An Outdoor Play Space


I’ve mentioned before how much I love bulk trash pick-up in our neighborhood — it’s a time when people pile up large items they no longer want in their front yards near the street and people drive around and load them up before the city trucks come to take them away for good. We have people driving up and down our street all day long sifting through the junk. We also do the same. One year I found a kid’s water table, several chairs, and a big storage basket. This year, I found a kid’s tool bench and a wooden crate I thought would be perfect for some outdoor shelving along our back fence (which we need to replace soon anyway).

I worked to clear and weed the area while the boys were at school and nailed the crate to the fence, then I picked up some extra sand for the sandbox and a big bag of smooth stones of varying sizes, remembering the “loose parts” play I’ve been reading about.


“Loose parts” play refers to an idea by architect Simon Nicholson, who believed that the loose parts in our environment empower creativity. Loose parts are those things that can be moved, carried, transported, combined, redesigned, lined up, taken apart, and put together in various ways. For example, loose parts can be sticks, logs, stones, log “slices,” sand, mud, or dirt if you are sticking with natural materials, but people have also used recyclables such as old tires, boards, ropes, and other items children can do any number of things with. If you’re curious, just use google images to search “loose parts play” and  you’ll be fascinated by the wide range of materials that fit this description.


Sand feels good underfoot. Socks not needed!


I was excited to see what Emil would do when he saw the set-up. I had a feeling he would go straight for the stones, and he did! The first thing he did was count off 20 as he tossed them into the sandbox (he is very number-minded right now). He then picked them all out and recounted, just to be sure.

He buried some, then dug them up, then transferred them from container to container, then loaded up the wheelbarrow with them. He played for an hour while I made dinner inside and his brothers jumped on the trampoline. I think he was very pleased to have his own space!


When he called me outside, I found that he had set the table. He said he had been working hard making pizzas and hot chocolate with marshmallows and would I like to join him for dinner? Of course, I said yes.


It was such a good reminder that all the toys and crap we think our kids need to play nicely on their own is baloney. He wanted to play pizza-maker, so he found a way to use the loose parts to play the game. Imagination is a beautiful thing.


I can’t wait to add more to this area — I’m thinking of a pile of various-sized sticks and some two-by-four boards. Oh, if you decide to do this, expect a mess. I fully embrace that there will be sand, white stones, and whatever else all over our yard. It’s only a few years that they get to play this way. We have the rest of our lives to make beautiful grown-up spaces! For now, I’ll embrace what makes my kids happy and healthy.

13 thoughts on “An Outdoor Play Space”
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  1. Have you seen the book Roxaboxen? It’s about kids creating an imaginary town in the desert out of rocks, glass bottles, wooden boxes, and fabric. My daughter rarely uses any of our toys for their intended purpose. She’s nearly 5 and daily makes soup out of any and all small objects in her path. Love the bright white river rocks!

  2. This is awesome Lauren! Very inspiring. It looks much better than our green plastic turtle sandbox (although I got it freecycled, so it’s not all that bad). I’d love to try to add some of these components though. My girls would love those stones. Did you just get them at a hardware store?

  3. We have very little in our backyard, but we do have a small bed of river rocks. That’s what my girls play with. They make pictures on the brick patio or stack them, but mostly they like to dunk them into water because they completely change colors. Sometimes they make their own chalk paint and paint them, then wash them again! If you get some more stones, you might look for some cool river rocks. My favorites are the ones that look charcoal gray when dry, but when wet they turn every color of the rainbow. I love the white ones too, though. So pretty.

    Side note (and what I came here to tell you) – the rhododendrons are blooming at the garden this week. It made me think of the trails at Graveyard Fields in Asheville – I’m still trying to imagine how beautiful that place must be when those are in bloom! We need to time a trip there for those one year.

  4. Adah– Yes! We love that book! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it when writing this post, it is the perfect example of loose parts at work. I need to dig that one up again. Thanks for that!

    Noelle, yes! I just found them at Home Depot of all places, in the outdoor section back by the stones, sand, gravel, and patio section. I highly recommend them because they are so pretty and come in a big bag of varying sized stones, so the kids can find so many ways to use them.

    Kristin, I’ll be on the lookout for those charcoal gray stones. We had them in the gardens when we lived in Washington, DC when Milo was just a toddler and he used to fill up buckets with them, submerge them in water, etc. Also, yes, I also want to go back to Asheville in the springtime. I’ve only ever been in early fall!

  5. I love Roxaboxen! And this is why it’s great to have an Adah in your life.

    We got the stones at Kirkwood Material. They let us put them under one of the display fountains so we could choose our colors wisely! (This was maybe 8 years ago, though.)

  6. This is totally how my littlest plays too. He adores the large Amazon Prime Pantry boxes we get twice a month which he utilizes as an “apartment” or nest piled with blankets/pillows. Ironically, he gets upset when we have to finally toss them out since they take up precious space in the house but doesn’t bat an eye when we donate his fancier outgrown Target toys, ha. Simple pleasures!

  7. Wonderful space, this is exactly how Wyatt plays. You could give him all the toys in the world, but you’ll find him arranging rocks or sticks or shells, poking the ground with a stick. I’ve never heard of ‘loose parts’, but it sounds like a perfect description of what he’s been up to for years… Ruby on the other hand! She is doing her best to make a case for all that crap! Babydolls, tea parties, costumes… Of course she will invent these things out of what’s around if necessary, but has a very strong (and loud;)) preference for the real thing.

    And I keep mentally responding to your post earlier this week, but not finding the time to type… I am always so impressed by how consistent you are. Never a lull, never a slump… Champion blogger! I look back on the years where I was better, and am so happy to have the record… But it’s so so hard to live the life I want to AND find the time to document and reflect. I have many posts piling up, but rarely the time to crank them out. If you can, keep it up! It’s fun for us, of course, but also such an archive for you and your family.

  8. This is what my second born needs to a tee. We spent 7 hours of his day off school goofing off in the garden today. Some of that time was spent cuddling on a blanket with juice boxes. I am always amazed how much they shine with one-on-one attention, even if only ambient.

    As an aside, would you post more ballet inspired posts? Form, dress, videos of dancers you like? I am in love with the ballet project on instagram.

  9. Lauren,

    Thank you so much for this post…and all our posts. I just LOVE reading your blog! My children go to Montessori as well, and it is so great to see other families thriving and growing with this learning philosophy. Thank you for all that you share. You are in inspiration. I am hoping to gather up the motivation to do this in our backyard as well.

    Keep blogging!
    love and peace

  10. Maggie, yes! I will definitely post some ballet-related stuff soon. I’ve really fallen in love with it! Glad you find it inspiring too. And it is so touching to hear about you bonding with A. so well while out in nature!

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