10 Steps to Create an Epic Urban Outdoor Playspace (on a budget!)



  The courtyard, with Mr. Monster Tree. A wasted space begging to be played in .

The courtyard, with Mr. Monster Tree. A wasted space begging to be played in.

I had been staring longingly at our little courtyard for 2+ we had been in business. I knew that it could be such a fun little space, but I really couldn't justify building anything in it or think of a way to make it part of our original programming. 

Then in January 2017 we added a membership and community feature to our parenting center and I knew that was my chance to concert the courtyard into an epic little urban outdoor playspace for our awesome members!

  WHAT is this? A million tiny green devils, that's what.

WHAT is this? A million tiny green devils, that's what.

However, that's a lot easier said than done. The courtyard was an unkempt beast, even though it might not be a ton of square feet. It had a billion layers of ivy?, 3 giant holly bushes, and half of it was covered in other deep rooted bulb plants.

Now, I'm also not that handy or crafty of a person. I have cool ideas (mostly thanks to Pinterest) but like most other Moms, they rarely come out like I imagined. I really spent a lot of time stressing about the details of the garden and wondering if it would be engaging enough. Then several weeks before we started the project, our Play & Learn Preschool Summer Camp started using it during the day for a little outdoor free play. And with just dirt and a few random items I had started collecting, THEY WERE HAVING A BLAST!

So that gave me the kick I needed and I made it official- we were going to do this thing!

We had 2 major goals in mind with this project:

1.) It had to be fun for older babies through preschoolers. Easier said than done since that's actually a pretty broad range in age when you're talking about activities outdoors

2.) It had to be within a reasonable budget. We are a small grassroots community organization, funded by our members and the classes that we run, so we don't have millions of dollars coming in from donors or grants. We also wanted families to be able to recreate some of these things in their own yards, if they wanted. 

3.) I had to be able to do everything myself. That means no use of major power equipment or fancy stuff. Because I am likely to cut off a limb.

How we accomplished staying on the budget:

  My Mom and I will take any opportunity to go to Ikea. Even my kid loves Ikea.

My Mom and I will take any opportunity to go to Ikea. Even my kid loves Ikea.

1.) Sourcing free stuff- Craigslist is your friend. Don't be afraid to look on the side of the road, in the woods, and ask every person you know to be on the look out for the items you're trying to source. 

2.) Shopping at cheap places- Goodwill, Ikea, Places with sales- you don't need fancy expensive stuff. It's an outdoor play space for little kids. It's going to be exposed to lots of weather and it's going to take a beating. If you're going to spend money, put it towards items that need to be structurally sound for climbing, swinging, or the like.

So, without further ado...

Let's get to the steps!

Step 1: Throw the kids in the yard and put them to work!

Ok, ok, kids are actually about 0% helpful in this endeavor. I would actually plan about double the amount of time you normally would for this work if your kiddo will be around. But guess what... this is the best part of the process! It took us over a month of on and off work due to rain and slower than expected greenery removal. During that time, our member kids did lots of digging, found lots of bugs, planted tons of cool things, climbed trees, found an empty rabbit nest, had an easter egg hunt, and got very very dirty over and over again.

I would say one of the most important parts of any good outdoor play space is an opportunity for kids to GET DIRTY. Now, if you live out in the country or in an area with some land or woods, this might be built into your property already. But for us city folk, sometimes we have to seek out opportunities for our kids to get dirty. Green space is at a premium here so people tend to fill it with, well, green stuff like grass and pretty flowers. Which is quite lovely but then said people don't really appreciate when your 2 year old digs up that $500 planted area, no matter how cute he looks covered in mud.

Step 2- Add some dirt and sand

Enter our dirt pit...

Much to our member's chagrin, we did make a giant hole with dirt in it. That dirt does turn into mud in rain. Yay. We really wanted a specific area where kids could get in there and get messy, but where it could also be temporarily blocked off if there was another activity going on or someone needed to head to an event after that didn't lend itself to being covered in mud. :)

We used 12 bag of $1.50 dirt and 4 bags of play sand in this particular pit. The play sand is added to keep the dirt workable and it also helps to keep the pit a little dryer so it's not muddy all the time. Without some sand, the dirt quickly gets packed down from kids walking on it and creates more work for adults having to come till it regularly. But if you don't mind doing that, you don't neccessarily have to use sand.


Our Super Duper Secret Fancy Dirt Pit Recipe

3 parts topsoil
1 part play sand





Did you know that scientists now believe that part of building a strong immune system is exposure to microbes and that children today don't get enough of them because we keep them too darned clean? Ok, this might be my simplified version but moral of the story- kids need dirt!

We added some border initially but eventually took it out because it wasn't stable enough for our heavy use with lots of kids but might be just fine for you with one or a couple kids. Honestly, I don't think that a border is necessary so we may not replace it with anything.

  It's funny how many things from the dirt pit migrate to the sand box, though it's on the other side of our garden.  

It's funny how many things from the dirt pit migrate to the sand box, though it's on the other side of our garden. 

We also added a sand box, specifically with the babies in mind when there are big kids running around, but of course any aged kid can enjoy a nice sandbox! We filled it will inexpensive toys from Target, Haba, and Hape!

We went with a pretty inexpensive club house and sand box combo. This product is pretty cool because you can roll the clubhouse over the sandbox when you're not using it. For our purposes, though, we needed to add lots of extra supports and we did want parents to have to hand the clubhouse, so we ended up just keeping them separate and are going to add custom cover to the sandbox to keep cats and rain out, which caregivers can just easily pick up and put aside when they want to access the sand box. We also didn't want the big kids, who love the little house, to be jumping over the babies to get to it. So we improvised.

What was cool about the house part of this product is that you can do a lot with it. We ordered this cool ship wheel from Amazon and bought some hardware from the hardware store so the kids can pretend it's a ship. They've also pretended it's a stage, a school, their house, a fort, and many have even chosen to eat their snacks in there. It was on of our most expensive items but was well worth it, in my opinion. 

This is the one we purchased. It was pretty simply to put together. However, we did add a few extra brackets to make it more stable. You may not need to do this for light use.

Step 3- Add noise (I mean, music)

Life's not worth living without a little noise making (PS. won't you be our neighbor??) We had this cool retail pipe rack from when we used to do more retail sales. I am glad I held onto it because it makes the perfect contraption to hang noisy things from. We then went to stores with garden sections and found a variety of bells and jingly items. However, if I was doing this at home, I would try to spend 0- minimal dollars by using the following items:

  • Pots
  • Pans
  • Wire cookie drying racks
  • PVC Pipes
  • Muffin Tins
  • Chimes
  • Metal mixing bowls
  • Copper or metal tubing from the hardware store
  • Anything noisy that I found at goodwill or left out on bulk trash day

The idea is that they can use their hands and other items to experience a variety of sounds. It doesn't have to be fancy. You don't need to spend any money. They just like to be noisy!

Step 4- Add something to climb and swing on

No play space is complete without gross motor challenges. They are dependent on your child's age and stage, but these can be pretty simple in nature (and often free).

As mentioned in our shade section, we already had a pretty cool tree smack dab in the middle of our courtyard. You may plant a tree for future use but it's not going to help you immediately. 

We also added some cool logs and stumps. This might seem funny if you don't live in an urban area, but yes we have to make an effort to source dead or cut down trees. You can find these on Craigslist for free or cheap, but if you drive around long enough and start telling people you know that you're looking for logs and stumps, you'd be surprised about how many there are just lying around people's yard and on the sides of roads. 

I found one big log a few blocks from my house sitting against a random stop sign at a road behind of Lowe's that had obviously been dumped. Another one I found driving from my dad's house when I spotted a cut down tree where they had left the remains for pick up. The rest came from an instructor's husband who had random logs sitting in his workshop. He even delivered them! SO nice! I also received a series of calls from people I knew when they saw downed trees around their neighborhoods. 

We arranged some logs into positions where kids could securely climb and stand on them and some where they could sit on them and hang out or where babies could hold on to practice standing. We also added a giant landscape rock that kids can climb. 

One fun and inexpensive item that we installed was a hanging wooden ladder. Most of the kids we work with can't quite climb the whole length yet but they sure give it a good try. They have a blast hanging from it and working hard to get as high as they can. It's a great challenge, gives an opportunity for caregivers to practice principles of independence and wonderful for their gross motor development. 

I also believe that if you have a decently stable tree then you should try to put in a swing. You can get very inexpensive swings around $10-15 from just about anywhere but we did get this fancy spider swing, at the request of my 4 year old. It can fit 4 little kids and has been a huge hit. They also make ones double this circumference if you have a very large tree, that could fit even more kids on it. What I like is that kids can sit on it, lay on, and even stand on it if they want. They can swing it in a variety of directions and even spin it. My son is not usually a swing fan but he LOVES this swing.

Everyone asks us where got our swing. So here it is! This is the one that we bought and so far, we love it! You do, however, also need to purchase hanging straps. 

Step 5- Add a mud kitchen

We definitely had to add a mud kitchen. Pretend play is one of the most wonderful parts of childhood. Combine that with some mess, outdoors, pots and pans, and you've got magic!!!

You can absolutely buy a plastic Playskool style kitchen pretty cheaply on Craigslist and it will do the trick or you can even build your own out of palettes ala Pinterest. However, we wanted to go for upcycled and wanted something large so that many kids could use it at once.

We actually got this sink and countertop from a house being gutted! You might not be able to find a countertop with a sink still attached but I do see old sinks thrown out all the time and you can also find super cheap old sinks at places that resell construction items. This is another time you can let your friends know you're looking for a sink. You can always buy a cheap piece of plywood or door and put the sink in it for a quick kitchen set up.

A big mixing bowl also works great for a play sink! Just cut a hole in a sheet of wood, put it in, and voila!

We threw some cinder blocks under it. Used some constructive adhesive to make sure it was secure. And done! Head to goodwill for some cheap cooking supplies and you're all set. We also put out loose parts like sticks, bark, tree slices, as well as dirt and water so the kids got the idea without having to tell them anything. 

The morning we opened the garden, the kids made all sorts of fancy mud dishes and even some mud tea! They knew exactly what to do with it and made a wonderful mess! YUMMMM.... mud tea!

Step 6- Add plants!

Kids love to garden if given the opportunity. I love to give kids a pot, some dirt, some tough plants, and let them go at it. For older kids, it's a great opportunity to teach about how plants grow and the importance of plants in our environment. For younger littles, it's a great sensory experience. 

Did you know that the majority of kids cannot identify many of the most common vegetables? And how many of our kids refuse to eat any vegetables without a fight?

One way that we can encourage kids to explore more healthy foods is by involving them in growing said food. We can involve them in every part of the growing process- planting, watering, choosing which to pick, washing, and preparation. They can have pride that they grew their very own food. And hopefully eat it with delight!

I definitely recommend hearty plants for this or at least inexpensive plants, so you don't have to be as worried about your kids being rough on them. While we want to teach kids how to properly handle plants, small children simply don't have the fine motor skills yet to be as gentle as we'd like. A great starter plant is mint! Even I can't kill mint!

We planted scarlet runner beans (they vine, make cool flowers and cool red beans!), zucchini plants, grape tomatoes, beets, and various lettuces. We also planted a variety of succulents, marigolds, grasses, and other plants that could take a bit of a beating. 

I ran out of time for this year, but for next year I am planning a raised bed with a Midwest Native Mix and Edible Flower Mix from the local company SeedGeeks.com - I want the kids to help me from start to finish and maybe plan a weekly mini class so that we can track our garden progress, learn about what insects it's bringing, work through any challenges, water them together, etc.

There's so much learning that can happen for multiple season from doing such native wildflower and similar mixes all the way from seed- I can't wait!

Step 7- Add some shade!

We went for having a mix of shade with a little bit of sun. We wanted our folks to be able to enjoy the outdoors without worrying about getting sunburned or having to put sunscreen on them just to go outside. We also wanted to save us all from the 95 degree summer torture that is the midwest. 

Luckily, we already had a giant tree which serves several purposes for us- shade, something to hang things from, and a great item to climb. We hung a swing, ladder, bird feeders, and even a rainbow of ribbons from it.

You can easily use a big patio umbrella or even several beach umbrellas to help provide some shade. Or even some large sticks or rebar in the ground with a tablecloth draped over it will work wonders and give a cool fort feel over some play items. 

If we didn't have the tree, I would have gone with a sun sail. They're cool looking, affordable, and customizable!

Step 8- Add some seating

Now, if you did find a bunch of logs and stumps, this part might be done! If not, or if you want something a little more comfy, you might consider some seating for adults and kids. 

There is no better place in the world to me than Ikea. Except maybe the beach. And I'm not even a "shopper" type. I just love Ikea. We picked up some pretty inexpensive metal benches and very affordable kid's picnic tables. Of course, we're trying to seat more people than you may be so you can get away with spending less. Check Craigslist for benches, chairs, or other patio or garden seating. You can also just throw some metal or plastic stools out there and you're good to go. Ikea also has very cheap kids plastic tables and stools that would do the trick. 

If it were my house, I'd add a lounge chair though, or maybe a hammock. Because naps.

Step 9- Add flooring or substrate

 I cannot recommend against shoveling mulch highly enough. However, it was worth it!

I cannot recommend against shoveling mulch highly enough. However, it was worth it!

This might already be solved for you. If you have grass that you think will hold up to shade and foot traffic, then you are golden. I wouldn't take it out.

If you have dirt you might still also be fine if you are at peace with it being muddy often. 

If you'd like some sort of flooring down, there are many options. We considered rubber playground tiles but they are EXPENSIVE and I felt like they took away from the natural garden feel. We considered rubber mulch. This may be something that we do in the future but it was quite pricey for the initial investment. However, the rumor is that in the long term it is less expensive, as you don't have to keep replacing it like you do with regular mulch.

  Who knew a person could be so excited about mulch?    Source

Who knew a person could be so excited about mulch?

We decided to go with screened mulch chips from our local composter, St. Louis Composting and I LOVE this mulch. What I like about the screened chips is that they were nice and dry, not dyed, clean looking, and affordable! I mean, I have gotten several compliments on the mulch already. That was a new experience for me.

We bought 2.5 cubic yards at $28/cubic yard. Rented a cheap trailer so spent around $75 or so? We would have had to buy 30 bags of subpar moldy looking mulch at double the price from the hardware store to fill our space.

Step 10- Add your kid's creativity!

We wanted to add as many touches as we could that were made by the kiddos to make sure they felt like it was "theirs." 

One of our member families donated tons of old bricks that were removed from their 100 year old house down the road. We loved that we could upcycle these bricks, have a historic element which matched the historic nature of our 100 year old building, and that they were staying in the neighborhood. 

We had all of our members' babies and kids paint a brick of their own with acrylic paint, but you can use any outdoor or enamel paint, we clear coated it, then lined our garden with it. You could also use these to make cool paths, stepping stones, patterns, or just use them randomly throughout your garden. I also like the idea of painting a number of letter on each.

You could also use river rocks, rocks that you find out and about, pavers, or you can make your own stepping stones with some concrete mix and a round baking pan.   

Bonus Step: Add lots of.... YOU!

In the end, your playspace could just be a driveway with you standing in the middle of it and to your child THAT.IS.PERFECTION.

Whatever you do, just put a little love into it and it will be the most epic playspace for your child and will be something that they remember for the rest of their lives. 


Reader Question- Do you have an outdoor playspace or are you in the process of making one? Share pics of with us on our Facebook Page or comment below and tell us about it! Or if you have questions, comment below and we're happy to answer them!


For your viewing pleasure, here are some pics from our Ribbon Cutting Garden Party Opening!


Kate Schnetzer, MHA, CBE, CLC, CPD, CPST
Co-Founder & Parent Educator
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