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Designing Natural Outdoors Play Spaces

It is easy to imagine an idyllic kids back yard. I see a huge jungle gym, a trampoline and dreamy playhouse. All of these are awesome things to facilitate environments children will be excited to play outside in. The only problems with these kinds of play structures are they are just what they are. You can play imaginative games on them, but in the end they only provide one kind of play. Designing a space that is more imagination focused requires some strategizing. Investigating the way children play outside happily for hours takes some forethought and consideration for the way humans like to live outside.

You do not necessarily want to recreate an indoor environment outside, though using some of what you learn inside will help in the outdoors. It is about reconnecting with all the elements that make an outdoor play space great such as having a spot to dig, having different terrain to traverse, and having a combination of wet and dry ingredients available. It is also about thinking like an animal. Finding warm, sheltered places, good spots to hide and good spots to stretch out. You can also plant herbs so that young people run across their fragrances as they play. You can set up whole gardens that attract wildlife and allow opportunities for families to study nature up close and examine butterflies for hours.

Designing a natural play space can look a bit like designing a cozy forest. You want habitat gardening, sweet, village-like home setups, pathways that lead to adventure and take you in a circular fashion around the yard. There must be places to dig and get messy and places to clean up afterward. Below is a list of all the things I have figured out about making a natural play space in my backyard.

Elements of a Natural Play Space

Loose, open ended materials lying around:

A pile of leaves in the corner, trimmed branches from the hedges, a pile of river rocks, these are just 3 examples of materials that become open ended play opportunities. Bundles of sticks become forest shelter construction, tinder for a fire pit, even a mat for babies to sleep on, or fishing poles for sale. The possibilities for an old pile of branches are endless.

River rock is smooth and easy to fit in you hand. Buckets of river rock become trade objects in imaginary towns and river rock in the sand box makes for great hide and seek games when hidden under piles of sand. Rocks can also become decorative elements on mud/sand chocolate cakes.

Leaf piles are great hiding spots, a chance to explore bug life and inhale the sweet scent of decaying leaves. A leaf throwing party and a chance to rake it all up and play again is the intentional and resilient work we want to see young people engaged in. Using their bodies, hearts and minds to play.

The hammock:

A hammock immediately brings cozy warmth to a space. It’s a chance to climb in, learn balance and how to steady one’s self. It also gives you the chance to get snuggly with others and have a quiet spot to observe trees and wind. The Hammock is a perfect respite for a long day and once you have one up you will find yourself longing for it and it. It may even become a part of your daily ritual of relaxing.

A deep sand pit:

When we were researching what kind of sand pit to make or buy we realized in order to achieve the kind of sand play we wanted to see happen in the yard we definitely had to make our own. Ready made sand boxes do not get very deep. They don’t seem to hold children’s interest as long as big, deep, sand pits. We dug a large hole into the earth and then filled it with concrete. After that dried we lined the hole with bricks to give it some structure. We then filled it up with play sand, about 25 bags full. The sand pit is central to the backyard play, it seems every age of child that has come into our yard loves the sand pit. I have seen complicated sand castles constructed. Whole cities and towns have been built with moats and dinosaur rulers. I have seen vet clinics established and full on scavenger hunts for things buried in the sand. The extra fun play in the sand box happens when I keep the hose near by. The combo of sand and water is irresistible to most children. My Oklahoma backyard becomes a sandy coastal beach as children fill it over and over with a few inches of water. Getting your toes in wet sand is creating another peaceful experience outdoors. Many deep holes have been dug in that sand box, with intentions to reach China, though no one has made it to the bottom so far. J


Pathways establish a garden and natural play space. They lead you to the different play areas and lead you away from the more delicate plants that should not be trampled. The key is not to get to controlling with the paths, you want your pathways to be open and able to change. The best paths I have found follow the way people naturally move through a yard. Observing the way adults and children like to be in your yard will help you figure out the best way to route them. Paths can be as simple as grass mowed in curvy directions around garden beds in your yard or as complex as mulch paths lined with stones. Paths are especially helpful in a forested yard where its hard to tell which living things you should not tread on.

Varying terrain to transverse, a little hill or slope:

Different aspects of terrain in your yard can create all kinds of exploring options. I have observed that a little hill or rise in the ground can create lots of adventure games, two hills can create a moat to cross when a board or branch is laid across them. Play can involve rolling down the side of a hill, hiding around the corner or just lying on the side of the hill and observing the sky. I have seen many games of king or queen of the mountain and many processions go over the small hill in our yard. If you do not naturally have a hill in your yard you can easily create one by digging a hole and piling the dirt high. You can seed grass on the hill or just let it lay there. We used the extra dirt from digging the sand box for a hill in our yard.

Vegetation, fragrant plants, habitat gardens, butterfly gardens:

Imagine a pack of children running around a yard, hiding behind bushes, and rubbing against lavender plants just to smell that delicious scent on their clothing. They stop for a break and grab a handful of ripe black berries growing along the fence and stop to examine a spider web in-between the grape leaves. Gardens are a huge part of creating a harmonious outdoor space. Starting with native shrubs and flowers can start you on the right path. These will provide habitat for your explorers as well as local wildlife. You will also create beauty and sensuous experience for all the people that enter your yard. Planting native vegetation can require little water and can easily be kept pesticide free because the plants already are acclimated to the place you live. Once you get hooked on gardening the possibilities are endless, creating butterfly and hummingbird gardens, zen rock gardens, and of course vegetable patches and fruit orchards. Let your imagination run free and let your children help. They often have great ideas and will learn so much from putting life into the earth.

Fairy circles:

In our home we have two fairy circles. Our fairy circles are a circular shaped garden bed with a stone in the middle of it for sitting. We also have a circle of stumps we use for fairy tea parties. In the circular garden bed we plant spring and summer flowers, we cut out this part of our yard and lined it with stones, one large flat stone sits in the middle. In the summer sunflowers can surround you. In the spring, poppies of every shade sprout before you.

We also have a set of old stumps we gathered from a friend’s yard. These stumps quickly transform into a fairy tea party. They are a great space for children to have imaginary and real meals and delight in a natural outdoor table area.

Elements of home in the outdoor spaces

My Virgo daughter loves the cozy feeling of home. Taking the comfortable elements of home and putting them outside has made all the difference for her nature connection. When I incorporated the different design elements I describe below it made our backyard a more inviting place for my homebody daughter to play.

Mud kitchen:

This is a fun way of saying an outdoor play kitchen. Old pots and pans, a few make shift burners made from the tops of canning jars screwed into a wooden bench and you have yourselves a perfect beginning to a play kitchen. The most important thing is to not put fancy things in the mud kitchen. Make sure everything is sturdy made from wood, metal or hard plastic and is ok to get dirty. This is not the time to take out the porcelain tea set. Many stews and chocolate cakes topped with dandelion flowers have come out of our mud kitchen.

Pergola and picnic table for outdoor eating:

A pergola is a wooden or metal frame that is used to grow vining plants and make a living roof over a part of your garden. Ours grows thick with Wisteria and adds the perfect structure and shade to make outdoor living a year round activity. We have a large enough pergola to house several tables but the one that gets used the most is the wooden picnic bench. Having a big table for everyone to sit or craft brings us outside more. In good weather we eat outside at least once a week. I teach classes at the tables and have used it for cooking projects, painting and many more activities. Having a designated cozy space to work really brings the indoor feeling outside.

Fort or tree house:

A fort or tree house is a great way to make a home in the outdoors. It is not necessary to making a cozy feeling outside but it is so fun to make, you might find yourself doing it just for the happiness it brings you. My dream when I was young was to have a full playhouse in my back yard. We had a platform my parents constructed. The platform became my home away from home. My friends and I would make house up in the tree. We would construct roofs from old pokeberry branches in summer and fir branches in the winter. The key with constructing a fort is to make it as open ended as possible to not limit the scope of the play. A full on playhouse, while spectacular has trouble becoming an army bunker, or campsite. A raised platform in a tree can really become anything.

The tree house we have now is a raised platform big enough to hold fifteen people at a time. One side sits up against a huge pin oak tree the other three sides are held up with huge posts that have been placed in concrete in the ground. There are two entrances via ladders. I see many rope and pulley systems go up to haul buckets of leaves and materials. Pop up shops selling acorns, herbs and berries and whole bedrooms have been constructed on the platform. Sometimes sweet pea just drags a blanket and pile of books up there for some reading time with her back against the trunk of the big pin oak tree.

Ability to control the temperature:

Chiminea’s are little outdoor ovens used to warm up your patio on a cool day or make enough smoke to scare away mosquitoes in the summer. They are easy to start fires in, mostly safe and beautiful to look at. You can buy them at most garden or outdoors stores. We purchased ours from a Mexican pottery import place.

Big trees:

Not everyone is lucky enough to have big trees around them or in their yard, but if you do take advantage of it. Big trees do a lot to cool the temperature in the summer; they provide the necessary shade to be happy for a long time outside. During my July outdoor summer camp the children were able to survive the heat by staying in the shade of the giant oak trees in my yard. I give thanks for them daily. If you do not have any large trees in your yard consider getting a table set with an umbrella and or making a pergola.

These are just some of the ways I have figured out how to make a dynamic space to be happy outdoors year round. If you are interested in more tips on designing beautiful outdoor nature play spaces stay tuned. I would love to hear what you have figured out on how to make your yard a natural play space.

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