From the ground up: Create an outside exploration area for kids in yard

Teach your kids how to enjoy your backyard more

This is the time of year when I remember the summers of my youth when I played outside catching lightening bugs, shooting hoops, playing hide-and-seek with the neighbor kids, swinging on our swing set, climbing trees and making mud pies. Nowadays it seems that most kids need to learn how to play outside and need inspiration to find something to do. Iowa State University Extension & Outreach Family Life Specialist Kristi Cooper provides some tips on how to get kids excited to play in their own backyard.

Q: I want my kids to be outdoors more. How do I create a backyard that they will love?

A: Children of all ages benefit from unstructured, unlimited time in nature. They learn skills in many areas of development, including math and science, visual spatial, art, music and movement, language and social skills. Being outdoors with a supportive adult also can help a child instill a love of learning, stimulate curiosity and create a positive relationship with the natural world. They need more than a lawn to develop these skills.

Research done in early childhood settings reveals principles to an effective outdoor space for children. They include:

Designated activity areas. Just like you have a dining room for eating, a living room for conversation and a bedroom for sleeping, the outdoor spaces are clearly designated for specific kinds of activity. Separate the areas with plantings or hardscape.

A variety of activity areas. Backyards are the perfect place to create nooks for nature art, building, music and movement, open space for running and jumping, climbing and crawling spaces and more. Having a garden area and a dirt digging area are wonderful opportunities for children to get lost in these activities. Create sensory pathways through plantings to connect these activity areas. Tall grasses, velvety lamb’s ear and aromatic herbs are plants that stimulate the your child’s sense of sight, sound, smell and touch. Add edible plants such as blackberries and you have a full sensory experience for your children as they move through the backyard.

Name the activity areas and post signage. Let children name the area and create the symbols or signs to identify the space. I know families who have a “Mud Kitchen” for making mud pies and digging dirt, a “Sand trap” for sand play, “The Hide-out” for quiet activities such as reading or creating art. Be creative.

Provide natural “loose parts.” Pine cones, seed pods, gourds, cicada exoskeletons, stones, building blocks, sticks and branches are open-ended items that stimulate the imagination. They are often free and can be collected on hikes in your neighborhood. You can also add accessories such as watering cans, shovels, garden gloves, dancing scarves and magnifying glasses.

Provide flat surfaces and storage. Create a floor from slices of tree trunks “tree cookies.” Position a large stump that can be used as a table or art pallet. A simple natural shelf or box that can store collections of natural items and accessories near each activity area helps children be autonomous and develop independence.

For more information on outdoor spaces for children, go to Get the free Nature Explore Families Club packet download at and make every day an adventure in close observation for you and your children.


Herbal Salves and Bug Repellents by Sandy Rosenberger, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, 120 E. Boyson Rd. $15. Register by Monday. Learn how to go to Mother Nature’s medicine chest for scrapes, bug bites, sun burns and sore muscles.

Early Morning Bird Walk, 7 a.m. Saturday at Wickiup Hill Learning Center, 10260 Morris Hills Rd., Toddville. A light breakfast will follow. $1 to $2.50.

Backyard Forest Field Day, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, 120 E. Boyson Rd., Hiawatha. Learn more about trees in your yard from local specialists. Free, but registration requested at (319) 373-0650.Questions on gardening, land use or local foods? Contact Michelle Kenyon Brown, community ag programs manager at Linn County Extension,

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