5 Easy & Kid-Friendly Ideas For A Small Backyard
Do you ever find yourself on Pinterest swooning over the big, pretty backyards, or visiting a friend and feeling a little jealous about all their gorgeous space? Oh, I've been there. I used to feel a bit short changed about our backyard digs, and referred to it as the "postage stamp." After 5 years of figuring out a small space, we have finally found a sweet spot and I'd love to share what has worked for us. It ebbs and flows depending on the season, but we usually spend 1-2 hours in our back patio: an hour in the mornings and an hour or longer in the early evenings. These days both children find the small space to be plenty entertaining, and as a parent I love that there is less space to clean and maintain.
Here are 5 ideas that have kept the play momentum going...
A Water Table In The Summer + Tea Dispenser
Our water table is hands down the most played with toy on our patio. It's not only refreshing on a hot day, but can be used to make potions, soups, baths for dolls, and more. The trick to it feeling "new" each week or two is to add subtle changes to the water. Some weeks we use food coloring, others we add bubbles. I've added essential oils of geranium or orange for a sweet inviting smell. Some days I place seashells, flowers, plastic ocean animals, plastic dolls, even toy horses and cars nearby to invite imaginative play. There is no need to make too many changes and too often - I find that kids they discover new ways to play with a simple invitation even weeks after introducing it. Some of our favorite water table accessories my children use daily are: Jumbo Eyedroppers, Test Tubes (also found in Dollar Stores), and a mix of kitchen bowls and cups to mix and measure with.
In the summertime, a tea dispenser is sometimes just the thing when boredom strikes. I found our tea dispenser for $10 at Target, and it gets plenty of use. I normally will have to fill it up several times in an hour, but find it's worth the hassle for all the fun they have. It's wonderful for toddlers to get to turn the knob themselves and fill their own mixing bowls. I've also observed my 5 year old make many-a-magic-potion with it. To spice things up, I'll add food coloring and glitter from time to time. A genius friend of mind once added vinegar mixed with water to her tea dispenser, and placed it next to a bucket of sand mixed with baking soda for her daughter's fairy birthday party. Can you guess the fun results? I've never seen so much birthday party giddiness! I still need to try this out at home.
A Sand Table In The Winter
I normally use the same water table in the winter but I dump the water. Instead I buy play sand from one of our big box stores nearby. Every few weeks I set up invitations much like I do with the water table - and might place small dinosaurs, seashells, plastic animals, and trucks nearby. I usually don't allow the kids to mix water in the sand, because I find in a small space, it turns into mold and muck very quickly. and is a major pain clean. Though, at the end of the winter, I start to relax my rules a bit and allow them to mix in water (and I become their hero for a few weeks!).
Focus On Open-Ended Toys
You know how during the holidays, children tend to get giddy and creative with the boxes more-so than the actual toy that came in it? One of the biggest reasons for this is because boxes are so open-ended - they can transform into a spaceship, house, or animal shelter in a span of an hour. This is why I try to only include open-ended play objects in the back patio. This philosophy has saved us space and money, and forces children to get creative! I typically set play objects on a shelf in a neat and organized way each morning (if possible), and allow them to choose what they'd like to play with and how. Some open-ended play objects that have been used in a thousand different ways on our patio: balls, sticks, leaves, pinecones, seashells, a bowl of flower petals, wood cookies, acorns, clay, bubbles, chalk, watercolor paints, and a variety of cups, teapots, and bowls to mix and measure with.
Design: Designate Each Corner With A Different Theme
I must have arranged my tiny patio at least 2 dozen times in the last few years. What works the best is: each corner has a different "theme." In one corner I have an art table with art supplies reserved for our messiest projects (usually clay and paint). If you don't have space for an art table, art easels are also wonderful and save much more space. In the second corner it's the truck station. One corner has our playhouse and playkitchen area for imaginative play. And the fourth corner is the water/sand play area. I'll notice that the children will rotate where they prefer to play in a natural way, and each corner will get plenty of attention one week, or completely forgotten the next. It all works out though!
Hang Out In The Space And Simply Observe
When I un-busy myself and simply be present with my children, I notice they will play much, much longer, and become quite creative. I don't interrupt play very often, and prefer to do as Magda Gerber called, "wants nothing time." This is a time when we "let the child be the scriptwriter, the director and the actor in his own play." I want nothing from them, only to enjoy what they are naturally interested in. I find this time quite relaxing and magical for all. I learn so much during this time, and save all of the memories in my back pockets. I trust that play matters, that it's important for learning, and what they choose to play with is absolutely perfect!
***Mamas, I'd love to know: Do you have a small backyard space? How do you make it work design-wise? What toys and play objects create the most play in your space?