Health & Wellness Articles

Cultivating a Child-Friendly Backyard

How to Build a Safe & Fun Outdoor Space for Kids

Imagine that you are the same age as your child…
What grade were you in?
Who was your teacher?
Your best friend?
Favorite game?

Imagine that you are outside…
Did you have a place that you considered your own?
A treehouse or a fort in the bushes?

Remember that special place where, besides listening for your mom's voice, your imagination was the limit! Did you build hideouts or homes for your toys? Catch rollypollies or fireflies? What did you feel, see, smell or hear?

Remember how good you were at having fun? Your child is gifted with the same skill! Now that you've loosened up your imagination, join us in encouraging kids to use theirs!

First, let go of preconceived notions of an outdoor play area. As a society, we have designated concrete, plastic and metal areas as the appropriate places to play. Were those your favorite childhood play areas? It's more likely that you preferred a secret hideaway under the bushes, rolling down a grassy slope or using your imagination to build a fort. By encouraging children to see the potential in their backyards and other outdoor spaces, we allow them endless, undefined and undiscovered fun. Here's how you can create a fun and safe outdoor environment for your kids.

Define safety.
Create rules for outdoor safety so children can be free within your specified boundaries. Rather than clearing away all risks (which is nearly impossible), help your children to learn caution and respect. Do your own work outside while your kids are playing. Put away your tools after using them, but also give your children appropriate and useful tools for their "work." Teach them to observe and respect wildlife. Let them know what plants are useful and how (i.e. what is edible and that everything else is not). Get rid of poisonous plants. Do not use garden chemicals.

Allow kids to discover and use found resources.
Using objects available in nature, such as sticks and stones to build hideouts for toys and landmarks for play, will develop a child's creativity, teach them to be resourceful, build their confidence and heighten their awareness of nature's abundance. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden built collection boxes where children can collect pine cones, berries, etc. As you're cleaning the garden or yard, designate a place to collect useful sticks and stones that your children can use in their play.

Set aside some space.
You don't have to give your hopes of enjoying the backyard over to plastic sandboxes and swing sets. Designate areas for play and give control of those areas to your child's imagination! Allow your children space to dig, but hide it from view with a tall grass. Create a sand pit right in your landscape. Leave yard space for running or create a circular path; kids won't think negatively about running in circles, but will enjoy the rush of physical activity.
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About The Author

Leave No Child Inside Leave No Child Inside
Through education and community engagement, the Leave No Child Inside Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati promotes children's outdoor play, learning and lifelong connection with nature. Learn more at

Member Comments

  • I have to admit, I use some of the strongest chemicals to clear my yard (after getting poison sumac, poison ivy, poison oak and poisonwood) . My husband was working at the park service so he seems to have developed a tolerance for it, but I had it over most of my body and was having to get stronger and stronger doses of steroids to get it down. I first got it in Florida, then in West Virginia and Virginia.

    My daughter got poison ivy on her face recently. Because of her age, they did not want to medicate, so be careful with the plants.

    Also, be sure to check your child for ticks. Just their presence can terrify a child... Mine was bitten twice and she is still traumatized. Then there is Lymes Disease...

    Don't forget sunblock and mosquito repellent.

    Lastly, be careful with the sandbox. Bugs love them. Keep it covered, turn the sand and occasionally replace the sand.

    Be safe. - 9/13/2015 9:38:43 AM
  • @ Claire3000, the leaves of the rhubarb plant is poisonous. - 8/9/2013 10:06:11 AM
  • Great info - 8/8/2013 8:11:43 PM
  • Good interesting! Thank you. - 6/26/2013 6:53:03 AM
    Helpful information here.
    And very important for the safety of children: NEVER leave small children unattended. Many neighborhood playgrounds are not safe for unattended little ones. Small children can encounter big dangers, so watchful supervision is necessary. Also, small items can cause choking problems for toddlers. I know of a three year old who had to have coin removed from her tummy at the hospital. - 6/24/2013 1:05:07 PM
  • how is rhubarb poisonous? - 6/23/2013 12:45:57 AM
  • You left out some plants to avoid due to their poisonous nature.

    Here is a more complete list of plants to avoid in the garden or in your home. Many of them are common flowers and shrubs you can find in almost any garden or backyard, depending on where you live. Some plants might cause skin problems, such as rash or blisters, others are poisonous if ingested.


    Here are a few of the more common ones:
    Asparagus - berries are poisonous
    Bleeding heart
    Jerusalem cherry
    Diffenbachia (dumb cane)
    Mountain laurel
    Oleandar is one of the most poisonous plants used in gardens, and is toxic for children and pets. (leaves, flowwers, berries, sap)

    Another thing to consider is the allergy factor. Pollen from many of the plants and trees on your "safe" list cause allergic reactions - such as mulberry. Other trees and grasses that can cause allergic reactions are:

    Trees that produce allergenic pollen include oak, ash, elm, hickory, pecan, box elder, and mountain cedar. Timothy grass, Kentucky bluegrass, Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, redtop grass, orchard grass, and sweet vernal grass. - 4/16/2013 6:41:39 PM

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