By Hyacynth Worth
Much to my boys’ dismay, we simply cannot spend every minute of daylight each day of summer vacation at the park, the pool or at the beach. There are days we all simply need to relax, and well, the house isn’t self-cleaning and dinner isn’t self-preparing, so even if we table the relaxing idea, there are days (even in the gloriousness of summer vacation) when we simply must be homebound in order to keep alive and partially clean.
But that doesn’t mean they should be indoors-bound. Though they can sit in front of the TV with the best of ‘em, my boys need movement. They have this reservoir of energy that must be used up each day in order to be pleasant, well-adjusted little people. And while a day of TV will keep them occupied, it doesn’t keep them exercised. If you have rowdy little ones, I’m speaking Spanish in Spain.
If you have kiddos with lower-energy expression needs, still take note. Even the calmest of children need exercise to keep their bodies and brains firing at full function. Plus, regardless of their energy-burning needs, our kiddos all need to soak up vitamin D to make up for the lack of it during our sun-deprived Chicago winters, as vitamin D in its natural form helps pump up the immune system and even fights against depression.
So I came to one conclusion–after remembering how we battled these expectations of continuous adventure every day last summer in conjunction with succumbing to boredom and requesting TV–before the final school bell even rang in declaration of vacation: our backyard was going to save (my sanity this) summer. And here’s how…
A Safe Space
For the backyard to become a refuge in the storm of summer, it’s got to be age appropriate and safe. For our family–we have a toddler and preschooler–we absolutely need a fence to keep the free-spirits from floating into other yards. Others may not need a fenced in yard, especially with older children, but care should be taken by mom or dad to clean the yard of fun-but-dangerous tools, weed killer bottles, hoes, shovels (used as lightsabers, as we’ve found, among the Star Wars fans), poisonous plants and inedible berry bushes and interesting insect homes like bee hives.
An Inviting Space
A table and chairs–perhaps pint-sized–arranged on a patio or just outside the back door make the perfect place for an outdoor lunch to break up the normal routine of eating in the kitchen. Kid-sized shovels, gardening gloves and watering cans aren’t overpowering for smaller hands, allowing kiddos to dig in designated beds of dirt. And water bottles with caps designated for outdoor use along with perhaps a few snack dishes with lids make snacking outside easy. All of these small, thoughtful details make the backyard a comfortable space for little people to play.
An Alluring Space
Set up a water table on top of a small patio complete with boats and cups and strainers. Or make a mini sand box by adding sand or even moon sand to a few shoe boxes, while outfitting the boxes with shovels, rakes and tiny plastic animals for burying. A few pounds of dried beans in large bowls along with some tools like small bulldozers and tractors also keep hands immersed in sensory play. These normally messy activities are perfect for outdoors because spilling sand or water or beans everywhere is no big deal when it’s outside.
An Interactive Space
Tree houses and play forts are great interactive spaces that encourage imaginative play, but they are not always practical and can rarely be popped up overnight on a whim. But there are plenty of other ways to create interactive play spaces in the backyard aside from these forts and sensory tables.
Sprinklers introduce a cooling element and add new twists to old games like red rover, freeze tag or dodge ball.
A few mason jars with air holes cut into the lids can be recreated into habitats for small bugs or worms — perfect for little eyes to explore and observe.
A few large cardboard boxes, some markers, scissors and imaginations are all that’s needed to create castles or play houses.