How To Turn Your Backyard Into A Classroom
When it comes to a child’s cognitive and physical development, backyards can be the perfect space for sparking curiosity about nature, conducting experiments, encouraging active play, facilitating sensory activities and practicing mindfulness. In this guide we share our tips and tricks for optimizing your backyard for play-based learning!
If you’re looking for ways to turn your backyard into a classroom, you’ve come to the right place!
As advocates of play-based learning, we’ve been excited to discover so many wonderful outdoor stations and toys designed specifically for kids to reach important developmental milestones (while having loads of fun!)
With many schools still being closed due to Covid and parents opting for homeschooling, finding ways to keep our kids engaged has never been more important.
In this backyard classroom guide, we’ll go over:
- The benefits of outdoor play
- Educational stations and toys for backyard play-based learning
- The best outdoor learning stations and toys
Scroll down to learn more!
The benefits of outdoor play
When kids get to play outside, they’re able to soak up Vitamin D, engage in active play, feel connected to nature and explore the world around them, which ultimately helps them develop a sense of self.
Other benefits include:
- The development of a natural circadian rhythm
- Less screen time
- Less mess inside
- Opportunities for sensory play and scientific experiments
- Empathy for plants and animals
- Vocabulary expansion
Educational stations and toys for backyard play-based learning
While you might think playing is just playing, there are actually a variety of types that offer numerous benefits for both cognitive and physical development.
Some of these types include:
- Outdoor/ Nature play (Think adventure walks collecting leaves or searching for shapes in the clouds!)
- Active play (Think jungle gyms and play sets!)
- Open-ended play (Think blocks and free play magnetic sets!)
- Imaginative play (Think role play and dress up!)
- Sensory play (Think play dough, musical instruments, sandboxes, gardening and mud pies!)
- Small world play (Think making little nature villages and caterpillar hotels!)
- Manipulative play (Think puzzles and building sets!)
When setting up stations or searching for toys to turn your backyard into a classroom, it’s wise to look for things that are not only durable, but also versatile.
Below is a list of outdoor stations and toys we love as well as activity ideas.
Outdoor Mud Kitchens
Outdoor mud kitchens are great because they can be used for arts & crafts, experiments, imaginative play and even teaching kids how to clean up. While many kids will instinctively come up with ideas for play, you can try activity prompts such as:
- Make a mud pie
- Cook a feast for fairies
- Create a bouquet with flowers found in the yard
- Clean up messy hands after painting or making dough
Scroll down to see two options we love that will set the scene for hours of outdoor fun.
Made from FSC-certified wood and complete with a brushed steel sink basin, the Plum Discovery Mud Pie Kitchen includes wooden hobs, an assortment of metal kitchen utensils, pots and pans as well as discovery tools for little hands to rake, dig and plant.
Raising a little painter? What about a gardener? This stations also includes a built-in planter as well as an easy-clean painting screen with paintbrush holders and paintbrush pens.
Made in the USA from hand-sanded solid pine wood with two coats of non-toxic weatherproof sealer, The Monarch Studio Double Sink Mud Kitchen includes two removable 25 gauge stainless steel bins, one spice rack, two sets of hooks, four turnable chalkboard painted knobs and four chalkboard painted burners.
Outdoor Craft & Garden Station
Having a space to paint or area to garden can be a fun sensory experience for kids. Both fabulous for building confidence, these activities can also be calming, which can allow children time to process what they’re learning as well as their emotions.
- Painting different objects found in the backyard
- Using hands to smear mud on an easy to clean surface
- Planting a veggie patch
Below is a double sided easel/planter we love as well as a no-fail garden kit every kids needs to find their green thumb.
Made from FSC-certified wood, Plum’s Discovery Create & Paint Easel is easy to wash and includes paintbrush pens, 5 hexagon storage holders for brushes, paints and garden trinkets as well as a bamboo wind chime for added sensory play.
Exclusively available at The Tot, Gardenuity’s My First Garden set has everything your tot needs to plant and care for their own little garden.
Designed to be fail-proof, the My First Garden set includes: a well-rooted plant collection, 5-6 gallons of planting media (2 large coir tiles), compost, reusable growing container for next season’s crops, monogrammed Grow Bag “My First Garden”, Soil Primer, Triple Blend Plant Food, Customized Plant Nutrients, Spray Bottle, 30 Day Plant Feeding, two full-sized garden tools, as well as a Grow Pro membership with garden reminders and weather alerts.
Water Play Stations
While water play can be fun for the senses, it can also help demonstrate STEM concepts. STEM toys, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math, are designed to help arm kids with the tools they need to live in a world with rapidly advancing technologies.
As parents who want our kids to learn these concepts without jumping on a computer or tablet straight away, we’re thrilled to have found brands like Explore Nook and Plum who are making sets that encourage critical thinking, problem solving, engineering skills and more!
- Assemble the waterways station to catch water and fill up a bucket to water plants
- Experiment with how the temperature of water changes when left in sunlight vs under cover
- Try adding sand to water to see if it changes the consistency
The Explore Nook Wooden Waterways Set demonstrates cause and effect and the wonderful ways water can move! Exclusively available at The Tot and made from 100% sustainably-sourced timber, it’s fun for both independent and social play.
Imaginative Play Stations & Toys
As parents who share fond memories of playing backyard make-believe games for hours on end, we are so jealous that the Plum Wooden Teepee (below!) didn’t exist when we were little! Perfect for playing house, acting as ‘base’ or simply providing shade while you read books, having structures to let imaginations run wild are a must!
- Play a game of house
- Make a club house
- Have a picnic
- Paint the teepee with hand prints!
Scroll down to see the rest of the toys we recommend for outdoor imaginative play.
Made of FSC certified wood, the Plum Wooden Teepee Hideaway is a blank canvas for little imaginations. While it arrives with a natural finish, you can paint it to match your aesthetic or even let your kids add their special touch!
Imagine discovering a bug that’s never been seen before! With the Moulin Roty Explorer’s Case, your child will love being able to tell stories about their adventures! The case includes a pocket compass, water bottle, binoculars, travel book and treasure box.
One of the most important aspects of your child’s development to focus on is their ability to practice self care and mindfulness. While learning to meditate is no easy feat, it can be that bit easier if you start in small increments and work your way up.
- Use yoga flash cards to practice poses
- Shuffle the yoga card deck to create a yoga flow sequence
- Encourage your child to find a cozy spot in the backyard to read a book
- Spend a few minutes every morning barefoot so little toes can feel the blades of grass and connect with the earth
Featuring beautiful, kid-friendly illustrations of yoga poses, Mindful & Co. Kids Yoga Flash Cards will become a beloved daily practice for the whole family!
Sand Station for Sensory Play
A classic sensory activity is playing in a sand pit! It doesn’t matter if you’re building castles, tunnels or caves, this can be a great activity for honing hand-eye coordination and allowing kids to connect nature.
- Bury treasures from the backyard in the sand pit and then have your child set up an archaeological dig site
- Using fallen flowers and sticks found in the backyard, get your tot to make their own little garden in the sand pit
- Pose questions and let your child form a hypothesis before answering!
- What do you think will happen if you add a scoop of water to that bucket of sand?
- How many scoops will it take to reach the bottom?
- How many scoops will it take to fill up a bucket?
Made of FSC-certified bamboo and 100% food safe resin, EKOBO’s eco-friendly sand bucket and toys make scooping and transporting sand (and other backyard goodies) a breeze.
Outdoor Active Play
Climbing, swinging, sliding, jumping, and hanging are just a few ways your child can get their heart rate up while strengthening the muscles needed for balance and coordinations.
A great way to encourage outdoor active play is by providing play sets and climbing structures like the below options from Plum.
- Suggest a pattern: First swing, then climb the slide! (This also helps kids learn how to follow instructions.)
- Get your tot to create their own backyard obstacle course
- Kids love a challenge: Time them racing from one side of the yard to the other and see how they improve!
Made from FSC-certified pine, the Plum Climbing Pyramid Wooden Climbing Frame with Swings includes a ladder with metal rungs, cargo rope ladder, climbing rock wall with colored hand and foot grips, a camouflage fabric den with window and roll-down door, an 8ft wave slide with hose pipe attachment, wooden swing arm with two adjustable-height swings as well as ground anchors for concreting the swing structure into the ground.
Made from powder-coated steel with a textured finish, the Plum Metel Dome is weather protected and designed with steel tubes that are galvanised inside out for additional rust protection.
Outdoor Open-Ended & Manipulative Play Toys
Since we feel like block play is one of the most important activities a child can do, it’s safe to say we’re very excited about Guidecraft’s Outdoor Wooden Hollow Blocks! We’re also in love with their magnetic building sets that allow kids to create their own designs.
- Build a house
- Create a shop
- Organize each piece by shape
- Estimate how many pieces it’s going to take to build something and then count!
Suitable for kids age three years and up, Guidecraft’s Wooden Hollow Blocks are made from FSC-certified eucalyptus wood. Featuring smooth-sanded edges and surfaces and durable construction meant to withstand outdoor play, the set includes 25 pieces in varying lengths and sizes.
Made from translucent ABS plastic with neodymium magnets, this 74-piece set includes a Creativity Guide to help fuel inspiration and connect kids with the outdoors!
From making structures for pinecones to building castles for imaginative play, it’s a must-have for fine motor skill development and confidence building.