Friday, June 20, 2014

How To Build Your Own Backyard Playground



































A couple days ago a reader left a comment on the Facebook page asking, "If I have $200 to make my backyard look a little more like your school, what should I get?"

First off, $200 is a pretty good budget for a project like that, mainly because most of the coolest stuff we have in our outdoor classroom we acquired at little or no cost. 

So here are some suggestions:


Sand or at least someplace for digging. Backyard sandboxes are great, but they're often really too small and too shallow for growing kids. When our community has created playgrounds, we always talk about "full body" sand pits. Sand, while not terribly expensive (around here we get about 60 lbs. for $3), could eat up that whole budget, however, but setting aside a digging area involving just regular dirt is an acceptable alternative.


And, of course, you'll need shovels, pails, and other tools. We use cheap plastic ones. We've tried metal, but galvanized steel buckets are heavier when full and tend to get bent out of shape quite easily in our rough and tumble environment. We do own some metal shovels, rakes, and hoes, but they aren't for day-to-day use even though they would probably make the work go easier. The reason is that our shovels are as often used as "weapons" as for digging, and while they both hurt, getting accidentally brained by a plastic shovel is generally preferred over being brained by a metal one.


Our two-level sandpit wouldn't be itself without a cast iron water pump. You can get a new one for under $50. Our's is mounted on a board that rests atop an inexpensive 30-gallon plastic tub that serves as our cistern. We drilled holes in the lid for the uptake pipe and for a hose to refill it when it's empty.


A natural extension of the pump, of course, are lengths of guttering. Ours are cut into 6-foot sections although we have a couple 10-footers stashed away for special uses. If you spend more than $200 on a pump set up, you've spent too much.


Using the gutters as loose parts is much preferred over a permanent installation. Not only does that allow kids to change the direction and flow of water as their needs demand, but we can use the gutters for other purposes, like down at the art station where we employ them in painting on adding machine tape with balls, mini-pumpkins, and/or toy cars and trucks.


Much of the stuff that makes our space "look" the way it does are things on which you really shouldn't have to spend anything. You can usually pick up logs and tree rounds, for instance, from a neighbor who has recently removed a tree or done some major pruning. Tree services will often give you some if they know its for kids.


Our two boats have both been donations. You just have to get the word out and wait.


It's important to remember, I think, that nothing lasts forever. It's good for kids to spend time playing on, with, and around things that are in various stages of deterioration. So when we got our new metal boat, we simply left the old, rotting, wooden one in place, where it is slowly "sinking" into the sand.



And speaking of loose parts, you shouldn't have to spend a penny on those.


Most of the toys, broken things, cartons, containers, boxes, and whatnot that we're ready to toss out, spend at least a little time in the outdoor classroom before reaching their final resting place in the dumpster.


"Loose parts" is just another name for junk.



Counted among our favorite loose parts are those larger bits that can be hoisted about by teams of kids.


Planks are incredibly versatile.


Ours range in length from 4-8 feet. These have all been donated by families and others looking to make space in their garages.


It's best if you can get new wood without a lot of knots in it: kids really like to experiment with the springy nature of the planks. Some of these have lasted us 3+ years being outdoors year round.


Shipping pallets are a great addition to planks. Ours were all acquired for free. We used to just grab them from the side of the road, but since learning that there can be some chemical and biological hazards associated with pallets, we've started making sure to only use those that are stamped with "HT," which stands for "heat treated." You don't want the chemically treated pallets around kids. We also avoid pallets that have been used to transport food products.


Old car tires are also staples around our place.


And we have a couple of galvanized steel garbage cans. They not only make great, loud, "thunder drums" and hidey-holes, but we often commander them as impromptu table tops.


Other free and inexpensive things we like to have around include brooms . . .


. . . ropes . . .


. . . pulleys . . .


. . . chains . . .


. . . roles of plastic fencing . . .


. . . pvc pipe . . .


. . . old bicycle inner tubes (in this case, we used them to make a sort of catapult) . . .


. . . pipe insulation . . .


. . . cardboard boxes . . .


. . . hoops . . .


. . . stick ponies . . .


. . . chalk . . .


. . . and lots of stuff to just bang on.


As far as more permanent things, I think it's nice to have some sort of playhouse. Again, ours was a donation from a family whose kids had outgrown it, although one of our grandfathers is building us a new one as we speak. A playhouse can be as simple as a cardboard box, however.


It's also nice to have some sturdy tables and chairs. We've purchased ours and they were quite a bit outside the $200 price range, but that's because we're a preschool with over 65 kids playing out there every day. Cheaper stuff, and even cast-off items with the legs cut down will work for backyard purposes. You can often find workable stuff at Goodwill.


And our space simply would not be what it is without a garden. Ours is just a collection of raised beds, but you don't even need that. 


Pots, soil and few seeds will suffice.


We've also re-puposed an old sensory table as a compost/worm bin. 


None of these things are expensive and that's how a child's play space should be. If there is any great truth about an outdoor classroom it's that it should be continually evolving and adapting, a hodge podge of old and new and everything in between. I am not exaggerating when I say that we acquired everything discussed in these photos for not a lot more than $200, other than the furniture and the sand, although there are work-arounds for both of those. If you're just outfitting a backyard, you can probably do it all for less.

That said, it's a backyard, which implies neighbors. As educational as these kinds of spaces are for children, these wonderlands of loose parts, dirt, rocks and compost, these bastions of junkyard chic, they are often perceived as eyesores by the uninitiated. Before going too far, you might want to save up to build a fence.

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, I was just wishing I could have a backyard that looks like your space, and there were some great ideas!

Sarah said...

Loved this!! Hopefully we'll be setting up a pump soon. I do have one question - with all the water play, have mosquitoes been a problem?

Teacher Tom said...

@Sarah . . . People complain about our climate in Seattle, but one of the benefits is that we have virtually no moquettes (or really any insect pests of any sort). We do have a lot of spiders, but, you know, spiders are cool. You'll obviously want to avoid standing water as much as possible.

Jennifer Tammy said...

I love the honesty of this post, and am so excited to share it! I think many people are intimidated to create their own playscapes, but we forget that it's not up to us to create the fun -- the more open-ended the space is, the more the children can transform it. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I love it but our concern would be snakes...

Juliet Robertson said...

Thank you Tom for a wonderful summary. I'm left wondering if I have any thing to add...

I'm a great fan of velcro - because little hands can fasten it in very cold weather.

I find collections of natural materials such as shells, stones, cones and sticks which children have acquired when out and about also really useful.

I'm keen on big bore pipes that are used on construction sites, hoses for water work, fishing nets and cable drums too. Fishing resources such as fish boxes and buoys are great too. Milk crates and bread crates are fab too.

Also forgot to say - you might enjoy my "Tom Sensori Water Station" post as this may give practitioners ideas as to how to pimp their play equipment. http://creativestarlearning.co.uk/early-years-outdoors/the-sensori-water-station/

Amy said...

Great ideas. Sadly we couldn't have the tubs full of loose parts, as we have redback spiders here in Melbourne. The pump is such a good addition, I wonder where I could get one...

Kierna C said...

Great post & it is lovely to see a similar messy playspace to my own.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say I'm almost 40 and would love to be able to spend some time playing where your students play!

Maple Blog said...

Where can I get 60 lbs of sand for $3?

Anonymous said...

looks very much like the environment back home. Lots of free play and many playmates.I spent all my summer vacations under makeshift tentsfrom discarded tin sheets, cardboard, ,hiding in between the moss covered walls of old houses, walking across shingled roofs, watching rain water flow like a river down the street, following the ants to their hideouts, junk from my grandpas old bicycle store in a corner, electrical stuff from my hobbyist uncle, . It was awesome

Teacher Tom said...

@Maple blog . . . They sell 60 lb. bags of "play sand" at Home Depot, although it's less expensive to purchase it by the dump truck if you need that much.

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