Twenty acres and a toddler
May 16, 2017 8:19 AM   Subscribe

We have twenty acres in the mountains. We also have a toddler who needs a ton of exercise, and we're tired of spending three hours at the far-away playground every day when we have all of this land right here that she could explore. What can we do to get her excited about playing on the land we have?

The land: Half woods, half pasture, mostly sloping with a nice flat bottom and a creek. We're gradually building a farm. The house is at the top of a huge hill, so anything that incentivizes her to walk down to the bottom will guarantee a decent amount of exercise on the walk home. We'll be here forever, so projects that take a while to complete are fine.

The kid: She's 2.5, so I'm interested in things for preschoolers and early elementary. Loves making art and helping with grown-up tasks (e.g., watering seedlings). Hates (haaaaaaates) loud sounds, including the farm equipment that is sometimes running on the bottom, so we definitely need ways to make use of the hill in addition to the bottom.

The ideas we have so far: Painting/decorating birdhouses and feeders, which we could hang around the land and check on frequently. Strategically-placed swings. Butterfly-friendly plants and a butterfly net for her to run around with. Berry picking, though it's going to take a while to get the bushes established. Some kind of dipper she can use to safely to scoop water out of the creek and water the plants.
posted by xylothek to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: What is it about the playground she likes? Is it the other kids? A particular piece of equipment.

I've found with my own kid that he's not terribly good at "making his own fun" and he needs some sort of obvious object or group of objects (hand-held or play apparatus) to get him started.

I made him a "mud pie kitchen" out of an old restaurant sink. We're in a city home so the hose is right there for water supply, but you could focus more on the dirt and flowers and leaves part and less on the adding water to make mud part.

How about some easily movable play structures? Just wooden boxes, basically. Move them to different locations on your land to be discovered and played on in different ways.

Buckets, shovels, a little kid's gardening kit, all excellent things to have her explore the outdoors with in-hand.

Nail some hand-holds to trees so she can start climbing.

How does she feel about bugs? Get a bug box and start collecting.

Toddler-sized zip line?
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:28 AM on May 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

I grew up on 40 acres, and it was similar to what you're describing. When I was growing up, basically the only two "improvements" my parents made between the ages of 2 and 20 were (1) a treehouse and (2) a teepee (crossed dead aspen trees covered in clear plastic sheeting). I think if you do something to give your kid a "home" or fort in the woods, they can often pretty much take it from there. Then you can leave it to them to start looking for tools (shovel, rakes, etc) or whatever else they may need.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:33 AM on May 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

Your property sounds amazing! We have a half acre and my kids can't get enough of running around outside. This swingset gets a lot of use, and my 18 month old can mostly navigate it by himself. He's trying to keep up with his big sisters, so not every kid may be up for that. I think they particularly like that it feels like a private clubhouse. It's a little big, but we wanted to make sure they wouldn't outgrow it, and the swings are long enough and sturdy enough to be fun for adults too.

Invariably, the biggest draw for kids of all ages at our house is the hidden corner in the back where I dump the old potting soil. It's the biggest, filthiest sandbox ever, and they can't get enough. So, I would recommend soft dirt, a shovel, and pail. They also love to steal seeds from the bird feeder to plant their garden.
posted by defreckled at 8:35 AM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look up "natural playgrounds" and you'll get tons of hits for some fun stuff you can do with what you likely already have on your land. I get this catalog and it always has some fun stuff in it. I think, to some degree, it's just a matter of getting her out there often so she can explore and figure out what she likes.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:37 AM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have her friends over.
posted by at at 8:37 AM on May 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

Our sandbox gets an insane amount of use, as well as a play house ("playhut" being one of the big brands for a cheap version of a house/hut/tent).
posted by typecloud at 8:39 AM on May 16, 2017

A pile of hay bales (with a kid that small, two might be enough) will keep kids climbing for a ridiculously long time.

We had a bridge over the stream near our house and spent a lot of time throwing sticks in on one side and watching them come out the other.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:40 AM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

At this age she's ready to listen to the Winnie the Pooh stories, which are basically about it wandering in the woods and having fun.
posted by bq at 8:45 AM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

My cousin has a similar piece of land, and she ended up building a fenced playground next to the house (that she could see/hear from the kitchen). It includes a swingset, a slide, a climbing wall, and is encircled by a concrete path that the kids can ride their bike around. Separate and little father away she installed an above-ground pool (also fenced, of course).

At the very least, toddlers love slides, stairs, water tables, and sand boxes.
posted by vignettist at 8:49 AM on May 16, 2017

I grew up on eight acres, and my father cut through a big stand of bushes to create a little room inside for us. He added a few concrete blocks for chairs and hung a horseshoe on a tree that was in the center. We loved it. So I agree that anything that's like a little fort or house will probably be a big hit.
posted by FencingGal at 9:03 AM on May 16, 2017

Best answer: I think you'll want a small playhouse now (possibly a few steps up in a tree, made with scrap is great) and then a high treehouse later on.

Also, a hose.

You can rope off a 1-foot square plot of land (tiny!) and start drawing and cataloging all the plants and insects and other critters you find in it. I loved this as a kid.

Take walks at dawn, noon, dusk, at night (once she can handle staying up late - my kid couldn't until age 3) and make note of all the stuff that's different at those times. Can you hear peeper frogs? Fireflies? Hawks? Owls?Cicadas?

When she's a little older, you can start to teach her various outdoor skills: making a fire, lashing a shelter (SO MUCH FUN for school age kiddos, you can make your own kingdom), using a camp stove to make herself cocoa/tea/ramen on her own (I did this starting around 8), bird identification, tracking, etc.

We're just about to move to a similar spot with our 3yo and I can't wait for him to have the experiences that made my my childhood :)
posted by Cygnet at 9:10 AM on May 16, 2017 [9 favorites]

For toddlers part of it may be where you are, so if you're interacting with her on the playground but more doing other things when on your own property, that may be part of it.

But some quick fixes could also be: A really huge ball to roll around the land, big cardboard blocks (obviously you can't leave those in the rain) a pop-up tent to play in, something to climb, something to slide down.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2017

Two years ago I bought my then two year old a pile of dirt, some tonka type trucks, a shovel and a watering can and she loved it. We got a scoop of dirt for about $20 and maybe another $20 in toys and she played with it all summer.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 9:38 AM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

My sister strung a zipline between two trees on her property. Lots of fun and a good workout hauling the seat back to the start.
posted by rouftop at 9:57 AM on May 16, 2017

Throwing rocks in the creek is an all day activity for my grandson.
posted by PJMoore at 10:36 AM on May 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

The only thing that got my kids out into our crappy backyard before we moved was the giant pile of dirt. They spent HOURS digging, piling, making mud, making "potions," etc. We had a rain barrel, and they were allowed to use that to get basically as much water as they wanted when it wasn't freezing outside. That, plus buckets and shovels, kept them entertained for hours.

Now, we have a slightly better, although still urban, backyard. Our back-door neighborfriends have chickens, which my three-year-old LOVES. He checks for eggs every morning, feeds them worms and slugs he finds around the yard, and also feeds them bits of interesting plants -- approved, of course. Lots of sorrel lately. Chickens are really good animals for giving small people some agency and responsibility.

But may also just be kid-dependent: my younger son is perfectly happy to play by himself in the backyard for a long time. My older son is almost never content to play alone no matter what the context. Having friends over, and having a little brother, are the things that get him to really play.
posted by linettasky at 10:37 AM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like the playhouse idea and here's a fun one made of scrappy stuff for a 3yo's birthday on a farm.
posted by jillithd at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I grew up so rural that the only time I routinely saw other people my age was when I started junior high school. My "thing" growing up: building trails through the edge of the woods that bordered our open space. All you need to get started are heavy duty pants and walking boots, to tromp down the grasses and understory plants. I trace my interest in this hobby back to my dad taking me on long walks (wearing shit kickers or boots or what have you) in and out of the woodline. Something about seeing that definite path taking shape over time got me really into it. By the time I was 6 or so, I'd go out with a grass whip and plot out these meandering paths wherever I wanted to go. By the time I was a teen, I had a pretty impressive network of trails built up and a lifelong love of being outside without need for a playground.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:59 AM on May 16, 2017

This "deliberately 'dangerous' playground" article has a bunch of interesting and pretty simple ideas.

In our own yard, a basic commercial type playset got a lot of use from the kids from preschool through elementary ages. We got one used from a friend whose kids had outgrown it.
posted by flug at 1:14 PM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

We also had a big yard as a kid (though not as big as yours!) Although some of this is for a little older than toddler age, I figured I'd add them in case they are useful in the future:

Treehouse! My uncle had a huge fancy one on his property, and my parents had a normal non-fancy one, and both were hugely enjoyed.

Giant dirt pit. Obviously a parent did the hard work of this, but it was SO COOL.

A sibling? Or at least playdates... This is a little silly, obviously, but I would think about the fact that your child is getting social interaction at the playground with either you or other kiddos. If you try to substitute that solely with physical structures, it's likely not going to be a perfect substitute. So whether it's you being more involved with your kid's activities at home, or having lots of friends over, or having another child, I think the social interaction part will be key. Obviously some people are happily solitary, and perhaps your child will turn out this way, but my happy memories of playing in our yard sans parents as a child are pretty much 100% either with one of my siblings or neighbors.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:57 PM on May 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Picnicking! My grandson loves to have a picnic in the yard. Lunch or snacks. He likes to choose the food and the spot. We set out the picnic blanket and enjoy the meal land each other's company. And sometimes a pop-up tent!
posted by goodsearch at 11:15 PM on May 17, 2017

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