How to create a sustainable backyard that grows with your kids
When it comes to utilising your yard for playtime, you want a space that will grow with your kids. A huge swing and play set may only be used for a few years – with your toddler quickly turning into a tween who might prefer swinging in a hammock than a swing set.
Using natural elements and repurposed materials means you can easily convert play areas as your child grows, without having to get rid of bulky play equipment. This may not only be better for the environment but for your kids. In fact, studies show that nature-based play can improve everything from academic performance to wellbeing and physical and social development.
“Playing in nature is important for getting kids outside to break up screen time, for sensory development and facilitating calmness,” says landscape architect and natural playspace designer Tess Michaels of Tessa Rose Landscapes. But, many kids have lost touch with nature, she adds. There are a number of reasons for this – busy schedules, technological temptations, and smaller backyards to name a few.
But no matter what size yard or time and resources you might have available, there are some simple and sustainable ways you can inspire your kids to get outside and back to nature. Here are a few ways to add more natural elements to your backyard that kids of all ages enjoy.
Plant a garden
Grow vegetables or herbs, or even bright flowers such as sunflowers. “This is a great way to get kids outside every day to tend to the garden,” says Michaels, who points out how much kids look forward to watching the process of seed germination (how a plant grows from a seed). Just watch their little faces light up when the first sign of growth pops through the soil!
Cut up an old tree stump to create seats and engrave a grid on another stump for a game of noughts and crosses, suggests Michaels. You can play using chalk or two sets of different coloured pebbles or by painting ‘x’ and ‘o’s on stones. Painting hopscotch squares on the concrete is also great fun.
For older kids, creating a space for them to hang is key. Michaels suggests making an outdoor checker board by painting onto a stump or timber table top. Or, make a bigger one on the ground using white and charcoal square pavers. Get creative when making your checkers – try painted mason jar lids or large bucket lids for larger boards.
Paint a chalkboard
While you can use a chalkboard inside, there's something soothing about doing art outside, says Michaels. Get yourself a tin of chalkboard paint, and brush onto a fence or wall or make a portable one using a board and timber frame.
Put together a water or ball run
Creating a water or ball run is great for sensory play,” says Michaels. Glue or attach some old PVC pipes (the thick ones you find under your kitchen sink) together on a fence or board that you can hang. Make sure there are lots of different openings and turns where kids can pour water and drop ping-pong balls.
Set up a temporary sandpit
Sandpits are always popular with little ones, but they can be an eyesore once the kids get too old. Michaels says you don’t have to dig a hole in the ground. Instead, you can build a pit using rocks and boulders: “These started disappearing from playgrounds due to risk aversion, but it’s been found that these natural elements add challenge for kids to climb and step over, helping important physical skills such as balance and coordination. Kids also love sitting on these in a circle which encourages social interaction.” Just be sure to use heavy enough rocks and boulders so they don’t budge.
Make miniature lands
Fill large pots or tubs with different textures, such as sand, pebbles and gravel. “You can even repurpose an old bookshelf laid flat and add different materials to each section for a varied sensory experience,” says Michaels. Children love using these mini spaces for imaginary play. Think about toy trucks and diggers on a construction site, dinosaurs roaming around their ‘Jurassic Park’, and dolls having a day out at the beach.
Create a chill-out zone
Kids enjoy quiet time as well, especially older ones. “Hideaway spots are perfect for relaxation time,” says Michaels. Timber tepees and treehouses are great for this, or if building isn’t in the budget or know-how you can hang scarves and tarps from trees. “Climbing plants are also perfect for creating secret tunnels and arches,” she says.
Make a mud station
Use leftover building materials to set up a bench, ideally near a tap or pond and dirt, to make a mud kitchen. “Old timber pallets work well here,” says Michaels. You can usually find these online from sites like Gumtree. Position the bench up against a wall or fence and finish with hooks for hanging old utensils, pots and pans. For a kitchen upgrade, visit your local recycling centre and find an old sink.
The days where we sent kids outside until dinnertime might be gone, but any length of time children play in nature is still beneficial. And, who knows, you may even end up with less mess inside – bonus!