Achieving unsupervised outdoor nature play with a tiny deck

For four years I tried my best to engage and entertain the kids indoors with little to no access to the outdoors. We have mostly lived in apartments in cities with zero outdoor space and now a townhouse in suburbia with a tiny deck. I set up the house with plenty of invitations to play, created sensory bins and cardboard castles and organised lots of indoor playdates. But inevitably the kids had more energy to burn than I had to stimulate them and they became frustrated with the constraints of being supervised and told off for damaging things. I became frustrated too, equally trapped with nowhere to go when they wound me up and having to constantly clean the ever growing mess.

Recently, my cousin recommended Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J Hanscom who convincingly agues that children need outdoor nature play for most of their day. She explains in detail what unsupervised and unstructured nature play does for a child’s physical development, imagination, connection between nature, food and their bodies, concentration, self-motivation, emotional regulation and social skills.

This was a revelation to me. She was effectively proposing that we spend all day outdoors, arguing that the sensorial stimulation and movable objects in nature are the ultimate educational toys. Shortly before reading Hanscom’s book, I watched a Tedx Talk called “The decline of play” by psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, a researcher who studies play from a biological, evolutionary perspective. Hanscom echoed Dr. Gray, positing that children learn more from peers than adults. In fact, the more unsupervised time the better.

Hanscom and Dr. Gray had certainly inspired me but I had my reservations as to the achievability of their suggestions given our suburban lifestyle and my cluelessness about the Australian bush. Can we provide our wild things with access to nature for most of their day when we only have a tiny deck in medium density suburbia? I will write another post on how we tested these suggestions by venturing into the nature reserves and adventure playgrounds and how this impacted our lifestyle.

For now I will tell you about how we have been trying to bring nature into our tiny outdoor space…slowly and deliberately manually. Our 20 square meter deck and 2.5 square meter sandpit surrounded by rather stark high blueboard walls was not particularly inviting. But it is not meant to be an overnight showpiece like the TV shows promote. By keeping it manual we all get a bit of a workout, learn about nature and the kids get to play with the gardening tools. The space belongs to the kids as much as it belongs to us. So if they kill a plant in the course of their play we accept it and plant something else. My 19-month-old wild thing bare-rooted a plant so that she could eat the soil underneath. I am making my peace with this. But it still hurts a little. The flowers were so pretty in the upcycled fire grate.

My wild thing bare-rooted my beautiful plant so that she could eat the soil underneath!

Watering the plants with a metal watering can has been good for me. Every evening I lift and carry this heavy thing around the deck and build strength. I get an idea of how much water is wasted because the planter I am using is too porous. We could hook up an automated drip system and never step outdoors. But the kids join us outside as I water the plants and my husband feeds The Wise Old Elf, our vertical composting system. We invite them to help us. Sometimes they do with their kid sized gardening tools. More often though, they start their own imaginative play.

Our son lays pebbles with mortar or makes pizza dough with earth, sand and leaves. He carefully carries sand from the sandpit to the bench in his spade which is great for his balance and coordination.

A ladybird walks along the pebble path my son made.

Our daughter is also working on her balance and coordination by scooping the water from Atlantis, our self-sustaining ecosystem with fish in a water pot, and depositing it on the curry tree. We talk about the nitrogen cycle, how the fish poo is food for the plants, and how the plants make oxygen for the fish to breathe under water.

Our toddler is bent on terrorising the fish who heroically come to greet her despite her wild splashing.

My husband planted bulbs in winter and they sprouted in spring. Our son harvests strangely shaped carrots and is eagerly anticipating the potatoes. Both kids pluck the strawberries when they ripen. One weekend we learnt a little about companion planting when we realised we could plant the green beans seedlings under our dwarf lemon and lime tree. The green beans fix nitrogen to the soil which is useful for the citrus tree. They died though because our wild thing bare-rooted them!

The daffodils my husband planted bloomed while he was away. What a way to say I love you from afar!I'm still waiting for a chance to taste our strawberries before they are staffled by the wild things.

Inspired by a friend, we set out to make the kids a fairy garden. My husband is reading our son Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series so our older wild thing is captivated by the idea of little magic people and adventures in gardens. We bought a planter made from upcycled fence palings and filled it with compost from The Wise Old Elf. We let the kids fill it with whatever they choose.


I am so glad we followed our gut and chose a house that had an open plan kitchen and living room that opens out onto the deck. I can leave the screen doors open and allow the kids to do their own thing. I just keep a towel and basin ready to help them wash and dry when they are done. So even in our tiny outdoor space we have created the opportunity for unstructured and unsupervised nature play and it feels like a weight had been lifted since the wild things have been spending more time outside. I don’t have to be their constant source of engagement. And it’s been a break for them too. The less I supervise them, the less defiant they are. They are free to make decisions for themselves and go where their imagination takes them. They make less mess indoors because they are busy making a mess outdoors.

The size of the deck constrains the duration of their play though, so it is great for filling in time between activities of longer duration. Most of what we planted died in the hanging baskets because they dry out too quickly. We want to turn the bench into a raised garden bed to create a more productive space with deeper soil. There is so much more to do.