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How to Set Up a Kid Friendly Backyard for Active Play

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How to set up a kid friendly backyard to encourage active outdoor play. And 11 key elements to consider for your outdoor play space, such as sand & water, privacy, toys, and plants.

Updated May 2021

Child creating a garden loom
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

It can feel like a big job turning the outdoor space at your home (whether it be a backyard, front lawn, patio, or deck) into a space that makes your kids want to go out and play! We’ve found that a space that is a blank slate, like a flat lawn, can be tricky to entice kids to play with, and can even be depressing for us to look at!

But turning your outdoor space into a kid-friendly, frequently used space for active play doesn’t have to be a big job. It doesn’t take a lot of time, energy or money to make a yard fun and appealing to children.

And we all know how important play is, right?! Mister Rogers got it right when he said that play is the work of childhood.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

Fred Rogers

11 Elements to Make Kids Want to Go Out & Play

As you consider your own backyard, think about which aspects you already have, which ones might need an update, and which details you would like to add.

Don’t feel like you have to incorporate all of these to get your kids outside to play! Simply use these ideas as a starting point for making your outdoor space more kid-friendly (even if it’s simply a balcony!).

How to Make a Bean Pole Teepee
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

1. Create Backyard “Rooms” for Comfort & Privacy

Give kids a feeling of privacy and intimacy for their play. Your yard may already provide this with nooks, corners, or trees (think a weeping willow hanging down to create a secret room or a climbing tree for older kids).

But you can also create “rooms” by adding shrubs or trees, a trellis, an umbrella or canopy, or some sort of fort or hideaway.

Some other ideas for creating spaces:

  • A Bean pole teepee (We’ve often had a bean pole teepee in the past and the kids are asking for one again this year.)
  • Or a Fabric teepee
  • Sunflower house (on Let’s Lasso the Moon)
  • A DIY Play house
  • An Old tent
  • An Umbrella or a shade canopy
Children playing in sandbox for kid friendly backyard
Photo by Andrea Martelle

2. Backyard Sand Play

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A place to dig in the sand (or dirt), mold it, build with it, and touch it is an important element of a kid friendly backyard. Sand is both a wonderful sensory experience and fun to manipulate.

The sand box has been one of our kids’ very favorite places to play in the past and we even built an easy and attractive natural sand pit in our backyard. You can buy or build your own sand box, sand pit, or sand table and outfit it with a few basic sand toys, such as:

baby playing at a water table
Photo by Andrea Martelle

3. Backyard Water Play

Water is another fun sensory experience for children, especially in warm weather. Kids love to run through a sprinkler on a hot day, play with water balloons, splash in the kiddie pool, and water the garden. Here are a few more ways to incorporate a water element in your space.

Using the Melissa & Doug Adjustable Easel Outdoors

4. Outdoor Art & Creativity for a Kid Friendly Backyard

You know we are all about art and creativity, whether inside or out. Sometimes we do art outside, just because it’s so nice out and anything we do needs to be outside.

And sometimes we do outdoor art activities that are best suited to the backyard, because they are big or messy projects or they involve nature or outdoor equipment. A garden loom, shown above, is a fun way to create art in your yard, and at the same time creates a defined space.

We keep the kids’ easel on our covered porch for extended periods in the warmer months, or we sometimes take the easel to the backyard for a big en plein air painting experience, or just a change of scenery.

Sensory play table with oobleck, strainers and mini construction vehicles_Rachel Withers
Photo by Rachel Withers

The same is true for the sensory table. We like to bring messier sensory play outdoors during warmer weather which makes for an easier cleanup.

The nice thing about outdoor art is that you don’t need to worry about paint dribbles and splashes! Plus the paintings can be hung to dry on a clothesline or fence. (Just remember to take the easel or sensory table inside if it rains!)

sidewalk chalk
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

5. Chalk, Chalk, Chalk

Sidewalk chalk is a childhood staple (check out this fun set!) and is used for everything from sidewalk drawings and body tracings to games such as tic-tac-toe and hopscotch.

Since chalk washes away easily with rain or the hose, kids can draw in many places including: rocks, fences, wood structures, cement and sidewalks. Create a DIY chalkboard by painting a large piece of wood with chalkboard paint. Then mount it on a fence or the side of the house.

child planting seeds
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

6. A Kids’ Garden

Any kind of garden that a child has ownership of is a wonderful experience. Watching a seed grow into a plant (and then into a fruit, flower, or vegetable!) is a magical learning experience. And an exercise in responsibility, all at once.

I encourage any parent to give children their own garden space, whether in a pot or a small plot in the ground––and the support to help make it a success.

Some easy, kid friendly plants include: strawberries, peas, carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, and beans. Your kids might not like to eat all of those (yet) but they will love to grow and harvest them. For more ideas for gardening with kids, check out Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots by Sharon Lovejoy or The Garden Classroom by Cathy James.

Some children’s gardening tools to consider:

painted birdhouse on fence
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

7. Attract Birds and Butterflies

Our kids LOVE watching the birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies in our garden. You can make your garden friendly to wildlife by planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees around the perimeter of your yard to provide shelter and food. Add bird feeders, a bird bath, and bird houses as well, if you can. We’ve painted bird houses in the past and even assembled our own from kits.

nature table resized (1)
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

8. A Kid Friendly Backyard Observation Kit

Treat your backyard like a natural science lab by having a few key observation tools handy:

  • Butterfly nets can be used for catching butterflies, moths, and flying insects.
  • A jar with holes in the lid or a bug house can be a temporary insect observation room.
  • A magnifying glass or loupe is helpful for looking closely at your subject.
  • A set of binoculars allows kids to watch larger bird and animal life more carefully.
playing with a bubble machine
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

9. Bubbles!

This is a no brainer. Bubbles are magical and fun for most children. They also arguably provide the biggest bang for the buck when creating a kid friendly backyard.

We’ve tried all kinds of wands, machines, and bubbles and they are all a big hit. We’ve even made our own beaded bubble wands! We especially like the larger multi-bubble wands and a never-ending supply of homemade bubble solution in a pie dish or shallow bowl (it’s easy and cheap to make a big batch).

children playing in backyard obstacle course
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

10. Kid Friendly Backyard Toys

Basic childhood toys, such as balls, hula hoops, jump ropes, and stilts, are great for simple, active fun. One of our favorites, though, is a set of activity cones which are fabulous for open-ended play as they can be used so many different ways. They are perfect for setting up obstacle courses, made-up games, and races.

A trampoline is another backyard element that you may want to consider. Our large 15 foot trampoline has been well worth the investment and doubles as a backyard room. The kids play there every day and it’s the playdate hangout of choice. (Or you might try a mini trampoline that can be moved indoors or outdoors).

swinging in the backyard
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

11. Backyard Swings 

Swings are fun and soothing, great for developing equilibrium and balance, and a superb way to be active. The swing set at our old house (a big wooden DIY affair) got more use over the years than anything else in our backyard––even the much-loved sand box. If you have space for a swing set or a tree swing, it can be a worthwhile addition. We don’t currently have a swing, but are lucky enough to have wonderful neighbors with one that they let our kids use.

How about you? What are your family’s favorite kid friendly backyard ideas? What do you have in place that’s working well for you? And what would you like to add to make your outdoor space more inviting and workable? Any other ideas to add to this list?

children playing in a kid friendly backyard
Photo by Jean Van’t Hul

More Outdoor Activity Ideas for Kids

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How to Set Up a Kid Friendly Backyard for Active Play

17 Comments

  • Reply
    Sarah Willis
    April 18, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Just like you Jean, we have recently moved and our back garden is a blank slate – a very exciting and daunting prospect at the same time! This post has really helped me focus on how to achieve a child’s little patch of play paradise without excessive expense and in a way that will grow with my daughter. Thanks again Jean for sharing.
    Sarah :-)

    • Reply
      Jean Van't Hul
      April 18, 2016 at 5:11 pm

      You’re so welcome, Sarah! I agree about the blank slate aspect being both exciting and daunting at the same time. For the first many months, I just ignored mine, it was so depressing. But now I’m going at the transformation with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Good luck on creating a patch of play paradise that will grow with your daughter!

  • Reply
    Reema
    April 18, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    I love all this! How do you leave things out though and not have them get ruined from sprinklers, intense heat, and having to move for the Gardner? I would love to leave things like the easel out but it would get destroyed in the heat…

    • Reply
      Jean Van't Hul
      April 18, 2016 at 5:07 pm

      We keep most of the backyard toys and tools on two metal IKEA shelving units in our small enclosed back porch/room. The garden equipment goes on one and the kids’ toys and buckets etc go on the other. The kids take out what they want to play with and (so far/usually) are pretty good about gathering everything up before bed. Definitely bring the easel inside after you use it. You don’t want it to get rained on.

  • Reply
    meganleiann
    April 18, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    My kids have adapted the tricycle sprinkler idea as they age. Now they use the varying lengths of pvc pipe and couplings to make their own sprinklers of varying shapes. Some lengths have holes drilled in- others don’t. They are learning so much about building, water pressure and sharing. ;)

    • Reply
      Jean Van't Hul
      April 18, 2016 at 4:50 pm

      Awesome! We might have to try something like that this year!

  • Reply
    Muriel
    April 19, 2016 at 12:48 am

    I loved making bean teepees for my grandchildren. Also purchasing pavers at home store & painting the palms of their hands to print pavers. Then seal against weather & make walking path thru garden.

    • Reply
      Jean Van't Hul
      April 19, 2016 at 9:53 am

      Oh! I like the idea of adding handprints to garden pavers!

    • Reply
      Jean Van't Hul
      April 19, 2016 at 9:53 am

      By the way, what do you seal the pavers with?

  • Reply
    Hannah
    May 4, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Love it! As my girls grow I’ve been on the same quest. We are definitely going to be building some sort of water table this year – water seems to keep them so happy (provided there arent’ too many water restrictions!) I read another post that you and your readers might enjoy about outdoor play – https://themomedit.com/?s=play+neighborhood

  • Reply
    YChristina
    May 29, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    The key to happy child play is the ability for the child to manipulate their environment and build things, which is the reason water tables and sandboxes are good things. You caught that privacy is also a key. I suggest that big boxes, either wooden or cardboard, boards and blocks and tarps and ropes and even hammers and nails allow children to construct their own table, house, ships, cars and rockets. Don’t expect it to be pretty, but respect what they build.

  • Reply
    drytron melbourne
    June 7, 2018 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for finally talking about >Set Up a Kid Friendly Backyard –
    11 Elements That Encourage Active Play <Liked it!

  • Reply
    Jane Genuine
    July 16, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    Having a large tree swing in your backyard will complete the fun. I also got one in my own backyard and the kids are having so much fun. I got my swing kit at https://treeswingstore.com

  • Reply
    Margot Robbie
    January 2, 2019 at 4:51 am

    Really cool backyard ideas.! kids friendly backyard helps to development kids social Skill. Though game they can interact with other children. In this way they can lean many think. Thanks for sharing a nice blog with us.

  • Reply
    Zoe Campos
    September 1, 2020 at 7:01 am

    Thanks for telling me that I should give let my kids have their own privacy even if they’re playing in our backyard. I didn’t allow them to use the pool for the summer, so I’m trying to find other ways that I can let them play within our property. It might be a good idea to have some wooden playsets in our backyard and let them enjoy their own quality time.

  • Reply
    Adelina Addy
    May 27, 2021 at 3:11 am

    Thanks for sharing these useful points for making the backyard more playful for kids. I really found it useful.

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