The Backyard Problem

The patio as we found it when we moved in.

The patio as we found it when we moved in.

The patio after we cleared it, still before kids were on the scene.

The patio after we cleared it, still before kids were on the scene.

For years we have struggled with our backyard space. When we first moved in, there was a patio area completely overgrown in one corner. We cleaned it up and set up our grill and lawn furniture there, only to discover that it was so shady and damp, no one naturally gravitated to the space. When Junior was younger, we added a fence along the adjacent side, making it even darker. It’s probably not our longterm solution, but for now it works just right for us.

For a while, the boys were more or less content to push metal dump trucks around the backyard. Gradually though, as they got older their play became more interactive. They wanted to not just push their trucks around, but also load them with mulch, rocks and sand. Over time, our lawn became a depository for any materials they could transport, dumped in tiny mounds on a whim. The boys emptied their sandbox over a period of several months. They disassembled a rock wall. They dug up the lawn in several patches that never grew back. Clearly we needed to up our backyard game.

Trial and Error and Error and Error

Little Bear sits amongst the plastic play zone.

Little Bear sits amongst the plastic play zone.

So, naively, we bought more toys. We wanted to get the kids engaged in playing again and we figured that these were things that would engage them. First it was a climber/slide combo. Then it was a playhouse. Then it was a big plastic tugboat gifted to Junior for his fourth birthday after he requested a tugboat of his very own. Each new piece of backyard play equipment was greeted with initial excitement and became the center of attention for a finite period of time. But eventually each became old news. The climber gathered fallen leaves that rotted into a slimy film at the top of the slide. The playhouse sheltered cobwebs and slugs. The tugboat gathered rainwater and became an ecosystem of its own, breeding mosquitos at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the boys continued to dig up flowers and overturn planters in their oblivious play.

Finally, A Solution

Playing in the natural play space at our neighbor's house inspired us to build our own.

Playing in the natural play space at our neighbor’s house inspired us to build our own.

Over the summer, our neighbors began to transform a small section of their backyard into a natural play space. The boys loved it immediately. They wanted to spend every afternoon there, and they didn’t seem to tire of it. In fact, tellingly, they would plead, “Mama, can we go work in the play zone?” each time they wanted to use it. They didn’t want to “play,” they wanted to work. For play is the work of children.

Really, while we all appreciate playtime, we also all have a deep need to feel accomplished at the end of the day. My boys feel accomplished when they are setting their minds to a task and working towards its end. In the natural play space, they work together and independently to move rocks, build structures, tie ropes, and clear debris. They imitate the physical work they see around them. In their minds, they are doing something much more than simply playing. They are working. To move a log, they may try three or four techniques before they get it right. They build pathways, experimenting with different surfaces and distances. They “plant trees” by digging holes and burying stumps in them. They engineer towers of sticks and rocks. They sort shells.

Our natural play area

Our natural play area, before the boys got their hands on it.

Last week we finally emptied the play gear from the corner of our yard. We called it Operation Plastic Eradication. In its place, we left a collection of natural materials. There are logs, sticks, bricks, rocks, ropes, wood chips and hay bales. We rigged up a few pulleys and a rope ladder from the fence. We haven’t finished (mostly because it’s a fun project to work on) but the boys are enthralled by it.

Junior and Little Bear hard at work.

Junior and Little Bear hard at work.

Since removing the traditional play equipment, their play has become more creative, more engaged and more persistent. I have to drag them inside for dinner, caked in mud, grass-stained knees and dirty fingernails. They discuss their “projects” at the table – voices husky as they assign imaginary work roles and request additional tools (a rake – yes, another shovel – yes, a chainsaw – sorry.)

The Results

Work in progress from the boys

Work in progress from the boys

This natural playscape is more aligned with what I already know about children’s play and how they interact with and learn from the world around them. Traditional playgrounds provide so much context that little is required from the child himself. Natural playgrounds provide only the materials; the children devise the context for their play themselves and in that way, the play becomes endless. The limit is only the child’s imagination. It provides more opportunity for problem solving, for experimenting and for cooperative work. A natural play space in the yard provides the kids with much of what they are missing by having a fenced yard. Essentially it allows forest play in our own backyard.

It has only been just over a week since the natural play space took up residence in our yard. It’s a bit early to say how its novelty will compare to that of the plastic equipment. But if the last 10 days are any indication, I would say that it’s got staying power.

Here are the details:

Step 1: We removed all of the plastic climbing and play structures from the area. I even managed to sell some! We had previously put wood chips down in this space and decided not to refresh them right now, with snow around the corner. We will add a fresh layer of wood chips in the spring.

Step 2: We relocated a large deck box to the corner of the play space. It doubles as a work area and as storage for toy trucks and tools.

Step 3: We cleared overgrowth to create more natural light. This included taking down a wisteria that had grown to completely overhang this part of the yard, making it damp and buggy. We also took down two small cedar trees. Both cedars and the wisteria were repurposed in the play area.

Step 4: We sourced mostly natural materials, locally. These included:

  • Short, large diameter logs (from our own woodpile)
  • Longer, small diameter logs (cut from the cedar trees)
  • Sticks (gathered in the woods and cut from the wisteria)
  • Bricks (found under our porch)
  • Large stones (found around the yard and neighborhood)
  • Shells (from the beach and leftover shellfish – just rinse and leave in the sun until clean)
  • Lumber scraps (from our barn and from disassembled bed slats)
  • Rope (also from our barn)
  • Pulleys (spare sailboat rigging)
  • Cross sections of cedar trunk
  • Hay bales (leftover from a “farm” themed birthday party, but available locally from our co-op)
  • Rope ladder (old Christmas present, happily repurposed)
  • Slate stepping stones (leftover from a patio we’d previously removed)

In the future, I’d like to get some metal buckets to use with the pulleys. (The single small plastic beach bucket doesn’t do the trick, and it’s an eyesore.) I would also like to add some water elements in the summer. The rest . . . will up to the boys’ imagination.

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The finished product!

The finished product!