Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Small Yard Outdoor Play Area

The weather is warming up and it's time to get outside and play!
But, perhaps you saw my post about creating a natural materials playground in your own yard, and you thought: "that's all well and good... but I just don't have that kind of space in my yard!". If that's the case, then this post is for you!
I used to think that dreamy nature inspired outdoor play spaces were only available to people with land, a lot of land.  But, while we lived in our last house, I realized that wasn't necessarily the case.

Our side "yard"

We used to live in a home with a very small outdoor space. Essentially all we had was a narrow patio, and a couple of cramped flower beds along one side of the house. I would get green with envy when I'd see photos of large beautiful yards.
But, I thought a lot about my options and was able to get creative. In the end I surprised myself with how many fun and inviting options for play we were able to pack into that little area! Many of these ideas you could use even if all you have is a small apartment balcony.

Our back "yard"

When making choices about my children's toys, it is always my preference to stick to natural materials whenever possible, and avoid junky plastic playthings. So, I carried this theme outdoors too.

A Multi-use Playhouse

Children love to have a place to hide, tinker and experiment. So, using part of our old kitchen cabinets as his base, my husband constructed this small wooden playhouse.

On the side of the playhouse I mounted a child height shelf. The shelf itself was a piece of scrap wood, and the brackets were only a few dollars each at Ikea.

To encourage creative play, I filled the shelf with interesting objects from nature (like iridescent abalone shells, rocks and glittering geodes).

When you are short on space, look to walls and fences! Using regular cup hooks I utilized the nearby wall space to hang wind chimes. I also hung a second set of them from the playhouse itself. Playing with sound doesn't take up much space!

Then to add some growing green things, I also hung wooden planters filled with cheerful flowers on the back wall of our house. Things like window boxes and hanging planters also work well for this.


Later, to keep things new and interesting, I mounted a mailbox to the shelf (pictured above). These should be available at your local hardware store. Check to be sure there are no sharp edges.

I also found 3 metal butterflies at the dollar store, which I spray painted brown and screwed above the door for decoration.


As time went on I kept an eye out for interesting things to add to our small outdoor play space, trying to keep with the natural materials theme. The carved redwood mushroom pictured above came from a roadside stand near Redwood National Park. But, similar treasures can often be found at garden centers, nurseries or on etsy. I liked that it was made of wood, and had a relatively small footprint. When you're short on space think "tall" and "thin"!
For more details of this playhouse and views of the details inside, please see this post.

Places to Dig

A friend once reminded me that if our kids weren't getting dirty, then we weren't doing our jobs right. How right she was! Digging in the dirt it fun and therapeutic (for adults too!). In our small yard the kids had two places to dig!

The first was a sturdy raised sandbox that my husband constructed himself. Because we were so short on space he added wheels to one side, and handles to the other. That way it could be lifted and easily relocated if needed (kind of like a wheelbarrow). 

*Also pictured above: Inexpensive reed fencing hides an unsightly view of the neighbor's Rubbermade shed!

The bottom of the sandbox was drilled with drainage holes to let the water out, and lined with fiberglass weed barrier, to keep the sand in. Also, because we had many neighborhood cats, who would have loved to use the sandbox as a littler box, he created a mesh lid. The lid was essentially a wooden frame with crosspieces. It was lined in wire mesh, and fit just inside the box.

Sand toys were kept nearby in wooden baskets. These drain easily, and are readily available for a couple of dollars at most secondhand stores. Over time I eventually replaced most of our plastic sand toys with actual kitchen tools and gadgets, also found at thrift stores. The Goodwill always seems to have a good supply of wooden spoons and wooden baskets! I also kept a small hand broom and dustpan nearby, for the inevitable spillovers. 
Playsand is easy to find at most big-box toy stores or hardware stores. 

If cats are an issue for you, and you don't want to have to cover a sandbox after each use, then consider putting in a gravel pit instead. The cats seem to avoid these, and they can be just as much fun for digging as a sandbox!

I chose to locate our gravel pit just around the bend, in our side yard. It was a narrow space, but the kids didn't care!

Gravel Pit "Before"

I pulled weeds, dug down a few inches and lined the pit with weed barrier. 

Gravel Pit "after"

Then I filled the space with a few bags of pea gravel. I contained it at the edges with prefab "log" garden edging and large shells. Then I built a "willow hut" (but more about that below!).

Add some bright flowers and a few sand toys, and you're all set to play!

A Shady Retreat

I am so inspired by the images I see around the internet of living willow structures, and willow huts! In the early spring there are several online retailers who will sell live willow rods. They are marketed as being for making these neat outside creations. There are also numerous online tutorials on how to do so.
But, I decided I wanted to make one in the middle of the summer, and I didn't want to wait until spring for supplies (plus I was working on a budget!).

So I created my own version!

I decided to blend it into the gravel pit, to make the space more intriguing and multidimensional. So, I tucked it into a corner of our side yard.

Willow Hut "before"

Using some decorative sticks from Ikea (you could probably find them at craft stores, or places like too), jute twine, and long flexible sticks cut from nearby trees, I crafted a "hut". About half of the decorative dry twigs snapped, but the ones cut from trees worked really well. I didn't have a method per say, rather it was just a process of trial and error until I got the shape I was looking for.

Hut "after"

Then I covered the floor with small size wood bark and planted non-poisonous flowers like nasturtiums and sunflowers. Eventually the sunflowers got so tall that they drooped over the top of the hut, perfect! Also, in the corner I planted a honeysuckle vine. This fast growing plant eventually grew to cover the top of the hut. And speaking of sunflowers...

Giant sunflowers can actually be great for small yards! They are tall, thin, dramatic and a delight for children! They are easy to grow from seeds, and can get really tall. As you can see mine were tied to the (6 ft high) to keep them from toppling over! I only wish they lasted all year long.

Remember to save a few of the blooms, and let them dry out.

You can use the seeds to plant a new crop next year!

A Container Fairy Garden

Fairy gardens are great for small yards or even balconies, because they are by their very nature small. The whole fun of creating and using these little worlds is in the fact that everything is miniature. We made ours in half of a wooden wine barrel (look for them at garden stores), but you can use any permeable container. Search Pinterest for thousands of ideas.

I have an entire post dedicated solely to this tiny garden, and the changes it has undergone over time. To see much more about the process and detailed photos, please see this post:

Also, tucked away into another corner I created a labyrinth for the kids to enjoy. Details and a DIY tutorial can be found:

One last thing to think about if you're making choices about hardscaping... A curving path that meanders slowly through your garden is more interesting that a straight one. So, consider curving your walkways.

Thank you for stopping by, and have fun outside... no matter what size your outdoor space is!

Linking up to these great parties:


  1. Really good ideas!!! I grow sunflowers to hide the neighbors 6' tall concrete block fence :^(
    I intersperse sunflower seeds with my Easter lily plants...the lilies come up, bloom and die back as the sunflowers are coming up each spring. Works like a charm!
    Thank you for all of your small space ideas.
    Be blessed,

    1. Great idea to mix those two together! Thanks for the tip :)


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