By Barbara Butler
My mom insisted we go outside and play every day, no matter what the weather. We might have grumbled about it on cold and rainy days, but once we were outside, we always ended up having fun. Getting the kids off their devices and outside in the fresh air can be a bit difficult—if your backyard isn’t as large as you’d like, you might feel extra discouraged on this front.
Related: 9 Ways to Beautify Your Backyard
However, you can create an enticing and magical outdoor play area for your children, no matter the size. After building unique backyard play structures and tree houses for over 25 years, I’ve learned how to transform many challenging terrains into the focal point for children's play. Here are some ideas to get you started on your own transformation:
Work With Your Site
Analyze your backyard before you begin designing. Where's the shade? Where will you sit to watch the kids? What other activities do you use your yard for, such as barbecuing, yoga, gardening or exercising the dog? Is there a way to make the space multi-purpose, such as by rolling out your yoga mat under the treehouse?
Take advantage of the natural features of your space rather than fighting against them. Build a slide right into a slope, terrace a hillside to create a multi-level play area with climbing ladders and/or slides in between, or nestle a clubhouse next to the branches of a tree. Perk up small, unused areas with a sandbox (try using tree rounds as the border), water table or low balance beam. Hang a giant knotted rope from a tree branch. And—one of my favorites as a child—gather all the neighborhood kids and create an obstacle course from things you find in the garage and yard. Then start the timed races to see who can finish the fastest.
Imaginative and Physical Play Features
Kids want to exercise both their imagination and their muscles. To this end, I recommend combining physical and imaginative play features. For example, add rock climbing holds and crenellations to an existing fence, so the kids can defend or attack the monarchy, rather than just climbing up a wall. If you have a ship theme, choose a nautical knotted rope climb, create a sandbox in the shape of a boat and add pirate flags to the deck. If you have a deck, turn it into a theater! No matter the theme, a slide always lends itself to a quick get-away. (Pro tip: Spiral tube slides require much less space than straight ones.)
Loops of Play
Try to imagine the kids running around—now create lots of fun "loops" of play instead of creating dead-ends. This means creating multiple ways up and down a structure, such as ladders, slides, fire poles, steps and ramps. Wherever there's an up, have a down close by. Imagine the kids playing tag and make sure there's nowhere they can get boxed in. Even areas meant to feel cozy can have an extra way out.
I often include a "secret" escape hatch in my playhouses hidden underneath a table or counter. Give the kids places to go—up the ladder, across the bridge, ring the bell, then down the slide and back again—and they'll wear themselves out for a good night's sleep.
If the footprint of your yard isn't as expansive as you'd like, consider building up. A two-story playhouse gobbles up no more of your lawn than a single-story one. A treehouse nestled in the branches of a tree leaves the space below open for other types of play. If you have room to build two towers, connect them with a bridge and you can add swings or monkey bars underneath.
I'm a big fan of tree houses, so if you have a suitable tree to build in or near, that's a great way to create the magic, no matter the size of your yard. After all, don't the best adventures start with entering the mysterious, leafy world of the treetops? No trees in your yard? You can create the same inviting feeling of becoming ensconced in greenery by planting climbing vines or bamboo around the play area.
There's nothing magical about an unsafe play environment. By eliminating unnecessary risks, you'll create a stimulating space for your children to freely challenge themselves without going too far. After all, you want to be able to send your kids out to play by themselves with minimum supervision and without the worry of a serious injury.
The most important safety feature of any play structure is to make sure you have established a "use zone" filled with resilient surfacing material, such as bark chip, sand, rubber chip, rubber matting or pea gravel. Experts have proven that the installation of a resilient surfacing material in the play area is by far the most important safety feature you can provide. The "use zone" should be at least six feet of obstacle-free space all around the play structure.
Use green products because they're safer for kids and the planet. Build with redwood or other natural lumber, not chemically pressure treated wood, which is harmful to kids. I use redwood from well-managed forests and non-toxic tung oil stains that contain no mildewcides (a very toxic compound that inhibits the growth of mildew). When cleaning my structures, I use a biodegradable citrus-based cleaner instead of commercial cleaners.
Prevent pinched fingers: Leave half-inch gaps around doors and shutters so little fingers will not get pinched when closing by grasping the edge. Also, leave quarter inch gaps in floorboards so water will drip through in the rainy season and not puddle. You'll definitely want to add doors and shutters–one of the first things children do is open and close the shutters about 900 times!
Barbara Butler, the founder and CEO of Barbara Butler Artist-Builder Inc, has been designing and building extraordinary custom treehouses and play structures for children for over 25 years, both residential and commercial, within the United States and internationally. Visit her website www.barbarabutler.com.