By TMoM Team Member Sandy Harper

It is no doubt that kids are spending more time indoors than any other previous generation. Yet, we are well aware of how important it is for children to playing outdoors. Granted in this day and age it is almost unthinkable to just let your kids run the neighborhood alone like we did decades before. Work and other commitments make it tough to take your kids to the park or other nature spaces often. So, what is a parent to do to get their kiddos outdoors?

Backyard outdoor play spaces are the answer! I am not talking about the plastic clubhouse or water tables, or even swing sets. Not that there is anything wrong with those toys, but I don’t want you to feel the need to rush to a store and buy premade items. What I am going to introduce you to are play ideas that will help your child build imagination, endurance, creativity and problem-solving skills. These spaces are open ended, meaning there is no right or wrong way to use or play.


Sand is one of the greatest cheap (even free sometimes) mediums for a child’s imagination. The tactical quality of sand activates many senses. This creates a complete play experience. Building a sandpit can be simple or elaborate. I arranged retaining wall blocks in an oblong shape. Then laid landscape fabric (can also use tarp) down to keep weeds and grass growing through the sand. We purchased bags of sand from a hardware store. I think it is fun to bury little shiny jewels in the sand for the kids to discover as they play. They think they have found treasure!

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Mud Kitchen

Who doesn’t remember making mud pies as kids? Well guess what, our kiddos love it too! So why not supply them with the tools for outdoor imaginary food fun? We went through the effort of building them a mud kitchen, yet this was before wood prices skyrocketed. If you are not up for that building challenge, you can use a small table or bench. As long as they have something with workspace and a place for a type of sink. You could use a real sink (hook up a water hose to it) or a simple bucket of water. I even had a friend use an interior play kitchen outside. Her children weren’t using it when it was inside but loved it when moved outdoors. I let them have old kitchenware that I no longer used and purchased a few things at the Dollar Store. Think items like: pots, pans, muffin tins, spatula, measuring cups and spoons.

Outdoor Water Play

If done right, kids can have water fun all year long. Obviously, in the summer and warm days kids can splash and get soaking wet with water fun. Most parents want to know, what about the colder days? First, it is important to remember that the proper clothing can allow kids play with water in most any temperature. Rain boots, Muddy Buddies and layers are great for keeping kids warm and dry. When the temperatures drop, I still let my kids jump in the water puddles, use water in their mud kitchen or a water table and play with ice. In the winter, freeze things in ice cubes and let your kids try to break them out. This can be done in the summer too, for cooling off. I usually freeze nature treasures, jewels/rocks or little plastic toys in the ice cubes.


Outdoor Loose Parts

I leave buckets of rocks, pebbles and shells outside for the kids. Honestly, they always find them and bring them home, so I started keeping them in one area. This way they can use them in their play anytime they want. My kids love to wash them, bury them in sand and dirt, use them to create pretty patterns and designs and use them in their play cooking. Other items and materials that are great to leave around are: pieces of wood, bricks, recycle items, boxes, etc. A child’s imagination will turn these random items into an assortment of amazing creations!


Balance Course

Kids love to try balancing on everything! So why not give that option in your backyard? You can use logs, stumps, build wooden beams, large rocks or even just draw something on the ground. They can play practice balancing just by trying to walk along a line.

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Let’s say you don’t have a conventional backyard. Maybe you live in a condo, townhouse or apartment. You can still implement some of these ideas in a smaller yard space or back porch. Put water in a bucket, give you kid different size cups or measuring cups. They will love scooping the water and transferring it from one cup to another. This can also be done with sand. You can bury things in a bucket of sand for them to find. When my kids were very young, I would give them a cup of water and a paint brush and let them paint all they wanted with that water. They had so much fun and there was very little clean-up for me.

No matter the season, implementing all or some of these outdoor spaces to your backyard will entice your kiddos to play outside more often. Giving them this free play, unguided spaces will ignite their imaginations. Every time they play at these spots, they will think of new ways to play or even play in old familiar ways. The major bonus is they are outside!

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