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Natural Play Spaces

We knew we wanted to have sand in the backyard and spent time trying to decide if we would have a sand box or a sand pit. The sandbox was appealing because we could cover it and keep the sand dry but I also liked the idea of a larger pit that could be deeper to allow for digging and more creativity.  Another benefit to a sandpit rather than a box is that I find it to be more natural and more like beach sand which isn’t perfectly clean and is usually wet. In my opinion wet sand is more fun anyway because it can be formed into sand castles. When you stop worrying about keeping the sand clean and dry you can feel more comfortable adding loose parts like sea shells, gems, pinecones, stones and treasure.


Sandy river bed

Our yard already had a long section that seemed to be the perfect shape for a long sand pit / dry river bed. I dug out the centre of the river and made it curve to simulate the way a river bends around objects. I filled the river with sand for digging and lined the edges with river stones and larger rocks. We have recently added smaller stumps for seating and tree cookies for building and extending sand play.




We recently replaced the stump fort in the corner of the yard and added a two story grey and white playhouse for the children. We will continue to add to it as we go.


Stumps and greenery

I love the look of tree stumps as part of a kids playspace and we happened to have a LOT of stumps to work with. If you are looking to add stumps to your backyard you can often find them posted for free on Craigslist. We plan to find a variety of other logs and branches to cut up into “tree cookies.” * Updated: We have finally added in some natural blocks/tree cookies cut from birch. I used some stumps to form a semi-circle on each end of the river to create a fort big enough for little toddlers to use and placed a few more along the river for climbing on. Nan helped me to plant some ferns and iris along the river to add some greenery and to make the river feel more realistic.


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Along the river I scattered shells and “treasures” to be discovered and incorporated into play

Sand toys

Of course to finish it off we had to include a variety of sandbox toys. We added some trucks for hauling blocks and sand, some tools for digging and a couple of forms for making sand castles.

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gravel pit

gravel pit

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.

veggie patch & dirt pit

veggie patch & dirt pit

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.

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Dirt Pile

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.

Latest Update: We have replaced the dirt pile with a large sand pit because I felt the children didn’t use the dirt as often as they could have


Mud kitchen

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.

Mud Kitchen

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.