Because we live in a flood zone, we've never invested heavily in outdoor play structures. We have a tree on which we've hung a swing and a hammock chair, but it's tough to hold the kids' interest, and if they do go out and play, they're more likely to go into the street than the garden. We live on a dead end, so the street's safe enough, but my British sensibilities are perturbed by the notion.
Inspired by a recent birthday party my son attended, I decided that the theme of this spring break would be obstacle courses in the garden. So it was that our first excursion of spring break was to Home Depot. We purchased three 8ft long 2x4's and six 8x8 concrete blocks, and came out with change from $20.
Once we got home, we built a balance beam:
It would never pass any health and safety requirements: the blocks were not stable on our tufty grass, so the whole thing wobbled and we had a couple of occasions where the wood slid off while the kids were walking on it—though at less than two feet up, this was more exciting than dangerous.
My priority was that the children could move all the materials themselves. It would be very simple to create different configurations, we just had to use a little imagination... and any other supplies we could rustle up. (Like a search for free logs on Craigslist. Or the wooden pallet which a neighbour serendipitously put out by the side of the road.)
Here's how the rest of the week went:
The beanbag/cushion stuffed hammock swing was really too light to be more than a mild inconvenience. However, if you replace the beanbag with a child, you have a wrecking ball with some punch and a fun game for the whole family!
Rubber bracelets and yarn handcuffed the children to one end of the rope. They had to make their way to the free end.
Figuring out the route through a concrete block maze with just two portable 'bridges'.
Throughout the week, this experiment was a success. While the kids didn't always play on the day's obstacle beyond the first run, they stayed outside. The novelty of each day's extra feature, plus the gradual accumulation of accessories throughout the week seemed to be enough to spark their imaginations. They've also been using the swing and the basketball hoop more than they have in month.
For my kids at least, the balance beam was the biggest thrill. "Don't touch the grass, it's lava!" "Poisonous, spiky lava!" (Truly, the most deadly kind.) Their legs are covered in scratches and bruises, which they don't remember getting, and that's my favourite testament to the project's success.
What they haven't tried yet is to build their own courses. They find the rough concrete blocks painful to carry and have been satisfied with my daily constructions. But I'm done making those. The next step is to wait and see if they will still be excited to play outside, and if they are... what will they build for themselves? (And do I get a turn?)