Written by Denine W.
When I think back to my childhood, my fondest memories were playing outside.
I loved the shadowy area at the back of the house where there were trees and shrubs that reminded me of a forest to hide in and explore. At my grandparents’ house, there was a raised area with a sandpit and rocks onto which I could climb, pretending to get to the top of the castle.
These days, a lot of kids are glued to screens. If they are lucky, they may play at a park playground once in a while. But staying inside and holding a tablet in your hand or playing on plastic slides and metal merry-go-rounds doesn’t always stimulate a child’s imagination in the best ways.
More importantly, those aren’t natural playgrounds. Conventional playgrounds are often toxic because of the materials used in their construction. (Check out some research on forever chemicals in synthetic turf, for example.)
But can you create a natural playground at home for your kids? You certainly can!
I have 7 DIY natural playground ideas that your kids will love (and you too!).
Table of Contents
- What Is Natural Play?
- What Are Natural Playgrounds?
- Natural Materials to Consider for Your DIY Natural Playground at Home
- 7 DIY Natural Playground Ideas for Your Backyard
- 1. The Sensory Garden
- 2. A Wooden Fort
- 3. A Playscape Obstacle Course
- 4. A Treasure Hunt
- 5. The Imaginary Playscape
- 6. An Adventure Pathway
- 7. Color With Nature
- Natural Playground Ideas FAQs
- More Guides for Summer Fun in the Sun
- Final Thoughts on a DIY Playground
What Is Natural Play?
First of all, what are people actually talking about when they refer to “natural play”?
Natural play or nature play is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: when children play outdoors, using and interacting with the surrounding landscape and natural elements to build skills, be imaginative, and play in an unstructured manner.
And natural play is not just for kids! Adults can also engage in nature play by following their kid’s lead (or via child-led activities).
Benefits of Natural Play for Kids (and Adults!)
Playing in nature comes with a host of benefits. Natural play can:
- Improve motor skills, agility, coordination, and balance
- Increase muscle strength
- Improve mood and overall health
- Aid brain development as kids invent games and explore their natural surroundings
- Help kids with ADHD (since nature play provides them an opportunity to be active)
- Lessen feelings of being overwhelmed and cooped up, so kids are more likely to share and open up with their parents
- Encourage self-awareness and an awareness of others by exploring and seeing the world from a different point of view
- Help develop reasoning and observation skills
- Improve problem-solving
- Decrease fatigue and stress as we effortlessly pay attention in natural environments – we have a soft fascination with nature that gives us pleasure
- Foster an appreciation and love for the environment, and help form conservation values
- Give kids an opportunity to use all of their senses
- Increase a child’s sense of independence because of the freedom and chance to explore that comes with nature play
- Develop social skills when kids play with others (cooperation, conflict resolution, communication, and collaboration)
- Enable kids to learn everywhere, especially if educational toys are added to playscapes
- Have academic benefits in better classroom behavior, improved enthusiasm to learn, and more
- Inspire creativity and imagination
What Are Natural Playgrounds?
A natural playground is more natural and sustainable than a conventional playground where most of the materials used consist of metals, paint (which can contain all kinds of things like ethylbenzene, lead and more), crumb rubber, and other materials that contain toxic compounds and negatively affect our kids’ health.
Natural playgrounds—also called neutralized playgrounds, nature playgrounds, nature play spaces, or playscapes—are playgrounds that utilize what can be found in nature to encourage play, learning, development, exploration, curiosity, and discovery.
These playscapes can either be all-natural, leveraging the textures, elements, and sensory experiences found in nature, or they can consist of a combination of some man-made parts (using sustainable, repurposed, recycled, and eco-friendly materials).
Typically, the nature play “equipment” isn’t as structured as conventional playground equipment.
Natural Materials to Consider for Your DIY Natural Playground at Home
There are lots of natural elements you can use when creating your backyard natural playground!
- Tree stumps
- Bamboo pieces
- Pine needles
- Seed pods
- Grasses and straw bales
- Non-toxic sand
Sustainable and repurposed materials:
- Wooden planks
- Canvas, tarps, burlap, and fabric
- Kitchen tools – pots, muffin tins, spoons, rolling pins, etc.
- Garden hose
- Educational toys
- Old canoes
- Wooden storage boxes
- And other everyday items in your home, or what you can buy at thrift stores or backyard sales
7 DIY Natural Playground Ideas for Your Backyard
Now for some natural playground ideas that you can set up in your backyard so you and your kids can have fun with nature playing!
Here are the best playscapes ideas:
1. The Sensory Garden
In a sensory garden, your child can learn while they explore and play. And like the name suggests, the purpose of the sensory garden is to engage all your child’s senses (and yours!).
How to DIY a Sensory Garden:
- Decide on the space; it doesn’t have to be big.
- Get planter boxes and fill these with soil.
- Plant various herbs, succulents, cacti, flowers, fruit, and veggies.
- Water and care for the plants as per their requirements.
Your child (depending on their age) can actually help you from the initial setup and learn about planting and proper plant care. You can let your kid create name signs to identify what you planted and then insert these by each plant. (Popsicle sticks work great for this!)
Visit the sensory garden often. Let your child explore, touch, see, taste, and smell the plants. Ask if they can hear the bees and other pollinators.
2. A Wooden Fort
Who doesn’t love a kind of “bat cave” they can retreat to? A wooden fort or playhouse gives your kids a space where they can create their own world.
You can let your child choose the design they would like. Then your kid can also decorate the space and maybe you could add some non-toxic bean bags for seating. You can set up a little art space for them where they can draw, paint, and play games with their friends and siblings.
3. A Playscape Obstacle Course
An obstacle course is an excellent way for your child to improve their motor skills, balance, coordination, and problem-solving, while also getting some exercise. Completing an obstacle course can also boost confidence and let your child feel really great.
The sky is pretty much the limit with creating a natural obstacle course. Remember to tailor the course to your child’s age and ability, and as they develop and pass the course with flying colors, you can introduce more elements or make the course more challenging. Set up a family-friendly competition and complete the obstacle course with your child.
Some Ideas for the Playscape Obstacle Course:
- Use tree stumps so your child can walk, hop, or jump from one stump to another
- Hollow logs as “tunnels” to climb through or walk across
- A “how low can you go” area with bamboo poles and ropes
- Wooden crates and/or straw bales to create “mighty mountains” for your kids to climb
- A sandbox filled with non-toxic sand so your kid can dig and find the treasure you buried
- A balance challenge with a wooden plank over a small stream
- Get hula hoops and tie these to a low tree branch for your kids to jump through
4. A Treasure Hunt
With a treasure hunt, you can teach your kids how to read a map, navigate to get to “X marks the spot,” and learn about direction.
You can print a map of your area from the web and tailor it to suit your needs, or you can create your own map with topographical features (real or DIY ones). The treasure hunt can be contained to your garden or you can include a bit of your porch or kitchen to increase the size of the hunt… Or even include your neighborhood for older kids!
Bury treasure or simply mark the treasure spot when your kids aren’t around so it stays a secret for now.
When everything is set up, work with your child to find the treasure – guide them but also let them lead. If your child is old enough, have them set up a treasure hunt for you!
5. The Imaginary Playscape
You can also include or go for a very unstructured playscape where there isn’t a set purpose for the natural “play equipment.”
In this unstructured play setting, you use elements from nature and stuff you have around the house and just create a play area for your kids. Here they can decide how they play, on what they jump, where they run or crawl, and simply let their imagination be their guide.
Ideas for an Unstructured Playscape:
- Random tree stumps here and there. Some of them can even be in groups too.
- An old boat placed by the little stream you have running through your property, which can be a pirate’s ship or hiding spot.
- A collection of shells, pinecones, pine needles, leaves, and branches that can be decoration, weapons, or objects to jump over.
- Garden statues with gnomes and fairy houses, with pebbles, wind chimes, and eco-friendly wind spinners.
- Wooden crates or storage boxes that can be platforms to climb on.
- Tall grasses and vines so there’s hidey spots.
- A swing or two for extra play.
6. An Adventure Pathway
The adventure pathway can include elements of an obstacle course, but the purpose of an adventure pathway is more to foster a sense of adventure, exploration, and discovery.
You can utilize a small or large area for the adventure pathway, and you can make it as intricate as you want. Plus, you can start small and keep adding to the pathway. Ask your kids for ideas too!
How to DIY an Adventure Pathway:
- Get the materials ready: stepping stones, pebbles, landscaping sand, or mulch for the pathway surface, and other materials like branches, logs, rocks, and tree cookies for a destination point.
- Layout the adventure pathway, looping it around bushes and in between trees and other features in your garden. You can have the pathway start and end at the same point, so it’s a loop.
- Surface the pathway with the pebbles, mulch, stepping stones, or other natural materials.
- Set out the play, discovery, and learning areas: a mini sensory garden, a fairy garden and village, a grass maze, an acoustic area with wind chimes, whistles, pots and pans, or drums, a vine teepee, balancing logs, stepping stones, boulders, and even tree cookies that are movable.
7. Color With Nature
Instead of coloring with paper and crayons or markers, show your kid how you can color with nature too.
You can create outline drawings with sticks, twigs, pebbles, and branches for small children, and as your kids grow, they can “draw” their own drawings in and with nature.
They can use different colored leaves, flowers, seeds, pebbles, rocks, twigs, and more to find creative colors or more realistic tones for the drawing.
Besides learning about colors in nature, your child’s senses are stimulated as they see and touch. Plus, they also need to explore their natural environment to find colors.
Natural Playground Ideas FAQs
How do you build a natural playground?
To build a safe natural playground for your kids, first decide on the location. Then look for natural materials depending on what you want to create, and DIY the playground while keeping the safety of your kids in mind (e.g. ensure there are soft surfaces to fall on and railings for a treehouse). Supervise your kids but let them play independently or play with them by following their lead.
What materials do you need to build a nature playground?
The materials you need to build a natural playground depend on what your kids are interested in. Make use of topographical elements like streams, ponds, trees, branches, plants and flowers, grasses, shells, or acorns. You can also consider sustainable and repurposed everyday items around your home like storage boxes, tarps, an old canoe, old furniture, rope, and pots.
More Guides for Summer Fun in the Sun
- Our recommendations for non-toxic play sand
- Your options for non-toxic kiddie pools
- The best non-toxic popsicle molds
- How to find a non-toxic garden hose
- The best outdoor dinnerware for picnics, barbeques, and more (disposable and reusable)
- Your options for less toxic outdoor furniture
Final Thoughts on a DIY Playground
Like bees are attracted to flowers, so are kids drawn to nature. A nature playground stimulates the play your child needs to develop and grow while also providing other benefits and opportunities to make learning fun.
After all, we learn better when we have fun! And unstructured play with the DIY natural playground ideas (and any creative ones you can come up with) will ensure your child learns to love nature.