How To Create Outdoor Play Spaces For Healthy Kids

by Nicole Lemperle Correia

As the days grow longer, we are all ready to spend more time outside. That time spent in the fresh air has many benefits for adults and children alike. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, wrote that “Time in nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children's health (and also, by the way, in our own)."

Giving our children time and space to play outside is crucial to their development on many levels. Julia Cadieux, M.Ed., Parent Coach and Educator, says that “Kids need outdoor play for so many reasons. Study after study finds that we are healthier when we have regular contact with nature, even if it’s a backyard, a city park, or a trip to the zoo. Regular outdoor play improves focus and attention; reduces stress and anxiety; improves behavior; strengthens the vestibular system (which is important for balance, motor control, eyesight, and sensory integration); reduces risk of obesity; strengthens problem-solving and creative thinking skills- the list goes on.”

Creating space for playing outdoors doesn’t require acres of land, or even a yard. Whether you have a large backyard or just a small patio outside an apartment, there are many ways to create space for your family to spend time in nature.

Cadieux encourages parents to keep outdoor playtime simple and natural.  She says, “the natural environment provides all the stimulation your child needs. A stick has a hundred different uses. Bugs and worms never lose their appeal. And the sensory experience of bare feet on grass can’t be beat.”

Here are a few ideas for carving inexpensive and simple outdoor play areas in whatever space you have:

A Space to Dig

Whether it’s a small dirt pile in the corner of the yard, a sandbox, or a sand table, kids of all ages love to play in the dirt. Add a couple shovels and buckets and they’ll figure out the rest. And embrace dirty hands (and faces and feet) - it’s all part of the sensory experience (and kids are washable!)

A Space to Splash

Children are naturally attracted to pouring, splashing, creating puddles, and getting soaked. Water tables are easy to keep on a deck or patio and provide endless possibilities for experimenting with water. (For extra fun, combine the digging space with the water space - mud play is messy and awesome for kids of all ages.) 

A Space to Plant

Gardening is a perfect activity to do with children. They can learn about the science of living things, they can nurture something from seed to flower to vegetable, they learn about waiting patiently, about the work that goes into growing flowers and food, they dig in and get dirty, and they enjoy the results. If you have space for raised garden beds, they are a great way for kids to get up close to the growing process without worries about crushing delicate plants. For smaller spaces, container gardens offer many possibilities for growing vegetables, herbs, or flowers. Give each child their own container, help them choose what to plant, and together learn about what the plant will need to thrive.

A Space to Create

This can be as simple as a box of chalk and a driveway, or a bucket of water and paintbrushes on a sidewalk. Bring an easel outside and let them get messy with paint. Decorate sticks. Paint rocks. Collect objects from nature and glue them to paper to create patterns. Making art outside is bigger and messier than projects that take place inside - and you don’t have to worry about clean up!

A Space to Build

Remember building forts in the woods? Cadieux suggests letting kids “build with natural materials they find outside. Fairy houses made of moss and sticks are enchanting and create open-ended play scenarios. Likewise, rocks and logs can be transformed into caves, towers, buildings, etc. and rearranged over and over again.” Is there a corner of your yard where the kids can build forts and fairy houses? Do you have a large flower pot they could transform into a world for garden gnomes? 

A Space to Climb

If you have space to build a climbing structure, this is a great addition to outdoor play. Cadieux notes that climbing “works the vestibular system and supports healthy risk-taking.”  There’s no need to buy a fancy play structure - climbing structures can be constructed out of tires, logs, or basic building materials.

  Creating some of the spaces above provides kids with an entry-point to the hours they will spend playing outside. But what they need most is simply access to the outdoors and time to explore it. Without screens and gadgets to entertain them, children will engage with the world around them in different ways, using all of their senses to engage, create, and discover new worlds.

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