When school is finally out for the summer, my kids are delighted to trade the schoolyard for their own backyard and will play outside for hours. But by mid-summer, when the novelty of the holidays has worn off, they’ve clearly become bored with their all-too-familiar home playground.

Over the years, my husband and I dispelled the mid-summer blahs by furnishing our yard with a number of different play structures. First came a large plastic slide, followed later by a swing set, trampoline, swimming pool and even a zip line that ran from our back deck to a tree in the far corner of the yard.

Thankfully, most of these items were gifted to us by friends whose children had outgrown them. Purchasing all this equipment ourselves would have cost us a hefty sum. But enriching your child’s outdoor experience doesn’t have to be expensive. Included here are some simple ideas that will help you add excitement to your yard – ideas to keep your child wondering, "What’s new today?"

The never-empty nest

With a little imagination, an abandoned bird’s nest can become a source of delight for young children. (But make sure the nest really is abandoned before you use it, or buy a ready-made nest from a craft store.)

Stock up on egg-shaped candies, then place the nest, with the candies inside, in a shrub that’s accessible to your kids. Once they’ve discovered the nest, your kids will be eager to check it each day to see if any new eggs have been "laid."

If you prefer not to use candy, purchase wooden eggs from a craft supplier and paint them to resemble those laid by birds in your area. Then help your amateur naturalists determine which backyard birds they belong to.

Jump to it

Got a "problem" area in your yard where nothing grows well? Consider covering it in pea gravel to create a versatile play area for kids. Purchase large, square paving stones that can be rearranged in the gravel to create a variety of games. (For a less expensive alternative, use slices from a tree trunk laid flush with the surface of the gravel.)

How about hopscotch or a giant outdoor game of tic-tac-toe, using chalk as markers? Instead of using the traditional X’s and O’s, try using any pair of letters from the alphabet to help young kids practice writing. Or, try a life-sized "board game" with the kids themselves acting as game pieces. Each child throws a pair of large, fluffy dice to determine how many pavers they can jump ahead.

When the kids aren’t using the play area, you can easily transform it into an attractive seating area with the addition of a bistro set and a few container planters.

Showin’ how they’re growin’

Nature, like childhood, is about growth and change. Why not add a decoration to your yard that celebrates both?

For an outdoor variation on a "growth chart," choose a smooth length of wood approximately 20 cm wide by 120 cm long. Then, paint it with a design from nature. Tall, thin images, such as a beanstalk, work best. Attach a small painted wooden shape, such as a ladybug, to mark your child’s height on the "chart." This is a great idea for a summer cottage, where recording your child or grandchild’s growth since the previous summer can be a fun annual ritual.

Other design ideas that work well are a sunflower decorated with butterflies for height markers, a tree with small birds or bull kelp featuring small, colourful fish.

Outdoor artists

Sidewalk chalk isn’t just for sidewalks! Let your kids try it on painted fences, too. Or, if you prefer to keep their creativity to a defined area, paint a piece of smooth, flat wood with chalkboard paint, then fix it to the fence for a permanent outdoor easel or a versatile backdrop for imaginary play. If you own a trampoline, it makes a great canvas for kids to draw on. Try marking and numbering your very own "bounce" pattern on the fabric. Then see who can follow the pattern perfectly without landing on the lines.

Miss Mouse’s door

Here’s an idea that will add a whimsical touch to your garden and also introduce your child to the thrill of writing a letter and receiving a reply. Attach a small door to a tree stump, rock outcropping, retaining wall or fence and place a tiny mailbox beside it. Then sit back and watch your child’s reaction when he or she discovers "Miss Mouse’s house" and a letter from "Miss Mouse" addressed to your child, waiting inside the mailbox. No doubt, your child will be eager to write back with the hope of hearing more from Miss Mouse.

If you prefer not to build the door yourself, simply purchase a birdhouse shaped like a cottage instead. Check out online craft stores and dollhouse suppliers for a small mailbox.

Whatever surprises you add to your yard this summer, your children are sure to find new, imaginative uses for them that you never envisaged. When the kids have supplies that allow them to express their creativity outdoors, you can be sure that you’ll always find something new and interesting in your backyard.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2008 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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