Arboretum News

Kids Activity: Green Play Yard At Home

Add a few basic items to your own green space to encourage nature play.

COVID-19 Update: The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is open in a limited capacity. Find updates and information here.

You don’t need a play house, like the one in the Arboretum’s Green Play Yard, to inspire nature play. A metal bowl can hold a lot of imagination, especially with a little water or sand. Photo by Liz Potasek.

By Reba Luiken, Arboretum coordinator of informal interpretation

We’re not sure when the Green Play Yard at the Arboretum will reopen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Arboretum-flavor nature play at home.

One of the key components in our nature play area is the “loose parts.” Loose parts are things that are easy to move around and get creative with. They are things that can be used again and again by little hands to dig, build, pour, create and imagine!

A little bit of green space, some loose parts (like pine cones, acorns and metal bowls) and a pitcher of water can inspire lots of play.

Here is our supply list:

Natural materials

  • All kinds of cones (pine, spruce, etc.)
  • Different sizes of rocks
  • Acorns and seed pods
  • Sticks of different lengths (4-foot sticks are great for forts, 1-foot sticks are great for wands, fairy houses, outlining paths, stirring up mud pies, etc.)
  • Tree cookies (slices of logs and sticks)

We don’t have shells at the Arboretum, but those would be a great addition at home, too!

Loose parts — like burlap, bowls and paint brushes — make outdoor play more fun! Photo by Reba Luiken.

$9.98 for a roll at Menards
At the Arboretum, we have found that landscaping burlap holds up better than fabric store versions through lots of weather and play. Cut up the roll into pieces in a variety of sizes. Bigger pieces like 3 ft. by 6 ft. can be used for den building. Smaller pieces like 2 or 3 ft. squares can be tablecloths, sit-upons, den carpets, or capes. The birds might even borrow some to build their nests. Burlap is economical, but any outdoor fabric will work! Bonus: As my sister and I discovered when our parents re-seeded our lawn and used multiple rolls of landscaping burlap, the sturdy tubes inside are also lots of fun (though not all-weather friendly).

Paint brushes 
$1.15 from the local hardware store
Pick the least expensive option from the hardware store or recycle an old one from home. It is amazing how many hours children are willing to spend “painting” wood with water!

Metal bowls 
$2.99 each from Ikea
These sturdy bowls are great for mixing mud pies, transporting water, and even shaping sand castles.

Plastic hand tools
$0.99 each for hand trowels and cultivators from Menards
All of the tools we have in the play yard spend their lives outside. These tools meant for grown-ups seem to hold up the best to the rough treatment.

Crates for storage
$3.99 for a plastic milk crate from Menards
We use old bulb crates, but a milk crate would work well too.  If you’re playing with water or leaving things outside where they might get a bit wet, the holes are an essential feature that help with drying!

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