Refreshing ideas for backyard fun

BBhammockWebBy Allison Eatough

Vivian Moeglein's 5-year-old son, Alec, loves to be outside.

But his backyard fun options are limited in their Odenton townhouse community.

"We don't have a lot of yard space," Moeglein says.

So almost three years ago, Moeglein and her father, Roger Curry, a general contractor, came up with a plan to keep Alec entertained all summer long: a fort in the back yard.

Starting with sturdy wooden posts for support, Curry built the fort 6 feet off the ground. He designed it to match Moeglein's townhouse. The fort's shingles are the same color and texture as the shingles on the house. The plywood sides are painted tan to match the townhouse siding.

The fort also has a ladder, a curved slide, a trap door and a bucket attached to a pulley – enough to keep Alec and his friends occupied for hours.

"He has a blast back there," Moeglein says. "It's their secret little hideout."

The backyards that beckon so many children at the start of summer can become bland or routine within just a few weeks. Sometimes, a change is all it takes to bust through the boredom and create new backyard fun.

Read on for ideas to keep children enjoying the outdoors through fall.

Backyard ideas to keep boredom at bay

BoredomBustersFort1. Build a fort or tree house

Like Moeglein, Kelly Ingbretson and her husband, Josh, built a fort for their sons, Logan, 3, and Jackson, 5, behind their Edgewater home. The wooden fort includes a slide, cut outs for windows, shutters, curtains and even carpet.

"It's great because they get a lot of outside time," Ingbretson says.

"And get fresh air," Jackson says. "I like to play all kinds of games in there."

Forts and tree houses can range from basic to intricate, depending on the materials and space used. Before building, there are a few things to consider, according to Dan Wright, owner of Tree Top Builders, a Pennsylvania-based company that builds tree houses. Will it be supported by a tree or ground posts? Who is going to use it? What is the minimum floor space required? And what design elements do you want to incorporate? Also consider if you want to build it yourself or hire a professional, Wright says.

Tree houses do damage trees, says Wright, who is a professional arborist, but the impact can be minimal if the proper materials and design are incorporated.

If a professional isn't in your plan, retail and online stores sell tree house materials and kits.

Whether building a fort or a tree house, remember the accessories, Moeglein says. Trap doors, pulleys with buckets, swings and slides can add hours of fun, she says.

"Anything is possible," she says. "Adding little touches just makes it so much more fun for the kids."

Some county governments and homeowners associations also require permits or approval before building. Remember to check before driving that first stake into the ground.

Photo above: Alec Moeglein's grandfather, Roger Curry, builds a fort in the backyard.

2. Make an outdoor movie theaterBoredomeBustersFeat

Four years ago, Columbia residents Rachel and Mark Baliff hosted a movie night for their daughter Sophie's third birthday. But instead of having the party inside, they built a giant movie screen outside so guests could enjoy the show under the stars.

"It went so well, we have repeated the event three times for the neighborhood kids," Rachel Baliff says. "It's a great, unique way to entertain the masses with little to no cost."

In its simplest form, an outdoor movie theater requires a white bed sheet and a projector.

Attach the sheet to the side of the house and then position a projector in just the right spot so the images fit on the sheet. But if the side of the house won't work, build a frame out of PVC pipe or wood to keep the sheet tight. The Baliffs used two 2x4s that measured 8 feet tall, a white sheet, some nylon string, nails and screws for their creation.

Pottery Barn, a nationwide furniture and décor store, suggests these steps for making the perfect screen:

  1. Sew two queen-sized white top sheets together with white thread on the long sides, leaving the tube-like hems at the top and bottom.
  2. Slide a 10-foot pole that is 1 ½ inches in diameter through the top hem.
  3. Attach thick rope to the ends of the pole and tie it to a tree.
  4. Slide a 10-foot pole that is 3 inches in diameter through the bottom hem. This should create weight at the bottom of the fabric.
  5. Attach thinner rope to the end of the bottom pole.
  6. Insert two tent stakes beneath the bottom corners of the screen. Tie the thin rope to the tent stakes, pulling the fabric taught.

Or, do as the Edwards family of Millersville does and show a movie on the porch. Each summer, Tracy, Brett and their children, Riley and Liam, move the plants away from the wall, set up the projector and watch movies while tucked into their sleeping bags.

"We call it camping out but really on a screened in porch," Tracy Edwards says. "They love it."

As for a projector, recommends a liquid crystal display (LCD) or digital-light processing (DLP) projector. Projector brightness is rated in lumens. The higher the lumen rating, the earlier in the evening you can watch a movie.

If using a laptop connected to a projector, Rachel Baliff recommends turning off the screen saver before the movie starts. And to make the atmosphere even more movie-like, add some freshly popped popcorn, provide drinks and play music from the laptop before and after the show.

"It's so easy to throw a blow-out movie night," she says.

Photo above: Serving up popcorn before the movie at the Baliff house.

3. Create a kid wash

What child doesn't love a sprinkler on a hot summer's day? Add new life to this old favorite by making a "kid wash" with PVC pipes.

There are several ways to do this, and a search online provides endless ideas. But, the main concept is always the same: Drill random holes in PVC pipes and then connect the pipes with 90-degree PVC elbow joints and PVC T-connections. Place PVC caps on the ends not used. The most successful washes, like the one shown on Disney's, have a design plan in place before any drilling occurs.

Be sure to allow enough height and width in the PVC frame for children to comfortably run through.

To make a deluxe kid wash, add details that resemble a car wash. uses "Kid Scrubbers," large sponges that hang from the top of the frame, and "Body Buffers," eight strips of lawn chair webbing, draped over the frame and secured with paper fasteners or brads. Then, attach a PVC hose connector and the hose to an open end, turn on the water and run!

4. Build a sandbox

Bring the beach to the backyard by building a simple sandbox.

Chesapeake Family editor Betsy Stein's neighbor built a sandbox in his backyard one year and it was so popular, her husband built a similar version in their backyard.

"It kept the kids occupied for hours," Stein says. "They would bring their plastic animals, soldiers and Polly Pockets out there and built towns, zoo's and war zones in the sand."

There are several ways to build one, depending on the space available. To keep it simple and sturdy, DIY Network, a television channel focusing on do-it-yourself projects, suggests using the following tools and materials:

  • Drill
  • Circular saw
  • 2x10 pressure treated boards
  • 2x2 pressure treated boards
  • ½ inch pressure-treated plywood
  • 2 ½ to 3 inch galvanized deck screws
  • Marine-grade rope
  • Kid-safe sand

First, determine the size of the sandbox. Cut four sides from the 2x10 boards. Drill holes at each corner and fasten boards with the deck screws. Make sure the natural curve of each board faces the sandbox.

Next, cut two pieces of the plywood to match the outside dimensions of the sandbox. Attach one of the pieces to the bottom of the box with the deck screws. Keep the other piece for the sandbox cover.

Cut three pieces of the 2x2 boards to the length of the sandbox. Attach one at each end and one in the middle to keep the box from resting on the ground.

Then, cut four 90-degree triangles from the 2x10 boards. Attach each one with screws at each corner to provide places to sit as well as additional support.

Drill two holes six inches apart on both sides of the plywood cover. String the marine-grade rope through each set of soles, knotting them underneath to create handles. Finally, add the sand.

One tip from Stein's husband is to forego the bottom of the sandbox and staple on landscape fabric instead so that rain and moisture can run through and the sand dries out easily.

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Backyard craft ideas

For a quick outdoor activity fix, check out these easy kids' crafts.

1 – Wilding/walking sticks

Walking stick
Electrical or duct tape in several colors
Yarn strands
Feathers and flowers
Acrylic paint, permanent markers and hot glue – for adults use only – are optional.

Find the perfect walking stick. Then, decorate it with tape, acrylic paints and items from the yard like flowers, pine cones or feathers. Children can use tape or colorful yarn or adults can use hot glue to attach items to the stick.

After the items are attached, children can record summer memories on their sticks with markers.


2 – Sponge Ball

Three ½-by-2 ¾-by-4 ¼ inch new, colorful sponges

With a pen and ruler, make five lines lengthwise on a sponge, each ½ inch apart. Cut the sponge, using the lines as a guide, into six rods. Repeat with other two sponges.

Lay strips on top of each other in three layers, five or six to a layer. Cinch them across the middle with a piece of string. Knot it tightly.

Fluff the pieces out into a ball.

Once done, dunk the sponge balls into buckets of water, find your target and prepare for battle. The best part? These sponge balls can be reused. Just let them air dry overnight.


3 – Coffee Filter Butterfly

Coffee filters
Pipe cleaners
Paper towels
Spray bottle

Smooth out the coffee filter, then draw designs on it with markers.

Fill the spray bottle with water and spray the coffee filter. Let it dry on a paper towel.

Once dry, cinch it through the opening of the clothespin.

Wrap a small piece of pipe cleaner around the "head" of the butterfly to make antennae. Draw eyes and a mouth on the head, and your butterfly is ready to fly.


4 – Chalk Paint

Corn starch
Food coloring
Small bowls
Paint brushes

Pour ¼ cup of water into a small mixing bowl and slowly add ¼ cup cornstarch.

Once combined, add drops of food coloring until you get the desired shade. Repeat for each color, and then begin painting.

The paint is brighter once it dries, and it shows up best on sidewalks. Because it's made from food coloring and corn starch, the paint washes away when it rains. It also washes out of clothing.