Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

toddler play space

(Photos by Ellie White)

Create a backyard playground (for next to nothing!)

A low-waste, low-cost approach to making a little kids' play space at home.

Over the past few years, our backyard has slowly transformed into a daycare center play space.

Plastic balls, a slide, a mini lawn mower, empty garden pots, balance bikes — our city-size backyard is filled with items to entertain our twin toddlers.

And we didn’t purchase one single item.

Creating a backyard play space doesn’t have to be an expensive, elaborate ordeal, filled with delivery boxes stuffed full of packaging around new gadgets and toys. 

With a little planning and creativity, you can outfit your backyard as a destination for hours of outdoor play.

Repurpose. Use what you have!

It’s so easy to open up your computer and one-click shop when you want to add something to your home, but before doing this, go through what you already have. You might be surprised at what you find. 

Instead of buying new plastic containers, we emptied and consolidated a few storage bins to free up space for sensory bin play. (Thanks for the idea, Busy Toddler!).

I realized a low, portable container garden was a perfect height for a dig-bin for our kids. Instead of growing strawberries and greens in the container, we now dig for worms. (It could also be used as a sand table.)

Meanwhile, a warped measuring cup was still functional as a container. It now has a new life in our water table.

Our rake and push broom are much bigger than our toddlers, obviously, and the kids need supervision while using them. But these grown-up-size tools have worked just fine for them to “help” clean up the yard.

Buy Nothing

When I identify an item that we’d like to acquire, I often look at Buy Nothing on Facebook first. In your local Buy Nothing group, you can search for items offered or make requests for items you might be looking for. 

This is how we got that water table. 

It was the end of the summer and starting to cool down. I found a water table listed in our local Buy Nothing group and jumped at the offer. For most of the fall, winter and spring, the water table was filled with our outdoor plastic balls and infrequently used, but now that the sun has come out again, it’s become a favorite backyard activity. 

Ask for specific items

As the babies’ birthdays approached, Grandma asked me for birthday ideas. I try to take advantage when these opportunities arise to ask for specific items that I think our kids would really enjoy and that I haven’t acquired elsewhere. 

With worm digging in full swing, and camping and beach trips anticipated in the summer, I realized we could probably use a few kid-friendly hand tools. I found a garden and beach set from a recycled plastics toy company and put these on the list. We now have a couple of small shovels, trowels, a watering can and a bucket that I anticipate we will use for all kinds of outdoor activities for years to come. 


toddler play space

Break the rules

Who says bath toys can only be used in the bathtub?

We got a set of plastic sea animal bath toys as a Christmas gift, and months later, these bath toys have become favorites — both in and out of the bath. 

They migrate back and forth from the bathroom to our play space, and now they can frequently be spotted floating around in our water table. The other day, my son put them on the lawn next to the water table and poured water over each one to give them a good wash. 

Break free from how toys are supposed to be used. Don’t confine them to just one location or purpose.


Accept neighbors’ offers

When a friend or neighbor offers you an outdoor toy (or any toy), just say thank you — and yes!

Our next-door neighbor found a set of table and chairs in the treehouse that her now-teenage kids have longed stopped playing in. The set now lives in our backyard. Thank you! 

Another neighbor had a slide that was destined for the next run to the dump. Would we like it? “Yes, please. We’ll take it!”

These items were well-loved and needed a quick clean-off, but they (especially the slide) have become much-loved staples in our backyard play space.

You never know where you might acquire items for your backyard, so stay open to possibilities and see how your play space grows. 

And remember, when your kids outgrow their toys, pass them along to the next family!


Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2021

More in Seattle’s Child:

What to know before you camp with toddlers

Overwhelmed with piles and piles of baby clothes?

Exploring (and expanding) the world on toddler walks

About the Author

Ellie White

Ellie had the privilege of growing up in our beautiful Pacific Northwest. She currently lives in the Green Lake neighborhood with her husband and twin toddlers.