Creating an Outdoor Learning Space for Free or Frugal

Creating an Outdoor Learning Space for Free or Frugal
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.
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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).
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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).
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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)
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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.)
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Besides the mud kitchen we also have a little hands on math area with a giant abacus and a scale.
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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.
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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.
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We loved our music wall at our apartment so we knew we needed to make one for our new backyard as well.
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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.
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We created a space for small world play mostly out of things we had on hand already.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Near the ball area I added a bucket and a rope ($0 had both on hand).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Continuing on with the pretend play theme, we also made a pretend garden!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Bonbon Break

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40 Comments to Creating an Outdoor Learning Space for Free or Frugal

  1. Coolest almost free backyard makeover for kids ever!

  2. jeanne' roberts says:

    I love that you not only created activities but are also teaching the kids to use their own imagination. Excellent job!

  3. Lauren says:

    This. Is. AMAZING! Do you leave everything up year round?

    • suzyhomeschooler says:

      Most of it, yes. The glass easel will come inside before the first frost of winter. The rug and fabric scraps are brought in once a week to throw into the washing machine. Everything else is safe to leave out year-round.

  4. Heather says:

    This is wonderful! I have been wanting an outdoor easel for some time now and your version is so clever and doable! 🙂 I had a question about the abacus; did you just tie the rope around the tree? And what kind of rope did you use? Thank you! 🙂

  5. Jo-Anne Comerford says:

    I love these ideas! You have inspired me to make better use of my outdoor space. Thank you!!

  6. Amanda says:

    I’ve seen many outdoor playspace ideas, and have been mulling over possibilities for our own rental property, and I have to say, your ideas are by far, the most “do-able”! Your ideas are solid in craftiness and ingenuity, but easily removable and super-frugal, which is what we’re looking for. Come spring, I’ll be adapting your balance beam and easel projects, as well as a few others. I think we’ll try the bucket/pulley contraption and laundry line, TODAY. I know everyone will love those two ideas! Just one question, though – honestly, how annoying is the “music wall”? If we lived out in the country, I wouldn’t second-think it, but we live in a small city, and have neighbors on all sides of the house, and don’t particularly want to provoke them, Lol. We have a huge bucket of musical instruments that we almost never use, and this might breathe new life into them. Also, do your musical objects hold up when left to the elements, or will the rain pretty much rust them out in a month?

    • suzyhomeschooler says:

      We had a similar (yet smaller) music wall when we lived in an apartment with many neighbors in very close quarters and never received any complaints about it, in fact a couple of our neighbors complimented it. Of course they may have been bias because they had children and their children were always welcome to come over and play with it. lol Even now in a suburban area, our neighbors don’t seem bothered by it.
      We have left our music wall out in all weather and, in two years, the only thing that has rusted is the muffin tin from Dollar Tree. Still usable even after it rusted, just not as pretty to look at.

  7. Mrs. Warde says:

    Wow, I love these ideas!!

  8. Momma Jorje says:

    I seriously want a broken xylophone now! I’m going to be incorporating some of your ideas, for sure. I might even make my own blog post about it! lol Thanks for all the inspiration!

  9. Cameron says:

    So I LOVE this post!!! I have almost 3 and almost 1 yr olds at home and was struggling on ways to get us outside more. My question is about the rain/weather. We live in a subdivision but have a decent sized back yard… I did a water/sand table for my oldest this past summer and it just always ended up a mess! My hubby hated when I emptied it in the yard… any suggestions on how to weather the weather for these fun ideas? Thanks!!

    • suzyhomeschooler says:

      Well most everything we have has been left out in heavy storms and nothing has been damaged nor made messy. For things like empty buckets, I leave them overturned when not in use so they never fill with rain water in the first place. Rain water is often a concern in a sand box but we’ve managed to avoid that issue by filling our digging pit with dirt instead of sand, so everything drains very easily and naturally. If I was going to have a sandbox or a sand table then I would invest in a large plastic tarp to put over it at night, not just to keep the rain out but also to keep the critters out.

  10. cv says:

    I adore the clothesline! What a wonderful idea! I think I will be stringing one up.

  11. Lori J says:

    Can’t wait to add bags of dirt to my old tire! It will kill two birds with one stone for me! My tiny Southern CA backyard is bigger than your apartment patio was but much smaller than your new yard- especially since we have a (fenced of course) pool. Our play area is about 30 feet on each side. Along the back edge I have an ‘obstacle course’ of sorts- three pieces of tree trunk cut at different heights, the top monkey-bar ladder from an old wood swing set (balance beam if you walk on the wood, or you can walk on or between the rungs). A low arch thingie from a thrift store that I think is for some kind of step exercise program ?? -,but it’s a great balancing trick for littles! And an old tire. I have drilled holes to keep water from pooling inside it but still have spider problems- they do love that dark cavern inside. And around here, some of the spiders are black widows. .You have solved that problem and allowed me to add dirt play! Cool!

  12. Jennifer says:

    Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant! Thank you for sharing!

  13. I love all these great ideas! I’m going to stash these away for spring!

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  18. Coombemill says:

    Some lovely ideas in here

  19. Allisson Reed says:

    I love the fact that you have brought new meaning to the terms “reuse” and “recycle”! You’re living proof that where there’s a will, there’s no need to pay.

  20. Wow! What an amazing garden, so much stuff and so many ideas. Brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing at the Outdoor Play Party 🙂

  21. Angie says:

    Love these ideas. I have used some of these myself. I worry about old tires though. Have you ever had any snakes or bees get into the tires?

    • suzyhomeschooler says:

      Well we have only had this set up for about two months now. So far it has held up well during stormy weather. No bee nor snake sightings yet, however if those were a concern then I’d suggest some natural deterrents. Ground cinnamon, mint plants, etc..

  22. eizabeth says:

    I love the road tracks you made! Recently made these for my 3 yr old and he has enjoyed these everyday since! Thank you for your great ideas.

  23. Sara says:

    Can’t wait to implement a lot of these ideas! I knew there was a reason why I still kept our outdoor junk pile.

  24. Shyla Shadden says:

    I like these ideas but not the balance beam if your child falls on one of the blocks its going to get hurt bad 🙁

  25. Allyson Bossie says:

    You did an amazing job, and I am actually going to use some of your ideas as flat out copying inspiration 😀 for my own darlings. I do have one little thing to point out, just from experience. I am unsure if the jars are plastic or glass (we are plastic free in our kitchen, so our home freebies would have been glass), but kids can get really hurt outside with glass ones. My sister was using one to collect bugs as a teen, slipped in some mud in the woods, glass fell, first, she fell second and several hundred stitches later…..she’s fine, but since then I am always making the kids leave glasses in the house (no drinking outdoors) and constantly preaching to them if I see them out. It’s just a heads up because if it hadn’t happened to our family, I would never have thought a thing of grabbing a canning jar to collect fireflies or any other cool bug!

    • suzyhomeschooler says:

      What an excellent reminder! While I do allow my children to have glass jars in the homeschool room (where they are likely sitting while handling them), all of our outdoor jars are re-purposed plastic peanut butter jars.

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  29. Rosa Maria says:

    Awesome mud kitchen idea for kids outdoor play. They can play and make a huge fun. At the same times, they can pretend that they are cooking all kind of dishes. This type of activities will help your kids a lot for improving their creativity and imagery thoughts when they just spend times in outside area. Thanks for sharing this idea. I just back in my childhood.

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