For a few years now we have been apartment dwellers and we did the best we could with our patio space at that time, but we still longed for a backyard in which our children could play. Recently we moved and finally we have that backyard we’d wanted so badly, and so I set out making into the backyard of our dreams. However, with all the costs of moving across country, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to shell out on outdoor toys. I had to make do with what I had on hand already or what I could find for free or frugal. My ultimate goal was a $0 budget, and I probably could have pulled that off had I been more patient, but since I wanted this project done asap, I spent a few dollars here and there to make it happen. The end result was even better than I had originally imagined, and my children agree our new backyard ROCKS!
** For your convenience I have linked to products that are the same or very similar to what I used. These links are affiliate links and by purchasing through them you are, at no additional cost to you, helping to support this website and its content. (For my full disclosure policy please click here.) While I would love to have your support, I want to be completely honest that I did not pay full price for most anything you’ll see in this post. Exact prices can be found after each individual item as I talk about them below. I re-used, I bought second-hand, and I got creative with the materials I already had. I encourage all of you to do the same whenever possible. **
It all starts with our mud kitchen.
To the right we have our digging pit. An old tire ($0 from a scrap pile) filled with dirt (3 bags at $1.50 each), a couple of plastic nesting cups ($0 baby toy that was outgrown by my children), and a collection of sand toys ($1 at Party City).
The actual mud kitchen area is made up of two sets of plastic shelving. ($0, These shelves used to be in the pantry at our old home but our new home has plenty of cabinet space so they were no longer needed.) The shelves are meant to stack up 4 shelves high but I thought that was too tall for the younger children so I took off the top part and put in in the front to act as a counter space the children could work at. In order to prevent the shelving sets from separating from each other, I duct taped all the legs together and dug a little area for them to set a little into the ground. I then filled the shelves with things the children could use to make mud pies and such: mixing bowls ($0 the spare set from our kitchen), bamboo plates ($1 Goodwill), a plastic water pitcher ($0 the spare from our kitchen), an old flower pot full of wooden spoons, sieves, measuring cups, and a potato masher ($1 per kitchen utensil at Dollar Tree, $4 total), some empty jars with labels on them ($0 left over from our George’s Marvelous Medicine Messy Playdate).
On the lower shelves I included a couple old 5 gallon buckets full of toys such as our homemade ribbon dancers, foam face masks, sidewalk chalk, foam pool noodle pieces, orange cones, and a soccer ball. ($0 all things we had on hand already)
To the left I have a little sitting area set up. I found a wooden pallet ($0 from a scrap pile) and put on top of it our old bathroom rug which we don’t use anymore. I lucked out and found a wooden checkerboard at Goodwill for $1 so I set that up here with some glass gems from our sensory stash to use as game pieces. (The glass gems are $0 since I had them on hand but they were originally purchased $1 per bag at Dollar Tree.)
Besides the mud kitchen we also have a little hands on math area with a giant abacus and a scale.
The abacus is simply foam pool noodle pieces which the children used to play with in the bath tub, strung up on strings between two trees. I put 5 rows of pool noodles up, 10 pieces in each row.
The scale was made by partially burying a length of 4×4 wood ($0 from a scrap pile) into the ground then attaching a broken clothes hanger to it with a screw ($0 had on hand). The screw isn’t too tight so the clothes hanger can alter its position when weight is put on one side or the other. I didn’t have any small buckets on hand so I cut the bottom off of two 2-liter plastic bottles, fashioned some handles for them out of duct tape, and hung them from the clothes hanger. It isn’t the prettiest scale in the world but it is functional and was easy (as well as free) to make.
We loved our music wall at our apartment so we knew we needed to make one for our new backyard as well.
This time we made it by screwing various metal objects to a wood pallet ($0 from a scrap pile). We again used the old pieces that were rescued from the broken xylophone. We also used some jello molds (4 for $0.50 each at Goodwill), and an old muffin tin ($0 had on hand already, originally purchased from Dollar Tree for $1). We used a couple tea cup hooks to hold up two wooden spoons ($0 had on hand) for the children to make music with, though we could have gotten by with just supplying a bucket of small sticks nearby. There is plenty of room on the pallet so I’m sure we’ll add more objects to our music wall as time goes on.
We created a space for small world play mostly out of things we had on hand already.
We used a tire ($0 from a scrap pile) to keep everything organized in one place when not in use. Inside the tire there is an old animal cracker container full of plastic animals and an old peanut butter jar full of hot wheels cars ($0 had on hand). There is also some plastic sand castle buckets for “houses.” I made some movable roads by painting scrap 2×4 wood pieces black and adding yellow street lines, an idea I got from Buggy and Buddy (click here for full tutorial). Nearby is a stack of rocks we’ve collected from around the yard.
For a long time I’ve wanted a glass easel for the children to paint on outside. We made a rather simple apartment friendly version but since we now have a backyard we up-graded to something a bit larger.
There are many wonderful tutorials online to follow, most of which require some woodworking skills and fancy tools, but I wanted to work with what I had on hand only so I fashioned by glass easel out of a piece of glass I had on hand (previously used in a photo frame which is now a felt board), some foam pool noodles which I cut to line the edges of the glass, a couple sturdy dowel rods which I threaded through the pool noodles and staked into the ground to give it some stability, and a bit of duct tape to hold it all together. I’m sorry I don’t have a tutorial for you since I made this easel at 2 am and the house was far too dark to take a decent picture.
Its not the prettiest glass easel in the world but it was 100% free for me to make and, as you can see, it is functional and fun for the children.
Near the glass easel I have a novelty paint bucket ($0 left over from another project) which I filled with small paint pots and paint brushes ($0 left over from other projects). I figure I can always refill the paint pots with some homemade paint when they are emptied.
Another 100% free part of the new backyard is our balance beam, which was made entirely from things we found in a scrap pile: two concrete blocks and a length of sturdy wood. We buried the concrete blocks into the ground a little to give them some stability so they wouldn’t fall over while the kids were on them. Then we threaded the wood through the blocks and viola! Done.
If you make this at home I do encourage you to test out the strength of the wood against an adult’s body weight before allowing children to climb on it, however low to the ground it may be.
While we’re on the subject of gross motor activities, we also created a small ball area for our children out of a wood pallet ($0 from a scrap pile), a laundry basket ($0 had on hand), some plastic balls from our ball pit ($0 had on hand), and some items from our recycling bin.
The laundry basket was originally purchased for $1 at Dollar Tree and was used as a basketball hoop for our apartment patio.
The pallet and recycling items were fashioned into a ball roll or ball drop wall. I simply cut the top and bottom off of some 2-liter bottles then attached them to the pallet with screws. Stand the pallet up against a tree and you’re done. Too easy.
Near the ball area I added a bucket and a rope ($0 had both on hand).
This was an idea I got from Happy Hooligans (click here for full tutorial) and it is fully awesome. The children have been flocking to this area and spending a load of time playing with the bucket and rope contraption.
I used some more of that rope to hang a clothes line low to the ground between a couple trees. I thought the children might enjoy playing house and pinning fabric scraps ($0 had on hand) to the clothes line is excellent fine motor practice.
Of course, what is playing house if you don’t have an actual house?
I fashioned a small hidey house for the children out of an old shower curtain and a hula hoop ($0 had both on hand). I simply clipped the shower curtain rings around the hula hoop then hung it from a tree. So far it has not only been a house but also a boss’s office and a telephone booth.
Continuing on with the pretend play theme, we also made a pretend garden!
We filled a wood pallet ($0 from scrap pile) with some dirt from the yard and strewed about some basic garden supplies which we already had on hand: old flower pots, shovels, etc.. We also included in our garden area some silk flowers from our sensory stash and the laminated seed packets from last year’s harvest theme unit.
Now the one thing I wanted to have a lot of in our new backyard was stumps. I thought a few stumps could be useful for sitting on, rolling around, building, etc.. But I’ve had some poor luck with actually finding stumps for free in my area. I did manage to get my hands on just one stump ($0 from scrap pile) and so I made it into a natural loom.
Just some screws and some string is all you need to pull this off once you find a stump. Get the full tutorial at Babble Dabble Do.
This backyard makeover has been a wonderful experience, everything came together really nicely and very near our $0 budget. There is plenty of room left in the yard so I’m sure I’ll be adding more come spring time but for now I think we’ve done well to incorporate lots of hands on math and science aspects, even a few early literacy concepts can be found in the way the children are playing with the provided materials. What better way to learn than through outdoor play.