Outdoor play can foster a sense of discovery, of exploration, and it builds relationships with both
social and biological communities. It gives children all the health benefits of exercise
along with the character-building benefits of play. I want to get them out so that, paradoxically,
they develop a healthy in.
- from A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy.
Outdoor play has been receiving a lot of attention these days. I have read many books and articles in which parents, teachers, psychologists and environmentalists are urging adults to get children outside. And not just outside in organized activities, but in nature, with lots of free time to explore, create, wonder, play, and learn. The advice is worth taking – there’s a whole host of reasons to get children outside and engaged in unstructured play. And when it comes down to it, the backyard is probably the best (and most convenient) place for outdoor play to happen.
So, armed with our own experiences of playing outside as kids, teaching environmental education and reading all about the need to get children outside, my husband and I decided to take action. When our daughters were two and four, we figured it was time to playscape our yard. Although we live on several acres, we wanted to create a small, simple, kid-friendly area close to the house and gardens, where we spend most of our time. With those ideas in mind, we set out to intentionally create spaces that inspire unstructured, outdoor free play. Three years later, our playscaped yard has provided hours of fun for my girls and many friends who’ve come to play. The elements are simple and inexpensive. The results are innumerable.
The following are some ideas from our playscaped yard that we’ve tried and found successful.
Dirt pile. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. It’s just a pile of dirt – but for kids, it’s a mound of creativity. Toy dump trucks for moving dirt are fun, but small shovels and containers for digging are essential. The mound is also used for climbing and getting a better view of things. The dirt pile is probably the most fun after it rains.
Balancing area. Railroad ties, fallen logs and partially buried stumps provide opportunities for jumping and balancing. Walking the logs provides good balance practice but beware of the “hot lava” if you fall off!
Climbing trees. We have a few fallen trees that the girls love to climb on. But climbing trees can also be living, upright trees with low branches. Obviously, safety is always a consideration, but kids don’t have to be very high to get the sensation of being in the trees.
Sand box. The old standby has never lost its appeal. Lots of imaginative play has emerged from our sandbox (as well as a few toads). We get sand birthday cakes, rivers and castles. Most of our sand toys come from a thrift store or old food containers. You don’t need fancy tools to create masterpieces!
Water. This could come from a wading pool, rain barrel or even a bucket. My girls take many trips to and from a water source with buckets or pitchers to create mud, hold sand together or water flowers.
Vegetables. Even if you don’t have a garden, consider planting a vegetable that your child likes in a pot near the play area. Children love to watch plants grow and they really enjoy grabbing a cherry tomato or pea snack while they’re playing.
Sitting Area. Whether it’s a picnic table, chairs, or stumps, it’s nice to have an area for quieter activities. We like to eat lunch outside, but our picnic tables are also used for art projects, tea parties, and story time.
Flowers. Flowers help create an inviting space and bring beauty to the play area. Flowers add color and texture, lovely smells, and pollinating insects and birds. Plus, certain flowers are edible, providing a beautiful snack!
Open spaces. Not all the best spaces are engineered. The absence of “stuff” is essential for running, making leaf piles, playing games, sprinklers and more!
Climber and swings. You don’t have to get rid of existing play structures. Children love to swing, and the motion is important developmentally. Climbing also promotes good gross motor skills and helps children get a different view of the world. And of course, babies need to swing sometimes, too!
You can incorporate all of the elements described here in any size yard. These ideas require a little time and effort, but not much money or fancy materials. Here are a few principles to keep in mind as you begin to think about transforming your yard:
:: Keep it simple. Our spaces are not elaborate. They are quite simple, allowing more room for imagination to grow.
:: Keep expenses down by using nature’s materials when possible. Tree stumps, balancing logs, dirt, sand – all are relatively inexpensive or free. Using natural materials helps build a deeper connection with nature, as well.
:: Reused materials are also very cost effective. Our climber and swing are hand-me-downs; we made our sandbox from old 2x4s; our outside toys are mostly old kitchen utensils and food containers.
:: Involve your children in the design, implementation and care. We designed our space based on our girls’ interests and with their input. They helped create areas, like the dirt pile, and suggested changes to our plans. We also strive to pick up our toys and equipment at the end of the day and put them in a large tote to keep things dry and contained.
:: Plan for getting dirty. We have a whole set of farm clothes that can get as wet and dirty and holey as possible. The girls also have rain boots and old sneakers, but bare feet are usually the norm.
:: Get outside yourself. Our girls are more likely to go outside if we are outside. I can usually find plenty of work (hanging laundry, working in the garden), but occasionally I simply read a book on the porch swing (that’s hung between two trees). Sometimes my girls even make dirt coffee for me when we’re outside together. Watching them play together outside is all the benefit I need to make our playscaped yard worth every minute we spent on it.
Rachel Sandhorst gets plenty of outdoor nature play at her home in Northeast Iowa. When she’s not outside playing in her garden or with her horse, she is spending time in her community helping others to play outside more.
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.