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Such cool ideas on how to set up a natural play space for your kids in the backyard (part of a 4-part series) - bye, bye plastic slide - hello forts and logs!

How to Set Up Natural Play Spaces in Your Back Yard

I’ve written before about how much I value outdoor time for kids.  Recently I’ve been thinking more specifically about the topic. Outdoor time of any type is great in my book, but time spent actively exploring nature is even better.

You may remember a few months back I told you guys I had the pleasure of attending an amazing talk on raising creative kids in a hurried world by Nancy Blakey.

Such cool ideas on how to set up a natural play space for your kids in the backyard (part of a 4-part series) - bye, bye plastic slide - hello forts and logs!

photo via Let the Children Play


The entire presentation was fantastic but during the two hours or so of talking, she said two things that really stood out to me. The first was a statement: 90% of our best childhood memories take place outdoors.


I’m not sure what type of science was involved in coming up with this conclusion but as I thought back on my own childhood it certainly seemed accurate.  Activities such as camping, hiking, boating, swimming and just laying in the grass were pervasive.


Great ideas on how to set up natural play spaces in your own back yard for the kids – bye, bye plastic slide, hello forts and logs!

photo via Let the Children Play


The second was a story. She talked about a young family who moved into her neighborhood and decided to install an expensive play structure in the back yard.  Their hope was that it would lure all the neighborhood kids into wanting to congregate there.


In the process of getting the structure up, they had to do some extensive landscaping and a giant dirt pile was created.  This, of course, was what attracted all the kids in the neighborhood and what ultimately kept them coming back – even when the fancy new play structure was finally installed.


Great ideas on how to set up a natural play space in your own back yard – bye, bye plastic slides, hello forts and logs!

photo via Teacher Tom


You may also remember that a few years ago we had quite a mess on our hands when four massive trees fell down in our backyard.  We’ve since rebuilt our demolished fence but there are still some dirt piles, chopped bits of tree trunks, loose landscaping rocks and even a brick pile remaining.


Until that night I saw these items as eyesores but since then I’ve come to see them as valuable tools for outdoor play. I’ve encouraged the kids to dig in, climb on, and move around these objects as they see fit – they’ve had a great time.  I truly believe these types of activity are so important in helping them to develop confidence, curiosity and a sense of self.


So why am I telling you all this now?  Because we’re finally pulling things together in the backyard and we plan to have it finished in the near future.


Which means that I’ve been putting a lot of thought lately into how I want it to function for the kids.


Ultimately I’ve decided I want to set up as many interesting natural play spots as possible.  So I did a little research and found there’s a whole movement growing around creating natural play spaces for children.


Great tips on how to set-up a natural play space in your own back yard. Bye-bye plastic slides – Hello forts and logs!

photo via Let the Children Play

One of my favorite resources on the topic is the blog Let the Children Play.  They actually have several series on the idea including:


photo via Let the Children Play

photo via The Aspetuck Land Trust Blog


All the series cover lots of elements you can use to create a natural play space such as tree logs or dirt/sand piles – my favorite section is the one on loose parts.


I’ve already witnessed my 1 year old and 3 year old work together to do nothing more than haul a pile of rocks back and forth with a play dump truck for unheard of amounts of time.  I can only imagine what they’d do with an intentionally curated collection of loose natural parts.


I set out for this post to be a round up of natural play space ideas but it’s already getting a little long and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.  I’m realizing as I type that this could be a stellar summer series.  What do you guys think, are you interested in more specifics on how to set up a space like this for your kiddos?  Let me know in the comments.

Similar Stuff:
Outdoor Activities for Families in Honor of Earth Day
Good Idea: Bring the Garden Inside
Outdoor Kid Activities & DIYs for the 4th of July


P.S. Looking for more ways to simplify and connect with your family?

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy May 10, 2012 at 4:24 am

Our local paper just featured a natural playground at a local nature center this past Sunday and it looked SO COOL. I would love more info about setting up a small version of the same thing in my yard!


Anonymous May 10, 2012 at 8:15 am

Yes yes yes please!


Anonymous May 10, 2012 at 11:57 am

Yes, I am interested in hearing more, but please include ideas for where to get (I know that sounds pathetic) some of these things, for those of us who live in the concrete neighborhoods with few trees… thanks!


Little Misters Mum May 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Yes PLEASE! Very interested in learning more about setting up natural learning/playing spaces outdoors. Loving this post and checking out all your links associated with ti. Thanks so much for sharing!


Destri May 10, 2012 at 12:36 pm

So agree with the logic here! I was lucky to grow up in a neighborhood that had a big forest area right in the center (probably ten acres) that had a light running stream running through it, and even made it’s way through our property. We spent every minute outside. I remember coming in only to warm up or cool down. We rode horses, played night games, built forts (with all of our parents sheets), and we’re always sleeping outside.
We had a nintendo, right when it came out, but I barely remember playing with it.
We have been in a temporary apartment, and will be for the next few months and it been tough. I long for the days that I could open my back dor and just let them have at it first thing in the morning. Now we have to load up and head to the park. It’s been a good lesson for me, because now I know in the next move (we’ll always have one!) we need to make the outdoor surroundings a priority.
My husband did find one little area tucked away when getting the mail one day, and that is his spot to take the kids – I don’t know what they do, but they always come back a mess and I love it.
Kids should be getting dirty!
Anyhoo, great great topic Steph, I say run with it!


Steph at ModernParentsMessyKids.com May 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm

That sounds like an ideal childhood Destri!


gina May 10, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Oh yes yes yes! My 3.5 yr old little boy loves sticks, rocks, and acorns! You should see his collection =)


Audrey May 10, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Yes and yes. I guess you could say that I’m part of that movement. I just ordered a slide to put into the berm in our backyard. These hillside slides are common in Europe (we used to live there) and that will be my first step in creating a Natural Playscape for my two girls. Honestly, it’s somewhat hard to find good ideas/information so I’d love this series.


Steph at ModernParentsMessyKids.com May 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm

That sounds so fun Audrey – would love to see photos when you get it all set up.


KateUntamed May 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm

We were the first house in an undeveloped subdivision and I can say my son loves the dirt hills in the empty lots next to us and so does the boy the moved in next door it’s his favorite thing to do. I love these ideas I’m planning on making a play area this summer for my boys on our property but our yard isn’t big enough for dirt hills.


Kristen May 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I would love to hear more about what you are doing and what others are doing. We live in a townhouse that borders woods and would love to do a more natural playspace in our small backyard. All my son wants to do at the school playground is dig in the dirt and mud, move stones, and dig around tree roots!


Anonymous May 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm

more please! :)


FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist May 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Yes, please! I’d love some ideas for tiny lots, especially those that have already been civilized with decks and patios and so on. It’s very expensive to tear up hardscaping — how can we get some nature on or around it?


Niki Buchan May 11, 2012 at 4:39 am

I love your blog and what a great idea to create a naturalistic adventure park in your own garden……….I bet you are surrounded by children all the time! Thank you


Julie May 11, 2012 at 5:16 am

Yes, definitely! You should also check out Green Hearts’ free, downloadable “A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play” for more information and ideas: . Great information, created by someone who loves what he does and practices what he preaches.


Julie May 11, 2012 at 5:16 am

Aw, the comments ate the URL I posted: http://www.greenheartsinc.org/Parents__Guide.html
We’ll try again


glimmersnaps May 12, 2012 at 12:33 am

Wonderful! We live in a townhouse with a small concrete slab for our private outdoor space. However, we live in a very wooded part of the mid-Atlantic so there are lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. I recently posted some photos of one really neato children’s section at a botanical garden. It might have some ideas for you. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for your own backyard!!

Here’s the link (the photos are toward the bottom)


glimmersnaps May 12, 2012 at 12:35 am

Forgot to add that they have a digging pit! I didn’t include a photo of that, but it would be an easy and awesome addition to a natural play area. It was just dirt and shovels. Yep. Awesome.


Kathy May 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I have been very involved in transforming out traditional playground at the childcare center I work at into a natural playscape. So far we have added a nature trail, balancing logs and stumps, a large sandbox, gardens, a “mini” treehouse (around the tree but on the ground), huge hollow logs, and lots of loose parts. I would love to find more great ideas because this is a work in progress. As a teacher, I can say – with 100% accuracy – that the children are engaged in more creative and cooperative play, have more fun, have less behavioral issues, and are definitely more appreciative and stewards of nature since the transformation has begun.


Tina May 14, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Stephanie, you stumbled on something larger than you may realize! There is a whole profession that is about designing your environment. It is called landscape architecture. Robin Moore at NC State has researched natural playgrounds since the 1970s. Google his name and Natural Learning Initiative for more info. Also check out ASLA.org for an interesting interview with Diana Balmori for how to integrate nature with cities.


Niki l May 10, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Please please please! I’m a foster parent and I always have at least four toddlers! I finally have a backyard they can play in But need some advice on stimulating activities and keeping it safe!


Liane Schaefer March 12, 2014 at 2:44 am

I have been looking for ways to make my yard a play friendly zone for my children ages 3 and 1. I also want to integrate recycling, reusing and low maintenance items in the mix.


Cathleen March 12, 2014 at 4:30 am

yes…more please! Some things that I love about these play spaces is that they are fairly easily changeable as kids grow or tire of certain elements, cost effective, and adaptable for kids with different physical abilities.


Jacquie March 14, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Some of our local playgrounds and nature centers have installed gorgeous natural play spaces. We’ve visited three and at each one, my husband and I were also enjoying the space! I think adults are more likely to play WITH the kids when it’s a natural space especially since we grew up on logs and rope swings. And I love how calming and organic the space is when it includes non-plastic, no neon paint type of items.


Shelby March 16, 2014 at 4:32 am

I’d love more info! I have two daughters that are now 15 and 17 and have run a home daycare for 15 years. So I’ve always had plastic climbing structures, houses and cars for the kids. Last summer I started selling several of my large climbers and houses. I found the kids aren’t really playing on them and I can’t stand looking out my house windows seeing them! I decided this spring I am going to do a more natural play space for them with logs and pavers and any other ideas I come up with. So you doing a post on it would be great!


Kristina April 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

I would LOVE to see/hear more!


Jacqui April 12, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Yes please! My backyard is a mess at the moment and I need some inspiration!


Sarah April 12, 2014 at 11:11 pm

I would love to hear more! It would be great to hear your ideas about how to create a natural play space indoors; as a New Zealander living in the Middle East approaching summer (it doesn’t drop below 40C/100F) for half the year), I need to set something up for the kids to keep them engaged and exploring (age 5 and 2). We don’t have carpet thank goodness!


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