The research on outdoor play is clear. Kids who get outside for at least an hour a day, rain or shine, are healthier, happier and more able to focus on non preferred tasks. And while traditional play structures can be great fun, they don’t often encourage kids to interact with the natural world or feel ownership over the play space. If you think back to your own childhood, I bet your best memories are of being outdoors creating and defining your own play spaces and experiences! If you want to build a backyard playground that encourages fun and independent play, here are my top tips for a playful and creative backyard that your kids will love!
Prepare the space for Outdoor play:
To avoid cold, wet, hot or sunburned kids, look for opportunities to tuck nooks, forts or shelters into your yard space. Check your local flyers for tent or tarp sales, or use lattice to define a space under some stairs to define a bat cave or enchanted castle. Even the smallest of yards can grow amazing secret play scapes using plantings like sunflowers or some beans climbing poles for a playful teepee structure!
It’s all about the loose parts:
Save money on costly and visually noisy plastic yard toys and head out in nature to collect free and fun backyard toys. Shells, pinecones, smooth stones and scraps of wood all add up to hours of imaginative play. When a toy does not have a defined purpose or play value, and can be used in endless ways for various purposes it is said to have a “high affordance for play”. These kinds of play things lead to divergent thinking and increased abilities to problem solve in the school years. A child’s ability to redesign the purpose and function of a play thing, at any time, improves the affordances for play and therefore the motivation to play with it. This book is awesome to get you started on loose parts play.
Bring on the water:
Water play is a basic for any four season outdoor play space. Even in the cooler months you can have loads of fun with a water table. Pick up an inexpensive paint roller at the dollar store and let your little one “paint” the side of the house or the pavement with water. Draw pictures with water using various sized paint brushes. The pouring and filling of various sizes of containers is endlessly satisfying and important for the development of fine motor skills. Sprinklers, toddler pools and popular water walls made of hose and bottle bits keep everyone cool on a hot day.
Get messy, make mistakes:
A sandbox, a corner of their own in the garden, or a pile of leaves is a wonderful place for sensorial play. Being able to dig, shovel and move stuff is the kind of unstructured play that is good for body and mind. Crafts and play kitchens are perfect for outdoor play too. Glitter will make you less crazy out on the lawn and mud pies are best served in the backyard!
Add some risk:
“Risky play” refers to the thrill and excitement of trying something new. It involves a risk of physical injury but is different than a hazard (something a supervising adult knows to be dangerous for the child’s age and stage of development) Risk can only be defined by the risk taker, and has profound benefits for personal development when given the freedom to experiment. Risky play can include a freedom to explore and play from various heights (climb trees) or using real tools, like hammering real nails with a real hammer, whittling wood with a real pocket knife or using a jig saw to carve a pumpkin. Your family can decide what your boundaries are for risks versus hazards, but consider giving the kids some say in what risky play is interesting to them.
Beautify the space:
Vertical gardens, fairy gardens, and any kind of thoughtful landscaping goes a long way to inspire curiosity. You don’t have to be an avid gardener to add some layers of seasonal flowers or edible plantings that will help your yard feel like a get away. And if you have a beautiful garden that you are afraid will get stomped on by kids, section off a part of it, plant hardy, kid friendly plantings there and add some toy dinosaurs! Sensory gardens (plantings that encourage children to touch, taste and smell) are popular with the littles as well while encouraging outdoor play.
Provide support and then retreat:
Unstructured play often requires an absence of adult supervision. Give children ownership over the space by providing the materials they need to create their ultimate play space and then stand back while their imaginations, curiosity and innovative ideas make your yard a favourite play space.
Teachers know that children who bring a wide variety of experiences onto the classroom have a curiosity and wonder about the world around them that leads to deep and meaningful learning. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more great ideas, including imagining awesome backyard play spaces!
This article was originally published in the September issue of WestCoast Families magazine. And you can follow me on Pinterest for more backyard play ideas: