Backyard Adventure

Get Messy, Get Wet, Build Cool Things, and Have Tons of Wild Fun! 51 Free-Play Activities


By Amanda Thomsen

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The backyard has long been a space associated with recreation and relaxation, a private patch of earth to escape to, and a springboard for the imagination. In her signature style and drawing on her personal experience as a mother, gardener, and author, Amanda Thomsen encourages kids to create kingdoms of their own making, right in their own backyards. With whimsical projects for every season and any setting, from forest to pavement, fun-seeking kids and their families will rediscover the yard as a place for inspired play, using repurposed materials and existing features of outdoor spaces. Whether they’re creating tiny gardens inhabited by action figures, weaving a secret hideaway out of a loom of twine and twigs, or setting sidewalk cracks on fire with Coffeemate, Backyard Adventure lets kids of all ages turn their yards into a place they can call their own.



In memory of Fred Rogers

He fed my imagination, taught me about my own feelings, and made me certain that kids were worthy of respect, every day, all from the other side of a TV set.

And to my parents

My childhood was ideal and just a little strange. Thanks for helping me grow and teaching me to grow ALL THE THINGS!


The Roots of a Wild Child

Chapter One: Forts and Other Hideaways

Scrounging for Unexpected Building Materials

Forts & Playhouses

Natural Burrows

Packing-Material Tepee

Plants That Make Great Places to Hide

Build a Straw Bale Fort

Plant a Living Willow Hideaway

Cardboard Castles

A Fort in Winter


The Simple Leaf Pile

Make a Loom Tent

Badger Holes

Unexpected Sandboxes

Make a Map of Your Neighborhood

Hiding Play Materials

Chapter Two: Places for Tinkering

Create a Mud Lab

Marble Racetrack

Soda & Mentos Eruptions

Setting Booby Traps

Make a Slingshot

Build a Catapult

Protect Your Toys from Pirates

Create a Wall of Noise

DIY Rube Goldberg Device

Bored? No way!

Chapter Three: Naturally Wild

Miniature Worlds

Grow a Tiny Fruit Tree

Natural Paints & Dyes

Grow Your Own Snacks

Snacks to Identify & Forage

Dig Your Own Clay

Mown Labyrinth

Logs & Stumps

Seedo Torpedoes


Chapter Four: Setting Up Camp

Backyard Camping

(Fake) Neighborhood Lore

Make a Hand-Washing Station

Create an Outdoor Shower

Set Up an Outdoor Toilet

Make a Fire Pit

Hobo Camp Food & Old-Timey Cooking

Outdoor Stages for Performances or Fomenting a Rebellion

Chapter Five: Sidewalks, Fences, and Driveways

Graffiti on Fences

Fun on the Driveway

Chalk Outlines

Exploding Sidewalk Chalk

Chapter Six: Adventure Course

Swing It!

Make Your Own Slip 'N Slide

Tough Li'l Mudders

Make Your Own Stilts

Red Yarn Laser Climb

Cardboard Armor

Chapter Seven: Water, Bubbles, and Goo

Sprinkler Setups

Make a Water Blob

Super Soaker!

Baby Pool Fun

Piñata Full of Water Balloons

Make Giant Bubbles

Tyvek Suit Full of Water Balloons

Eggshell Paint Bombs

Chapter Eight: It Ain’t Over Yet

Old-Timey Yard Games

Turn Dolls into Mummies

Duct Tape Zombies

Glow Stick Hunt

Flashlight Tag

Super Secret Section: *For Parents Only*

A Big, Bouncy Thank-You to:

Explore, Lear, Create! with More Books from Storey


Share Your Experience!

The Roots of a Wild Child

My strongest childhood memories from growing up in the suburbs of Chicago are of the relentless, everyday boredom that reliably gave way to unbelievably creative, noisy, messy, and usually outdoor play.

I remember eating breakfast and then breaking out the back door like a racehorse and not coming in unless it was absolutely necessary. My parents would set peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out on the back stoop for me like I was some kind of feral grade-schooler.

One day when I ran out of ideas for what to do, this magical set of books appeared — Making Things: The Handbook of Creative Discovery by Ann Wiseman. I don't know where they came from or who the intended audience for these books was. (The set didn't seem like it was for kids and it was too simple for adults.) But for me, reading them was an almost religious experience. They were quirkily hand drawn, with super hippie block print spelling out ideas for weird crafts. From simple projects like weed weaving (reimagined and included in this book here) and making things from old tin cans (which, I now realize, would surely create a bloodbath if carried out by little kids) to baking incredibly elaborate breads that looked like animals (and would never, ever fit in a normal oven), Wiseman's ideas just set my tiny brain ablaze. I can't even say that I actually completed a single project from the books, but they were the fuel for years of play afterward. These books gave me inspiration, goals, and constant, everlasting weird dreams about bread animals.

I can only hope that kids and parents pick up this book and feel half of what I felt about the Ann Wiseman volumes. I hope it inspires children of all ages to unplug, put on some play clothes, get dirty, and explore. I'd love to hear about your messy outdoor adventures, too. You can call me up on a phone made out of an old tin can and tell me all about them, toll free!

My daughter, Hazel (pictured above in 2015), has as much fun playing in the yard as I did when I was her age. That's me, in the lower photo, circa 1979.

Chapter OneForts and Other Hideaways

We all want a place of our own — a place where we can be in charge. In your own little lair or tiny animal den, you get to be the rule maker and the decider. You can make a little hiding place that's all yours, one that you build and decorate however you like. How you build it depends on what kind of material you have lying around, but here are some tips to get started and a few ideas to build on.

Unplug, get outside, and make discoveries!

Scrounging for Unexpected Building Materials

Before you can build, you need construction materials.

"Loose parts" are those magical items that you can play with and turn into whatever you want them to be. An old tire could become a spaceship. A box could be a time machine! A long length of PVC pipe could be a flagpole, part of a tent, a measuring device, a megaphone, a pea shooter, a tunnel, or a hose. I could go on and on, but I'm sure you'll have your own great ideas.

Visiting junkyards, reuse centers, and thrift stores for bits and pieces can spur new ideas for materials, but it is important to adhere to a budget even if the original plans go out the window. Junior junkers should also consider transportation of found items. Important questions include, "How will I get this home?" "Will it fit in the car?" "Will it mess up the car?"

Hazel has her own budget to buy loose parts today.

Will she choose dainty, breakable housewares?

Will she choose bigger, rustier stuff?

Loose Parts and Unexpected Playthings

  • Sheets of foam insulation. These can be carved into anything, including bricks, walls, tombstones, counters, doors, and roofs.
  • Chunks of leftover lumber. These can become building blocks, like an oversize version of Lincoln Logs or TinkerToys.
  • Pallets. These make great fort walls, roofs, and drawbridges. They can be used as a stage, an organizer for all the other loose parts, or as an imaginary jet. Work gloves are helpful if you're worried about splinters.
  • Old tools. Having your own tools will help you avoid the hassle of having to raid a parent's tool box.
  • Canning jars. These can be used to hold potions, insects, or bouquets; to drink from; and to make terrariums.
  • Wires. Old wires can be used to build time machines, robots, nests, radios, and other interstellar connections.
  • Buckets. They can be sandcastle forms or step stools. You can fill them with water and set them outside in winter for icy building blocks.
  • Crates. Use these as giant bricks, or add a rope to turn one into a trailer for hauling.
  • Pipes and fittings. These can be used to build a framework for any kind of hideout, especially tepees and tents.
  • Building materials. You can make structures out of old chimney pipes, shoe molding, bolts, wheels, bricks, and stones.
  • Casters. These are great for making your own carts and wheelbarrows.
  • Bike wheels. Use wheels as gears or cogs. Turn a wheel to make something happen.
  • Tires. These can become building blocks or tunnel supports.
  • Fabric. A large piece of fabric can be used to cover hideouts, snuggle up, or lie down on. You can also pile stuff on it and drag it around.
  • Chicken wire. This makes a good framework for all kinds of hideaways and a great base for weaving with pretty much anything. Use gloves to protect your hands from pokey ends.

Forts & Playhouses

Parents: Keep Out!

You can make any old tool shed into your own private hideout! Fly your flag, hang some curtains, or set booby traps to keep intruders out. The two brothers below decked out their old play structure and turned it into a fort. Fun!

Play house or play fort — take your pick!

Natural Burrows

Let your yard go wild!

Choose an area (or the whole yard) and see what happens when it's left to grow as long as possible. Try burrowing through the grass and making a nest or a series of tunnels, as if you were a tiny mouse or a baby rabbit. Discover what happens when Mother Nature takes over as the designer.

Make a magical bouquet from wildflowers.

Is that Elsie or a wild tiger?

When I was little, my favorite place to play was an open space in the middle of three spruce trees that had been planted a little too close together, where the trees shed their needles (probably from lack of light). In this little hideaway, I had a wall-to-wall carpet of spruce needles, a drop in temperature because of the deep shade, cathedral ceilings, and all the coat racks a kid could want. And it was ready for play, 24/7/365.

Packing-Material Tepee

One kind of play space you can make is a tepee.

The tepee is quite a bit warmer inside, which makes building one a great late-autumn activity.

We made one out of whatever we had lying around the house: Three 8-foot-long copper pipes, one 4-foot roll of chicken wire (it's sharp, so make sure you're wearing protective clothing and thick gloves when handling it!), parachute cord, zip ties, old bubble wrap, and clear packing tape. You can even build in stages and add bubble wrap as it arrives at your house in packages. No need to hurry!

There are lots of other options for building materials, too. You could build the tepee frame with PVC pipes, sticks, old lumber, or broomsticks. And you could cover it with: scraps of fabric tied to the chicken wire frame, a tarp, canvas, stuffed animals zip-tied to the chicken wire, old flip-flops, old homework, papier-mâché, or leaves and branches.

Is it a good size to play in? I think so!

Make It!

  1. 1.Lay the pipes down next to each other, weave rope between all three pieces at the top, and tie a knot. Do this at least twice, then pop up the structure.
  2. 2.Wrap one end of the chicken wire around one of the copper pipes and zip-tie it in place. Pull the chicken wire around your tepee form and zip-tie it to each pole, overlapping the chicken wire, if necessary. (Fold any extra chicken wire to make it lay flat, or snip off irregular pieces.)
  3. 3.Cut the chicken wire with wire cutters. Wearing gloves, bend the pointy ends in so you don't get snagged by them (ouch!). Cut a door opening into the chicken wire wherever you like. Bend all the jagged pieces of chicken wire back flat.
  4. 4.Cover the chicken wire with bubble wrap and clear tape. Make sure the bubble wrap covers the inside and outside edges of the doorway.


  • “Rocket fuel for a free-range childhood.” — Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow and founder of Free-Range Kids 

    “Play is the work of childhood and modern kids are play-deficient. Backyard Adventure provides the healthy injection of play all children need. They’ll never realize they’re learning physics, chemistry, botany, and engineering — they’ll be having too much fun!” — Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — And What to Do About It

    “Wow, what a treasure trove of ideas and projects. I was laughing and saying aloud, YES, YES, YES! Amanda Thomsen understands that the simplest things in nature are what nurture young souls and spirits. Hurrah!” —  Sharon Lovejoy, Author of Roots, Shoots, Buckets Boots, Sunflower Houses, Camp Granny and many more favorite books for children

On Sale
Apr 2, 2019
Page Count
160 pages

Amanda Thomsen

About the Author

Amanda Thomsen is the author of Backyard Adventure and Kiss My Aster as well as a mom, a Girl Scout troop leader, a garden maker, an adventure planner, and a rule breaker. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and eight-year-old daughter.

Learn more about this author