The following post is by editor Kara Fleck and was originally published May 2010.
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’s 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. Sensory play is important for kids and about more than just making a mess.
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 in our backyard 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?