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Tips for Designing Outdoor Play Spaces

September 28th, 2021 | 4 min. read

By Lisa Williford

Rusty Keeler, author of Seasons of Play, is a play space designer who has worked over the past 20 years with hundreds of community, school, parks, university, and child care leaders to dream, design, and construct beautiful outdoor environments for children. He is one of the pioneers in the nature play movement, and his designs reflect his sincere desire to create a more beautiful world for children to grow and explore. Below, Rusty shares how to reconnect ourselves and children with nature, and gives practical tips on how to take your outdoor play space to the next level using inexpensive materials.

Hi, I'm Rusty Keeler. I am the author of the Gryphon House book, Seasons of Play. I am all about connecting kids to nature through play, and how we can design beautiful natural environments to support great child-directed play using natural materials like hills, plants, trees, sand, water, and mud— that kind of stuff, the good stuff. I have a few tips to help you as you think about how to take your outdoor play space to the next level. 

Connect With Your Core Values for Outdoor Play

The first thing to do, before you even think about what you want to add to your space, is to actually connect to your core values for play, children, and the outdoors. What do you want for your children? What kind of opportunities? What do you believe in when it comes to play, nature, and mess—yes, mess! 

Reflect on Your Own Childhood Outdoor Play Experiences

After you connect to your core values, another thing to do while you are thinking about creating spaces for children today is to actually go back in your memories and your heart to your own childhood. Where did you play as a kid? Did you have a place that you played outside? 

When we're talking about creating natural environments for children, we're thinking about bringing in all sorts of sensory experiences. So take a moment and think about a favorite place where you played outside, and think of all the sensory experiences that were there. What did it look like? What did it smell like? What did it feel like, sounds like, or taste like?

Maybe these kinds of experiences can remind us about the depth and the importance of play in our own live and in our own growing up. This also helps to give us ideas when we start to think about the kind of spaces we want to create for children who are being children now and who are growing up now. What kind of environments would they enjoy? What kind of sensory experiences would help them to learn and grow? 

Add Loose Parts to Your Outdoor Play Space

Okay. That's the memory stuff, but now you want some good, hard tips, like things that you can do in your yard. So one of the biggest things that you can do, one of the easiest things you can do, one of the simplest things you can do, one fastest things you could do is add loose parts to your outdoor play environment! Yes, loose parts or loose stuff.

You don't have to spend lots of money building things or bringing in sculptures or dump-truck  loads of dirt to make hills. Just start thinking about what you can bring into your yard that children can play with. And we’re not talking about toys. We're talking about things like straw bales or loose boards or traffic cones or buckets or balls or hula hoops or rope or cardboard boxes— loose stuff! We're all about child-directed play and giving children the opportunity to have some control by designing their own play space. Let them have some control over their play space!

Plant Abundantly 

Another tip is to get out there and plant stuff, but plant abundantly. When you start to think about what you're going to plant in your garden next year, or in your yard, plant tons of stuff. For example, sunflowers are a great plant to have in children's environments. But instead of just planting a few or just one little row, I say, go abundant! Go overboard and plant a million sunflowers. That way you'll have plenty that will survive children— children are kind of natural clippers and trimmers. That way you'll also have so many that children can pick the leaves and really inspect that plant, love that plant, pick the flowers, pick the seeds, and add the flowers to mud kitchen concoctions. So just make sure that there is plenty. Now is the time for abundance.

Build a Mud Kitchen

And while we're thinking about what you can do with flowers and making mud pies, here's another tip of things to try outdoors: a mud kitchen! That's the place where you make mud pies. 

So what is a mud kitchen? If you look it up online, you will see a million pictures and a million great ideas of what people have done with free materials like pallets or boards. You might find something that you can build, something that your significant other can help build, or something that parents of children can help build. 

There are lots of possibilities, but basically a mud kitchen is like a table, or a flat surface like a table, with some beat up pots and pans. We could all go through our kitchens, look in the cabinets, and find a couple of pots and pans that could go to the mud kitchen. Then you could have dirt, you could have sand, you could have gravel,  or you could have wood chips. It doesn't have to be mud. Basically, you just want a table, some stuff, and a place where kids can mix things and make things to have some fun. 

Basically, this is a place that is saying “yes”. Yes to what the kids want to do, yes to child-directed play, and yes to a little bit of mess. A mud kitchen is the gateway play element to messy play and risky play. So give it a try!  

Get Outside With the Children!

The last little tip is when you want children to be outside and feel more comfortable being outside, then you go outside too! Yay! Outside's a good place to be. I can take some deep breaths here, and hear the chirp of birds and crickets. I can see some blue sky, see the sunshine, and feel it. You will also be sending the message to children that outside is a great place to be. So just think about ways that would make it fun for you to be outside too. 

When you have fun, the children will have fun! And pretty soon you'll be sampling some yummy mud pies. Have fun!

Author(s)Rusty Keeler

Lisa Williford

Lisa Williford, an experienced marketing event coordinator, served with Kaplan Early Learning Company and Gryphon House from 2020 - 2023.