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Turn your garden into a playground: play area ideas for kids of all ages

Looking for ways to transform your garden into an exciting play area for your kids? Our guide offers a range of creative and fun ideas, tried and tested by UK parents.. From free and low-cost options to DIY projects and space-saving hacks, discover the best ways to keep your children entertained and engaged while enjoying the great outdoors.

By Poppy O'Neill | Last updated Jan 10, 2024

a little boy watering a vegetable patch

With summer just around the corner, many of us are thinking about how to make the most of our gardens. By creating a designated play area in your garden, you can give your kids a place to let their imaginations run wild, make a mess and burn off some energy.

As well as free and cheap garden play area ideas, we've got the lowdown on the outdoor play equipment Mumsnetters think is worth investing in - to help you decide between trampolines and paddling pools, mud kitchens and water tables. You’re sure to find plenty of options in this article to create the perfect play space for your little ones.

Creating a garden play area is not only a fun way to keep your kids entertained, it also provides plenty of benefits for their physical, emotional and cognitive development. Getting out into the garden not only improves kids’ physical fitness, it’s also been found to reduce stress and enhance learning through hands-on experiences.

Whether you have a small or large garden, there are plenty of garden play area ideas to choose from. Whatever you decide, your kids will love having a special place to play and explore in their own backyard.

Free and low-cost garden play area ideas

Digging patch

Give your kids a small section of the garden and their own tools to dig, plant and make a mess. The freedom to experiment and play pretend is brilliant for kids’ emotional development, and getting their hands in the dirt does wonders for their immune systems too.

“The most time in our garden has been spent with spades and diggers etc playing in a small patch of the flower bed they were allowed to dig in.” Recommended by Mumsnet user Winifredgoose

“A digging patch with spades and buckets and vehicles. They spend hours there.” Loved by Mumsnetter Fiorentina

Den making

Gather together some big sticks and let your kids build a shelter. Making a den is easiest if you have a tree in your garden, but you really only need something to lean the sticks against. Den building teaches patience and problem-solving, as well as co-operation. You don’t need any extras, but Mumsnetters say the Den Making Kit lasts for ages and takes den making to the next level.

“Den kit is a massive hit if you have a couple of trees.” Tried and tested by Mumsnetter notagaim

Related: Relax in the shade while your kids play, with our pick of the best hammocks

Water play area

Fill a paddling pool or washing up bowl with water and provide children with a selection of cups, bowls, and other containers to play with. Kids are fascinated by water, and setting it up outside is the obvious choice - nobody wants a soggy carpet! In the summer, Mumsnetters recommend freezing toys in ice for a fun and time-consuming cool-down activity.

“I keep big ice cream tubs of water with little toys frozen into them for them to chip out.” tip from Mumsnetter Bluenameblue

DIY mud kitchen

Use old pots, pans, and utensils to set up a mud kitchen - they keep kids busy for hours. Pop an old or second hand play kitchen in the garden or get your kids one of Mumsnetters’ best mud kitchens. If you’re handy with a drill and saw, they’re pretty straightforward to build yourself.

“Another vote for a mud kitchen, our 3 year old will play for ages in the mud.” Loved by Mumsnet user Tigger001

“They are easy enough to make if you have the time and are DIY orientated.” Tried and tested by Mumsnetter onedsrightnow

Water busy board

One for keen DIY-ers - fix bits of pipe and other containers to a piece of wood, your kids will be obsessed. Check out Mumsnetter Vanillabeauty’s amazing busy board.

“We have something like this, made from old pipes/tubes mounted on some wood and then screwed to a wall. Used for hours.” Recommended by Mumsnet user Vanillabeauty

Play area ideas for small gardens

It can be challenging to make a small garden fun for children. However, with a little creativity and planning, you can create a fun and functional space that both kids and adults will enjoy. With careful consideration of the available space and budget, it’s possible to transform a small garden into a playful and exciting outdoor area for kids.

Climbing frame

Mumsnetters’ top tip for a small garden is a climbing frame. Opt for one with a small footprint to make the most out of your space - TP Toys Castlewood Dover Climbing Frame fits the bill perfectly.

“We have a small garden - about 7m x 7m - but the kids use it a lot. We have a small climbing frame in it which gets used most days in dry weather. Gardens are generally small round here, in fact ours is one of the larger ones, but many people have shoehorned some kind of play equipment in - basketball hoop, wendy house, small trampoline, paddling pool in summer as well as balls skipping ropes etc. The gardens are definitely well used at primary age.” Great tips from Mumsnetter minipie

Related: The best trampoline parks in the UK

Go miniature

Kids love small world play, so don’t let a tiny garden stand in your way. Sacrifice a handful of their Happyland or Playmobil characters to go and live outdoors, you’ll be amazed with what your children can create with just what they can find in the garden.

“A small world play area with bark, stones, sand, little plants, stuff for making little houses, etc. You could possibly repurpose her sand/water table for that.” Advice from Mumsnet user Skkyelark

Use your fences

Making use of your vertical space unlocks lots of possibilities in a small garden. ‘Painting’ the wall with water and paint brushes, investing in a wall-mounted mud kitchen and transforming a fence panel with blackboard paint all come highly recommended by Mumsnetters.

“I agree with the outdoor mud kitchen. Also, a blackboard on the fence and some chunky chalk and a den of some kind.” Recommended by Mumsnetter ILiveInSalemsLot

“My DS used to spend hours 'painting' the playhouse with water. Paintbrush and water - hours of fun.” Tip from Mumsnet user BenWillbondsPants

Related: The best garden hoses for paddling pools and water fights

What’s the best outdoor play equipment to buy?

When it comes to buying toys for your garden, it's important to consider both longevity and versatility. Some garden toys, such as water tables and mud kitchens, are brilliant for younger kids, and you’re sure to get your money’s worth as they’ll keep small children busy outdoors for ages.

The drawback is that they’ll lose their appeal once your kids get to around 6 or 7. Durable and well-made wooden climbing frames are a great option as they can withstand the elements and last for many years, but similarly - older kids aren’t generally keen on them.

Mumsnetters are pretty clear on the best garden toy worth spending money on - a trampoline. Not only are they fun for kids from 3 upwards, the best trampolines can be used as a pirate ship, a huge basketball hoop, or add a few blankets to make it into a den. Even grown-up Mumsnetters are known to enjoy a bounce from time to time.

“Trampoline. We have just put ours away after 10+ years of continuous use. Get the absolute biggest that you can afford / fit in.” Advice from Mumsnet user teacherwith2kids

Not only does jumping on a trampoline improve kids’ coordination and balance, it also helps to build strength and increase heart health. As long as you have a safety net and practise sensible bouncing, trampolines are a safe and enjoyable way for children to burn off energy and release pent up emotions. With a wide range of sizes and styles available, you’ll be able to choose the best trampoline for your garden, making it a versatile and valuable addition to any outdoor play area.

Want to know more? Read our guide to the best trampolines.