Inspire imaginative play with these no-sew theater curtains. You’ll need 6 yards of red burlap, a clothesline, and clip-on curtain rings. Cut fabric into two 3-yard-long pieces. Fold about 12” down on one end of each piece of burlap and clip curtain rings to the folded edge, equally spaced apart (we used seven rings per curtain). Thread the rings onto your line, then rig the line between two trees. Clips make the curtains easy to put up and take down.
Create this balance challenge with a path of cut logs in varying heights. Contact your local tree trimmer to see if he can donate scraps, or cut them yourself in heights ranging from 2” to 10”. Space the stumps far enough apart so kids have to carefully plot each step as they walk the path.
Little builders will relish a gravel play area for their trucks and construction vehicles. For a 4’x5’ pit we used five 50-pound bags of pea gravel and contained the play area with larger stones and wood. Add small wood planks for ramps and cut branches and sticks for kids to build with.
Kids will go chalk wild for this plus-size chalkboard (and you’ll be happy to keep the chalk dust outside!). Make your own outdoor chalkboard paint, which will weather better than store-bought paint, by mixing together 2 tablespoons of unsanded tile grout with each cup of exterior latex enamel paint (flat finish) you use. Stir one cup at a time in a container to ensure proper blending. Apply two coats of the paint to a large piece of plywood. Once it’s dried, hang the finished drawing station at kid height with heavy-duty picture-hanging hardware.
Tip: Prep the finished chalkboard by lightly rubbing the long side of a piece of chalk all over the surface and erasing it.
This alternative to a traditional swing lets kids twist and sway from a high tree branch. Our homemade spinner was crafted from a pair of bike grips (Strider Standard Grips, $9), a ⅞” wooden dowel cut to 11” long, and a heavy-duty nylon climbing rope from a sporting-goods shop—but if you’re not the DIY type, you can buy a Twist Whiz Swing ($30) that offers the same effect.
Tip: The spinner should be high enough for your child to reach with arms extended.
Kids can race homemade boats down these tracks made from large-hole pool noodles cut in half lengthwise (Splash Down Big Kahuna Pool Noodles, $33 for six). Use a marker and a yardstick to draw a straight line down the length of the noodle. At each end, wrap a measuring tape around the circumference of the noodle to find the halfway point. Draw a second straight line down the other side of the noodle. Use a utility knife to cut noodles into equal halves. To make sailboats: Cut 1” off one end of a pool noodle. Use scissors to cut this ring in half and then snip it into boat shapes. Cut the boat bottoms so they are flat. Make the sails from duct tape and toothpicks.
Tip: Create a longer track by using duct tape to attach noodles together.
With a few inexpensive materials, you can create an outdoor room that's just right for tea parties, secret club meetings, or games of hide-and-seek.
Sandboxes are great, but a pile of dirt -- easily turned into mud or molded like clay -- might be even better. In this free-play domain, kids can create a Mars landscape, lead a mission of army men, or use toy earth-moving trucks to, well, move earth. Designate a corner of the garden as a kids' realm or do what FamilyFun contributor Kimberly Stoney does every year: get a truckload of screened topsoil or loam dumped in the yard and let the kids play in the pile for a couple of weeks before raking it into the lawn.
Left: Rocks provide structure for mountains and roads. You can find bagged stones in the landscaping department of home improvement stores.
Fun tip: Bury lengths of PVC pipe (ours are 3-inch-diameter) for truck tunnels.
Fun tip: A large plant saucer set in the ground and filled with water makes a pleasant pond.
Turn an old cabinet, shelf, or bookcase into an outdoor play kitchen just right for mixing up mud pies, clover parfaits, and other nature-based delights. Scour thrift stores and garage sales, as well as your kitchen junk drawer, to outfit it inexpensively with cups, bowls, pots and pans, utensils, measuring cups, spoons, and more. When you're selecting items, let imagination rule the day: plastic drinking glasses in fancy shapes invite mud-slurry concoctions, and a muffin tin can be used for beautiful, leaf-topped miniature cakes.
Left: Fill a big bowl with water for on-the-spot mud-mixing and utensil-rinsing so that you don't need a hose.
Fun tip: A recycled flour sifter gives dry dirt an even, fluffy texture.
Fun tip: Add extra utensil storage with screw hooks or cup hooks.
Here's how to create a miniature piece of real estate that kids can call their own; we think it would also be the perfect vacation home for a toad. Start with plants and mosses that will thrive in a container in your region -- a local nursery can make suggestions. Drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of the container (we used a 24-inch-wide plastic plant saucer), then fill it with potting soil. Seat the plants and moss in the dirt from largest to smallest and add plastic toys and hardware- store finds. Be careful not to overwater your abode.
Left: Once a decorative birdhouse, this tiny home is encircled by a fence from a craft store.
Fun tips: Create paths and a patio with hardware-store gravel and mosaic tile. Our patio furniture is from a Calico Critters toy set.