18 Free {or almost free} Cool Features to Add to Your Backyard Play Space

Can you create a magical, exciting and engaging outdoor play space for your child for a few dollars?  You bet you can!  You don’t need oodles of space or fancy toys and equipment to have the best backyard on the block.

My daycare hooligans will attest to the fact that it’s the simple things that kids love best!  Good, old-fashioned, simple activities and play set-ups that spark the imagination,  foster creativity, challenge their physical abilities and engage their minds and their senses.

Today, I’m sharing 18 simple, super-cool and FREE (or almost free) features to add to your backyard play space.  All of these ideas are simple to set up, the materials are easy to come by, and I promise, if you look hard enough, you can probably create the coolest back yard around for no more than a few bucks!

18 free things to add to a backyard play space

** Some of these activities have click-able links that will take you to the full post with instructions and details.   Others are simply photographs to inspire you.

18 super-cool, fun, free things to add to your backyard play space

Mobile Mud Pit

mud pit in a wheelbarrow

Want a mud-pit without sacrificing your lawn?  Click here to check out our mobile mud-pit!  Easy set up, easy clean up, and you can tuck it away at the end of the day.

Play Logs

play logs for the backyard play space

If you know anyone who’s having a tree cut down, see if you can score some play logs!   They’re one of the most versatile and popular features in our backyard.  Click here to see ours in action, and to find out more about them.

Pool Noodle Abacus


A backyard “abacus” is simple to make and provides lots of fun and learning. The toddlers love this one.  Click here to learn more about our pool noodle abacus.

Re-purpose an old white board

white board in the backyard

Got a white board that’s too marked up to use anymore?  Move it outdoors!  The hooligans got a couple of seasons of outdoor art out of this white board that was headed for the trash.  Here, we’re painting with mud. *photo only/no link

Backyard Balance Beam


A few scrap pieces of wood make a perfect balance beam for a budding, young gymnast.  It provides hours of pretend play and exercise and I can tuck it out of the way at the end of the day. Click here to see more of our outdoor balancing activities for toddlers and preschoolers.

A Rope and a Bucket

bucket and a rope backyard activity

Without question, this is one of the absolute best things I’ve ever added to a backyard play area.  The hooligans play with this contraption year round.  I love that it’s not only great for strengthening little muscles, it also fosters team work, critical thinking and co-operation.  See how I rigged up our Bucket Contraption here.

Homemade Water Wall

water wall activity

I made this water wall out of recyclables 4 years ago, and the hooligans are still playing with it.  It’s provided them with hours and hours of fun and learning over the years.  See how I made our water wall here.

Tire Swing

horizonal tire swing

Our tire swing is another one of the most loved features in our back yard.  An old tire, hung horizontally is perfect for one or for a bunch of kids to gather on.   If your vehicle is due for new tires – perfect!  If not, check with a local garage or service station.  They may happily donate one to your backyard project. *photo only/no link

Kid’s Clothesline

kid's clothesline

I rigged up this simple clothesline years ago.  Secured tightly so it’s not a safety concern, it’s just at the right height for the hooligans to use.   Our clothesline provides lots of opportunity for pretend play, and it’s great for teaching life skills, and developing co-ordination and fine-motor skills.  Read more about our clothesline activities here.

Rocks and Stones

rocks for open-ended outdoor play

We’ve picked up loads of rocks and stones and even pebbles at the beach over the years.  The children always have access to the rocks and stones in the yard, and they play with them daily.  They’re kind of our backyard version of the building block – completely open-ended, they can be whatever the hooligans want them to be.  See 10 ways that we use our stones and rocks here.

Sand Wall


Much like the water wall, our sand wall is also made entirely out of scraps and recyclables. It’s positioned in our sandbox, and it’s provided loads of entertainment over the years.  Read about our sandbox and sand wall here.

Artificial Flowers

artificial flowers for play in the backyard

Pick up a bunch of artificial flowers at the dollar store or at a thrift shop.  Ours played with every single day.  The kids hold “weddings”, they decorate the playhouse with them, they “plant” them in the sandbox.  Not a day passes that these don’t get used in some creative manner.  Check out one of my favourite artificial flower activities here.



Water tables are awesome, but there was no way I was going to spend big money to get one when you can make your own so easily.  I pull one of these together almost every day when the weather is nice.  A storage bin set a top a bench or patio table or even an overturned (larger) storage container are all you need for all your water and sensory activities.  If you don’t have storage containers, no worries – a child’s wagon also doubles as a water table for a group of kids to gather around.  *photo only/no link

Backyard Tight Rope

Back Yard Tight Rope

Best thing ever!  This is right up there with the tire swing and the rope and bucket contraption.  We’ve had this in our yard for 3 years, and the hooligans use it every single day, all year long even when the snow practically buries the bottom rope.  It’s just the best for co-ordination and gross-motor development.  I’m not kidding when I say our tightrope has provided hundreds of hours of fun for kids from ages 1-7 over the years.  Read all about it, and see how to make your own here.

Hoses and Funnels

Hose and funnel run through chain link fence

A couple of old pool hoses (or vacuum hoses) pushed through a chain link fence provide hours of fun and learning.  Pop a funnel (or the top section of a water bottle) into the top each hose, and little ones will be kept occupied and entertained for ages.  Read all about our hose and funnel runs here.

Thrift Shop Coffee Table

used coffee table as activity table

One of the best but least expensive investments I ever made for my daycare was this thrift shop coffee table.  I got it for 6 dollars, at a second-hand shop a couple of years ago, and we use it every day.  In summer, it’s our backyard activity table, in winter it’s our art table in the craft room.  Big enough for a crowd to gather around and water and paint spills don’t matter at all.  See it in action here.

DIY Water Slide

DIY water slide

For the price of an inexpensive camping tarp, you can give your kids a whole day of wet, water, slippy-slidey fun! !  We’ve been doing this for years here in my daycare, and the kids never tire of it.  See how to make your own waterside here.

Add “running water” to your outdoor play space

water jug in the play yard

And lastly, my super-inexpensive way to add a source of running water to your child’s backyard play area.  A camping jug!  Theyr’e in abundance at the second hand-stores around here, so if you don’t have one of your own, you can probably scoop up a used one for a couple of bucks!  See some of the ways we use ours here.

And there you have it, 18 inexpensive, super-fun, super-cool things you can add to your outdoor play space this summer!  Your kids (and your neighbours’ kids) will love you for it!


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  1. Christine says

    I love the water and sand wall, I am going to make it for my son this this summer :) thanks for the post, some great ideas!

  2. Jean Alam says

    I love your running water idea. I actually did this for my daughter but used an empty bulk sized laundry detergent.

    • happyhooligans says

      We have a good-sized yard, Sharon, but remember it’s my family’s home, so this stuff isn’t scattered all around the yard all the time. There are a few things like the tightrope, clothesline, bucket and tire swing that are permanently set up in the back corner of my yard. Everything else, like the wheelbarrow, whiteboard, tarp, water wall, balance beam etc. are brought out during play time, and tucked away at the end of the day. We don’t have all of it set up all of the time. Maybe the white board comes out once a week. Same with the water wall. Smaller items like the water jug and storage containers/water tables are kept in the shed, and brought on days when we’ll use them. The coffee table sits on my deck when it’s not in use.

      • Brent says

        Thanks for mentioning all of this….I know my last yard was only 80 by 125 and some of these could have been done in the fenced in patio area…but even with 5 acre lots now…most of these would have to be temporary, as the town does not allow most of these to even be in the yard overnight, let alone long term. Most areas have zoning laws about most of this being set up long term.

      • happyhooligans says

        Wow, that’s unfortunate. Where do you live? Jeepers, and they complain that kids don’t get enough fresh air and exercise anymore. I wonder why…

  3. says

    Great collection of outdoor activities, Jackie! I especially like the mobile mud pit and the tightrope – I think those may need added to our backyard soon:o) Sharing on FB and pinning!

  4. Cora says

    I have been trying for years to fine something different for my day care kids to do besides play and these are all awesome ideas. another thing i have thought about was hanging plexiglass on chains on the fence for the kids to paint on,but I love all your ideas have the yard and fence to try all..

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