"We're not raising grass. We're raising boys." Harmon Killebrew
May 24, 2007 12:11 PM   Subscribe

For kids (boys) what would make for the coolest back yard ever?

Dream your wildest dream and tell me what your fantasy back play yard would have been like when you were a kid... or what your kids love about your backyard now.

We have a bike ramp. We're almost finished building a tree house fort (but what would make that fort exceptional?). We have a huge area of dirt for digging and building projects.

In case it helps, I'll give you an idea of what my kids like to do - but really I'd love to hear what your ideal childhood yard would be--

Our oldest, the 9yo, loves construction (he wants to drive the trucks and just recently used a bag of cement, without permission, to make a 'foundation' for his construction project in the dirt area). He also enjoys inventing and building things (with no help he's made a replica of the Titanic with wood scraps and toilet paper tubes, a gum ball machine out of a glass canning jar & a box, an elaborate 'mouse trap', etc.). He likes using his Heely's and drawing. He is very active, and he's fascinated with bad weather (he wants to take a vacation to 'Tornado Alley')

Our 6yo is pretty laid back but doesn't like to sit still. He'd rather play video games than play in the dirt. He's competitive and likes team sports (soccer and baseball). Right now he's very into 'army' stuff and toy guns. He's also musically talented. His interests are still forming but he needs a lot of variety, challenge and excitement to hold his interest.

The youngest likes doing whatever his brothers are doing - and destroying whatever they're making.

Thanks everyone. I hope to get some great ideas!
posted by LadyBonita to Home & Garden (70 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
We had endless hours of fun with a rope swing plus an old mattress. I'm sure it was shockingly dangerous though.
posted by smackfu at 12:18 PM on May 24, 2007

I wanted a series of underground tunnels.

I still do.
posted by modernsquid at 12:20 PM on May 24, 2007

A mound (not a box, but a MOUND constrained by railroad ties or something) of coarse-grained sand. And a set of blocks just to use outside to build forts for action figures/army men and to pave the sand to make awesome jumps for toy cars. Because you have a MOUND of SAND and can make the cars run over the blocks with gravity.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:20 PM on May 24, 2007

Zip line.
posted by The World Famous at 12:22 PM on May 24, 2007

the tree house would be cool if there were two of them and they were connected by a rope bridge
posted by mateuslee at 12:23 PM on May 24, 2007

and maybe like a fireman's pole to get down from the tree fort.
posted by mateuslee at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2007

Dream-style: a full scale pirate ship. It could even be partially buried and have an underground part, and several layers. Maybe there could be a crow's nest, too.

For the treehouse, help them put furniture in it, or little books, or other things that will 'make the house a home'.
posted by lhall at 12:24 PM on May 24, 2007

Obstacle course.
posted by cashman at 12:25 PM on May 24, 2007

A bamboo forest--fun to play in, AND lots of raw materials for building/making stuff.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:28 PM on May 24, 2007

I don't know what it's called, but my favorite thing at the park was always this swinging gate thing.

It looked like a gate in a fence, but had a step at the bottom where one or two kids could stand. The centrifugal force of the kids swinging their weight around with gate made it seem like it was going crazy fast.

It was exciting, but still pretty fast because the worst that would happen is you'd get thrown off, or slammed into the ground. And it didn't take up much space.
posted by crickets at 12:29 PM on May 24, 2007

We had a cranapple tree and used to get trashcan lids and play war. If we had castles or a castle like in War of the Buttons that would have been most excellant.

Second the tunnels, even trenches would do.

A place to dig the deepest hold ever.

Lots and lots of cardboard for breakdancing, building and drawing.
posted by bleucube at 12:29 PM on May 24, 2007

Firing range.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:30 PM on May 24, 2007

I think this is the modern version -- although it doesn't look like as much fun (it spins, but no gate):

posted by crickets at 12:30 PM on May 24, 2007

Coolest. Backyard. Evar.
posted by yqxnflld at 12:31 PM on May 24, 2007

I think a trebuchet would be a pretty fun thing to have in the back yard.
posted by bondcliff at 12:31 PM on May 24, 2007

While this thread was for an indoor fort, many of the ideas would work outside as well.

I saw a pretty neat outdoor musical instrument at a park: it was a series of metal pipes of varying lengths/diameters spouting from a concrete base; you could pound on them like an in-the-round xylophone. Left alone, they caught and amplified passing breezes and hummed like a chorus of didgeridoos.

My 9yo son doesn't sound as physical as your three but he's into building. He's got a giant sand pit that he runs water through to make rivers/dams and at his request, we're putting in a bog garden to be stocked with his ever expanding collection of carnivorous plants. He also wants a beehive, but I'm not quite up for that, yet.
posted by jamaro at 12:31 PM on May 24, 2007

Two words: mud pit.

Even better: rope swing and mud pit.

Maybe part of your dirt area could be sectioned off?

In my experience as a caretaker of occasional herds of young boys, this is the surest way to ensure an afternoon of outdoor bedlam, indoor peace and an early bedtime.
posted by annaramma at 12:36 PM on May 24, 2007

I'd probably have gotten a kick out of some "secret compartments" in the tree fort.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2007

Big ol' pile of wood and compost and mulch. I used to dig through all the decomposing crap in our backyard, looking for bugs. Creepy bugs are pretty much the coolest thing ever.

Aside from a zip line, I mean.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:40 PM on May 24, 2007

The tree house, fort, whatever has to have a secret room without an obvious entrance. Let the boys know it exists but don't tell them outright where it is or how to access it. They will have to discover it for themselves, or maybe with a series of clues from you.
posted by Animus at 12:42 PM on May 24, 2007

posted by bwanabetty at 12:42 PM on May 24, 2007

an outdoor shower to clean off the dirt an mud before going inside.

I second the range idea. (some nerf guns or airsoft would be great if everybody wears eye protection and is adult supervised)
posted by Megafly at 12:44 PM on May 24, 2007

Do you have any really big, easily climable trees? The most fun backyard accessory I've had the pleasure of experiencing was a huge homebuilt zip-line that ran the length of a friend's 3-acre back yard (basically a giant length of nylon rope and a heavy-duty pulley with a PVC handle). You had to climb a huge, totally "unimproved" tree to get up to the jump point, and the ride itself was very fast and covered a tremendous distance, maybe 50-60 meters. Sensationally fun, probably extremely dangerous, we'd do it for hours every day... God how I wish I was playing on that zip-line right now.
posted by saladin at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2007

I am a girl, but have three brothers, so grew up thinking I was a boy.

Lots of shovels and digging tools
tree house with various "security measures"
fruit trees for rotten plum wars
leaf piles for digging and hiding and diving
make your own garden stuff
zip lines!!!
wading pool
rope bridges
higher lookout tower for spying
subterranean fort (safer than tunnels which might require lots of engineering).
some kind of huge linkin logs?
plant privet (beware invasive) and cut a maze. (I did this once and it ended up much better than planned)
posted by stormygrey at 12:47 PM on May 24, 2007

Actually, thinking back, it was probably more like 100 meters. MAN I miss that zip line.
posted by saladin at 12:48 PM on May 24, 2007

Zip line that goes from the tree house straight to the backdoor. Big old mattress attached to house by door at the end of the zip line. "Boys! Time to come in!" "Okay!" *Whzzzzz. Thump!*
posted by ND¢ at 12:49 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

We know someone who has an old train car in their yard. It's got bunks and a wood stove and is wired for electricity. Their grandkids have sleepovers in there. It is awesome.

I, for one, have always wanted my own gypsy vardo.
posted by jrossi4r at 12:54 PM on May 24, 2007

Big pile of sand. (2nding the big pile, not some wimpy sand box, but something you can storm Normandy on. And don't buy "sand box" sand. Get stuff for landscaping. Much cheaper and give the kids an old window screen and let 'em sift the rocks/hidden treasure out of it.) Some empty sand bags so they can fill them and do whatever.

Big pile of scrap lumber and metal and a big box with some cheap hand tools. Encourage them to build what they don't have. And rope, wire, scrap cloth duct tape, fasteners, etc. Maybe get a little freestanding ched they can use to keep it all in that can double as another fort.

I'd raise the fort off the ground. At least enough for kids to crawl around/hide/launch surprise attacks from under it.

And if you have a tree you must have both a rope off of it,and a primitive way to climb it and sit in it for a few hours. (Depending on tree size and type.)

If no tree, buy an old used swing set and let them use it for whatever.

And a first aid kit.
posted by Ookseer at 12:55 PM on May 24, 2007

I would like to ahead and third the firing range because I speak from experience when I say that they will eventually end up with pellet guns or an archery set and your beautiful pumpkins and watermelons will be destroyed. :)
posted by stormygrey at 12:56 PM on May 24, 2007

My brothers and I would've LOVED all the things listed as answers here.

I'd just add:

Small climbing wall.

Basketball hoop.

posted by Grundlebug at 1:07 PM on May 24, 2007

My 2 boys (7 and 3) are still complaining about the disappearance of the big mound of dirt from our driveway. I over-ordered dirt 4 years ago (in order to slope the foundation properly away from the house to prevent water getting into the basement), and they both would play on that dirt mound for HOURS - climbing, digging, etc. It took me 4 years to use it up for other purposes and reclaim the driveway, but I kind of wish we still had it for them.

Come summertime, both boys really love to be able to go and pick raspberries and strawberries to eat whenever they want, so I'd toss in a recommendation for some berry bushes.

The 2 disc swings get heavy use, as does the tree platform. There's a book called something like "Treehouses That You Can Build" that is pretty inspiring.
posted by chr1sb0y at 1:08 PM on May 24, 2007

Dinosaurs. Every boy wants a dinosaur. Or to be a dinosaur. Seriously, there's got to be a climbing structure shaped like a T-Rex, or you could set up a "feeding cage" like in Jurassic park where the goat gets eaten.
posted by monkeymadness at 1:09 PM on May 24, 2007

When I was a boy I had a big (30-50) collection of lawn sprinklers and water nozzles and a bunch of hoses. My parents would buy me three or four new ones every spring, and I would generally get first pick of the neighbors discards (only now do I realize they were probably very happy to encourage me to stay in my own back yard as much as possible).

I can't decide whether I enjoyed more the muddy pleasures of annaramma's post, or watching the play of sunlight on sheets and mists and arcs and droplets (and soaking everything I could reach), or rushing outside at the first hard freeze to make as many icicles and frozen puddles as I could before the hoses iced shut and my father insisted on draining all the pipes to the outside of the house.

Thanks for reminding me.
posted by jamjam at 1:10 PM on May 24, 2007

A periscope and flag poles for the fort - so the kids can be on a pirate ship or a submarine etc just by changing the flags. Visit a military discount store to get 'authentic' bits and scraps of stuff.

Instead of digging a trench, my grandfather, who worked for the water co, brought up a big 4' diameter piece of scrap pipe. Then he built up a mound around it. (Saves having to get the utilities marked).

We used to make our own mud bogs (military housing so we weren't allowed to dig much) with plastic wadding pools, clay and some clean fill dirt. We also experimented with making quicksand (until our parents found out)

An outdoor shower would probably also be appropriate - that way the kids could make as much mess as they want.
posted by jaimystery at 1:17 PM on May 24, 2007

Dirt pile
Sand pile
Free reign to dig any size hole, and the tools to do it
A rope swing from a strong tree limb
And a spring afternoon to enjoy all of this
Oh, and a pitcher of red Kool-Aid
posted by fijiwriter at 1:22 PM on May 24, 2007

Everyone's said zip line, so I'll just add that we also rappelled out of our barn loft, until my mother put a stop to it. The best thing I had growing up was about a half acre of land in the back yard which my parents let grow wild from the time they bought the house; by the time I was four or five it was a young forest. There are an endless amount of things you can do with your very own little forest.

Also: a big sand box. We made very intricate towns, tunnels, water ways, etc. in our sand box.
posted by frobozz at 1:22 PM on May 24, 2007

I wanted a slide from my bedroom to the garden, and underground tunnels.
posted by bonaldi at 1:22 PM on May 24, 2007

- Obstacle course that includes a zip-line, rope-swing over mud pit, climbing wall, mound o' dirt, pit o' sand, etc. -- the (mandatory) tree fort should be incorporated as well. They'll need a durable stopwatch too, of course.
- Dirt BMX bike course, which becomes a motocross course as they get older.
- (best for last) Paved, reconfigurable go-cart track.

Will you adopt me?

And careful with the bamboo -- it will be cut into spears they throw at each other. (And catch -- like NINJAZ!!!)
posted by LordSludge at 1:23 PM on May 24, 2007

Anything stupidly dangerous works well for boys.

When we were kids, we had a fort, zipline and ice rink in the backyard. Most of these we "designed" ourselves, then Dad actually got them to work.

The fort was the most work, requiring cement pilings, and lots of lumber. The zipline started as a rope from a second floor window and an old shovel handle (stupid and dangerous was our speciality). The ice rink was the easiest---hardware stores in Edmonton all carry 2x3m plastic bags just for this purpose. We used to get two or three to build the rink every year.

Bike ramps and skate ramps are all good. Also water rockets and potato guns.
posted by bonehead at 1:28 PM on May 24, 2007

Gotta make room for a trampoline in there somewhere.
posted by furiousthought at 1:29 PM on May 24, 2007

and -

Get some signal flags (or give the kids materials to create their own). My mom & her siblings grew up on a 100 acre farm and developed their own language in bandannas to communicate across the fields.

A secret message drop - get a fake hollow rock (or make your own with the kids) so they can leave secret messages for each other. Bonus points if you teach them the 'invisible' lemon ink trick.
posted by jaimystery at 1:31 PM on May 24, 2007

God! a trampoline into a leaf pile was such a great pleasure (until you hurt yourself, but that's part of the fun)
posted by stormygrey at 1:32 PM on May 24, 2007

And fire. Is there any way we can work fire into the equation? Maybe a campfire pit. (with a rope swing over!! hehe)
posted by LordSludge at 1:41 PM on May 24, 2007

My boys spent endless ours in our pool (when we had one). As soon as the temp sat above 70 for a week or so, I'd spend a weekend cleaning the thing and getting it ready.

As soon as school got out, they'd put on their swim trunks, and we wouldn't see them again until fall.

It was a simple above-ground pool, about 25' long. My only complaint was having to keep the thing clean, as there were trees nearby that would drop leaves in and promote mold.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:53 PM on May 24, 2007

(Beware. Links contain one annoying pop-up ad. Click at own risk.)

Child Magazine gives out awards for stuff like this each year. Search their site for the term "contest winners". The pirate ship in their Playhouse Proud series was really cool.
posted by jeanmari at 1:59 PM on May 24, 2007

Mud hole + random shaped rocks + bucket of hot wheels cars = Sim City
posted by Pollomacho at 2:00 PM on May 24, 2007

Me and my dad built this. It is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.
posted by pwally at 2:06 PM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Scrap wood and other building materials might be a good idea. As a kid, I always enjoyed building my own forts.
posted by Sailormom at 2:16 PM on May 24, 2007

I always wanted a zip line from my bedroom window to my tree house, which also would have had a secret tunnel to the house with a secret door inside the house that didn't look like a door. On the tree house side the tunnel would come up through the tree trunk with a ladder up inside the tree.

A rope swing into a lake, a tire swing.

I also had a bamboo infested backyard at one point and as already mentioned I cut them down and built all kinds of forts with them, great for water gun/balloon fights.

My multi level tree house would have those never ending water guns that they have at water parks, and since it was already going to have plumbing, a special sink just for filling water balloons. It needed a small table for plotting out schemes and eating lunch in the summer, some comfy bean bags and a big chest full of comics. Binoculars, a tin can phone line to the house. A nice telescope. Oh, and a moat. Man if I had lots of little tunnels underground that would have been the coolest.

A trampoline is a must, as is a giant sand box with nearby water access, a really good set of sand building instruments and lots of little army men to set up in your city. Then you need a nearby mud pit so that you can make your transformation into Swamp Thing and demolish your new sand city.

A good slip and slide with a small underground padded pool at the end, some awesome sprinklers to go over the slip and slide. I always had more fun propelling myself across that strip of plastic than I did in a pool. Although a big water slide that just ended in a little pit of water would have been really cool too.

A fire pit for roasting marshmallows and hot dogs.

And a labrynth.

Yeah I think that just about covers everything. Imagination is the greatest, and its not just for boys! Although I never did get invited to any tea parties....
posted by trishthedish at 2:31 PM on May 24, 2007

Warning: Bamboo is invasive and can take over your yard.

In case you were thinking about bamboo, I wanted to refute this. If you buy any of the common varieties of bamboo at most nurseries in the US, you will be buying an invasive strain.

But if you look up one of the many bamboo-only nurseries online and order your plants from there, you can buy one of many high-altitude "clumping" varieties of bamboo (as opposed to the invasive "running" varieties). I have clumping bamboo planted in the ground around several parts of my house and it works just fine, barely spreading more than a couple inches each year.

You'd want to find mountain varieties of large bamboo to get a clumping style that was large diameter -- which is good for building things with when it matures, gets cut, and is dried.
posted by mathowie at 2:31 PM on May 24, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, my tree house also needed a lift made out of a giant bucket and rope for pulling up important stuff. Like my dog.
posted by trishthedish at 2:32 PM on May 24, 2007

My parents' land has enough of a slope for a gigantic "slip and slide" in the summertime, and a snow boarding course in the wintertime. Very popular.

Also enough of a maze/obstacle course for paintball or mudball wars. Provide enough cover for both hiding and ambush possibilities.
posted by librarianamy at 2:38 PM on May 24, 2007

a large blackberry patch with an area cleared out in the middle and a secret way to crawl into there.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:53 PM on May 24, 2007

Something all backyards should have: a creek

The sand/dirt piles are great suggestions. There was some never ending construction across the street from our house, and the piles of dirt were always the first place we headed.

The 9yo sounds like a workshop and some scrap wood would be excellent.

How about a video projector and a screen or nearby wall for watching movies or playing video games.
posted by alikins at 3:03 PM on May 24, 2007

I second the scrap wood idea.

When I was a kid, there was a park at the Berkeley Marina called Adventure Playground, and it was the greatest playground of all time. The kids built most of it themselves, you see. Wood, paint, tires and such were available for us to slap together how we would. What resulted looked like something out of a Murnau film with straight angles going of at slightly off-kilter directions.

This was on a pretty big scale, it being a public park and all, but I think your son and his friends could have a pretty great time just going ape with whatever scrap you can find laying around.

Adventure playground also had a sweet zipline and a rope net, but the awesomeness of these items need no further elaboration.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 3:11 PM on May 24, 2007

The only thing my sister and I never got tired of, from ages 3 through 17 was the creek and forest behind our house, so I guess I vote for letting part of the back yard grow wild, if you have the space.

This is my favorite AskMeFi ever.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:38 PM on May 24, 2007

Some sort of a rocket ship. The park near my house had a rocketship/slide thing that was entirely awesome.

Plus, as everyone has said, the sand + action figures and vehicles etc. can be great for military simulations. Also seconding the ideas of some sort of mazy-thing with different areas and access points.
posted by washburn at 3:47 PM on May 24, 2007

Set aside some of your dirt for growing edible things and flowers. I recommend radishes, turnips, beans and tomatoes; petunias, Iceland poppies, marigolds, and geraniums. Some of my fondest childhood memories are collaborating on little garden projects with my folks.

Kids can do digging, planting, weeding and watering, and they take great joy in watching the plants do their thing.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:53 PM on May 24, 2007

The son that enjoys inventing would probably get a kick out of a stash of old pulleys and ropes and random junk like that where he can spend hours "inventing" lifts up into the tree house and such.

Also, weird and wonderful pets make for awesome backyard fun. My friend had a ferret - it was a little crazy, but still the most awesome pet ever.
posted by cholly at 5:27 PM on May 24, 2007

When I was a kid we had a zip line off of our tree fort. It was awesome.
posted by trbrts at 6:24 PM on May 24, 2007

Awesome suggestions above! I'll bet $5 everyone reading this thread whished being a child again for a while and having all these wonderful things to play with.

Something unusual and maybe harder to find, but loads of fun: a large polyester tube. And by large, I mean LARGE: the diameter should be more than your children's length, yet small enough so they can just touch the upper part while stretching their arms. And wide enough so there's enough room for all their friends to sit in it together.

They can roll around in the rolling tube, roll it and try to stay on top, bounce in it or just sit on top chatting. Trying to get on top should be an adventure in itself, by hurling themselves on top or having to climb a tree to get on top.

I guarantee you, it might sound a bit dumb, but it's an amazingly fun and versatile 'toy'.
posted by lioness at 7:06 PM on May 24, 2007

My neighbors built an ice skating rink every winter growing up which amazingly fun in the winter. Just make sure the ground is flat and the rink is big enough for some 3-on-3 hockey.
posted by chefscotticus at 8:10 PM on May 24, 2007

I don't know how it would work outdoors, but I would have loved to have a foam pit when I was a kid. The fun starts about 20 seconds in.
posted by hootch at 8:13 PM on May 24, 2007

I had a simple tree fort with a rope swing. I can remember the potential to be injured, but never was. It was great. Also, the coolest back yard in my neighborhood was one that had a bmx course built into it. That was amazing. I think a zip line would rule!
posted by m3thod4 at 1:26 AM on May 25, 2007

We loved the minimalism approach. A tree house/fort that isn't supposed to be something is way better than a tree house that is something specific because a kid's desires will change from one day/hour to the next.

The things I loved the most was a rope swing with a wooden seat (I didn't like tire swings because they inevitably had a pool of stinky stagnant water in them).
posted by plinth at 7:04 AM on May 25, 2007

I have no idea if kids still play with G.I. Joe toys, but for a few years my dad's backyard (parents divorced) had a big pile of rocks that was endless fun. My little sister and I would stage elaborate battles in the G.I. Joe mountains. I always wished that we had a (miniature) creek running through the rocks.

And, of course, a trebuchet and / or catapult would have been nice.
posted by GatorDavid at 7:40 AM on May 25, 2007

A backyard that borders a forest. Parkland if you can get it, but as a kid I just had some undeveloped land owned by some company and not even fenced to wander around in. Then the company got permission to develop and bulldozed the whole forest in a week.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:38 PM on May 25, 2007

Response by poster: OP here. You guys are amazing! This has been incredibly fun to read and our 9yo is busy right now drawing plans for 99% of what you all suggested.

You've given us exactly what we wanted - awesome, imaginative and fantastical ideas!!

I forgot that we do have a tire swing (we drilled holes in the bottom to solve the water problem) and a basket ball hoop. And a tether ball on a pole.

Signal flags, zip lines, tunnel tubes, a firing range, swinging gates, creeks and dams and forests and berries and mud pits, bridges, piles of wood, secret rooms & messages, lookout towers and telescopes, sprinklers and hoses and ponds, trampolines and pools, a maze and a labrynith, Koolaid and roasted marshmallows.....

It's going to be the best back yard EVAR. And you all are invited over to play!!!
posted by LadyBonita at 2:19 PM on May 25, 2007

Build a halfpipe. That kept me busy for many many hours of my childhood.
posted by trbrts at 9:26 AM on September 11, 2007

Favorite thing to do through several years of my childhood was go out in the sticker bushes beyond the fence (someone else's property, but who cares) with clippers, pruners, sticks, and/or baseball bats, and make paths for a fort. And eat fresh berries in season. I am totally allergy-free and I ascribe this to all the dirt and pollen that I ate, or got into superficial wounds, out there.

A friend of mine had, in his yard, a small subterranean hideout (a big fallen log was the lintel of the entrance, and they dug it out and braced it) and a clubhouse styled The Ninja Hideout, with inner and outer walls of cedar shingle and an ongoing project to insulate it by filling the space between with dry ferns and bushes. Oh, and a trapdoor in the floor that could give you a storage hole, escape tunnel, or some such.
posted by eritain at 5:46 PM on November 16, 2007

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