Simple, inexpensive, eco-friendly structures for the backyard seem to also be the ones that get the most used.
I bought to 10 ft pieces of 8 x 2"s at Home Depot, brought them home and used a handsaw with the kids to cut them into 2 pieces. I made mine unequal in length and put stumps in between, just for a more organic look than all straight lines, but that's purely an aesthetic choice. Filled it with sandbox sand right over the grass. We have no cover and had not had a cat issue in the nearly 3 yrs we've been here.
The balance beam is also a post from Home Depot, with two 8" pieces of 2"x4" attached to either end. We sanded it by hand and sealed it with beeswax.
We built a rough structure together of wooden posts and then planted vines. It makes a wonderful little shelter to hide in. It has two passion fruit vines- one flowering and one fruiting, which is fun to pick and eat on a hot summer day, and bower and jasmine. This little shelter sees a whole lot of humming birds on a regular basis.
We also have lots of moving boards that can be made into ramps of balance beams that are slightly more challenging. Here a little 2 year old braves the distance quite skillfully. It is very important for children to have movable pieces in their environment rather than all fixed pieces like a purchased play set. We can all think of a few politicians that seem to have challenges with fixed ideas and fixed thinking. haha! Children for 100's of years created their own play areas and only in the recent generations has that become a think of the past. Many of us don't live in the country or near wilderness, but here are some simple ideas to transform a small suburban yard like ours. I mean, we live in 'The OC' backed up against a strip mall! Hardly the garden of Eden.
Healthy feet and healthy toes. I love barefeet!
Hay bales provide and ever changing playing platform that ends up either feeding the rabbits or as mulch for the roses.
But the real hero of the backyard is the tree! A great big mulberry tree is definitely king of this little plot.
So many people get rid of their sandboxes way too early. Most people will at some point have a little sandbox for a toddler- it seems appropriate. But what about 'tween' girls. Shouldn't they be on to boyfriends and pop stars? ugh, I think they ought to be in the sandbox! It's not until later that they can really use their creativity in the sandbox. In the early years it provides excellent sensory stimulation and experience. But in the middle years they can bring a whole new element to the sandbox. The girls these days are all about spells and potions. They will spend hours out here concocting all sorts of wonders.
A teapot and cup
The wood burning stove
I usually buy my sandbox supplies at an Asian cooking store. Their sizes are so much smaller and they have lots of stainless to choose from. This lovely silver urn was an excellent garage sale find at 50 cents! and no, silver is not too good for the sandbox.
I try to keep as many magical elements in the garden as possible. Here are some favorites.
Toad's house made out of a gourde.
The mint angel
I love this butterfly. Anything that sparkles adds magic.
i got this at a discount store for under a buck because it was chipped- perfect for the garden!
I love these little mirrors because they reflect light and cast little fairy shadows all over the garden. The kids and animals often chase them while they're dancing all over the place. I have a few of them hanging from the tree.
The Story of The Tulip Bed
One day after telling the tale of The Tulip Bed during a puppet play I hid these little babies in the garden for those with eagle eyes to spot them afterward. (All of our dvds come with a puppet play of a folktale from the country we visited. This is a folktale from England about mother fairies that rock their babies to sleep in tulips and is on our British Isles dvd.)
The secret to keeping this magical is to say nothing when going outside and let the children find them naturally while playing. When they do come across a baby simply say, "look at that" with awe in your voice or better yet say nothing at all and look your child straight in the eyes and just let your eyes sparkle. Let the moment live in the child without ruining it with words like, "Oh, my gosh! I wonder if the fairies left that?!? Let's see if there's any more!" I know it's exciting but the magic will be diluted if it's treated like an easter egg hunt. The whole point of activities like this is that it fosters connection, not collection. The child feels deeply connected to the natural world and to that thing that we can call magic, or when we're older many refer to as God or Spirit. A child that connects with others and the world is one that walks respectfully through it.
Whenever we engage the child's intellect (their thinking) we take them out of their feeling world. This often happens with well meaning parents who say to a sad crying child, "Use your words." Our emotions serve a purpose and bringing a child from healthy emotional expression- crying when sad- into their heads to try to articulate something that they cannot is not typically helpful. Our society has a serious problem with emotional repression. One main motto I have for parents of children under 7 is "FEEL MORE, TALK LESS!" In other words, get out of your head and into your heart. Some signs that you've really connected with another living being are moist eyes, lump in throat, goosebumps or a tingling sensation of skin, a warming or swelling sensation of the heart, or a strong impulse to hug your child in a heart to heart embrace.
Recent research on the heart and brain has found that the heart's magnetic field is 500 times stronger than the brain's and can be detected (by scientific machinery) several feet from the body. We can sense this field if we tune into it.
Some of these were quite camouflaged and were not discovered for days. It's a great exercise in one's own will powers to keep quiet for that long! And if they are never found the birds will use them to makes their nests.
The babies are easily made by wrapping a piece of wool roving around a small wooden ball on the end of a small piece of pipe cleaner and needle felting into place.
Most of their caps come from eucalyptus trees. We're always on the lookout for 'fairy caps' and collect them wherever we are. We found some really dainty caps in Ireland and broad ruffled ones in Japan.
This is a very easy idea to personalize and make your own!
We get these in the summer- we call them emerald beetles, but really I have no idea what they are.
Meet Sally, the suburban chicken. She always gets first choice of the compost- what she and the bunnies don't eat goes into the compost- barely anything!
This is Snowball. His dad is lop-eared and his mom has upright ears, so often one of his will be up and the other down. The thing I love about having bunnies is that they eat lots of our veggie and fruit scraps and their manure is 'green' which means it can be added directly to the garden. I have lots of little helpers feed the tops of strawberries to the bunnies and even gather poop. I removed all the bottoms of the cages so the droppings fall directly onto the earth. This really helps with the oder. Then I simply rake the poop up into a dustpan and disperse into the garden. This way there is not washing of the cage pan or any of the really 'yucky' part!
Again, I like the action of the cycles. i don't go into a lot of scientific info with the little ones about this but they get a real tangible experience of eating strawberries, feeding the tops to the bunnies, taking the bunny poop and feeding it back to the strawberry plants. Usually around 5 years old they begin to make the correlation themselves, which often sounds something like, "That's funny that the bunnies eat the strawberries and then they poop and the strawberries eat the poop with the strawberries in it so it's like strawberries eating strawberries." I am one of those firm believers in the old adage about whenever we teach a child something we deprive them of the process of discovery. We've gotten so focused on 'teaching moments' in recent generations that often those magical moments of discovery are stolen from our children. Children that talk and dress like mini adults are seen as 'adorable' by mainstream media and often imitated by many modern families. I find this to be true in the US more than anywhere else. Even in other European countries a more 'childish' dress and attitude is still favored for the very young. It's rare to see a baby in jeans and a trendy t-shirt. Even in the last 5 years there's been a significant push of 'teen' clothing for babies and toddlers in particular in the US. What marketers won't do for a buck!