We’re all spending a lot of time at home these days. And while that’s fine, we need to make sure a significant portion of that time is outdoors. Kids need outdoor playtime and the good news is that they can usually make the most of whatever outside space they have. This could be anything from a backyard, to a doorstep, a rooftop, a balcony, patio, or driveway. Today, we have the amazing Jemma of Thimble & Twig, London teacher and mom of 4, showing us how to make creative backyard play spaces for kids that encourage play and time outside!
The importance of time outside
Time outside is so beneficial for little ones, as is unstructured free play. Combining playtime and outdoor space means that kids can learn as they play. Outdoor play can help kids to become inventive, explore, and learn about the world around them. While they’re inventing and playing games with siblings or friends, they are improving their communication skills, learning about compromise, and how to negotiate. There are so many amazing benefits to unstructured free play outdoors.
However, not everyone has an outdoor space that encourages unstructured free play. Your outdoor space may not feel inviting to kids or inspire their imaginations. But, it doesn’t take much to change that! With a few simple changes or updates to your outdoor play area, you can create a space that encourages open-ended unstructured playtime and sparks your child’s imagination.
Creating outdoor backyard play spaces
Below, we’ve listed a few creative backyard play spaces and areas that you can incorporate into your backyard, patio, deck, balcony or any outdoor area. These can be interpreted and reinvented in a number of ways, based on your space, budget and age/interests of your kids. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on your outside space to make it more kid-friendly. A lot of the ideas below can be created cheaply or at no cost at all.
A climbing space is a great activity and form of exercise which uses every muscle in the body, and many, many parts of the brain! Climbing is awesome for children’s minds, bodies, and coordination. Kids love climbing, so it’s a good idea to include some sort of climbing space in your outdoor play area.
A climbing frame is amazing, but you could equally create a great climbing space out of old tree trunks, wood pallets or old chairs. If you have a strong wall in your garden or a fence, let your kids climb on it. Allow tree climbing or set up a rope climber. You could also use these climbing holds to create a climbing wall along a fence or the side of your house!
Digging helps kids get immersed in imaginary worlds – they can pretend to dig to Australia or make sandcastles and fairy houses. The physical act of digging can strengthen hand muscles (needed for holding a pencil and handwriting) and improve hand-eye coordination.
Try to include a simple digging area in your outdoor play space to make your garden fun for kids. You could include a sandbox with buckets and shovels or a muddy digging area with toy cars. Set up a garden area where the kids can plant veggies and help dig up the weeds. Give them an area to dig for worms or look for rolly-pollies.
The best parenting advice I ever received was to “just add water” whenever kids were getting antsy or grumpy! If ever my son is feeling restless, I give him a squirty bottle of water and send him water the flowers! This simple task turns into a game and unstructured free play, which can occupy him for hours!
It makes sense that kids would love any kind of water space in a garden or backyard. You can start with a bucket of water and some pots and pans for mixing and stirring. Give them a hose and let them wash their toy cars (or your car!). Set up a water table or fill up a plastic sandbox with water. Add a kiddie pool or a sprinkler. Make an easy water wall out of plastic recycling – kids will love the pouring action! Add some funnels and this would be great for the hot summer months ahead! If you need more inspiration, see our favorite water games here!
Another great element of a kid-friendly backyard is a space where kids can experiment with growing their own flowers, fruits and/or vegetables. Give them some compost (or let them help with the composting process), a few pots, dirt and seeds and let them loose planting. Talk out your plan, but let them decide where to plant and position their pots.
If your kids plant the seeds themselves, they’ll be much more likely to care for the plants. Give them a hose or a child-sized watering can and they’ll be prepped to love on their garden! If you’re feeling more adventurous you could add a vegetable or fruit garden. You can check out our post for ideas for the easiest and best kid-friendly vegetables!
Small world space
Kids love a space to have imaginary made up adventures with their toys. Tiny things fascinate kids, so a “small world” space it’s a great thing to add to an outdoor area. Depending on what your kids’ likes and interests are, there are countless ways to tailor a small world space just for them. There are some brilliant ideas in this Fairy Garden post and we have a great post on creating a dinosaur garden for kids.
If your child is into cars, trucks or trains, you could create a small space with roads where they can play. Using simple masking tapes or washi tapes – you could create a whole town for them to play with their cars! If your kids are into tractors, create a space where they can dig and create with their toy diggers, which will help develop their imaginations. Or using water and sand you could create a small world beach area with toy fish and sharks. The possibilities are endless!
Incorporating art into the outdoors makes so much sense. It’s less messy and much easier to clean up for a start! Spread out a sheet and let your kids go wild with paints. Put the paints in a spray bottle and let them squirt or turn mud into paint (just add food coloring to mud) and let them play! Set up an outdoor chalkboard or an easel for them to draw to their heart’s content. Another easy way to let kids get creative outdoors is to give them a cardboard box to paint on! If you have a fence, try using washable chalk or chalk paint and when they’re finished with their masterpiece, they can wash it away with a paintbrush or the hose. No fence, just use the chalk on the sidewalk or the driveway! It’s a classic and well-loved kid-friendly activity for a reason!
Kids love nothing more than getting muddy and playing with mud is a great textural sensory activity. If possible, give your kids a little patch in the yard to dig in. No dirt? Get some potting soil and fill up a kiddie pool with it! Add some simple shovels, pans and bowls with mud in to mix and stir. You can create a mud kitchen with pallets if you want a more permanent place for kids to be able to mix, create and make potions. Or there are plenty of mud kitchens available on the market. My kids love making concoctions and creations in their mud kitchen! Check out our mud kitchen post for tons of ideas of mud kitchen recipes and potions. Or this post has 7 awesome & fun ways to play in mud.
Amazing backyard play spaces for kids
These are the basic elements for creating some super fun backyard play spaces for kids in your own yard that will encourage outdoor unstructured free play. Adding elements like these to your space will provide a safe and secure outdoor play and learning area for kids close to home and keep them entertained. Hopefully, this has given lots of creative play ideas for garden and backyard spaces to make them truly exciting for kids. Try adding a few of these and they’ll want to play outside all day long!
About the author
Jemma lives in London, England with her husband and kids. Her all-time favorite thing to do is take photos and capture memories of her family. She’s on a mission to ensure parenthood doesn’t rush by so quickly by creating mini family outdoor adventures and hopefully some big adventures too, one day! She’s a mum to four and an English teacher to many. She loves sharing her passion for storytelling, adventures, and nature crafts on her blog and here.