How to create a Big, Happy Backyard For You And Your Kids!
Where I grew up, a big backyard was a given. I spent every day barefoot and carefree, and I was happy with an old rope swing. There was a range of deadly poisonous snakes that were common in those parts, not to mention spiders, scorpions etc.
But I was probably making so much noise that I scared them all away.
If you grew up like that, then you probably want your children to have a big, happy backyard experience too. But, not everyone is lucky enough to have had that, so you might want to give your children the dream backyard that you did not have.
Make Safety is a Priority!
Because of the aforementioned dangerous wildlife, combined with the obvious dangers that children can face in the backyard, we all should be very conscious of the need to create a safe play area for the well being of our little ones.
If you plan and carefully landscape your backyard, there should not have too many tears or hospital visits.
I would also like to add that you should not wrap your children in cotton wool! Your own backyard is the perfect place for them to learn to be responsible for themselves by assessing risks and then taking them.
By learning to accept the consequences of their choices, they will grow up to be happy, resilient individuals.
Planning a Big, Happy Backyard
You may be thinking, “But I don’t have a big backyard, so how can I create one for my kids?”
A sad fact for many young families today is that they cannot afford a big backyard. So, the answer is to adapt the Big ideas and scale them down to fit into whatever size garden you have.
If you invest in good storage, like a shed or a playhouse, then you can alternate the play equipment and keep it fresh and interesting for the kids.
Even if your budget does not stretch to large play equipment, you could buy a little wagon to transport different toys to the park or to the woods and enjoy a range of activities in the outdoors.
However, whether you have a pocket-sized garden or an enormous backyard, always buy the best quality toys you can afford.
Better still, give your children natural materials such as little logs and stones to play with and encourage their imaginations and these toys are free.
What About the Weather?
No matter where you live in the world, you will have to make some provision for inclement weather. The Scandinavians have a saying:
There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
They have come up with a lifestyle trend called Friluftsliv which, directly translated means “open-air life”. With temperatures that drop to below -10 degrees C, I think they know a thing or two about how to enjoy being outdoors in all types of weather.
Interestingly, they have also brought the idea of forest schools to the attention of educators around the world and they promote the benefits of playing and learning outdoors.
Create Play Areas
The backyard is not only for the kids, so try to plan different areas that everyone in the family can enjoy. Here is a list of ideas for play and recreational areas to keep everyone happy:
Create Activity Areas
No one wants to have their elbow knocked as they are about to take a sip of their sundowner, so try to keep the activity areas and relaxation areas far apart.
A paved area or path is ideal for little scooters and cars. Add to that a garage area with a couple of tires and a hand pump for an imaginary petrol pump, and you will keep budding mechanics happy for hours.
If your backyard is enormous, then you could add a track for trail bikes or mini motors where pre-teens can experience a real thrill. However, this can be a very noisy activity so make sure it is far from the house.
Create a mini trim trail or obstacle course where children can develop their agility and stamina. These can be purchased or it could be a simple DIY project.
Build a sturdy climbing frame and adjust the height as the children grow. Always make sure that there is a soft landing surface around the perimeter.
A tree-house is an old favorite and, if you have a large enough tree in your backyard, you can make it as fancy or as plain as you like.
Read the story of “The Green Ship” by Quentin Blake to your children and fire up their imaginations. It is the story about two children who create a ship out of some bushes and a shed and sail off on some wonderful adventures.
Create Quiet Areas
It is worth bearing in mind that not all children want to be tearing around all day and some children are not physically able to. So, a place where they can be still and alone sometimes might be just right.
I always insisted that my children have an afternoon nap or rest time (because I needed one!) and if they could do this outdoors, all the better.
Teaching children Mindfulness seems to be en vogue at the moment and I am confident that it will do them no harm to learn to breathe, enjoy special moments in the backyard surrounded by nature and to listen to birdsong and the whispering of the leaves.
Leaving a recording device in the tent for children may encourage them to record the tweets and try to identify the birds that can be found in your backyard.
A quiet area under a tree is very relaxing and will provide important shade from the midday sun. You could also string up a tarpaulin to shade certain areas or pitch a tent for a fun napping place. Just follow the snores if you can’t find dad after lunch!
Being a bookworm, I have always tried to encourage my children to enjoy books. However, storing books in the backyard is not easy.
While traveling in Italy, I saw a wonderful idea in a public park. Someone had hollowed out a section of a tree trunk, inserted shelves and added a Plexiglass door. This was a perfectly waterproof library and storage area for drawing pads, drawing materials, rocks for painting etc.
Try incorporating a herb garden or container garden at the base of the Library tree where aspiring gardeners can grow small plants and flowers.
Create a Theatre
I am sure that most families have a “Drama Queen” and your big happy backyard could be the training ground for treading the boards in one of the world’s top theatres.
Provide your children with several light wooden boxes that can be placed in whatever formation they choose.
It could become a stage, a wall, a castle or a fort. Always try to choose sizes and shapes that children can arrange themselves to suit the requirements of the activity.
If the boxes have hinged lids, they can double up as storage for dressing-up clothes, pieces of fabric and other props/castoffs from your wardrobe and accessories. A mirror attached to a wall or fence will provide hours of hilarity as they release their inner actor.
A storyteller’s chair hewn from an old tree stump could be a place where children can recite poetry, read or create stories and entertain their friends. (Okay, you guessed it – I was THAT child!)
Even a reluctant writer will be inspired to write a story if they get to sit on the magical chair and read it to an audience.
Teach Your Children Well
As I have been writing about creating a big, happy backyard, so many songs have come into my mind. I am remembering the song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as I write this.
When I was a fulltime teacher, I used to watch many children wandering around on the playground unable to relate to others and without even an inkling of how to “play”.
Often I would go over and initiate a simple hand-clapping game or Hopscotch and they would love joining in.
After a while, I would encourage them to teach the game to another child and then I would slowly withdraw from the game. It was always a delight to see them enjoying themselves, but I also realized that some children need to be taught how to play.
Now, believe me, I have nothing against children playing games on electronic devices, but I do think it is a shame that they are often left to be babysat by a device because we don’t have the time to teach them how to play with other children.
If we model how to enjoy the big backyard and learn while we are enjoying ourselves, then that is what our children will take from the experience as well.
We should be helping to develop their curiosity about the great outdoors and about how to care for their world starting from when they step out of the back door.
The backyard can be much better than a classroom if we provide the equipment and stimulation such as:
Create little bug-friendly areas and give your child a magnifying glass so that they can watch insects at work.
Set up a mini weather station and show them how to measure rainfall, wind speed and make weather charts.
Load up an app that identifies plants and get your children to make labels with botanical names as well as warning signs for dangerous plants.
Create a simple water wall out of containers with varying capacities. Let them experience the “feel” of capacity rather than something that they have to guess from a picture in a textbook.
Make mud pies in the mud kitchen. Cook Stone soup in an old pot following the recipe from the story of the same name.
Teach them the way to be self-sufficient by keeping a few hens and collecting the eggs. Grow vegetables, make compost and be responsible for the care and feeding of pets. That dog kennel isn’t going to clean itself!
Remember that your backyard can be enjoyed after dark as well. Set up a miniature observatory with a good telescope for kids and teach them to be stargazers.
Change With the Seasons
To squeeze the most happiness out of your big backyard, try to make sure that your family can enjoy it all year round. The seasons provide an ever-changing backdrop for fun seasonal activities:
Collect signs of spring. Using a small container, such as a matchbox, challenge children to collect as many bits of evidence that spring is on its way. A strip of adhesive paper works just as well.
Set up a traditional Easter egg hunt around the backyard or, if you want to go chocolate-free, you could turn it into a treasure hunt with clues inside little plastic eggs.
Make scarecrows to frighten birds away from your seedlings.
There has to be a swimming pool of some description – be it a plastic inflatable, a metal-framed pool, above ground or sunk in the ground. My children loved our plastic water slide that was ideal for our sloping backyard. Include lots of sunscreen, hats and pool toys and your backyard will be like a magnet to all the kids in the neighborhood.
Teach your children about fire safety around the fire pit and toast some marshmallows while you’re at it.
If you have incorporated a summer kitchen into your design, your kids can help to make and serve refreshing treats like fruit kebabs, ice-creams and salads with fresh ingredients harvested from your veggie garden.
Arrange a Teddy bear’s picnic with delicious sandwiches and finger-food. Don’t forget the music and games.
Rake up leaves for the bonfire
Have a pumpkin carving competition (Yes, children can be trusted to use knives under adult supervision)
Make Guys for the 5th of November (if you are British or just want to liven up the bonfire)
Set up bird feeders around your backyard so that the birds can be happy and well-fed through the cold winter months. Remember to keep them out of the reach of cats and keep records of which birds are regular visitors.
Before Christmas arrives, you can have so much fun creating a festive backyard. Some people go to great lengths to create a winter wonderland with lights and decorations and it can even be an opportunity to raise funds for a favorite charity.
Make sparkly reindeer food with oats and edible glitter and scatter it around the backyard. Feed the wildlife and your child’s imagination at the same time!
Remember the call of Nature. Yes, I mean literally remember that Nature is going to call while your kids are having a happy time in your big backyard, and sometimes they can’t tear themselves away to go to the loo.
Composting toilets are easy to construct and maintain or you could build an outdoor bathroom if funds allow.
Besides the obvious benefits, it saves having little muddy feet traipsing through your house or the possibility that they won’t make it there in time!
You should now have a bank of ideas for making your backyard a very happy place for many days of the year.
Please remember that I am not suggesting that an adult should provide year-long entertainment for the children. Teach them the skills, provide the resources and then set them free.
A Checklist of non-negotiables for your happy backyard:
- Use natural products where possible.
- Only buy the best quality, most durable equipment, and toys.
- Storage and lots of it!
- Cater to all children – the boisterous, the quiet, adapt for special needs and include the Big Kids (adults).
- Enjoy the backyard in all seasons and all types of weather. Make sure you have the right clothing and footwear.
- Teach children how to play, to take calculated risks and always have a well-stocked First Aid Kit nearby in case of minor injuries.
- Make the kids responsible for keeping the backyard tidy, storing toys and equipment as well as helping with gardening.
Here’s an important point that I have just thought of!
Remember to take millions of photos and videos of your family having fun in the backyard. Allow the children to use old digital cameras and video recorders or your phone if you’re brave enough. They will take spontaneous and hilarious shots that will be a wonderful record for years to come.
You could also organize seasonal photo shoots that show how your backyard and your family have grown bigger and happier!