Five Ways to Create a More Engaging Backyard

Updated on February 16, 2018
Morgan Miner13 profile image

Morgan, a former teacher, lives with her husband and son on their small homestead just outside of Baltimore, MD.

Why Outdoor Play?

Play is important for kids’ development. In the early years especially, but even as they move through the elementary school years, children should be spending a significant portion of their day in active, unstructured, tech-free, play. In particular, this free play should be outdoors.

Yes, even in bad weather. There’s clothing out there for every situation.

Author of the book Balanced and Barefoot, Angela Hanscom, who is an occupational therapist, attributes the rise in sensory processing disorders, trouble regulating emotions, attention issues, inability to regulate and control body movements, and the general increased need for occupational therapy, among other things, to the lack of active, outdoor play available for children these days. While academic skills are important, our society has recently put more and more emphasis on early childhood academics, to the detriment of our kids. Hanscom likens active outdoor play to cross training for the brain, something that is critical to development, but often overlooked and pushed aside in favor of learning the alphabet, memorizing sight words, and being able to count to 100.

Even if you acknowledge the importance of outdoor play, how do you create a outdoor space that beckons your kids and causes them to never want to come inside? Surprisingly enough, I've found that you don't need to purchase an expensive play structure and loads of pricey toys. I don't advocate it, and often hear from parents that own these things, wondering why their kids don't want to spend more time outdoors. Ready to try something different? Here are five simple and inexpensive ways to upgrade your backyard play space.

Add Dirt

Tear up the grass, order a load of dirt, toss in a few buckets and shovels, set your kids free in it, and then sit back and watch the magic unfold.

No, seriously.

This past fall we tore out our low-lying back deck leaving a large dirt patch. Suddenly, my son was practically living outside, playing in the dirt for a significant portion of the day. We then needed to rebuild our retaining wall, which meant the entire backyard became dirt due to running our skid steer through it repeatedly. Large stones were added, which turned into a great element for a challenging climb. We also had a lot of rain during that period, which turned our entire backyard into one giant mud pit. And he loved it! So much so that when we re-landscaped I insisted on leaving a small patch of dirt so he could continue playing in it.

Add Natural Elements

I’ve already suggested dirt, but also consider things like sand or wood chips (get some for free by using Chip Drop). Large log pieces or rocks can become a border for this area, but also become places to sit, stand, balance, etc. A pile of sticks or leaves can provide hours of play.

Gardens and editable landscaping are also something to consider. My son absolutely loves helping me in the garden and it’s a good lesson in patience and how to handle something with care. He loves to make a bouquet when our cutting flowers are in bloom, smell the variety of herbs in the herb garden, and when the peas are ready to pick, he enjoys the in-garden snack.

Add Loose Parts

Basically, add junk. Yes junk. Random cuts of wood, old kitchen tools, discarded boxes, old stuff, broken stuff. If you consider it junk, then it’s probably a toddler treasure.

When we added a concrete patio in place of the deck we tore out, there were lots of leftover chunks of concrete, just the perfect size to challenge a toddler, but not so big to be too heavy. (Preschoolers love to test their limits.) These throw away concrete chunks provided hours of play as they were hauled all over the backyard in play trucks, stacked into short walls, tossed into puddles, and then fished out again.

Let people know you’re looking for loose parts (but be specific, or ask to screen items first so you’re not just a junk dumping ground). Is someone cleaning out their grandma’s house? They probably have a treasure trove of old kitchen items. Know a contractor? They can provide you small scraps of lumber, boxes, etc. from projects that would typically just go in the dumpster.

Loose parts stretch the imagination and engage the mind. There's no one way to use them, which means endless possibilities for play. Endless possibilities also mean these items will be more engaging to your child, keeping them playing for longer.

Add Pint Size Equipment

Buy some shovels, rakes, buckets, and wheel borrows that are sized just for preschoolers. We have lots of large, play earth moving equipment as well, which is constantly being loaded, dumped, and driven all over (bonus, I picked it all up for free from the side of the road or it was given to us from a family whose children had outgrown it). Our son also has “stubby” tools. These tools are real, just small, which is perfect for little hands. He loves to pretend to fix his trucks and "build" all sorts of things.

Add Freedom

Let them play. Make suggestions, or set up areas for them, but overall, let them be free to play as they please. Don’t say things like, “that's not how we use that," instead let them figure it out and use their imagination. Don’t step in to solve every problem or challenge. Let them challenge themselves and do "dangerous" things (within reason of course). Let them get dirty, jump in mud puddles, and slide down hills on their bellies. This is the stuff that they’ll not only remember for the rest of their life, but the stuff that will make them more successful in life too.

Want to Know More?

Want to understand the nuts and bolts of why outdoor play is so vital to child development? I highly recommend reading Barefoot and Balanced by Angela Hanscom to fully understand why outdoor free play shouldn't be optional for kids. Hanscom offers wonderful insight into the how and why of play and will leave you with a fresh perspective next time your child asks if he can play in the mud or she hang upside down from the monkey bars.

© 2018 Morgan Miner

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