Natural Play Spaces
Playing in the dirt
When designing the backyard playspace I wanted to incorporate lots of natural elements and places for open ended play. For a description of open ended play you can read more from the Playground Professionals. Essentially open ended materials allow children to come up with their own uses and ideas and encourage them to be creative. This is in contrast with more “high tech” toys that have one clearly defined purpose or single use toys such as puzzles. Open ended play materials have more staying power, they last longer, are played with for a longer period and are less age specific. Intuitively we all know this when we think back to our childhoods. I can clearly remember in my childhood, spending hours at the beach with old logs that became our kitchen and at the ravine collecting fiddle heads to cook for dinner. We built forts out of drift wood, collected sea shells and sea weeds, dug clay out of river beds to make pottery. Every weekend and every summer day we were dragged off on “outings” to another park or beach.
Our backyard is on the smaller side but I knew it had the potential for lots of little play spaces, we just needed to use a bit of creative thinking.
Being somewhat of a clean freak I have to admit that the idea of adding dirt did cause me to shudder but I decided to be brave and embrace the mess! I have fond memories in my mom’s garden of all the different fruit and veggies she grew and I want that for the little ones I care for.
Adding dirt and other loose parts
For our smaller space we decided to make a little vegetable garden on the right hand side and a dirt pit on the left. This area serves the dual purpose of a dirt patch for digging and for making mud and a garden for growing vegetables.
I made the dirt patch a bit larger than the garden because I thought the kids needed a bit more space to really get in there with their shovels and to do some serious digging. There is enough space to bring in some trucks for construction play. I set a stump in the centre to act as a table and two other stumps on their side for seating or perhaps they could be roads or…
Update: We have added in some smaller stumps around the dirt pile table to use as stools
I added a small tea set for tea parties, some tools for digging in the mud.
I read a post about adding fake flowers to the sandbox/ dirt box for open ended play and picked these up at my favourite shop (Value Village.) I planted them in the veggie patch until our carrots sprout through. The kids can take these out to plant or cook or use in dramatic play.
Of course no dirt pile / garden would be complete without a mud kitchen to cook up all those tasty mud pies! I used four stumps to form the legs of the kitchen table and a piece of plywood with dark stain to make the top. Right now we have a set of burners for the stove and I’m keeping an eye out for a stainless steel sink to fit in the centre.
Updated: The kids really love the double sink we have added to complete the mud kitchen area
I added a few old pots and pans, some other cooking tools, utensils and small plastic parts that can be food or other creations. I filled a large metal bucket with water and lined the bottom with stones and sea shells and placed it next to the kitchen. The bucket can be used in pretend play as a pond or ocean and also provides a source of water to mix with the dirt to make mud.
There you have it! Very simple and basic but I think this little corner offers a lot of potential for pretend play, dramatic play, construction and some natural sensory experiences.