OUTDOOR TINKERSPACE

Our tinkerspace is a designated area for messy play, sensory exploration, building, tinkering and pretending.  It’s an outside studio for my children and their friends to gather and create.  There is so much learning, negotiating, playing, confidence-building, language development, and making happening back there all the time.  It gets the kids outside and keeps them there.  There are playdates, family times and quiet times that all happen in our outdoor space.  Best part? I can hose the whole thing down at the end of the day. The shaving cream, mud, paint and sawdust washes down the cracks of our deck.  I always imagine that one day far into the future, another owner of our home will tear out the deck and find layers and layers of sparkle and magic that have washed down there in all of our years growing and creating out in our tinkerspace.

Before I get into the logistics of how to do this in your own home or school, I want to remind you something. Your space does not need to look like mine in order for your children to play productively. Start where you are.  Keep it VERY simple.  I cannot emphasize enough that you DO NOT NEED a huge, intricate space for this to be a wonderful experience for you and your children.  A simple water table or sensory bin with a designated space to play with it is ENOUGH.  Add to it as you feel comfortable and as your children are ready.  DO NOT buy all the things and put them all out.  Start very small and grow your space as you become more comfortable.  Know that your children will flit back and forth from riding scooters to creating.  Children are not meant to focus on one thing for long periods of time.  That is not how their little brains are wired.  

THE LOGISTICS:  

The space gets put together (by me) at the first signs of Spring and gets broken down and put away before our first major snowfall.  We have a short roof over-hang that covers our main materials shelf, but it can still be affected by weather.  The rest of the space is okay in wet weather.  I am vigilant about dumping out any standing water because of mosquitos and wear and tear.  If I know a huge storm is coming, I take in the things I think might get ruined, and I also make sure the mirror is secure and not going to shatter.  I really try not to overthink it and I know that the weather and everyday use will cause wear and tear This space is meant to be USED not looked at.

If you don’t t have any outdoor roof cover, you could use this  closed shelving unit to protect your materials.  

RULES:

Lots of people want to know about RULES in this space. Please keep in mind that we have been building some version of this space for five years.  At this point in the game my children are pretty well-versed in what flies out here.  We pretty fluid about the rules in our outdoor space, but as long as they are using it industriously and they are not hurting anyone or destroying things, I pretty much let them go for it.  BUT… similar to my philosophy on playroom set up- the younger the child, the fewer the materials. The space and materials need to match the interests and developmental level of the children who use it.  When  my children were small, I would never put an entire bag of baking soda out.  Now that they are older, it is appropriate.  I keep our paints, shaving cream, baking soda, etc. on the top shelf.  When friends are over, the kids now they have to ask before taking those down.  Your materials MUST match the developmental stage of the children who occupy it. That is one key to success.

When setting up a space for young children, you do not need much at all. I would do a water table, a surface for work, access to more water (independently), a mirror, babies or animals, soap, rags, and a sponge.  Of course, these materials depend on your child’s interest and your comfortability level.  


THIS IS NOT A SPACE FOR YOU TO MICRO MANAGE.  It is a space for the children to practice getting in the zone of creating and tinkering.  You guys, if this is your first time setting up an outdoor tinkerspace, do not try to make it look like mine.  Yours should be simple and with very few materials.  You can add as the play evolves and the children learn the space and how to interact within it.  They need to learn to be respectful of the materials and one another while your space is growing.  Please, please remember that we have been practicing for YEARS.  

CLEAN UP TIME:

Here’s the best part!  Sometimes, you can take a glance at the space after hours of afternoon magic and it looks downright SCARY.  Cleaning up can be simple if you don’t get overwhelmed.  Much like our playroom, our tinkerspace is not somewhere you just pull everything out and dump (unless you are two, in which case, dump away!! But there are many fewer items and cleanup is a snap).  When it is time to wrap it up, one of the children or I will fill a large bucket with soapy water.  We have a hose that reaches our space.  In my opinion, this is a must-have in order to make the space manageable.  

CLEAN UP INSTRUCTIONS: Rinse out the easy to clean items first with a quick swish in the bucket and return them to the shelf.  Dump in the harder to clean items and let them soak while the kids sweep up and gather materials and return them to their space.Hose out the buckets and bins and then the ground.  Return to the soaking items and finish them up.  Return them to their space.  Hose off the kids!! Done. 

I know I just made that sound really simple, but the more you and your children practice, the easier it will become. Plus, that hose is a game changer. Most of the time, my children help me clean up the space.  From their own personal experience, they know that if they don’t pitch in, the space cannot exist.  Other times, I will ask just one of the kids to help me while the other two go in and shower… You just have to do what works in your daily routine and your space.  Like anything, theres a learning curve and some days will feel harder than others.  It is OKAY to say, the outdoor space is CLOSED today and we are just riding bikes or playing out front.  It does not have to be open when you do not feel like dealing with it. If it is not fun and manageable for you, it’s not worth having it.  I mean that.  


The Materials:  

Okay, this is a tricky one because the materials and loose-parts I add and take away really depend on the ages and interest of my children.  I've done my best to compile a list of links for you but please keep in mind that YOUR children should really spark you here.  Also, most of these things you can find at you local dollar store and you don't need to pay up on Amazon.  These links are for your convenience. Click the image below to take you to my TINKERSPACE SHOP ON AMAZON.



Our sensory tables were built by my father-in-law and my husband when the children were small.  Here are some that I recommend for purchase OR here are some Pinterest tutorials for a DIY version.

GETTING YOUR PARTNER ON BOARD:

For many years running, this space was a source of contention between my husband and I.  While I beamed at the learning going on, he groaned and despaired at the sight of our beautiful deck looking like a preschool explosion.  He worried the paint would stain and that the children would run their muddy feet straight across the living room rug…. The sand that inevitably creeped its way inside would make him cringe and instead of being empathetic, I was annoyed that he couldn’t see how valuable this kind of play was!  Over time, we both compromised.  I became more careful about teaching the children to respect the house and NOT to run inside without doing a check of hands and feet.  I learned that a quick tidy up of the space before Dave came home went a long way.  Eventually, the deck felt more in-control for him and he grew to really appreciate it.  He builds things for us, and sometimes, he even helps me brain storm ideas! This year, he installed a gate across the deck so that our puppy cannot get into the space…. Let’s just say she’s eaten a few paintbrushes in her first year of life…

WHAT IF I HAVE A BABY AND BIG KIDS? CAN THEY BOTH USE THE SPACE?

Yes!! Here’s How… You obviously need to be more hands on than I usually am at this season of motherhood.  First, make sure everything is SAFE for both children.  You need to simplify.  Both a toddler and an older child can productively use soap and water for a wonderful sensory experience.  Use baby shampoo instead of regular soap so that you don’t need to worry about stinging eyes.  Keep the materials that are off limits to baby out of their sight-line.  The lower shelves should contain the YES items- Baby dolls, large animals, and a water dispenser, small metal cups, etc.   Keep items for your older child up- high.  Let him use those materials while the baby naps- just be sure to cleanup well before the space becomes shared again.  

HOW DO YOU STORE THE ITEMS YOU ARE NOT USING?

We keep most of our stuff in the garage when it is not Tinkerspace season. Art supplies come back inside and get stored.  

WILL THIS STAIN MY DECK? 

It might.  Our deck has definitely seen some real wear and tear from our hours creating on it.  For my family, this works.  I am more invested in LIVING in our home than keeping it looking magazine-ready.  This is NOT for everyone.  Be creative, see if you can find a space on your driveway or set up tinkerspace-friendly activities without having an actual tinkerspace.  My friend Beth from Days with Grey has some great ideas for this… See her post HERE.  

Do you have questions? I bet you do! I’ve been doing this for years, and I STILL have questions! Start where you are. Keep it simple. You do not have to use the space everyday if you do not want to! Do what your comfortable with. Your children will only be as happy as you are.


I hope you found this post helpful.  If you want to hear more from me, please be sure to subscribe to my blog and join the conversation over on Instagram.  

-Lizzie