How to Create a ‘Yes Space’ Outdoors (When You Don’t Have a Yard)

“The stimulation which nature provides is unparalleled. Even the youngest infant becomes fascinated by listening to birds, watching the movements of flies, butterflies, shadows and leaves. Air circulation, temperature change, the playfulness of sunlight and shadow are strong stimuli to the skin, the eyes, the lungs, and the metabolism. As the young organism learns to adjust to and cope with constant changes, it becomes more resistant.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

I happened upon Magda Gerber’s teachings when my first baby was 3 months old, and it led to a succession of epiphanies. Grateful and eager to embrace this illuminating new perspective, I wasted no time implementing it as best I could.

A core recommendation of Magda’s was to create conditions that encourage safe, uninterrupted, self-directed play. Who knew babies were capable of self-entertainment and had their very own interests and play ideas?  This news was a major mindblower for me and also the key to discovering and enjoying my daughter.

Magda taught us that the ideal place for uninterrupted free play to happen was a 100% safe, enclosed play area, and the ultimate was for it to be outdoors. There is no environment more engaging and therapeutic for babies than nature. But could I make this happen with only our hard, brick patio? Determined, un-crafty me got to work constructing what I referred to as a Yes Space (because babies and toddlers are able to explore without being redirected with “no, no, no, don’t touch”). It ranks as the best thing I ever did as a new mom besides discovering Magda. (Details about creating that original Yes Space and much more are here in Outdoor Play Spaces.)

What I don’t recall Magda emphasizing as much was how healing and restorative it would be for me to have this “excuse” to spend way more time in the fresh air than I normally would. Don’t get me wrong. There were many, many challenging moments for me as a parent, but never outside in our bliss place. That was where only relaxation, joy and magic seemed to happen.

For all those reasons and more I jumped at the chance to share the story Bailey sent me about the play space she created on her small patio:

Hi Janet,

First off, I would like to express deep gratitude for all that you do. Discovering RIE and, on top of that, your thorough insight into reframing our perspective has made these 14 months with my son such a genuine delight. Because of RIE I see my son as a complete, capable, and unbelievably creative human, just as he is. Rather than constantly looking forward to what he’ll accomplish next, I get to witness to what he is doing NOW.

And naturally, in shifting my perspective in regard to my son, I have become so much gentler and accepting of myself. That is the greatest gift.

We live in an apartment, and until last weekend I had lamented at not having a yard. Then my partner and I got creative! I wanted to share a couple of photos of what we did. I got some inspiration from the photos of other outdoor play spaces you’ve shared.

This is a small, 8×10-foot patio. A lot (or a little) can be done with a small space. I hope this may serve as inspiration for others living in an apartment or small space.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the continuous work you put in to giving respectful parenting a voice.

Bailey

Grateful as I was that Bailey allowed me to post her story, I couldn’t resist seeing if we could take it a step further: “Also, just thinking… if you are willing to share… it would be incredible to have a list of the materials you used and a step by step…? Eek! Sorry if this is all too much to ask!”

Baily replied: “Not at all. I’m actually quite proud of planning and executing this space so I’d enjoy sharing!

Everything except for the mesh fence was found second hand, either through Facebook Marketplace or Restore, plus random kitchen items I already had, making this space very doable on a budget.

Materials:

    • Mesh fence from Amazon
    • Outdoor rug from Facebook Marketplace (JL: similar rugs available new on Amazon HERE)
    • Strip of carpet for spaces that the rug didn’t cover, salvaged 2×4’s that my partner brought home from work.
    • 4 bags of play sand (although we only used 3)
    • Tarp to line the sand box
    • An adorable string of logs I happened to find at ReStore
    • Play objects we already had on hand: random kitchen items, balls, toy car

Not pictured (where I was sitting for two of the pictures) is a little cozy corner with a couple board books.

Since we had the tools for it, we decided to build a sand box, although I’ve seen people use plastic tubs or small pools.

Process:

    1. Measured space designated for the sandbox
    2. Constructed sand box
    3. Thoroughly swept and cleaned deck
    4. Laid out rug + pieces of carpet
    5. Put up the mesh fence.
    6. Used zip ties to attach string of logs to posts
    7. Sewed lounge pillow (tutorial HERE)
    8. Brought out books and play objects

I do not yet have a photo of the lounger on our deck, but here is a photo of it in E’s room. He loves throwing/flopping himself into it and just plain lounging on it.

We don’t have any plants in reach, but we do have a couple plastic pots with dirt in them. The last couple of days I’ve placed a pot or tub of water inside the sand box and E has enjoyed scooping and pouring water and sand from the different containers (and on himself :)).

Although this space is about 95% ‘yes’ I do not feel totally comfortable going inside for a prolonged period* while he is out. That being said, this has turned into a peaceful opportunity for ‘Wants Nothing Quality Time.’”

(More on that HERE)

Thank you so much, Bailey! ♥

*Bailey’s instincts are spot on. It is not recommended to leave young children unattended outdoors for more than brief periods, even in a safe play space, and they should always be within earshot.

***

I share more about infant-toddler play and play spaces HERE. And HERE are a few of my recommendations for toys and play objects.

Other recommended resources:

Lisa Sunbury’s wonderful articles on play HERE on RegardingBaby.org

Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

My book Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Any chance of knowing whether the floor is wood or a harder surface? We have a patio with really hard stone tiles, and I’m wondering whether an outdoor carpet will be enough for our babe – or at what age it’s no longer an issue? Any ideas on an affordable covering that would survive the elements (rain, CA)? Thank you all!

    1. Hardness of the floor is rarely an issue I believe. Little babies who are on their back or crawling won’t have hard falls… And if they are just starting to walk, it still won’t be a hard fall, they learn quite quickly.

      Our place has tiles all over, so for the sake of insulation, especially in winter, I use large interlocking EVA foam mats,which are very firm, but certainly softer than tiles if that’s your concern, and don’t prevent movement (like a yoga mat would, as baby can’t slide, but you could use a yoga mat and lay a sheet on top).

  2. A safe yes space for baby/toddler is always a good idea, but what are your thoughts on spending time outdoors with the freedom to explore? My family follows many of your principles, but if I had to, I would classify us as more “free range” in terms of learning to live in space indoors and outdoors. We have a 7 year-old and one year-old and really see the benefits in our older daughter in terms of confidence, knowing her limits, etc. Obviously our priority is to keep our children safe, but we (and them) have enjoyed seeing where their interests take them as they explore. What are your thoughts on free-range living within the family space?

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