Creating a Backyard Filled with Wonder and Discovery

There is no better place to connect children with the environment than their own backyards. No preplanned activities are needed. All one has to do is create a habitat for children to discover. This does not mean expensive swing sets and toys. This means lots of places for exploring, imagination and adventure. Knowing their backyard is the first step children take in knowing the rest of the world. If our children’s backyards are off limits or artificial places, what standard does that set for their relationship to the rest of the world?

There many things one can do in a backyard that will foster a sense of wonder and place. These suggestions are for natural play areas and ways to attract and celebrate the diversity of life in our own yards.They are simple and inexpensive. In fact, they will save you time and money otherwise spent on lawn care. Their positive effect is immediate, fun, and long lasting. The features in your yard can be in one area or spread out depending on the layout of your property. Every backyard may not have room for all these features, but some combination will make your backyard a greater place of wonder. It makes it even more fun when you involve your children in the design.


Wild Areas:  Create a little wilderness by setting aside an area of lawn and allow it to grow wild thereby creating a mini-wilderness. Once the obsession for a manicured lawn is overcome, it is easy to do. Just pick a spot and stop mowing. Or if you have a weedy spot somewhere on your property - leave it alone.  Explain to your children that the wilderness area is a special place and that there will be certain rules regarding this spot of land. Our main rule is that only people that care about nature can go in.

We named ours Round Mountain Preserve. It is on the side of the house right by the kitchen window. Though it is only ten feet by four feet, the boys love to explore in there. It is one of their favorite places in the backyard. They pretend to be rabbits sometimes, cheetahs other times, scientists, explorers and more. It is the place where we put out our holiday animal treats at Christmas and Hanukkah and the place where we build the Sukkah in the fall.

These wilderness areas will attract birds, small mammals, insects and other creatures. We have found huge spiders, millipedes, worms and even a box turtle in ours. The children know it is a sanctuary and treat it with reverence. Many beautiful flowers otherwise known as weeds grow wild there.  We are learning the stories of their medicinal uses, interesting adaptions and folklore.

Many ecological concepts are taught first hand by witnessing the wilderness areas. Children will see plant succession, plant life cycles, and adaptions in action. Lessons on native and non-native plants, animals signs, plant identification present themselves in many teachable moments. Your wilderness area can be the setting for many activities described in this book.

But more then anything else it is simply a fun place to play.


Bare Dirt: A patch of bare dirt is a great place to play. Section off an area in the backyard for digging in the dirt. This dirt patch will be more fun than a sandbox. Give your children the opportunity to dig in a spot where they do not have to be careful about ruining a flower bed or vegetable garden. Children love to dig for worms, grubs and other creatures. The patch of dirt can be a place to find treasures such as beautiful rocks, broken shells, sticks and other bits of magic. My boys love to bury things and dig them up. They are as excited as if they found a brand-new toy. They pretend to be digging for dinosaurs or archeological artifacts. A patch of bare dirt is a great place to build and create. It is a place to see how humans shape the earth. It is a place to get dirty and not to worry about it. And after a rain, the dirt patch becomes even more fun.


Secret Places: Landscaping that creates bushes to hide in, trees to climb on, and nooks and crannies to explore will allow your children one of childhoods’ great adventures:  a secret, special place. Across cultures children have secret, special places. They vary from elaborate tree houses, to little hidey holes in a bush, to old boxes. I remember the ones in my own backyard and the feeling of comfort it gave me whether I was running away from a problem, reading a book, or staring at the clouds. These special secret places help children find refugee; they are places for imaginations to soar, places to relax, and places to think. Often, a child’s secret place is the first place they can call their own. It is where children can create their own world. We can’t pick our children’s secret places anymore then we can pick the comfort object they have as a baby. What we can do is provide our children with the opportunity to find places of their own and allow our children to make them their own.


Rocks and Logs:  Lots of interesting animals live under rocks, logs and leaves. They provide shelter for worms, centipedes, crickets, salamanders, pill bugs and more. Simply put some pieces of wood on the ground and some flat rocks. Allow your children to check these shelters and see what they can find. Lift the rocks gently and put them back down in the same spot. Seeing birds and mammals are great, but the creatures from under the logs are the ones children can find for themselves and hold in their own hands. Just be sure to remind your children to treat these creatures with respect when handling them. But, when small fingers accidentally hold on too tight, the death of the small creature teaches a lesson about the power humans can have and the need for us to tread lightly. This contact with animals has many benefits.


Bird Feeder: All animals need food, water and shelter. Providing these basic needs are the key to attracting birds. To attract birds, begin with a simple feeder. The best kind is a tube feeder that makes it hard for squirrels and non-native birds such as starlings and house sparrows to obtain food. If you do not want to purchase a feeder, one can easily be made by cutting out the sides of a milk carton or plastic bottle. Use bird seed with a high percentage of sunflower seed. Don’t worry too much if the squirrels get some of the food. They are fun to watch. The children will enjoy keeping the feeder full and watching all the activity.

Beef fat or suet hung in a mesh onion bag attracts insect eating birds. Just ask at the meat department at your local food store - chances are they will give you some for free. Throw some seed on the ground for ground feeding birds.

We have our bird feeder set up near the kitchen window so we can easily see what is going on. Many mealtime conversations are interrupted by yells of, “There’s a bird!”

Water can be put in a tray or a heated birdbath can be purchased. Shelter can be provided through birdhouses and brush piles. Making a birdhouse from scrap wood is easy, or simply buy one. Be sure that the birdhouse can be cleaned out at the end of each season. Birds also need protection from predators and inclement weather. Brush piles and old Christmas trees are great shelters for birds. Simply pile some branches in a heap or lay out your old Christmas tree. Many birds rely on holes in trees for shelter. If possible, leave dead trees or snags standing. Outdoor cats are a major threat to songbirds. Keep your cat inside and encourage your neighbors to do so as well. It is safer for the cat, too.


Gardens: No matter what the size, a garden helps children understand the process in which we obtain our food. Although it seems like magic, food does not just mysteriously appear in the store. All of our food comes from somewhere and depends on a variety of resources. Eating food from a garden helps children to better understand our dependency on these resources and learn that they eat plants just like other animals.

A big garden is not a requirement. Most years, our garden simply consists of a couple squash plants or whatever sprouts from the compost pile. The size of your garden will depend on a variety of factors: time, space and interest. The main thing is to have one no matter how small, and to involve your children in growing the food. Some easy to grow vegetables are: lettuce, radish, onions and pumpkins.

Practice basic organic gardening techniques. Herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers all cause problems for wildlife in your backyard and the rest of the community. There are many alternatives to pesticides such as ladybugs, praying mantises and other beneficial insects. Planting marigolds among vegetables will help lessen the need for chemicals. Instead of chemical fertilizers, use mulch from a compost pile.  

Aldo Leopold once wrote; “There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery store, and the other is that heat comes from our furnace.” Even the smallest garden helps to at least avoid the first danger.


Compost: A compost pile does a lot more then simply improve the soil in your garden. A compost pile demonstrates the nutrient cycle and cuts down on solid waste for landfills.

A compost bin is easy to make with wire or wood. Simply make a frame and staple chicken wire around the outside. Or just make a pile in the corner of the yard and begin layering grass, leaves and kitchen waste. Do not use meat since it will attract animals. Taking out the compost is a perfect chore for a young child. Turn the compost occasionally with a shovel. Use the compost in your flower or vegetable gardens to improve soil conditions.

A compost pile helps children understand one of the most fundamental cycles in ecology-the nutrient cycle. They will learn first hand how death turns into life right in their own backyard.


Personal Tree: We all should have a tree for a friend, a tree to which we pay a little extra attention. Plant a tree in your backyard to celebrate your child’s birthday. Pick a tree native to your area that will also provide food for birds and other animals in the neighborhood. Consult a with local nursery to find out what tree makes sense for your area. Or just let one of those tree sprouts that appear on your lawn each spring grow.

Each year mark the growth of the tree and your child by photographing the two of them together.The series of photographs will be priceless. Over time the tree will have a special meaning to your child.

The tree will become a place to picnic, sit in the shade, study and nap.


Wildlife Plantings: There are plant species that will provide shelter and food for wildlife. Each part of the country has different plants that will be the most effective in attracting the local wildlife. These are some general guidelines. Talk to local nurseries and garden clubs to get specific information for the place you live. Plant native species. They will require the least amount of care and provide the most food to native animals. Select a variety of plants to provide for a variety of wildlife year-round. Use tall trees, small trees, shrubs, and flowers to create layers of plant life that will attract a variety of wildlife.

Do what you can. Dream big, but don’t forget that every little bit counts. Our single butterfly bush attracts several species of butterflies and grows great with virtually no care.


Lawn Care: One of the easiest things to do to attract more wildlife to your yard is to do less yard work. Letting the grass grow a little longer will increase the population of fireflies and other insects. Leave some of the leaves on the ground creating habitats for salamanders, worms, centipedes and other animals that are fun to look and also provide food for birds. Best of all, spending less time on mowing and raking the lawn means more to time to play. A wonder filled lawn is not a lawn cast in a perfect shade of green with nothing but grass and no insect life or weeds.


There are some discovery tools that are great to have on hand. Keep them in a place easily accessible to your children so that when the mood strikes they can go and get them.


Containers: Any clear container will do, as long as it has a top. Children will find lots of little creatures, and they will want to keep them. Having containers around gives them a chance to keep the creatures for a short time. It is okay to keep them temporality and learn about them before releasing them back to the wild. When the animals are captured, they need to be cared for in a habitat similar to where they were caught.

After a little while it is a good idea to release the creature back to the wild.

Hand Lens: Any kind of hand lens is great to have around for close-up viewing of whatever captures a child’s interest. Leaves, bark, grass, and insects are all fun to look at up close. Binoculars also add a new dimension to what can be observed, especially at the bird feeder.

Trowels: Digging in the dirt is fun, but it is no fun if the toy shovels keep breaking.  To dig in dirt they will need strong trowels made from metal or hard plastic.

Field Guides: Field guides can help answer the question: What is that?  Knowing the name of an animal or plant is an important step in learning more information about plants and animals in the backyard. Besides, it is good to know your neighbor's names. The Peterson First Guides are great for children and adults. There are guides for a variety of types of plants and animals.

Journal/Drawing Materials: Keep some paper, crayons, markers, paint, glue, wire, a leaf press and other craft materials on hand so children can use what they find for a variety of art projects. You never know what will inspire them and what they will create. All that creativity is stifled if the moment is lost trying to find the necessary materials.

Camera: Whether it is the family camera, a disposable camera or your child’s very own personal camera, being able to take photographs will encourage children to look at the backyard differently as they search for good shots. The photographs along with a journal provide a record of the backyard and its human and nonhuman inhabitants.

Insects Nets: Sometimes children need a little help to catch creatures. An insect net can also be less damaging to the insect then being grabbed by a child’s hand. A good technique for catching insects is to stick the net into a bush or under leaves and shake it back and forth. Insects and other small animals will fall into the net.

Imaginary inspiration items: I wish I knew exactly what to include in this category. It is the odds and ends that children use to make their imaginary play come alive. Maybe it is a rope for climbing mountains or maybe a cardboard box for trapping animals, or an old pot for a campfire, or old tools. Keep an old tent around for a pretend camping trip. You never know what they will want or use for adventures. It is worth having a few things laying around for no apparent reason.


The Geography of Childhood by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stepehn Trimlbe

The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood by Edith Cobb

Growing up Green, Education for Ecological  Renewal by David Hutchinson

Noah’s Children, Restoring the Ecology of Childhood by Sara Stein

Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder