This morning, I watched through the kitchen window as my four and five-year-old deftly built a bridge over a sea of lava. They laid long planks across the bubbling fire, nudging them together until they were lined up perfectly, side by side. Then, they worked together to haul some large stumps into place at each end, pinning the planks into place.

The bridge was only about two feet off the ground, but still I found myself holding my breath as my older son urged his little brother to “Try it out, see if it works!”

Little brother, always game, leapt onto the bridge dramatically and traversed it with comical gesticulation and wide eyes as he narrated his dangerous crossing of the lava below. Then, midway through his successful passage, he jumped from the bridge, plummeting to the lava below.

“Nooooooooooo,” he cried, flailing on the ground as his brother, ever the hero, laughed and kicked mulch on him.

The lava game has been going on for almost a month now. For kids whose normal attention span is not one second longer than an episode of Octonauts, that’s some pretty serious staying power.

 

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Of course, it may have something to do with the LAVA CROSSING PLAY SET – BONUS EDITION that I spent a fortune on at Christmas, but, just kidding, no – they don’t play with anything they got for Christmas anymore. That stuff is so six months ago.

Nope, the lava game is the product of stuff most people would consider junk, and it has taken over our backyard with the materials being used again and again in a hundred different ways. The lava game is a product of our Backyard Revolution, and I highly encourage you to get onboard.

Last summer, I reached my breaking point. Our yard, which is already on the small size and completely fenced, was overrun with plastic. It had started with a little plastic climber that I’d bought secondhand for my oldest when he was around a year.

The next summer, as he got a little older, we added a big plastic playhouse with two stories, supposedly built to look like a treehouse. Soon, a red ladybug sandbox followed, along with a giant plastic tugboat that arrived when my oldest turned four and asked for “a tugboat just like daddy drives.”

Add to that chaos an assortment of toy trucks, tiny lawnmowers, and plastic gardening tools more commonly used as weapons, and before we knew it, we were living in a sea of plastic. We had accumulated nearly every yard toy known to modern children.

Yet still, the boys were bored.

We’re all for outings and adventure, but I am a full-time, work-from-home-mom, so keeping the kids engaged and content in the yard where I can see them is a workplace essential for me. In my naivety, I had greeted their boredom with shiny new things to keep them occupied. What do kids like to play with, after all, if not a brand new toy?

Each new piece of backyard play equipment was greeted with initial excitement and quickly became the center of attention. The boys would fight over it, clamor over it, and regale me with sickeningly sweet compliments about how I’m the best mom EVER.

Then, just as quickly, each became old news. The climber gathered fallen leaves that rotted into a slimy film at the top of the slide. The playhouse sheltered cobwebs and slugs. The tugboat gathered rainwater and became an ecosystem of its own, breeding mosquitos at every opportunity. The yard was littered with discarded, plastic debris.

Something had to give, so we began a project lovingly referred to as Operation Plastic Eradication.

We emptied the yard of plastic junk and replaced it all with raw materials. The area that once housed the climber and playhouse is now our nature playground. There are logs, sticks, bricks, rocks, ropes, wood chips, and hay bales. We rigged up a few pulleys and a rope ladder from the fence. We added slabs of slate and fresh wood chips. A few blocks of solid oak paired with a jar of nails and a small hammer rounded out the space.

Part lumberyard, part fairyland, part scrapyard, it was a hit when we set the kids loose.

All kids have a deep need to feel accomplished at the end of the day. My boys feel accomplished when they set their minds to a task and work toward its completion. In the natural playground, they move rocks, build structures, tie ropes, and clear debris – both together and independently.

In their minds, they are doing something much more than simply playing. They are working, imitating the real-world work they see around them. To move a log, they may try three or four techniques before they get it right. They build pathways, experimenting with different surfaces and distances. They “plant trees” by digging holes and burying stumps in them. They engineer bridges over lava and skyscrapers made of stones.

They “work” tirelessly at play. Without the context provided by their previous toys, their options now are as endless as their imaginations.

The natural playground is the only playground you need. Still not convinced? Here are a few facts to get you thinking:

1 | When natural elements, such as logs and rocks, are incorporated into a play space, children are more active in their play and stay engaged for nearly twice as long.

2 | Children who play on a natural playscape are more likely to engage in inquiry and observation-based play.

3 | Open-ended, loose materials, such as sticks, stones, sand, and plant materials inspire more creative play in young children than does fixed playground equipment.

Ready to get started? Building your own natural playscape is more simple than you might think.

First, choose a space in your yard. Ideally, it should have a combination of open space with a few natural features already present, such as a tree or some hearty bushes. Remember that whatever exists within this space will likely become a play piece, so it’s best to locate it away from fragile plants (e.g. your heirloom rose garden).

Next, purge the plastic. We gave away, tossed, or sold most of our yard toys. We kept a few standby favorites, like the Tonka trucks and soccer balls, and sourced a large deck box to store them in when not in use.

Add fill if necessary. If your area is already grassy, that’s a great start. Ours was not, so we put down wood chips to pad falls and provide some natural definition to the space.

Source natural materials. Most of these can be found locally, and you might already have some. Our playscape includes:

  • Short, large diameter logs and longer, small diameter logs from trees we had cleared
  • Sticks gathered from the woods
  • Old bricks
  • Large stones found around the yard and neighborhood
  • Shells from the beach and leftover shellfish (just rinse and leave in the sun until clean)
  • Lumber scraps from our barn and from disassembled bed slats
  • Ropes
  • Pulleys
  • Cross sections of a cedar trunk
  • Slate stepping stones leftover from a patio we had removed.

Locate the materials so that they are visible and accessible. Don’t stack all your materials in a corner where the kids will have to dig through a pile of bricks to discover the ropes and pulleys. Instead, spread out the materials so your kids can see them all at once and easily choose which to use at any given time.

Finally, set the kids loose and put your feet up. They may be too busy exploring, creating, and working to thank you, but the ensuing silence should be thanks enough.