10 DIY Backyard Nature Play Ideas

As the weather warms up and we start to think about all the epic adventures we plan to take our kids on, let’s give them tons of opportunities for nature exploration right in our own backyards too!

Oftentimes, playing outside at home tends toward toys and movement games, while nature play is saved for hikes, camping trips, or a day playing by the water. Let’s embrace all that is right out our own door by trying out some backyard nature play ideas!

Creating nature play areas around the backyard adds an element of magic to your home, provides easy access to learn about the wonders of nature, and gives your children a safe space to explore and create, independently, outside.

Children smiling on a deck.

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Messy Nature Play Areas

Mud Kitchen

If you have a little chef in the family, a mud kitchen can be the perfect way to bring this creative energy outside as the weather gets too hot to turn on the oven and stove inside. A mud kitchen can be simple or elaborate, made from scratch or pieced together.

The simplest way to get a mud kitchen up and running is to take a trip to the thrift store. You can use a coffee table or old cupboard as the base. Try to find things that haven’t been painted as the paint could easily chip off if it gets too wet and scraped up as your kids play.

Once you have your mud kitchen counter space, pick up a couple of pots with lids, a colander, a muffin tin, a bread pan, a frying pan, and a metal pitcher or old teapot. As for utensils, look for wooden spoons, a whisk, measuring cups, and a spatula. Finally, find a small set of metal plates, bowls, and cups, and utensils.

Once you’ve gathered your materials, your mud kitchen can be set up along a fence, with hooks to hang pots and pans and cooking utensils. You can create a grass-free patch next to it for all the magical mud your kids need to create, and set up a couple of pavers in front of the counter space for your kids to stand on. Keep a big bucket of water nearby for mixing.

Kids may pick some grass or weeds, and find leaves, sticks and rocks to include in their recipes. If you’d like to set up these extra ‘ingredients’ or point them to areas they can weed, pick, or take materials from they will be able to whip up kitchen creations whenever they please.

Ready to set up a mud kitchen at home? Check out our Mud Kitchen Recipes and Ideas!

Children play in a mud kitchen.

Water Play

Water Play in the backyard might include running through the sprinkler, setting up the sprinkler under a trampoline, wading or swimming in a pool, playing with a water bin or buckets, or playing in a water table.

If you want to have a water play space that stays in one spot and is always set up, a water table can be a great way to create a go-to water station.

Depending on your family, you can buy one or make one!

A child plays at a water table.

Kids-Only Play Garden

If your kid loves gardening, bring them alongside of you in the family garden, and consider making them a kids-only play garden where they can get into their very own gardening play schemes with no risk of disrupting little sprouts or fragile plants in the family garden.

Your child’s play garden will be clearly marked and bordered so they know just which space is theirs to play garden in. Get them their own set of kid’s sized garden tools and a few pots of various sizes. You can also make some outdoor learning tools available in this area so your kids can explore bugs, worms, and plants easily.

You can plant some hardy flowers in the space that they can water and care for, give them seeds to plant and label, or leave the area free of plants and see what they “plant” there on their own.

This is such a fun way for kids to learn to use garden tools and to explore plants without any stress of things getting stepped on, over-watered, or dug up.

A child plants seeds in a raised bed.

Forts as Nature Play Areas

Stick Forts

Whether you have a tree that drops lots of sticks, or a kid that wants to bring home sticks from every nature walk, you can put these to good use by creating a stick fort. Ideally, use sticks taller than your children.

You can go super simple with this and lean them up against a large tree trunk or corner of the fence so your kids have a play space underneath.

For a more secure fort, dig a narrow trench in a semicircle out from the tree trunk or fence corner, leaving space for a door, and place one end of each stick firmly into the trench as you lean it against the ‘base.’ Then fill in the dirt around the bottom of the sticks.

You can use this same strategy to create a free-standing stick fort by digging a full circle-with space for a door- and then bundling the group of sticks at the top with durable thin rope.

Sunflower Fort

Creating a sunflower fort is something I REALLY want to do for my kids this summer! We don’t have any trees in our yard yet, and I would love to create some natural shade spaces where they can play.

The idea is to create a large semi-circle of sunflowers, with just a small opening as an entryway, and grass in the middle to relax and play in.

After you find the ideal spot in your yard for sunflowers to grow, dig your semi-circle just wide enough and deep enough to plant your sunflower seeds in. As they grow, they will create a circle of shade in the middle.

Garden Tunnel Fort

The garden tunnel fort is another goal for my family this summer. This is done using hog paneling and T-posts. We have created archways like this before in our community garden to support some climbing plants and create shade for plants that will fry with too much sun. This year, we want to use this same setup with just grass underneath as an area for the kids to play.

An archway in a garden.

Once you get the archway setup using the hog paneling and T-Posts, plant vining or climbing plants at the base on both sides, leaving the ends open. This can be a great area to plant morning glories, sweet peas, sugar snap peas, and tiny pumpkins.

As the plants grow, guide them to vine up the archway, and eventually you will have a magical shady tunnel underneath!

Nature Treasures Play Areas

Rock Gardens

It seems that lots of kids like to bring home pocketfuls of rocks from nature adventures. I remember my mom saving gallon ice cream buckets where I would store all my rocks and explore them, as my childhood dream was to be a geologist!

Creating a rock garden in the backyard is a great way to store these treasures as they come home. Kids can build all sorts of structures out of rocks, create paths or planters, make tiny towns for toys, transfer them over to the mud kitchen for recipes, paint them, or throw them in a rock tumbler.

Fairy Villages

You can choose a tucked-away corner or base of a big tree to create a fairy village in the backyard. This can be a magical and enchanting area for little kids, and will surely lead to some great kid-created fairy tales.

Fairy villages are tiny towns for fairies and gnomes. These can be made from all natural materials. Provide your child with pine cones, moss, dried sunflower stalks-cut up- from last year’s garden, sticks and small tree cookies, pieces of bark, leaves, and rocks of all sizes. You can use these materials to build up your fairy village together, or let them have a go at it independently.

You can also purchase fairy village accessories and little gnomes and fairies that your child can then build up and rearrange.

Music and Art Nature Play Areas

Music Wall

If you have a kiddo who loves to make beautiful music with your pots and pans in the kitchen, try creating an outdoor music wall!

In its simplest form, an outdoor music wall is pots and pans hung on part of the fence, with some good tools for banging on them. Just as you would with your mud kitchen setup, source these items at the thrift store.

If you’re looking for a more complex music wall, add wind chimes, old xylophones hung vertically, PVC pipe fitted into a table and paired with a rubber mallet, tin cans hanging like wind chime, and a cooling rack or washboard hung vertically.

Process Art Wall

Creating a process art wall gives kids a place to explore the process of making art, with no directions or goals around what the final product should look like. This is open-ended art! This is an easy art project to take outside, where we care a bit less about artistic mess and get to add inspiration from the outdoor environment.

A child plays with paintbrushes outside.

For the most basic process art wall, hang banner paper from the fence and provide washable paint and various paintbrushes, or markers and crayons depending on the texture behind the paper.

If you want to level up a bit, use a big cardboard box broken down to be flat, and hot glue any textured recyclables to it that can then be painted. This might be egg cartons, paper towel or toilet paper rolls, bubble wrap, berry containers, yogurt containers, or lunch meat containers. Secure the cardboard to a fence or the side of the house and provide paint and paint brushes.

Want to add a bit more nature? Play around with making natural paints, and paintbrushes made from bundles of flowers, long grasses, or sticks.

Enjoy Nature in Your Own Backyard!

If your family is new to nature exploration, in a micro-adventure chapter of life, or simply looking to add some fresh wonder to your outdoor space at home try setting up a few of these backyard nature play ideas together.

It can be magical to watch your kids create, explore, and discover in a space they already feel comfortable in. They are bound to get deep into imaginative play with even the simplest of natural materials, find bugs to watch, worms to pick up, and plants to wonder about. As for you? Join in the fun, or take the independent play time to tackle a task or relax in the sun!

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10 DIY Backyard Nature Play Ideas

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  • Cece Romanyshyn is a Colorado native currently living in Baker City, Oregon with her husband and two sons. She grew up camping and skiing with her family, and kept adventuring through adulthood. She has enjoyed camping, hiking, skiing, and boating in the western United States, hiking in Ecuador, DIY safaris in East Africa, boating on the rivers of Southeast Asia, and exploring nature and culture during Peace Corps service in Mozambique. She loves connecting with her little family on all sorts of adventures from daily walks and river play to ski days to camping road trips, boating, and hut trips. With the confidence, joy, and well-being brought about in these spaces, time outside together has become a parenting power tool for her.

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