the perimter of their play area for more privacy.

    They also should have a pond and waterfall. Not huge, but big enough to attract frogs and other pond life. If rocks are placed just right, it can also serve as a bird bath.

    And, yes, a veggie garden in public view. Less grass and more native plantings. Some bird houses, bat houses, mason bee nests, etc. etc.

  12. For Pete’s sake.
    If the kids want a swing set, give ’em a swing set.
    With some grass underneath it…to begin with. There are quite a few of us who
    A) survived swing sets and hard ground
    B) grew up to be nature loving, tree hugging folks because of/inspite of all the broken bones, fights–I mean “socialization”, and fun had on a swing set.

    And yes, by all means, create a creative garden.

  13. After spending over a year doing research for a child’s play safety book I’d recommend to the Obama’s that they put down 12 inches of playground fiber.
    It is a far superior surfacing product to many other surfaces.
    As for lawn as a surface – not safe at all. As a matter of fact it comes in 3rd, right after asphalt and concrete.

  14. I’d also suggest a flower cutting garden just for the kids, a space for digging in the dirt and making mudpies (or are they too old for that?), more trees for shade from the hot summer sun (fast-growing so that they can enjoy them during their years there), their own sets of garden tools, buckets, and watering cans, and some seed packets of easy-to-grow stuff. Maybe they could start a White House compost pile!

  15. It should be mandatory for every child in school to have one hour of exercise. Get them off their fat asses. It doesn’t cost money to get them running around the block.

  16. I’d think the Obama children are in a wonderful situation to do all sorts of things which would might be unsafe for other children . . . because there will always be people there to watch and look after them.

    Therefore – a pond / lake.

    The climbing frame looks fantastic.

    A place to do their own digging and to grow things. (Including digging withoug being expected to grow things.)

    A BMX track.

    Are there trees to climb?

    Will they be helping when the huge vegetable garden is created? . . . (On the White House lawn or not!)


  17. Love the playground equipment. Even without swings and slides, my siblings and I found ways to simultaneously entertain ourselves and get injured. Weekly, at age 9 or 10, I played a game of taking a flying leap from the front steps of the music conservatory while waiting with classmates for our cello lessons to start, until I broke my foot. My brother would jump off the neighbors carport, until he misstepped and landed on a fence. We had more sedate activities, too. I hauled buckets of water to my little veggie garden in remote regions of the yard, and my brothers dug the mother of all holes in the back yard to so as to have an underground fort.
    Anyone here remember when Caroline Kennedy broke her arm when she fell off her pony Macaroni on the Whitehouse grounds? She hid the injury for awhile.

  18. I broke my arm twice jumping off stuff as a kid, and I loved it. And I also love how many people disapprove of the rubber mulch! I wondered if I might be alone on that but apparently I’m not…thank goodness.

    I think a little flower cutting garden would be cool. When I was a little girl growing up in a rural area, I spent many weekends running around foraging for wildflowers, huckleberries, and pitcher plants, and always wished there was an ongoing supply of the flowers to pick.

  19. Recycled rubber belongs being reused in other rubber products or in toxic-waste sites, not kids’ play areas. There are plenty of natural products to give a soft landing spot without having to use a suspect health hazard that being foisted off on our children.

    My niece and nephews have a similar play structure and it draws all of the neighborhood kids to their yard. Hopefully the Secret Service will figure out a way for the new DC one to as well. That will show reaching out to a new American generation.

    Now if they will just replace all that lawn with wild flower meadows and an acre or two of sunflowers.

  20. I agree about the water effect.. What child is not thrilled when they discover a tiny frog or tadpole? A small pond with a little waterfall is a wonderful thing. Other than that, a wide blend of colors, shapes and textures to heighten the senses and attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Tall delicate grasses against lower broadleaf plants. An all-season garden is a must. And has anyone asked the Obama children what they’d like to have?

    I was lucky, growing up in a relatively rural area. My sister and I spent hours crawling through tall stands of grass, making tunnels and forts, climbing trees, and savoring tree-ripe fruit. There is nothing quite like the taste of a fresh pear or peach to make you appreciate the simple things in life. Dwarf trees take up very little room and can be quite ornamental in a landscape.
    And nix to the idea of the shredded rubber. It’s nasty, and kids actually LIKE dirt and grass. Recycle the rubber another way.

  21. About the rubber mulch, I asked about it because whenever I see public or institutional playgrounds up for review here in DC they generally include the stuff – probably a liability issue. Though Michelle’s alternative suggestion of “playground fiber” is interesting. And what the heck IS it?
    And I’m enjoying everyone’s suggestions for/memories of childhood play. My own faves were, on my own property, the cheap, funky inground pool, and on my best friend’s property, a real-life creek with salamanders and frogs, and enough space for us to dig an underground world of tunnels that spurred all kinds of fun and kept out the neighborhood bullies. Of course one advantage to playing on the White House grounds is that the neighborhood bullies are fenced out.

  22. I had a client w/a five year old son, who had an elevated playhouse w/ a slide. We planted golden hops (rampant & they make a cool rattling sound) and edible grapes to make the space more “mysterious” and “secret”. Not only did he love it, we created a new young garden lover in the process.

  23. Oh, I think the swing set looks cool! Don’t get me wrong! I am all for a garden, too. When I was little, my mom had a garden in the front, I had my own garden on the side of the house and we ran around and played in the back.

    My favorite thing was when I got to go to the hardware store with my dad and get several bags of soil and a big peat moss cube. I grew almost everything from seed. This was when I was 7-9 years old!

    Our neighbors had a row of shrubs dividing their yard from ours-a lilac, a forsythia and a fig, and I LOVED those shrubs. They were totally my friends. I would play under them, cut from them, etc. etc.

    Today, I got a big load of compost delivered so I can start my vegetable garden, and my husband and I walked around our house, picking out spots to plant sunflowers and zinnias along the fence and house.

    I say, you’re never too old for a swing set, or for a bunch of sunflowers in your garden!

  24. I love the idea that the girls and their friends have a place to play and be kids.

    I think it would be beyond cool (and a huge shout out to gardeners everywhere) if they did go ahead and add in a kid friendly garden. Sunflowers, bean tee pees, giant pumpkins…etc. I’d ask for compost and rain barrels too, but that may be pushing it. Maybe next term 🙂

    Kids need to get dirty and daydream, other wise they’re just smaller versions of repressed grown-ups.

    I say let loose.

  25. What great suggestions! I especially love the plant based ones — a bean tunnel, and a sunflower house. Plants to touch and grow and eat.
    Plus how about a labyrinth and some tree stumps and logs for jumping and climbing?

  26. I was almost raped. I thought I was cool at 12 srutting around and spitting. The chear leaders beau found us walking in what was left of the woods. In this little shed he grabbed me and jammed me into the wall. I would have been raped if I didn’t cry for help. My friend ran a half mile to a little store and the lady store owner broke it up.
    Teach your children well.

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