As a self-professed child-directed play fanatic, the only thing I value more for children than safe “yes” spaces are places they can safely and freely explore outdoors. I’m definitely with child specialist Magda Gerber on this one:
“Babies thrive out-of-doors. They sleep better, eat better, look better, play better, and learn better. Fresh air both soothes and stimulates. I always tell parents how much more easily they could raise healthy, “happy” children if they would make outdoor living a regular habit for their babies.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
Here are some practical and inspiring examples parents have shared with me, along with a few of my own…
Me: We used the same wooden kiddy corral for all three of our children as babies. When we had our oldest, we lived in a small house, and our only outdoor space was a brick patio. I had a piece of foam cut to fit the dimensions of the kiddy corral and covered it with large sheets and blankets. I shifted it during the day to keep it mostly shaded. We had a table and chairs next to it where I spent many blissful hours watching my daughter play from the time she was three months to one year old.
Here’s how we used the corral over the years in a larger outdoor space with our two other babies. Eventually, we purchased a second corral, joined them, and were able to double the space. The kiddy corral had stakes that you could sink into the ground to hold it steady, and we sometimes used umbrellas to keep it shaded. There’s a tarp underneath the blankets.
Our children later spent the majority of their outdoor play time in a large sandbox built by my husband (details in Back to the Sandbox.) Here’s my daughter (on the right) with friends…
Rebecca: (whose extraordinary backyard could be a post all its own!): There’s nothing ‘precious’ in the backyard, and it is very much a “yes” space. I thought about adding more plants and a veggie garden or something, but let’s face it — I am a mum of three, so the plants would be lucky to survive. Not to mention, the backyard then becomes a “be careful don’t trample the plants” space. I like that they can dig anywhere they like, transport the sand and dirt, and be rough and tumble without worrying about anything. My children are 39 months, 20 months, and 12 weeks.
Here’s the sunflower house, which is actually in the front yard so I don’t? have to worry about them running over the plants. There’s a lovely book called Sunflower House by Eve Bunting that the kids adore, especially when their house is in bloom. We’ll replant thicker and earlier in the season this year.
Gravel and rock pit next to the sandpit at the beginning of the sand path. I just took pieces of wood from the wood shed (our winter stash).
My son was crawling last summer and I wanted him to be able to get in the sandpit on his own, so we bought a ramp. They still use it, often just running up and down it and using it to wheel their wheelbarrows into the pit.
Here’s the sand path, which was just a result of having left over sand from the sandpit. t was all just found materials or very inexpensive from the garden shop. It’s not Pinterest perfect, but that’s why I shared it…so others can see it’s easy to create. Our kids really enjoy it, and I love that they love such simple, natural play.
We’ve since added a gate going no where, and they play with this all the time!
We did a spring clean of the kitchen and just put all the bits in the sandpit. They really like the flour sifter with the sand.
The bridge gets tons of use. My son spent a few minutes trying to get his wagon ‘unstuck.’ He used to crawl over it, now jumps off the end, pulls his wagon over it, pushed his wheelbarrow and rides his bike over it. My daughter does the same.
The best, MUST outdoor item in our household for winter (it’s winter here at the moment) are Muddlarks!!! Waterproof clothing so we can get out and play in the rain, puddles and mud no matter the weather.
All the grass, which is mostly weeds, dies off in summer but now, in winter, it changes the feel. The kiddos weren’t that interested in the dry creek bed in summer but love it now in winter.
We had this set up about this time last year. It was off the door to the back yard. My son was 11 months and my daughter was almost 2 1/2. It was great having this space to allow them to go outside without having to watch them the entire time.
Michelle: We have nothing but this geodesic dome climbing structure. Recyclable plastic. (You can see our hammock frame.) We also have a Step2 sandbox and a garden with junior gardener’s tools.
Amy: We just cut down a huge silver maple last week and used the stumps and branches to create this. It’s still a work in progress … I’m collecting old kitchen items for it and want to hang some stuff on the fence, but my boys love hopping from stump to stump and using them in their play. And it’s nicer to look at than a bright plastic turtle sandbox, imo. Fyi, don’t buy builders sand…we got it by accident, and the boys keep coming out looking like they have a crappy spray tan! Everything is orange, ah!
Katijah: Here’s our outdoor space.
Sydney: Not pretty, but functional! So, details: that’s sand in that blue pool (with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage), and I tossed down hay to cover the dirt because I was tired of the constant dirt and mud in the house. He has his own garden (just dirt with a few random plants from seed) and a giant dirt hole that he loves to get messy in. That plastic structure is not pleasing to the eye, but it gets used a lot.
Sheena: This was for my son’s 1st birthday. All the kids loved the tent which was an old one without a cover so nice and light.
And using a bit of old carpet (we put down to stop weeds growing for grand plans pre baby!) but it now has another use!
Sara: Our outdoor spaces aren’t particularly enticing, but a few things I appreciate are our gated deck, which we use for sidewalk chalk, paint, water play, soccer, etc.
I also dig our “mud kitchen,” which is really just some rock structures (bench, fire ring, table) and random items from around the yard.
Penny: We have a metal dome and a bunch of stumps in the backyard. My kids (1,7,9,15,17) have all played on these (as well as all their friends). (Penny’s dome can be found HERE on Amazon.)
We also have a sandbox and a toddler climbing structure.
Andrea: Here’s our mud kitchen
Brettania: We have very limited time and money to develop our outdoor play space, and we are renting so we can’t make many changes to our yard. We are driven out of our backyard by mosquitoes for a lot of the summer, so we spend more time in our front yard then. I have found that lately my son loves the open-ended loose parts the most (cardboard boxes, random but safe items from our garage such as his sled). Sometimes these items look rather like junk (each morning after he plays I have to store all the cardboard boxes back in our garage), but they lead to the most imaginative free play. For example, it is amazing to hear my son explain in such detail what is in each cardboard box and who sent it, as he “delivers” the boxes to me each morning while pretending to be a delivery truck driver. Where I am stumped is interesting outdoor play spaces for the baby (9 months), but I am working on developing something more for him than just his pack and play.
Here are some buckets to hold water, hose, rocks to throw into the water
Grass clippings and toy vehicles to drive in the driveway. My older son likes to cover the vehicles with grass and transport grass in a toy dump truck. Pack and play for the baby.
Cardboard boxes. My son pretends he is a delivery truck driver and delivers a ton of boxes to me everyday in our front yard, and he also climbs into them.
Random items. Here my son decided to use his sled by putting plastic balls into it and then spinning the balls around in the sled and dumping them back out. He also likes to roll the sled around in an upright position (like a disc).
Outside table for eating meals and for artwork. Tree stumps for chairs.
Water table that we use year-round. We keep plastic animals, shells, cups, and digging tools for the water table. In the background you can see our slide and the legs of our sand table.
Bringing indoor toys outside sometimes (a toy truck) has been a big hit.
Toy cars brought outside to drive on the deck, strawberry patch for picking berries,
Mud puddles are so great for outside play that we sometimes make one with the water hose if it hasn’t rained enough.
A HUGE thank you to all the parents (and children) for sharing your inspiring examples and suggestions!
I share my advice for nurturing the joyful habit of self-directed play in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting