Here’s How To Entertain Kids In Small Outdoor Spaces

If you’re lucky enough to have an expansive backyard, live down the road from a nature preserve, or spend your summers at a beach house, then this advice is not for you. In fact, the only words of wisdom I have for you are to enjoy every bit of our short summer in your heavenly outdoors space (slathered in SPF, of course).

But if you are like many Chicagoans who have to squeeze one metal folder chair on a postage-stamp balcony to get some air or if your modest yard is covered in concrete or organic veggie beds, then this is your post and I am your people.

I grew up in the city and spent most of my childhood outside of our family bungalow, riding bikes with the boys on my block, building ramps for Big Wheel jump competition and running from yard to yard through sprinklers and baby pools.

However, my children’s childhood looks a little different, having so far taken place exclusively in apartment buildings and rental condos. Our summer fun includes trekking to the local pool, the school playground, and nearby beaches.

I’m not complaining. My city kids know how to step around plastic coke bottles to get into the water at Foster Beach. They are happy to bike over to the zoo. They shoot baskets in the alley nearly every weekend and know that the parking lot we sled in also is great for scooters in the summer.

Having limited outdoor space as a parent means I’ve called on the same creativity I used all those decades ago when, as ‘80’s kids, we had endless summer hours to explore the neighborhood without adults, money, or confinement.

Here’s how I’ve tapped my imagination and resources to entertain the littles with little or no yard:

Plastic bins for the win

Want the perfect DIY pool for your baby or toddler? Empty out a plastic bin from your storage space (all that crap probably needs to be pitched, recycled or donated anyway) and fill it with six to eight inches of water.

Drag it out to your porch, balcony or yard (or better yet, use the hose to fill it up once it is outside), sprinkle in some bath toys, plastic bowls, and cups. If you have no outdoor space at all, put the bin in the bathroom or on top of a big beach towel or plastic-covered tablecloth in your kitchen. Sometimes, I even get crazy and add bubbles!

If you can keep a bin in your outdoor space, you can also turn this into a sandbox with a few big bags from your local home supply store. Snap on the lid when kids are done playing each day to keep the sand safe, snug and small critter-free.

Bubble machine bash

One summer, I scoffed at a bubble machine my toddler begged for at Target. Why would I spend money on that when we had 72 half-used bottles of bubbles, even more, tiny wands and one very breathy mommy capable of blowing them herself?

A week later, Grandma brought one over and everyone (yep, even me) squealed at the sight of a gazillion bubbles a minute flowing from the plastic wonder toy.

That summer, we hosted our own bubble dance parties many afternoons. I cranked music while the bubble machine did its thing and we all jammed out. Best $12 my mom ever spent.

Scavenge for sunshine

Kids and parents get bitten by the boredom bug often in the summertime. A quick antidote is creating a scavenger hunt that takes you around the block, neighborhood or even city. I give each kid a list of things to find.

For younger ones, I draw the items, and for early reading ages, I draw and write each thing. There are always easy finds – a bird, an ant, a scrap metal truck in the alley, one lost shoe in the street. And then I add in things that are unique to our little corner of Chicago – a favorite hot dog stand, the dive bar mommy and daddy frequent on date nights, the older gentleman down the street who yells at every kid who walks by.

Of course, I throw in some tricky items because I don’t want to do all this work and be back home with whiny small people in less than five minutes – a key, a kite, a teammate from the soccer team, an open parking space on a Cubs home game day. The great thing is that scavenger hunts also keep children and their adults occupied in the grocery store, at home on rainy days and on epic road trips.

Pool testing

My kids and I have held many, many amazing taste tests around the city, judging the best fries, old-fashioned donuts, pizza and strawberry ice cream. We keep charts and conjure up star rating systems and get all geeked out on the process. Why not apply the same fun and formality to trying out the public pools in the city? Or water parks? Or beaches? Or bike trails?

Give your kids the responsibility of coming up with the standards and maybe even plotting the map and schedule. Then dive into a summer-long quest for the city’s best. Team up with other families; the more testers, the merrier.

You will be so happy and worn out at the end of each adventure, no one will care that you have a bath mat-sized patio at home.

What do you do for summertime fun with kids when your backyard is wee or your porch is precarious? We’d love to add your creative ideas to our list.

Written by Jessica Ashley
Jessica Ashley is a writer, coach and the voice of Single Mom Nation and its sister podcast. She wears inappropriately high heels to the playground, is mom to a teenager and a threenager and lives with her chef boyfriend on the north side of Chicago.