DIY Playgrounds and Outdoor Play Spaces

May 21, 2021 | Jen McB

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Do you wanna build a playground?

It doesn't have to be a playground.


Do you want to improve your outdoor environment? Maybe you see a neighbour doing it and think, "Yes, me too!" But how do you get started and does it cost much?

Is building a playground a good idea? How much space do you need?

The design of childhood

In the The Design of Childhood by Alexandra Lange, the author examines the work of Lillian Gilbreth. Gilbreth explores the link between critical thinking and the physical environment. Much like how we learn to brush our teeth, a certain mastering of physical practices leads to better health outcomes. Outdoor play can alleviate issues such as poor posture and not paying attention. The goal is gross motor development and strength training. Not necessarily body building at the gym, but having the capacity for your muscles to do their intended jobs.

The Science of Play

This idea is backed up in The Science of Play: How to Build a Playground That Enhances Children’s Development. Playgrounds are  very much part of developing a growth mindset in children and the executive function required for academic success.


So if you want to build a playground in your own backyard and you're ready to test out your tool-wielding skills, here are some resources to get you started.


How-To Books

Ultimate Guide to Kids' Play Structures and Treehouses

Ultimate Guide to Kids' Play Structures and Treehouses by Jeff Beneke 

Play Structure and Backyard Fun

Play Structures and Backyard Fun by Black and Decker with the editors of Cool Springs Press

The Complete Photo Guide to Outdoor Home Improvement

The Complete Photo Guide to Outdoor Home Improvement by Black and Decker

Backyards for Kids

Backyards for Kids: Fresh Ideas for Outdoor Living by Lisa Taggart


Outdoor Play

Even if you can't create your own backyard playground, there's still a lot of value in playing outside. Nancy Striniste, who has thirty years working in designing outdoor children’s spaces, breaks it down to the senses. The outdoors is good for developing hearing, smell, touch and taste. But one of the primary benefits is for a child's eyes as they can practice focus at different distances. Think about how a child fixates on a bug and then points to a passing bird, all within a few minutes. Playgrounds are useful for motor skills, but any outdoor space is filled with possibilities.

Really, a playground requires very little. Notice that we haven't mentioned slides yet? The first thing you need is an absence of a room and walls. Nature play can mean using logs as chairs, walking through stone labyrinths, finding flowers. Old tires, chicken wire, crates and buckets, recycled jars are all great materials to use in outdoor play.

You can even use yarn to create a laser maze challenge, as recommended in a fantastic book called Backyard Adventure. There are a lot of translatable ideas that begin small and then get scaled up to what we see at the public playgrounds. Do not forget about jump ropes and hula hoops.

Here are some more book recommendations for turning any outdoor space into a place for play and discovery.

Balanced and Barefoot

Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom 

Nature Play at Home

Nature Play at Home by Nancy Striniste 


You can also get crafty outdoors. Building a playset is part of the play, and your children can help you put everything together if they are older. It also does not have to be a slide you build. Admittedly the slide is the symbol of everything kids might want, but there are also tree houses, lemonade stands and fairy gardens to consider. You can do tie dye t-shirt experiments outside or have a scavenger hunt for found items like different rocks or feathers. Since there is so much to do it is also a fine thing to bring outdoor snacks like cucumber sandwiches and watermelon along. Picnics do not have to be a once a year or beachfront destination, they can happen at home or in your local park too.   


Backyard Adventure

Backyard Adventure by Amada Thomsen

Unplugged Play

Unplugged Play: Grade School : 244 Activities & Games for Ages 6-10 by Bobbi Conner 

25 Fun Things to do Outside

25 Fun Things to do Outside by Paul mason 

30 Minute Chemistry Projects

30 Minute Chemistry Projects by Anna Leigh 

Fairy Gardening

Fairy Gardening: Creating Your Own Magical Miniature Garden by Julie Bawden-Davis and Beverly Turner 


What's your favourite way to make the most of outdoor play? Share your suggestions in the comments.