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15 Ways to Make Your Backyard a Perfect Park for Kids

15 Ways to Make Your Backyard a Perfect Park for Kids

These are the ways that we have transformed our backyard into a super fun and engaging backyard haven for our five young children. We have about an acre of fenced in land behind our house, and with everything we have created, built, and purchased, we are very content to just stay home and enjoy ourselves. This works out especially well right now seeing as how we have a newborn this summer!

I believe that children should be free and have autonomy to choose their own activities and be independently entertained. I also believe in giving kids as many natural settings and experiences as I can to help them develop their creative and imaginative minds. By incorporating these things into our yard over the past three years, I think we have done just that.

Here’s a video of our yard as we gear up for summer.

1. Sandbox

When we moved into our house three years ago, building a sandbox was the first thing we did, and our children LOVE it! They play in it every single time we are outside.

Our Sandbox

Our Sandbox

2. Stock Tank Swimming Pool

We wanted a durable swimming pool that all of us could fit in that wouldn’t break the bank, and this stock tank swimming pool has been perfect! Learn how we made stock tank pool here.

Stock Tank Swimming Pool

Stock Tank Swimming Pool

3. Garden

Our kids love every aspect of gardening from preparing the soil, to planting the seeds, to harvesting the garden. It’s a lot of work to put it in, but I love maintaining it and reaping the benefits. Read about the benefits of gardening with kids as well as to see the gardening tips and tricks I have here.

Ruby Picking Beans in Our Garden

Ruby Picking Beans in Our Garden

4. Obstacle Course

Our kids love challenging themselves with this simple obstacle course put together with nothing more than some old tires, boards, and a few screws.

Our Backyard Obstacle Course

Our Backyard Obstacle Course

5. Teepee

I got the idea for this teepee from the one my mom made in their field and from the one at Blanford Nature Center in their natural play area. Every year we add more sticks, stalks, old vines, etc. to it, and the kids love using it for imaginative play.

Our Backyard Teepee

Our Backyard Teepee

6. Stepping Stumps

This was another idea I got from Blanford Nature Center. Whenever we see someone chopping down a tree, my husband races over with his pick up truck to collect the stumps. The kids love walking back and forth on them and jumping into the sand that is piled below.

How to Make Stepping Stumps

How to Make Stepping Stumps

7. Hills

The first hill we made was unplanned. As we were digging up the sod for our sandbox, we decided to pile it up making a little hill. We were surprised at how much our little ones loved running up and down it, so we got some dirt and added a few more. This slide has also been a really fun touch.

Our Big Hill

Our Big Hill

8. Tent

I love setting up an outdoor tent in the spring, summer, and fall as both a holding tank for blankets, toys, and books, as well as a retreat for anyone wanting to duck away from the wind, cold, sun, or people.

Our Backyard Tent

Our Backyard Tent

9. Sports Equipment

I love having a basket with a variety of sports equipment that the kids can use freely. We have soccer balls, jump ropes, hula hoops, frisbees, baseball bats and balls, rubber kick balls, and more.

Sports Equipment

Sports Equipment

10. Swing Set

We initially got a swing set like this at our local shopping market, but we always wanted a big wooden structure like this. As luck would have it, we knew someone getting rid of one for free! It took three guys seven hours to take apart and put back together, but it has been perfect for our older children.

Swing Set

Swing Set


Wooden Play Structure

Wooden Play Structure

11. Electric Cars

For a brief time in my childhood I remember having electric cars, and my brother and I LOVED them! We now have an electric dune buggy, jeep, and mini four wheeler for our kids, and they get used every time we go outside. This is the 3rd summer we’ve had them, and with the exception of some new rechargeable batteries, they have held up very well.

Julian and Ophelia in an Electric Car

Julian and Ophelia in an Electric Car

12. Water Pouring Station

In the winter, I have been brave enough to bring this inside, but in the summer, it is so nice to have the mess outside! My little ones play with this water table every day. I like having some kind of table (like this tool bench) nearby to hold the cups, teapots, buckets, and other pouring supplies. I also love having it near the sandbox so they can incorporate sand into their water play.

Water Pouring Station

Water Pouring Station

13. Playhouse

Having a playhouse encourages all kinds of imaginative play. The kids love this one especially because of the little seats, windows that open and shut, and small door. We usually pick a spot for the house to stay for the season because it kills the grass underneath, but you could always move it around.

Playhouse

Playhouse

14. Mini Kitchen

With the mini kitchen, we also have a kids sized picnic table, mini grill, and baskets of play food and plastic dishes. The kids love preparing pretend meals and feeding us hungry adults.

Elliot and Julian Playing with Our Mini Kitchen

Elliot and Julian Playing with Our Mini Kitchen

15. Basketball Hoop

Our daughter Ophelia has particularly enjoyed this basketball hoop. She stands on a little stepping stool and the balls are collected in this little wagon. And of course we have an adult sized hoop as well. We debated laying some concrete, but have enjoyed simply having the ability to shoot baskets.

Basketball Hoops

Basketball Hoops

In Conclusion

Occasionally, we do like to go places, but mostly we just enjoy staying home. Between the 26 learning stations we have inside and the fun we’ve created outside, our kids are never bored and neither are we.

Here’s a video of us getting our yard ready for summer last year. You can really see how much things have changed!

Setting Up an Outdoor Play Tent Sanctuary 

Setting up a tent outdoors isn’t just for camping! Every spring, we set up a tent in our backyard to use as a sanctuary and a holding tank, and it has been a very beloved location, especially when we have little babies.

In Michigan, we get REALLY excited when spring arrives! The problem is that even though the snow thaws, it’s still pretty chilly (and windy) until June. Having this permanent tent set up ensures that we always have a warm place to play that will allow us to enjoy the fresh outdoor air while staying protected from the elements.

 

Materials Needed

  • Tent – We usually just go to the nearest box store and pick up whatever is cheapest. (We learned the hard way this year, however, that it’s very important to make sure the tent has a window so you can get a cross breeze.) We’ve been setting up outdoor tents for the past 4 years and have never had a tent that lasts more than one year. By the time snow falls, the walls of the tent are so worn, they just rip apart. Because of this, we usually go with a cheap tent like this. This tent would be a a bit more luxurious and if you’re looking for a really permanent tent, you can go with one of these canvas tents.
  • Padding – Some foam padding like this 1-inch king size mattress topper (or this 4-inch mattress topper) will turn your tent into one big comfy bed!
  • Waterproof Cover – There is always a bit of water getting into the tent for one reason or another, so it’s a good idea to cover your foam padding with something like this.
  • Sheet – I like to put a fitted king size sheet over the waterproof cover.
  • Blankets – I don’t think we can ever have enough blankets in this household, so I am always on the lookout for good blankets like this at garage sales and thrift stores. I put one blanket down under the pillows and baskets of books and another blanket loosely on top. This second blanket can easily be taken out and shaken if it gets covered in sand and debris. This is also the blanket I’ll use if I want to have a blanket on the grass.
  • Pillows – Having about 3-4 pillows makes it really nice to stretch out for a little snooze.
  • BasketsWicker baskets like these are really nice for holding books and a shallow basket like this is really nice for holding toys.
  • Books – I love having a wide assortment of books, but I don’t keep my best out here in case of water or other damage.
  • Coloring Supplies – This is the first time I’ve included coloring supplies like coloring books, workbooks, blank notebooks, pencil boxes with pencils and crayons, and the bigger kids really enjoy it!
  • Toys – Because I have kids ranging from newborn to elementary school age, I have a variety of different toys that everyone can enjoy.
  • Little Chair – The kids especially love this little chair when I put it out on a blanket in the grass. Reading is always more fun when you’re in a little chair!
  • Diapers and Wipes – Because our tent is a little ways from the house, it’s nice to be able to change a diaper without having to go inside.
Outdoor Tent in Use

Outdoor Tent in Use

Directions

  1. Find a good location. It’s nice to have something that can be in shade or partial shade so it doesn’t get too hot in the summer. It’s also nice to have the opening of the tent facing an area of high activity so that you can see what’s going on when you’re in the tent and vice versa.
  2. Set up the tent. We keep our tent in the same spot every year, so after the grass died and it was all dirt, we leveled it with a rake to make it flat.
  3. Put some sheets of wood in front of the tent. You could also use a big rug or Astro turf, but basically you want something to keep grass and dirt out of the tent.
  4. Fill it with fun stuff. Based on the ages of your children, location of the tent, and the purpose of the tent, you will want to fill the tent with things to suit your needs. I like filling my tent with books, coloring supplies, toys, and pillows and blankets.
  5. Play inside the tent. I like to keep the tent closed if it’s going to rain, but as soon as we head out to play I like to open it up and let the kids come and go as they please.
  6. Use the tent as a holding tank. If we want to hang out outside with babies, I like taking a blanket out of the tent and putting toys, books, and the little chair on it.
  7. Keep it clean. When our tent gets full of sand, dirt, grass, and leaves, I am so happy that I keep my extra blanket nestled lightly on top so that I can easily shake it out. If it gets really dirty, I’ll take everything out and either sweep or use the leaf blower.

In Conclusion

We enjoy setting up our tent as soon as the snow is gone and leave it up until snow threatens to fall again. We have enjoyed having a tent every year for the past four years and will probably continue to enjoy one for many years to come.

*Update: We had a big windstorm that ripped our tent to shreds, so we opted for a bigger more expensive tent, and boy am I glad we did! My husband recently spent the night out here with our two older children, and they all loved it!

Our New and Improved Tent

Our New and Improved Tent

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

By Guest Blogger: Alex Gomez

Author Bio: Alex Gomez is a social media professional who dabbles as a freelance tech writer and photographer. This gadget and car enthusiast also plays video games and keeps himself updated on technology news in his spare time.

5 Creative Ideas for Making Photo Albums of Your Kids

Back in the early days, we documented our best memories through compact cameras with disposable film rolls that could be developed into photo prints. As years have gone by, printed photos began to go out of style, and soon we switched to the digital way of photographing kids.

With the advent of digital photography, the photos we’ve taken remain stored in our computers and storage devices until who knows when. Are you going to just let the memories that come with your children’s photos become forgotten?

If you want to preserve beautiful memories that your kids can look back on when they grow up, print your digital photos and create beautiful photo albums with them.

Time to get crafty! Here are five creative ideas for making photo albums of your kids:

1. Alphabet Photo Album

letter-j-for-jump

Image Credit: flickr.com

While there are different alphabet learning resources that can help you teach your kids their ABCs, a photo album can also be a great one! Snap photos of meaningful things, people, activities, and places whose names start with a letter in the alphabet. Your choice of photos has to mean something to them, so they can recognize it easily and learn their first ABCs fast.

2. Poem-Filled Photo Books

End a fun-filled day with your kids by reading them poems that you’ve personally written just for them. If you can’t find the right words, you can search for meaningful poems and quotations of mothers and fathers to their children. Include photos of you interacting with your children, whether it’s giving them piggyback rides or just having a hearty laugh with them.

3. Book of Firsts

book-of-firsts

Image Credit: flickr.com

Your kids’ first year is the most exciting time because that’s when they experience things for the first time. Document their first haircut, first step, or their adorable first smile. Better get your camera ready so that you won’t miss out on those precious, unexpected moments and have something to add to your children’s books of firsts.

 4. Travel Photo Book

travel-photo-book

Image Credit: flickr.com

 

If your family loves to travel, preserve your vacation memories by making themed photo books. Instead of stacking your photos in your closet and hard drive, make exciting and adventurous stories out of them. If you want to get creative and make one on your own, make a DIY travel scrapbook instead.

4. Birthday Memories

Compile photos of your kids’ birthday parties in one album. Start from the very first birthday to the most recent ones. This kind of photo album will be a sentimental way to keep track of how much your kids have grown through the years.

In Conclusion

You kids’ photos don’t deserve to be tucked away in a shoebox and buried deep in your computer’s hard drive or storage device. They should be displayed and preserved so that when your kids grow up, they have physical mementos that will tell wonderful stories of their childhood.

4 Ingredient Slime Putty

silly putty colors

Slime Putty Colors

We are always looking for quick and easy art projects, and this one fit the bill! Ruby actually found this recipe on YouTube Kids, and we just so happened so have all of the ingredients to make it laying around! This recipe was an instant hit with the kids, and after playing with the first batch, they wanted to make a variety of colors. This was quick and easy to make and the kids have really enjoyed playing with it…which is a win, win, win!

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Dump out the glue into the bowl. Tip those bottles upside down and get out as much glue as you can!

    elliot adding glue to make slime putty

    Elliot Dumping Out Glue

  2. Mix in the food coloring. Start with a few drops, stir, and then add more as needed to achieve your desired color.

    elliot adding food coloring to make slime putty

    Adding the Food Coloring

  3. Make the borax mixture. Fill up a cup with warm/hot water and mix in about a teaspoon of borax. Let it sit/stir it until it dissolves.

    mixing borax and water for making slime putty

    Mixing Borax and Water

  4. Add the borax mixture to the glue. *This part is really tricky and very easy to mess up! If you add too much of the borax mixture, it will turn to a hard blob, if you don’t add enough, it will stick to your hands.
    adding borax mixture to glue to make slime putty

    Adding Borax Mixture to Glue

    You want to add just a little bit, stir, stir, stir, add a bit more, stir some more, mix with your fingers (about 2 minutes), then only add more if it’s still sticky. Trust me, add less than you think you’ll need and you’ll be just fine.

    mixing slime putty mixture by hand

    Mix it By Hand

  5. Final Slime Putty: The consistency should be soft and stretchy, but not sticky. (Although, if you do what Elliot is doing below, pieces WILL get stuck in your hair, and watch out, because this stuff can get stuck in carpet and on clothes too if you’re not careful!)

    Elliot Wearing His Slime Putty on His Head

    Elliot Wearing His Slime Putty

  6. Play with your goo! Stretch it, pull it, roll it, and have fun! Store it in a ziploc bag when you are done so that it won’t dry out.
    Elliot Rolling Out Slime Putty with a Rolling Pin

    Elliot Rolling Out Slime Putty

    *Now that you’ve got your Borax out, you might want to whip up a batch of some homemade laundry detergent!

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Mudpit for Summer Fun

How to Make a Mud Pit for Summer Fun

“You want to make a mud pit…on purpose…in our yard?!?” I can imagine your spouse yelling as you try to present the idea of creating a mud pit in your backyard, but hear me out…

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

We kind of made our mud pit on accident when we were trying to cover a dirt hill with sod (which is a story for another blog post), and in the process, I noticed how much the kids absolutely loved playing on a hill of pure dirt. They would climb up it, roll down it, dig tunnels through it and holes in it, and basically get really, really muddy. We would have to strip them down before they entered the house, and it created a lot of messy laundry.

Well, the hill was eventually covered with sod, and the parts that weren’t covered sprung up with grass and other foliage, but the hole that we dug the sod out of still remained, ready to be used. We originally were going to make another sandbox on top to mimic the one we liked at Blandford Nature Center, but well, we kind of ran out of money and were looking for a cheaper alternative.

I had a bunch of leftover seeds and plants from planting our summer garden and the kids were still begging for another dirt hill, so I went to work digging and made a dirt hill surrounded by a moat, surrounded by a path, surrounded by some plants. We stretched three hoses connected together to allow water to flow to the furthest regions of our yard, and walla! Mud pit!

Materials

Directions

  1. Plan It. Find a space in your yard that will be just perfect for a mud pit…preferably away from any pools you have, not right near the front door, but close enough to a water source.
  2. Dig It. Using a pointy shovel, dig out small squares of sod. You can use them to build a small grassy hill if you’d like. Just place the sod pieces on top of each other. Eventually they will settle in and make a nice little hill. Our kids love playing on ours!
  3. Shape It. Try to give it your mud pit some character. Build it up high in some spaces, level it out in others, use your imagination, and try to visualize how your kids will use it. I really think having a moat type structure is a good idea because it traps the water in and makes it more usable.
  4. Use It. I highly encourage all play in the mud pit to be conducted with bathing suits on! This way, kids can be sprayed off with a hose, jump through a sprinkler, or jump into a kiddie pool to get clean afterwards! With a few shovels, buckets, and watering cans, this mud pit has entertained our kids and their friends for hours.
Playing in the Mud Pit

Playing in the Mud Pit

Conclusion

Yes, making a sandbox is probably an overall cleaner project, and one that our kids have enjoyed just as much, but there is just something so primal about a mud pit that I think all kids should have a chance to experience. Being able to interact with nature, feeling the cool mud with its abundance of free electrons boosting your immune system, getting completely filthy, and creating, digging, and exploring the properties of mud are all hallmarks of any good childhood.

Embracing Motherhood Why We Are Giving Technology a Break

Why We Are Giving Technology a Break

It started out with educational apps on ipads, playing Starfall and Pixie 4 on the computer, and watching educational programs mixed in with a moderate amount of choice, but then we got lax on the rules and noticed one day that technology had taken over our lives.

We debated a gradual reduction or a reinforcement of the original rules, but it was too late for that…

We had to quit technology cold turkey.

First, the iPads

One evening, during our nightly wrestling routine with daddy, our daughter Ruby (6) just wanted to watch Digimon (I don’t even know how we came to allow this in the first place). Usually, we can ask her to put her iPad away and she does so graciously, but this time, there was ATTITUDE! When daddy asked her to put the iPad down, she flat out said no, and then when daddy got more stern she said,

“What are you going to do if I don’t?”

Hubba wha?!?!?!? We both looked at each other in shock! Where did this mouthy little teenager come from all of a sudden?? And so daddy said what all parents of teenagers must say,

“Trust me, you don’t want to find out!”

Well needless to say, we knew something needed to change. That night, I took all of the iPads and our touch screen computer and hid them away. I also unplugged our WiiU, Playstation, and computer in the homeschool room.

The Aftermath

We weren’t really sure how to handle the explanation of the disappearance of the touchscreen devices, and when Elliot asked me the next morning where they were, I relied on a little white lie to get me through it.

“Someone stole our iPads!” I explained.

Phew, that was easy. 🙂 Elliot was quite upset, but still a pretty easy sell. He said, “God must be mad at us to let this happen.” Honestly, I don’t know where he gets these notions!

But when Ruby came home from school, she was a little more skeptical. First she wanted to know every detail of said robbery including why they miraculously didn’t take my laptop. Smart girl. Then, she wanted to conduct an investigation including knocking on the door of every neighbor and writing letters to all of her classmates. When she wouldn’t drop it, I said, “You’re right, it probably wasn’t a robbery. I’ll bet Julian just took them and hid them somewhere.”

“Are you sure you didn’t just do it mom,” she asked.

I explained that no, I didn’t do it, but even if we had our iPads, we were going to restrict their use anyways because we didn’t like how addicted everyone was getting to them and the attitudes that were emerging as a result.

To explain the unplugged video games and computers, we said that we couldn’t afford the electric bill, and so we couldn’t play them until our budget was caught up. We talk about money and finances a lot, so although they were a little upset, they really understood and accepted this explanation.

Technology Free Days

The first day without technology was TOUGH! No ABC videos to distract Julian while I was cooking, no TV during breakfast, and no choice time to entertain them while I stole some time to myself.

As they engaged in play, it was almost like they forgot how to entertain themselves. So I sat on the floor and played with them as they went from room to room trashing everything in sight. I felt like I was constantly cleaning and constantly on the move!

We spent the rest of the day engaged in play outside, and my the end of the night, they were exhausted. So was I!

By the second and third day, something beautiful started to happen. They asked about their missing iPads less and less, the negative attitude was disappearing, and we were having so much fun as a family! Whenever it would get really quiet for awhile, I would worry, “Oh no! They found them!” But then I would sneak into the room to see them engrossed with reading, playing quietly, or find that they let themselves outside to play. It was beautiful.

“Why didn’t we do this sooner?” we wondered.

Well, at least we’re doing it now…especially as these fleeting summer days beg to be enjoyed.

It’s Okay to Be Bored

Children don’t need to be constantly entertained, and neither do we. Boredom is actually a gift, a mind break that allows us to come up with new and creative ideas. The longer our children went without technology, the less they relied on us to entertain them, the fewer messes they made as they became engrossed in sustained imaginative play, the more they interacted with each other and nature, and the closer we became as a family.

As we settled into this new routine, I started finding pockets of time for myself again to work out, blog, and create. Something else pretty amazing started happening too. As the children settled into their boredom, they were more interested in what I was doing and wanted to help!

Who knew that helping me make cookies, fold the laundry, and sweep could be so much fun!

The older ones were also more willing to pitch in and do chores, and I really appreciated their help. Ruby decided she wanted her job to be laundry, and so one day she helped me put daddy’s bin of clothes into the washing machine and put away her and Elliot’s clothes. Elliot said he was really good at picking up, so he picked up the toys in one room…then he got distracted and started playing with the toys, but hey, it’s a start!

Finding a Balance

After about a week of nothing, we decided that they (we) could watch one movie during rest time. Previously, they were engrossed in their own little iPad worlds watching toy videos on YouTube and Digimon on Netflix, but with a movie, it was something we could all cuddle up and watch together. We love finding old classics like the Last Unicorn, Little Nemo, and Home Alone and watching them over and over.

When school is out and summer gets into full swing, we plan on implementing our summer routine where the older kids have to do four workbook pages (handwriting, math, cursive, etc.), three activities, and one chore to have an educational computer choice (Pixie 4, Storymaker, working on Favorite Things books, etc.) or watch a movie.

We also are going to let them have 3o minutes (from 4:00-4:30 when daddy gets home) to have a choice to watch whatever they want if they good and do all of their work, activities, and chores. Having this time gives us some leverage (i.e. by taking away a positive reinforcement it becomes a logical consequence for misbehaviors).

In Conclusion

During the long winter months, we may bring back the WiiU, Playstation, iPads, and touchscreen computer in limited and regulated amounts, but we definitely agree that taking a break over the summer is what is best for everyone. Technology can serve a valuable role in many educational opportunities, but it is just too easy to let it be a babysitter and let limits slide until the devices seem to take over. Going cold turkey and taking a break really worked for us and is something we will continue to implement as needed with all things in life.

How to Make Stepping Stumps

How to Make Stepping Stumps

Making stepping stumps is a fun and easy project that will provide a fun and natural play area for your children (and a fun little place to sit and rest as well).

Children love things that are just challenging enough with an appropriate amount of risk and danger. They also need to be able to play unsupervised and interact with nature. These stepping stumps may become an ongoing yard project that you continuously add to (like it has for us). We are always on the lookout for more stumps. It makes for a fun scavenger hunt while we’re driving! 🙂

Materials

  • Stumps: When I was driving my husband’s pick up truck out on some country roads, I found several stumps of varying height that had been nicely cut from a fallen tree. Then, when we were coming home from Ruby’s spring concert, we spotted a few more, loaded them in the back of our van, and brought them home!
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Plan: Try to envision the full potential of your stump arrangement. If you’re like me, you’ll want to leave room to keep adding on as you find more. I am hoping to copy Blandford’s meandering circular pattern that starts with shorter stumps and works up to taller stumps, but there are many other things you could do like placing the stumps haphazardly in one big configuration or making a straight path that’s very symmetrical. You might even make them almost flush with the ground and use them as a pathway from one place to the next. I encourage you to type “stepping stumps” or even “stepping stones” into Pinterest for some more ideas.

    Blandford Nature Center's Stepping Stumps

    Blandford Nature Center’s Stepping Stumps

  2. Dig a Circle: You’ll want to dig a circle larger than each stump. If you leave the sod intact, you can use it for another project like making a hill or making little grass stepping circles. After taking out the sod, dig down enough to bury about one-fifth of the stump. Make sure the dirt underneath is nice and soft to level out the stump.
  3. Level the Stump: After placing the stump onto the loose dirt in the hole, wiggle it around until the top is level. Then sit or step on it to help it settle in.
  4. Fill in the Dirt: Pack the extra dirt around the sides of the stump and step on it to really pack it in.

In Conclusion

Having stepping stumps is just one part of creating a backyard full of natural and fun ways to play. Once you see how your kids interact with the stumps, it might give you more ideas for extensions in the future. I hope to gather some shorter stumps so that it extends much further and begins and ends with descending stumps like a staircase.

Our Stepping Stumps One Year Later

Our Stepping Stumps One Year Later

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

This backyard obstacle course is the simplest thing I have ever put together, but the kids LOVE it and play on it constantly. I’m always rearranging it, changing it, moving it, and adding new components to keep it fun and interesting…all using things that we have lying around or that I can find on trash day. 🙂

Children love things that are just challenging enough, and they need opportunities to play unsupervised with just the right amount of risk and danger. That is why I like setting up my obstacle course in an arrangement that isn’t too easy or too challenging. While I do enjoy cheering them on from time to time, I am happiest to see them play with the obstacle course independently. If I notice that it isn’t getting played with, I know it’s time to move it around.

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course Embracing Motherhood

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

Materials

  • Tires: When we get new tires, I save the old ones. I also keep my eyes open on trash day to pick up any old tires that might be thrown away. *We cut holes in the sides of the tires so that they won’t hold water (which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes).
  • Long Skinny Pieces of Wood: These are for the balance beams. It’s nice to have them varying lengths and thicknesses. 2’x4’s work great, but you can make anything work.
  • Blocks of Wood: These are for the base of the balance beams. You’ll need 2-3 that are the same height for each balance beam.
  • Wide Boards: These are for placing on top of the tires. You can make any size work. I like using long and narrow pieces. We had particle board laying around, so that is what we used, but you can use any type of wood. You can treat the pieces of wood if you’d like them to last longer.
  • Drill: This is for drilling holes in the tires. We added a circular attachment to our drill to make a bigger hole.
  • Screws: You’ll use these for the balance beams.

Directions

  1. Balance Beams: Attach blocks of wood to the ends (and middle if the board is long or weak) of your long skinny pieces of wood with long screws.
  2. Preparing the Tires: If you leave tires out without drilling holes, they will collect water and it will become the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. By drilling 3 large holes on the side, it will prevent water from collecting. We drilled holes on both sides so we wouldn’t have to worry about which side was facing up.
  3. Set Up: There is really no right or wrong way to set this up. You might want to have everything in a straight line, arrange it in a circle, or place individual pieces scattered throughout the yard. I like arranging the pieces in a circle because it encourages children to complete the course repeatedly. By putting tires underneath the edges of the long boards, it becomes a fun platform for kids to stand on and it also doubles as a bench for sitting and can even be used as a makeshift table during an outdoor picnic. I’ve also had fun putting a tire in the middle of a board to create a sort of teeter totter and on one end of a board to create a ramp.
  4. Rearrange: Whenever the kids stop using the obstacle course (or every 2-3 weeks, whichever comes first) I like to rearrange everything. This helps to prevent the grass that is underneath from dying and keeps it fun and interesting for the kids.
Rearranging the Obstacle Course

Rearranging the Obstacle Course

In Conclusion

The sky is the limit with this style of backyard obstacle course! I hope to keep collecting more tires to make some stepping tires and add some teeter totters (by placing one tire or two stacked up) in the middle of a long board. You will want to tailor your obstacle course to meet the specific dimensions of your yard and abilities of your kids, but the important thing is to make it just slightly challenging and have fun!

Check out how we’re getting our backyard ready for summer with our sandbox, stock tank pool, garden, teepee, stepping stumps, and more!

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

Gardening is a fun way for the whole family to eat nutrient dense food and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Neither my husband or I are professional gardeners by any means, but by growing our own garden for the past few years, our entire family has learned a lot, enjoyed some good food, and had a lot of fun in the process!

Last Year's Garden Embracing Motherhood

Last Year’s Garden

I am excited to write this article as I reflect on our past gardens and start planning our garden(s) for this year! (We’re thinking about having three gardens this year: The area above for tomatoes and peppers, an area next to the house for herbs and lettuce, and an area by our teepee for corn and beans.)

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

Benefits of Gardening for Kids

There are many different benefits of gardening with kids. These are some of the benefits that we have noticed.

  • Learn About Life Cycles: Why read about the life cycle of a plant when you can grow one? By planting seeds, watching them grow, and caring for the plants, children become heavily invested in the life cycles of their plants.

    Elliot Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Elliot Planting Seeds

  • Learn About Photosynthesis: Photosynthesis (how plants get energy and grow) and cellular respiration (how humans get energy and grow) are two of the most basic and primary functions of life, yet we gloss over them very simply or hardly even mention them at all. If children can learn about such concepts in depth at a young age, they will build a lifelong understanding that will prepare them for even greater scientific understandings in the future.
  • See Where Food Comes From: No, food does not come from the grocery store! By seeing the time it takes for the plants to grow and finally harvesting the fruits of their labors, children will have a deeper appreciation for where their food comes from.

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans

  • Helps a Picky Eater: Even the pickiest eater can’t resist a tomato warmed from the sun or a freshly picked bean. I love watching my kids devour the fruits and vegetables they pick from the garden.

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

  • Connect with the Earth: If simply going barefoot on the earth’s surface (earthing or grounding) can boost the immune system by providing the body with an abundance of antioxidants (free electrons), imagine what actually digging in the dirt can do?

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans

  • Get Some Sun: Sunshine provides the body with much needed vitamin D, boosts the immune system, helps skin conditions, gives you more energy, and boosts serotonin levels, just to name a few of the benefits. So get out there in the sun! If I’m not worried about sunburn, I don’t worry about sunscreen, but if we’re going to be out for a long time and I think that by kids might get a burn, I like to use this sunscreen.

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden

  • Help with Chores: Kids really do love to help with chores, and this is pretty much one of the funnest chores to do! By working in the garden, they will learn the joy of helping out around the home in a very fun and hands on way!

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

  • Get a Green Thumb: In my experience, gardening is a skill best learned about by doing. By jumping into gardening without much knowledge, we have learned about the best planting times, different varieties of plants, what plants grow best together, how to prepare the soil, and so much more. By gardening with our children from a young age, they will enter their adult years with this knowledge tucked securely under their belts and a joy to accompany it.

    Ruby Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Planting Seeds

How to Grow a Garden

Now, I’m sure you can find a better expert than me to learn about all of the intricacies of gardening, but for what it’s worth, here’s how we garden. 🙂

  1. What to Plant? I like planting things that are easy to grow and that the children will have fun picking and eating. I like planting lots of tomatoes to make my tomato purée that I will freeze and use year round, many different kinds of beans that the children love picking, lettuce and herbs (cilantro, parsley, oregano, basil, and dill), peppers, cucumbers, carrots, sunflowers, corn (new this year), and maybe a few carrots and green onions.
  2. Start with Seeds: Starting in April or May, we like to start growing some seeds indoors in pots. Seed packets are fairly cheap (I picked up some organic seed packets at Walmart for 97 cents a piece.) and are way more cost effective than spending a few dollars per established plant. Once it’s above freezing at night, they can stay outside. I hear beans like to be planted when it’s still a bit frosty out.

    Sunflower Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Sunflower Seeds

  3. Choose a Location and Prepare the Soil: Our original garden location (as seen below) is nice because it’s close to the house, but it is very damp which caused many of the plants to get a fungus last year. It also doesn’t get the best sunshine. This year, we are going to get a long hose, bury it, and set up a garden in the far corner of our yard near our teepee. For our original location, we used a rototiller, but in our new location, we’re digging up all of the sod by hand, so we’ll see how we manage without a tiller over there! I’m sure there’s lots you can do with fertilizing the soil, but we don’t do more than dumping the contents of our compost bin into the mix.

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

  4. Planting: I have made the mistake of planting things too close together (they’re so little at first), but then they grow too close together and compete for nutrients, so this year I will spread them out a bit more.
    Planting the Garden

    Planting the Garden

    Tomatoes from Last Year

    Tomatoes from Last Year

  5. Watering: In the past, we have used an arc shaped sprinkler, but I’ve since learned that it’s not good for the plants to get so much water on their leaves (because of the fungus) so this year, we will be putting in a soaker hose system (hopefully).

    Watering the Garden

    Watering the Garden

  6. Weeds: Weeding is really my favorite part of gardening. It’s very therapeutic and calming. I usually just pull out the weeds by hand, but every time my husband mows with the bagger, I collect the grass clippings and spread them out over the garden floor. This really helps to prevent weeds from growing.

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

  7. Composting: This is an excellent way for children to learn about recycling and to really see first hand what decomposition looks like. We dug out a square in our yard, added beams and boards around the sides (just like making a mini sandbox), and covered it with hinged doors with handles.

Getting Kids Involved

We don’t ever force our children to work in the garden. Whenever we’re going out there to work, we always invite them along, and if they refuse, that is perfectly fine. In the past, our kids have mainly enjoyed the planting and the harvesting process, but now, our oldest daughter Ruby (6) has been VERY helpful preparing the soil and getting things ready. She really enjoys talking about the planning of the garden now that she has seen it through to completion a couple of times. 🙂

In Conclusion

Growing a garden is truly a family event that is bonding in so many ways. I love working in the garden with our kids during every single stage. And when it’s harvesting time, the children see first hand the benefits of all of their hard work.

Happy gardening!

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over) Embracing Motherhood

The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over)

Research shows that when kids are allowed to play in nature without someone hovering over them yelling, “Be careful!” and “Get down from there!” every five seconds, they flourish and grow in so many ways.

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks (There Due to Construction) at Blandford Nature Center

When you think back to the fondest memories of your childhood, do you remember the times you were closely supervised while playing on a plastic or metallic structure for an allotted amount of fresh air time, or do you remember the times when you were wading in a creek catching tadpoles and crayfish, digging in the dirt looking for treasures, building forts, playing imagination games with neighbors and siblings, and exploring the world with fresh eyes without being hovered over (as I was lucky enough to be able to do)?

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

We live in an era of fear which has led to a dangerous amount of helicopter parenting where kids are constantly hovered over and controlled. Kids need elements of risk and danger. It helps them to be better problem solvers. by overcoming small obstacles where the risks are real, they will be able to overcome larger obstacles later when the stakes are higher.

Yes, getting exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are important, but even more important is that kids need time to be free, to get dirty, to fall down and get back up again, to explore nature, to be in the woods, the dirt, the sand, to gather sticks, to build forts that don’t follow any directions, and to do so without us supervising their every move.

Below is a picture of my children playing on the stepping stumps at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, MI. They have an amazing natural playground, a little log cabin, trails that meander through the woods into wigwams and other structures, boardwalks that take you through the woods and showcase rescued animals, and much, much more. This is a great example of a place dedicated to providing children with opportunities for children to learn, explore, and play in nature.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Benefits of Kids in Nature

The Children and Nature Network, an organization dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, has an impressive collection of research showing the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature which is nicely summarized here. A part of me is like, do I really need to reference research to show how kids being in nature is beneficial? But since the research is right in line with what I have observed with my own children, I used it as a framework for my ideas. The following is a summary of the meta-analysis of research about the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature coupled with my observations as a parent of four children who love interacting with nature.

  1. Increases Observation and Creativity: Studies prove that being in nature increases both observation and creativity. I like giving my children magnifying glasses, a microscope, an insect viewer, and collection baskets to further their observation skills. I really enjoy sitting or lying with them in the grass and helping them to notice what is going on around them. I might ask, “Do you see that little ant walking in the grass? Where do you think he’s going? What sounds do you hear right now? Do you hear birds chirping? What color is the sky? Do you see any clouds? Do you see any shapes in the clouds? And so on…” I also like doing art projects that bring in the elements of nature that helps my children to see the beauty of nature.
  2. Encourages Imagination and Sense of Wonder: Research shows that when children have early experiences with nature, there is a positive correlation with their development of imagination and it gives them a sense of wonder. I love encouraging creative and imaginative play with my children, and never do I see their imaginations stretch further than when they are outdoors in nature. I remember during my 7 years as an elementary school teacher, I was always amazed when children didn’t know what to do with themselves at recess. I would love to see us do away with standard sets of playground equipment and instead erect elements that encourage creative and imaginative play like some little log cabins, stepping stones or stumps, meandering paths of natural foliage, or even something more wild like this revolutionary new playground!
  3. Builds Language Development and Collaboration Skills: Studies show that the increased imaginative and creative components that occur when children are in nature foster language development and collaborative skills, and that they also have more positive feelings about each other in doing so. What better way to learn than being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, running and playing with your friends and/or siblings in nature! I love watching my kids interact with each other in nature. The world is such a big place and by exploring many different elements of nature firsthand, they are learning about the world. When I was a classroom teacher, I loved using an “outdoor classroom”.
  4. Increases Skills in Multiple Domains: Research shows that when children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously. There is really no limit to what children can learn when they are out in nature. It gives any learning a sense of purpose, authenticity, and wonder. While I was teaching a unit on ecosystems during my classroom years, we took a weekly field trip to a local pond to observe, collect samples, and take notes about what we saw. This first hand learning experience was so powerful for the children. They loved the hike there, the open ended nature of the project, being in the elements, wading in the water, walking through the brambles, and really paying attention to their surroundings.
  5. Improves Physical Health: Studies show that children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. I mean, it goes without saying that kids will have improved physical health from playing outdoors, but we have to think one step beyond structured and monitored play on predefined playground structures to allow our children to explore the elements of nature, to get dirty, to have danger and risk, to stretch themselves, to be free, and to discover things we never could really plan for or create for them.
  6. Improves Mental Health: Research shows that being in nature helps children to deal with adversity and minimize stress. What’s amazing is that the more time they spend in nature, the greater the benefits. Researchers at the University of Illinois (Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan) discovered that children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) performed better on schoolwork after having contact with nature.
  7. Appropriate Risk Minimizes Accidents:  Studies show that playgrounds where there are genuine risks actually have fewer accidents than traditional playgrounds. When children are given real risks and learn how to handle them, true life-long learning takes place. On the other hand, children who are given sanitized play places are less conscious of risks and actually have more accidents. It’s understandable that we don’t want our children to get hurt, but letting them get a few scrapes and bruises when they are little can actually prevent them from breaking bones…or worse as they get older.

Detriments of Kids Not Being in Nature

I feel like we all know that being outside is good. Getting fresh air and sunshine, being involved in physical activity, participating in the elements of nature…these are all things that promote good health. But beyond the positives, there are some negative things that happen when children are deprived of nature. By not being in nature, children are missing out on so much. Research shows that beyond just the negative health concerns from spending too much time indoors, children can also develop an unhealthy fear of nature.

  1. Fears of Nature: When children are exposed to frightening environmental issues when they are young without fully understanding and appreciating the elements of nature or understanding how these issues can be solved, it causes them to be anxious about nature and want to avoid it. Children fear things they don’t understand (Don’t we all?), and if they first learn about pollution, endangered animals, and overpopulation before getting a chance to freely explore nature and create positive memories in it, is it any wonder that they would just prefer to stay inside with their ipads?
  2. Fears of Injury: When parents are constantly hovering over their children and yelling, “Be careful! Watch out! Get down from there! Get away from that!” they may think that they sound like they’re being good protective parents, but they are not helping their children learn how to assess and deal with risk on their own at all. We were at Blandford Nature Center the other day, it had just rained, and my kids were enjoying splashing in the water, getting dirty, climbing on everything, and having a BLAST. Another family came along while we were there and the mom was constantly yelling, “Don’t get wet! Stay out of the water! Be careful! Get down from those stumps!” She quickly left with her brood in a huff…everyone was still perfectly clean. My kids on the other hand, were soaked, dirty, and sooooo happy. Personally, I would rather keep a spare bag of clothes in the car for each child and let them get dirty and have fun rather than thinking that staying clean is the ultimate reward of childhood.

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

  3. Negative Health Issues: When children do not get adequate exposure outdoors, it puts them at risk for vitamin D deficiency which is a risk factor for rickets, cardiovascular disease, cancer, or autoimmune conditions. A U.S. environmental health report showed that most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Dr. Dennis Ownby states that,

“Maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is that we live too clean a life.”

 In Conclusion

There are a few key pillars to my parenting philosophy such as feeding my children nutrient dense food, being a stay at home mom and completely devoted to their needs, teaching them about language, reading, and math from a young age, sustaining creative and imaginative play…and this, being in nature. I want my children to be completely comfortable being in nature. I want them to enjoy it, to crave it, to know what to do in it, to not be afraid of it, and to let it shape their brains during these early stages of development.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Check out my blog: How to Create a Backyard Haven for Children (coming soon) for ideas on how to add more natural elements to your backyard such as growing a garden (coming soon), making a natural teepee, creating stepping stumps (coming soon), designing an obstacle course (coming soon), building a sandbox, converting a stock tank pool, and more!

Here’s a video of our backyard as we get ready for summer. Ideally, we’d be living on 40 acres of wilderness, but we are doing the best we can with our one acre tucked within city limits. )