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Create a Grandkid Friendly Backyard on a Budget

Introduce unstructured play to nurture imaginations and offset pandemic stress

spinner image Grandad chasing grandson in the garden during outdoors playtime.
Solstock/Getty Images

When Fran and John Shemkus wanted to create space in their Massachusetts backyard to keep their four grandchildren busy, they got out the mower ... but not for the lawn.

"On the side of our property is a small wooded section between us and a neighbor. To the kids, it's a forest,” says Fran, 70. So her husband, John, 72, regularly mows a meandering “secret” path through the trees that's an expedition of imagination for their grandkids, ages 4 through 8.

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"It's a big adventure,” Fran says. “There's a lot of pretend stuff going on.”

If you want to get the grandkids outside, creating a safe and fun play space can be easy and inexpensive, even if you have a postage-stamp yard or rely on public spaces. Though there's nothing wrong with traditional climbing structures or swings, experts say there are other yard-enhancing ways to establish fun zones that nurture independence, creativity and a love of nature.

This is a particularly important time to create outdoor havens for children, says Angela Hanscom, a New Hampshire-based pediatric occupational therapist. Hanscom developed TimberNook, which offers outdoor, nature-based play programming for schools, camps and other organizations, and even for private parties. She also wrote the book Balanced and Barefoot, about the importance of “unrestricted” outdoor play, such as digging in a sandbox.

The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, being separated from many of their friends and attending school remotely has created stress for kids.

"This is a scary time,” Hanscom says. “And children — their way to cope is through play."

Go for less structure, safely

Getting outdoors engages all of children's senses, Hanscom says. It also allows them to move their bodies in ways that develop spatial sense and balance. “Throughout the day, they need to go upside down. They need to spin in circles, roll down the hill,” she says.

Grandparents, who probably had less structured playtime growing up, are the perfect people to introduce children to the joys of outdoor play, says Sarah Konradi, program director for the National Wildlife Federation's Early Childhood Health Outdoors initiative to nurture the next generation of conservationists.

spinner image John Shemkus with granddaughters
John Shemkus playing outdoors with his granddaughter.
Courtesy of Fran Shemkus

"The way I see my parents interacting with my children, it is a little bit more liberal, a little bit more free,” Konradi says. “Perhaps it comes from the recollection of the freedom they themselves were given as children — my dad's stories of building those forts by the creek.”

When you're ready to create outdoor play space, here are some things to consider.

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1. Safety first. You don't want to be a nervous Nellie, but you do want to clean up obvious hazards such as poison ivy, standing water that attracts mosquitoes, choke hazards or splintery wood (and don't forget the dog poop). Children also need to be taught about hazards.

In Atlanta, where Eric King runs King Landscaping, which specializes in outdoor play areas, it's been a banner year for copperhead snakes. “I have parents who tell me they want a snake-proof yard — well, that would be a parking lot,” King says. “I just default to what my mom taught us: You're careful [when] you step over a log and you look right underneath it.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has outdoor safety tips and links, particularly for traditional play equipment. Hanscom's book has suggestions on how to set rules that allow children to explore while minimizing risk. For example, it might be OK to let them wander the neighborhood within certain boundaries.

2. Less is more. Konradi advises starting small with semipermanent structures or play areas, such as a corner for digging. “You don't have to make big changes overnight,” she says.

King uses downed trees as balance beams and stumps as stepping-stones. He hangs kid-size hammocks. Another trend in play areas is “loose parts” — wood, scarves, pulleys, kitchen gear, boxes, rope — anything that kids can use to build or use in pretend play.

Marcus Veerman, a playground advocate and CEO of the nonprofit organization Playground Ideas in Melbourne, Australia, developed the Nüdel Kart, a mobile play cart of 200 loose parts and connectors that's used in schools, recreation centers, refugee camps or other places where children can use their imaginations to build. He sells a mini version — suitable for families and usable indoors or outdoors — for about $40.

3. Spend creativity, not dollars. Veerman's nonprofit has helped volunteers build more than 4,000 playgrounds throughout the world by using materials easily available in underserved communities, such as tires and pipes. His website has a virtual playground designer that even kids can use to help design a backyard play area. Veerman also offers instructions on how to build simple swings, hammocks or climbing areas from tires.

King loves to use stove-size boulders in play areas. “You can have a swimming pool, and first thing they're going to do is crawl on top of that boulder,” he says.

He also likes little creeks created with runoff water from gutters or “pondless” fountains — recirculating water that drains into a bed of rocks and eliminates the care and hazards of fountain ponds. Hoses and water table toys are less-expensive alternatives.

King and other experts also recommend tempting children's senses: Make wind chimes from bamboo or spoons and keep a pot of scented herbs available for pretend cooking.

If you don't have your own outdoor space, you can create a scavenger hunt or build a tiny fairy house in the park, Konradi says. She lives in Denver and has seen families use the grass curb strip for simple playhouses, as well as pile loose parts in the space between town houses.

"Find whatever space you can,” she says. “It doesn't have to be a big footprint.”

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