outdoor play space - interview with Leigh Dameron

Anyone can create a natural outdoor play space that the kids will enjoy for years! Josie Ortega talks to designer—and mother of three—Leigh Dameron to learn how.

Set the Stage for Natural Outdoor Play

I love to watch my friend Leigh as she gracefully navigates the challenges of parenthood. She prioritizes what’s important for her family, and fosters a nurturing sanctuary of a home for her three little girls. And HOME is something she and her husband Mike know plenty about: together they run Windmill Hill, a design-build firm [that creates gorgeous homes!] in and around our beloved Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia.

Leigh enjoys learning and thinking about how to design good, natural play spaces outdoors—though she made herself clear explaining that she’s not a professional in this particular field. Nonetheless, I’m here to tell you that she’s planned lovely outdoor play spaces for both residential settings, like her own home, as well as commercial settings, like our family-friendly neighborhood beer garden.

Leigh and I recently chatted about the elements of natural play space—via FaceTime, for a few stolen minutes, before our kids burst in to climb on our laps! Amid those joyful interruptions, Leigh’s super-practical advice left me feeling inspired.

Outdoor Play Inspiration

Leigh began by describing her daughters’ preschool playground, which first sparked her imagination. 

The preschool the girls went to has no traditional playground equipment. It’s an all nature-based play space, with a mud kitchen and big sand areas, with buckets for sand and shovels right near it. They have a hand pump and access to water, so they can actually create mud, which I love.

natural playground outdoor play space

The natural playground at Beverley Hills Church Preschool

Designating a Special Space for Outdoor Play

We’ve been to that playground and it’s so beautiful. I love it. Are there elements of that natural playground that we can incorporate at home?

I think what I’ve realized from that is that you don’t need any particular special equipment. You just need a space to designate as theirs. It can be as simple as a platform. We actually just built a little platform under the trees at our house. We also put out a broom, so they can clean it, and a little place to sit, and some flowers. And then, it’s just amazing how the open-ended play happens.

Once you designate a space as theirs, then it becomes a stage or a pirate ship or a boat or a house. Because it’s just theirs to do whatever they want.

Elements to Include in a Natural Outdoor Play Space

My kids have their mud kitchen, and I feel like they could just spend all day out there! We’re putting a rain barrel in the back where the kids usually play, and I’m really excited so they can just have their own water access.

Yes, a mud kitchen can be a really great part of it! Here are a few more key elements to either a large or small play space:

  1. Shade! There are so many fun ways this can be accomplished: I love the idea of a weeping cherry tree to also dual purpose as a little hideout. We tried to do this at the beer garden but the tree didn’t make it. Sun sails, a teepee made out of climbing flowers, like morning glories or peas, are also a really sweet idea.
  2. A water feature is always a bonus but can be accomplished easily with just a water table.
    • I love this water table from Ikea. So versatile!
    • You could incorporate a rain barrel like you’re about to do,
    • Or different size buckets that pour things. Pouring seems to last for a long time!
  3. A defined space if possible. Use borders such as stumps, rocks, and perhaps a different ground material than the rest of the yard. Pea gravel or mulch are great and fun to dig in. I’ve really wanted to use stumps or stepping stones that the kids can balance on.

So: if someone has a big open yard, and the ability to really carve out a space, I’d use something to border it, whether it be rocks or logs. Then I would fill that area in with mulch or pea gravel or something that really delineated it from the yard. I feel like a mud kitchen is still key there, and a little place for the kids to sit. If you can, add a little water feature. I’ve seen really beautiful spaces just using stumps and tables. But really delineate it. Even with a little walking path.

outdoor play space

Setting Up Invitations to Outdoor Play

Leigh continues:

Another way I find to encourage open-ended, imaginative play is to set up a really simple invitation to play out there. Maybe during nap time you go put out a couple of baking sheets, or have them go pick flowers and make nature soup.

That’s so cute!

Encourage the start of play in that space. Like putting out some shovels. I think putting things away and taking them out at different times really helps. So you might have a little storage bench nearby—the kids can have access, too. That allows you to put things away and make things new and fresh out there.

So smart. I love how much my kids love our mud kitchen . . . but. It starts out organized and looks really charming, then I’m bothered by how quickly it becomes really junky looking. I like that storage bench idea. We need a better storage solution.

I really do believe that once the kids are done, and they help put things away, they’ll come back to it if the space is tidied up. I know that’s more pressure, but we all like to be in spaces that feel calm. That helps. That’s why we put a little broom out there for the girls. They always start their play by sweeping all the leaves off the platform. They set the stage and get it set up for whatever they’re doing.

Outdoor Play in a Small Space

Your platform under the trees is so nice because it can be anything. They won’t grow out of it! I can imagine high school kids sitting out there playing Never Have I Ever (not that I want to imagine that . . . somebody stop the clock!). 

I love what you’ve said so far because I think it could apply anywhere. Let’s talk more about thinking through the use of a smaller space. What would you recommend?

If you have a small space, even if it’s just a balcony, you can set up a simple . . . it could be a mud kitchen without the mud! My youngest uses the IKEA water table that I mentioned earlier all the time. It’s just this little low-profile table with removable bins. You can fill it with water. Again, just set up an invitation to play: colored rice, or dirt, or a baby washing station depending on the age. You could use it to plant seedlings. You could really use that table for anything.

And flowers. You could plant little climbing flowers on a balcony, or something to make it feel more nature-based. I think that would be sweet. In either a large or small space, you can include a little drawing board or chalkboard.

And twinkle lights go a long way!

Leigh Dameron and family create a naturalizations outdoor play space

Leigh and the whole Dameron crew

Hours of Outdoor Play, for the Win!

Thank you, Leigh!

::Immediately orders more twinkle lights::

The wellbeing of the whole family depends in some measure upon our home environment, but who knew how intensely we’d feel it in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? Even pre-COVID-19—let’s be honest, here—I could’ve testified to the importance of sending the kids outside at key moments in order to preserve my mental health. And in order to preserve their view of a mother who hasn’t gone berserk.

For more information and inspiration, Leigh recommends these books:

An outdoor play space inviting open-ended play is a win for everyone. I’m in. I believe it. Thank you, Leigh, for giving us the tools to set ourselves up for success!

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