Rethinking the Conventional Playset

The Back Story:


When we moved into our current home our oldest daughter had just turned three. We had our landscape designed to look much like that of our friends in their suburban neighborhoods. The landscape design was created by a local landscape company. Because my parents owned a garden center at the time and he has experience in the landscape industry, The Handyman installed most of it himself. The landscape was designed purely for esthetic value not taking into consideration our lives, habits or schedules. Even purchasing much of the plant material at wholesale cost, we spent a *ton* of money. At that time we both worked fulltime outside of the home. I was commuting 90 miles each way to work every day. The Handyman’s commute was nearly as long in the opposite direction. Because we did not hire a landscape company to come and take care of said landscaping and we didn’t have the time to do it ourselves, within the first two years most of it was dead. Ouch! Our back yard was largely empty with the exception on a deck out the backdoor and the large wooden playset we put up the first summer we were here. A few years after we put up the playset it was damaged in a windstorm. We were able to salvage part of it but last year The Handyman decided it was time for it to come down. Initially we planned on putting up a new playset by Lifetime, but after further thought and research I am looking to change the traditional yard set up and do something different. Not that a swingset is bad, on the contrary I think every kid needs a swing. I’m just not convinced that the swingset is the best or the only way to encourage both play and outdoor learning. (I know it unconventionally…who would have thought?)

The Theory:

Because we homeschool, our kids are home a lot so it is very important to me that they have the opportunity to engage in outdoor play that is not only fun and entertaining but that encourages them to be creative and to connect with nature in a real and tangible way. I want them to be able to explore and investigate the world around them on their own terms and in their own time. The thought is that the children will get more out of the outdoor enviroment that is designed more as a natural playscape.

There are a few fantastic books that have been written about creating natural play areas that I have found to be really helpful.

Natural Playscapes by Rusty Keeler

A Child’s Garden, Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents by Molly Dannenmaier

Backyards for Kids by Sunset

Plants for Play by Robin Moore

The way it is now:

We currently have just less than 8 acres on our little farm. The dairy farm down the road rents the front 4 acres to raise corn, beans and hay. Last year we put up a barn and a new chicken coop in our back yard. The barn houses dairy goats, meat goats and 2 pigs. There are 30ish laying hens that call the coop and chicken pasture their home. (I love that the kids are able to interact with the animals on a daily basis. They have so much fun helping feed and care for the animals.) Behind the barn and pasture there is a wooded area with a ravine that will be a great place for the kids to play and explore as they get older. Our garden is on the west side of the house and pretty much takes up the whole side yard. Last year we planted a few dozen raspberry, blueberry and grape plants on the east side of the house.

That leaves the front yard. We have a wonderful covered front porch that faces south and is blocked from wind and weather on both sides. The Handyman and I love sitting on the porch together late into the evening especially in the summer months. Its a great place for the the kids to play but its also a great place for me to be present and available without being right in the middle of their outdoor explorations.

The Goal:

Some of the elements I am looking to incorporate into our play scape are water, sand for digging and creating, a solid surface area for riding tricycles and scooters, secluded places for being quiet and alone, large open spaces for active group play, space for creating and enjoying music and art. I want to include space for them to grow their own plants. Sure they help out in the family garden, but they love picking out their own plants. I want the area to appeal to all of their senses. There should be elements that they can enjoy all year round, even with our crazy Ohio weather. I want it to be a place that they feel as comfortable playing alone as they do together. I want it to be a place where they can be a scientist and study the plants and bugs as well as a place that lends itself to imaginative play, where they can be princesses and pirates.

water featureplay stream


tic tac toe (192x192)


The challenge then is to accomplish this with some level of visual appeal in our front yard, and on a reasonable budget, even if that means no traditional “swing set.” I’m so excited to be planning this new addition. What about you? Do you have an area around your home or yard when your family enjoys all nature has to offer. What do you love about it and how it makes you feel?


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