Backyard Makeover: Creating a Natural Playspace

The yard/property attached to our house is both a blessing and a curse. We are surrounded by trees that are so dense during the leafy part of the year that you can’t even see our neighbours’ houses. This is exactly the privacy and connection to nature that we desired when we moved in, so there’s the blessing.

The “curse” is that the property is oddly shaped. The front yard is mostly made up of the driveway and gardens with a small patch of lawn between the house and the trees.

Then it slopes downward on both sides of the house to the backyard (which the kids love to fly down on their bikes but otherwise doesn't serve much purpose). In the back is a relatively small chunk of grass that is uneven and backs right onto two acres of woods.

Small, lumpy backyard that won't fit most prefab playground structures

Small, lumpy backyard that won't fit most prefab playground structures

We have been tossing around the idea of getting a playground structure for the yard, however to do so would mean a whole lotta work levelling a section of our lumpy lawn and then having a brightly coloured playset interrupting our gorgeous tree view that we all love so much. We wanted a playspace for the kids, but couldn't figure out how to make one work on our property, both size-wise and visually. We were at an impasse.

Then Miss M’s bus stop was temporarily moved to the playground at the end of the street. After her and a couple other neighbourhood kids got off the bus, we’d all head over there to play. From the first day we started doing this, the regular kids at this bus stop ran right past the great play structure and swings and headed into the woods behind it. I discovered that they had a whole “city” inside those woods complete with personal “hide-outs,” a special climbing tree, a sliding rock and many more features. My daughter and her friend, who I watch after school a few days a week, were immediately swept up into this world and excitedly created their own hide-outs and joined in the work-team building a new fort.

Watching them, day after day, reject this beautiful playground for trees and leaves and rocks reminded me of our original plan with the house, to create a natural playspace on our property. If you’ve not heard of a natural playspace, it incorporates natural elements into playground “structures” and uses the land as it is to develop a playspace for kids. Halifax just opened one at The Dingle last year, and we visited one in Bridgetown, NS the year before; and I wrote a piece about what natural playgrounds are for the local papers.

I talked to my husband and we both were immediately inspired by it again. As we googled ideas and walked the property we started to get excited about this idea. Looking at our yard through this lens, suddenly it was no longer a curse, but a big space filled with opportunity and our imaginations went wild.

That section of the yard that is so shady no grass ever grows? A mud kitchen, dinosaur bone excavation site, or construction site for toy trucks!

That clearing to the side of the backyard in the woods across the ditch? Perhaps we could put a bridge over to a fort in there!

Also, I'm pretty sure a few of those trees have fairies living in them, don't you think? And there needs to be a tree swing, or two, or three...

We’re excited to get started now that it's warming up and my Pinterest inspiration board is stuffed full of ideas we are eager to explore. I’m sure as we get working the ideas will evolve. We’ll also have Miss M and Mr M involved in the process and try to implement as many of their ideas as possible to make it a true family project. Miss M has already staked out her "hide-out" in a boulder on the side of the hill.

This type of playspace also ties into my efforts to allow my kids more "risky play," something I wrote about a couple years ago as an evolving concept in Halifax, and something I am personally working on allowing more freedom with (especially considering Miss M has had TWO sets of stitches already - and one of them happened at a traditional playground - and she's only five and a half).

We’ll post about our progress as we go and would love any ideas or experiences you've had creating or playing in natural playspaces.

Have you incorporated any natural playground elements in your yard?