Simple Elements for Backyard Fun – Even Without the Backyard

Kids need spaces for playing and exploring.  A backyard can become a pretend jungle for your young wild things, a field for soccer or baseball games, or even a three ring circus.  It is a great place for running races or games of freeze tag. Backyards are places to make messes, release energy, and engage in sensory play.

But, what if you don’t have a backyard? How can you give your kids those experiences?

Even with a limited space and resources, one can recreate some of the elements of backyard play, even without the backyard, by adapting them to the space and resources that you do have.

A Place to Splash

I grew up along the banks of a river and my grandparents had a swimming pool. We have a small kiddie pool set up in our backyard now, and my kids (and the dog) all like to run through the sprinkler, too.

But not every child grows up in a place with those opportunities for playing in the water.

When we lived in the city and didn’t have a yard, I used to take our largest bowl from the kitchen and fill it with water for my daughter to play with on the balcony of our apartment. With the addition of a few cups and measuring spoons to scoop and pour with, she was content. Letting kids pretend to wash dishes outside is a fun idea. Pouring, splashing, and floating can be a part of the bath-time routine, too.

Joining a community center with a pool or a swim club is an option for some families.  I know a family who checks into a hotel with a swimming pool a few weekends a year (something I have thought about doing during our long winters when my kids and I are missing our summer swims).


A Place to Get Messy

Whether it is in a sandbox, a garden plot, or even with just a stick in a small patch of dirt, children love to dig! In our apartment days, we had a container garden on our balcony and my daughter had her own flower pot of soil and small trowel for digging with, too. Yes, this is messy, but that is the point: kids need a place where it is okay to make messes and get dirty.

There are wonderful sand and water tables that combine the best of pouring with water and scooping and digging. But, you could make a similar set-up with two plastic totes – one for water and one for sand – or even two bowls if you are in a smaller space.  In Jamie Martin’s book Steady Days she recommends a dried bean box for digging and scooping play.

I’ve been seeing wonderful discovery boxes and sensory tables around the preschool blogs that I read – simple containers filled with sand, dried rice, or beans (lentils seems to be a popular choice) with various small toys, buttons, and other objects hidden in them for the child to discover.

Whatever your circumstances, you can probably come up with some kind of set up that works for you and allows your child to play and explore and get a little messy, even without a backyard.

Room to be LOUD

I know I talk often on this blog about quiet places and slowing down, but kids also need a space where they can be loud and run and play. They need room to jump and cartwheel and release energy.

Our kids hear a lot of  “be quiet, please” or “use your indoor voice.” When we lived in an apartment, I was constantly reminding my daughter not to run so she didn’t disturb the neighbors.

I think it is a very good to be outdoors where the usual rules about peace and quiet can be lifted. Kids need to be able to giggle, scream, shriek, and sing at the top of their lungs.

Admittedly, this is probably the most challenging element of backyard play to recreate.  When we didn’t have our own backyard, we used to take regular walks to the city park a few blocks away. In the apartment we had to be mindful of our neighbors, but at the park we could be as loud in our play as we wanted to be!

We made this a part of our family rhythm and it was good for all of us to make that effort to get outdoors and find green spaces where there was room for running and shouting.


Time to Observe

To varying degrees, younger kids and older kids also need time to connect with nature. Space to be quiet and observe is just as important as a place to run and be loud. The book The Green Hour challenges parents to make sure their kids get an hour outside every day.

A  journal, set of colored pencils, a field guide, and a magnifying glass have become a regular part of our outside gear – and this was true even when we didn’t have our own backyard to observe nature in.

I try to encourage my kids to take a closer look at the world around them, starting with what lies right outside our door – even when that door led to the city street.

Most kids are fascinated to discover the plants and creatures that grow, creep, crawl, hop, and fly – often unnoticed and right under our noses as we go about our busy lives. My daughter has been astonished to see that the maple tree is taller and its trunk is thicker than it was last summer. My son has been enjoying the changes in the dandelions as they change from flower to seed.  Emily Carter reminded us a few week ago that it is time well spent to pick up that interesting rock or pebble and examine it further.

If you have no green spaces near you can still observe the clouds in the sky, the phases the moon moves through each night, the changing daily weather.  Grow plants on your balcony or your windowsill and seek out local botanical gardens.

It might take some extra effort to recreate these elements of backyard play, but it will be worth it for you and your child.

Do you have a backyard? Are you living in a place with limited outdoor space of your own? How do you create places and spaces for your child to play, learn, and explore outside?

25+ Playful Preschool ActivitiesAre you looking for more ways to play and learn with your preschooler? The ebook Three to Five: Playful Preschool might be just what you’re looking for. Filled with ideas for creative, hands-on learning with math, science, and language skill builders plus art and play, too this ebook includes 10 printable resources and is available here.

About Kara

Kara Fleck is the editor of Simple Kids. She is a small town mama, writer, knitter, bookworm, and hooligan. Kara lives in Indiana with her husband Christopher and their four children Jillian, Max, Lucy, and Amelia. You can find more of her writing at

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  1. We must be on the same page. I am currently redoing our backyard to make it toddler friendly. We have dedicated a garden area to a sandbox, kiddie pool and small climbing toy. My son goes outside as soon as he gets up and would spend the entire day if he could. I am thankful I have a yard for all of us to enjoy.
    .-= Jill Leonard´s last blog ..Let’s Talk Dirty! =-.

  2. When we lived in Brooklyn, our daughter would stand on the radiator near the big living room window and say her single favorite word, “Outside” until her dad came home and we could go to the park. We lived in the park and the botanic gardens, but even walking around our neighborhood and admiring the small plots of flowers and the few vegetables devoted urban gardeners planted kept us nourished.

    Stuck inside, though, we still found good outside play inside. I’d set her up at the sink on a sturdy stool or chair and let her bathe her toys and play. Bath time was also play time.

    And I remember one wild day when my two kids covered the kitchen floor with the shredded paper that came as packing in a box. They spent the day scooping, sweeping, kicking it and even swimming in it much to their delight. Good to get a little messy sometimes!
    .-= Sarah Clachar´s last blog ..How To Ice Skate =-.

  3. Do you have any leads on purchasing lentils/beans/etc? I’d like to do a playbox/sensory table type of thing, but buying lentils in the small bags sold at the grocery store seems a bit cost prohibitive. Any advice about an inexpensive way to do something along these lines?

    • One way you may skirt the cost is if you let your local grocer know that you would be interested in any packages that are split or cut as they unpack boxes. They obviously can’t sell open packages, but it’s possible they may stockpile them for you if you explain your purpose and let them know you’re interested. It never hurts to ask!
      .-= Amanda Morgan´s last blog ..There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly- A Classic Folk Poem =-.

    • White rice in a 20lb bag from a Chinese market would probably be cheaper than lentils. Otherwise, an organic grain coop might have the best buy for you in bulk?!

  4. We love the backyard at our house, and we’re currently preparing to move to another house with an even bigger backyard with more cool hiding spots! My son is really looking forward to it.

    My biggest challenge, however, has been learning to live with the messiness of outdoor play. My son is REALLY into dirt and mud this year. But I remind myself that some of my happiest childhood memories involve playing in the forest during camping trips, and making mud pies. I want him to grow up with the same simple memories. So I guess I can handle a few (or a lot!) of mud covered shirts.
    .-= Shannon @ AnchorMommy´s last blog ..Bono’s bad back = good news for me!!! =-.

    • My 7 year old daughter is big into dirt and mud this year. To deal with the mess we set aside certain clothes that she’s allowed to play like that in. And we’ve shown her how to use the well pump to clean herself up in (not just to make mud).

      Now we feel more easy about letting her have that fun!
      .-= Joseph Nally´s last blog ..Working Overtime Effects You and Yours =-.

  5. Great post, Kara! We’re lucky enough to have pretty good outdoor space, though it’s kind of your typical yard. As a child, I grew up on a farm and loved those rough, unstructured expanses of pastures, hills, and groves. I try to take my kids to the hills and canyons near our home to give them some of that same experience exploring in the “wilds” of nature.
    .-= Amanda Morgan´s last blog ..There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly- A Classic Folk Poem =-.

  6. For water play, some of our local parks (St Louis, MO) have water play areas. One just has a big jet of water spraying in the air. Another has holes in a concrete area, where water randomly sprays from different holes. The same park also has a good sized fountain, and – on certain days – they have wading pools they fill up. All free. :)

  7. We have a little old house with a big backyard. My girls love, ages 2 and 5, playing on the swingset, and chasing each other the lawn, but the latest simple pleasure is running through the sprinkler with swimsuits and umbrellas. I love hearding their squeals of joy.
    .-= Mary@ A Simple Twist of Faith´s last blog ..Creating a Family Mission Statement =-.

  8. Thanks for some great ideas!
    .-= Mozi Esmes Mom´s last blog ..Winners =-.

  9. I think you have described playing nirvana for most children :)

  10. What a great post! These experiences are critical for healthy development of our children. Here in the northwest, we can get wet, cold weather for about nine months of the year. While we love the outdoors and have learned how to enjoy all of our seasons here, there are some days that it’s just easier or more convenient to stay home.

    To still support our young children’s development and healthy exploration we’ve turned our garage into a playroom. We have a playful foam “flooring” and wall hangings hiding our shelves. One entire wall is covered with recent art. We have a nesting swing, hanging bars, a small trampoline, hula hoops, stomp clompers and hippity hops for big movement play. We also have a rice bin and rice/pasta bin with cars, trucks and kitchen tools.

    Our kitchen includes an art easel for impromptu messages, menu creation and artistic endeavors. The children each have their own bin of supplies and fun objects in our walk-in pantry that they can access freely, in addition to the “big bin” of craft goodies.

    We set up these different areas of our house and made them easily accessible and enjoyable for our children. We see the rewards daily.
    .-= Gina´s last blog ..Volunteerism Inspired by- Ice Cream =-.

  11. Great ideas! Another suggestion for the dry bin is split peas and unpopped popcorn. The peas come in green and yellow varieties and popcorn in lots of colors. Just another sense to engage and something else to discuss when you add colors or change the colors.
    .-= KYouell´s last blog ..Serendipitous Neighboring Tweets =-.

  12. Jennifer says:

    My children (8 and 10) love to dig and explore. We live in a suburban neighborhood, but we don’t let that stop us! My children are regularly dragging out our shovels and digging in their hole. I am sure my neighbor behind cringes everday since his yard is the picture of a perfection.

    Last week, they found a frog on the side of your new raised garden bed (probably yet another eyebrow raiser from the neighbor). They had so much fun building and digging a “condo” for the frog. What joy it is to see children playing like children should!

  13. Single Mama by Choice says:

    Thanks for including great ideas for us apartment-dwellers, which is something many bloggers overlook.

  14. Great post… Our garden is pretty small but my kids have made sure they have rocky spots and muddy spots and a growing spot… right now they are working on making a play garden for their little brother full of things to do – its going to be such fun!!! I hope I have small kids forever because our garden is never going to have that “landscaped ” look at least I can blame the kids for the lack of appearances!!!

  15. Great ideas! We have a great backyard right now, but we’re renting and it’s a shared backyard, so it does limit what I can do with the space. I would love to dig out a “mud hole” for my boys to dig in~! Not sure the neighbors or landlord would be in to that idea! But these are great ideas of how to have fun even when you’re limited with your space. I have found sensory boxes to be great and recently did the sand and water idea with two different plastic tubs. So there are way to keep having fun outdoors even when I don’t technically have my “own” backyard! Thanks!
    Leslie´s latest post: Are You an “Expert” on Your Own Child


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