DIY: An Easy but Cool Outdoor Space for Toddlers (And Portable Enough for Apartment Dwellers)


M and I were recently interviewed by the Denver Post about how to keep the little ones entertained (but safe) at home.  You can read the full article here.  My contribution to the article centered on the transformation my balcony goes through each summer.

As many of you know, I live in the heart of Denver.  We live in a 2nd story condo, right off of a busy street, on an intersection that is the site of fairly serious accidents at least twice a year.  We have bums, I'm practically on a first-name basis with the 911 guys, and we live right across the street from an apartment building only known as "the crack house".  On the upside, you can find a liquor store merely by walking a couple of blocks in any direction, and porn 24 hours a day.  Sadly, most of the hookers have left.  

It's not what most people think of as an ideal environment for raising kids, but for us, it's home.  And one of the ways we've found to cope is by making the best of what outdoor space we do have: our balcony.

The trick to transform a balcony into a play space is that everything must be portable and easily washed.  One can't just hose everything off when it gets dirty.  And because the balcony sits right off the living room, I can't stand to get one of those plastic Fisher-Price sand and water tables — I would end up poking my own eyes out, staring at that thing all day.  Not to mention that it's hard to store off-season.

So I've spent the last two years trying to find items that look cool, and are also portable, washable and store-able.  Lastly, I want to be able to quickly transform the space from a day-use play space, to a night-use dinner space.  Here's what I've found:

The Basics


Start with an amazing outdoor rug from Fab Habitat.  Mine is the Cancun, in the 4' X 6' size (pictured at left).  These rugs are made from recycled plastic, can be hosed off, easily rolled up, and are insanely lightweight.  They come with a carrying case that makes them perfect for picnics or music in the park.  Local?  Find these rugs at Talulah Jones.  They retail for approx $46. 

Next, add Crate & Barrel's Table in a Bag, $39.95.  We've had this table for years, TableNBagGreenS10 and are accosted at every picnic-in-the-park by other picnicers.  This table rolls up into the bag (pictured at right), and then unrolls and easily assembles in a perfect picnic-height table.  Know what else this height is perfect for?  Toddlers.  This is the base of my sand-and-water table by day, our dinner table by night.

  3377__dp At the moment, I either use some outdoor pillows from West Elm to cozy up the space, or I bust out the plastic, stackable and cheap ($10!) kid's chairs from The Container Store for seating options.

However…what I really want is the super-cool, totally loungable Fatboy Original, $229 at Design Public.  Fatboys are simply a more sophisticated and versitile take on the bean-bag chair.  You can use them as a chair, a small couch, a place to lounge.  The original Fatboy is made for indoor use, but has a coated nylon outside shell that wipes clean.  This would be an easy piece to use in both your kiddo's room and outside.  If you really want something made specifically for outdoor use, Fatboy also came out with the Buggle Up, $349.    

Play For Day

OurSweaterBoxes_a Now to complete the sand-and-water table:  You know the Container Store's smaller sweater box (pictured at left)?   The one for $5.99?  Buy two.  Sand in one, water in another. (Full disclosure:  I actually use cornmeal, bought in bulk.  Hailing originally from a beach-town, I felt it was all kinds of wrong to have to BUY sand.)

Add buckets, pails, scoops, spoons, cups, trucks, and various other sand toys.  I also throw in the pthalate-free animals from Safari's Coral Reef Toob.

To transform into an art space, I use the table for drawing pads, glueing and cutting activities, but if paint gets involved, it's much more fun with an easel.  I've been pretty happy with the 415itNtoiBL._AA300_ portability of Melissa & Doug's Art Easel (once you remove the paper roll, it folds flat), but they also have a table top option for roughly $30.  I'm showing the full easel at right.  It's currently on sale at Amazon for $50, but you can usually find this piece on Craig's List.

For the mess-adverse, stick to Tempera paints.  They easily wash off the mat, table, and, with the exception of orange, the pillows. 

Blue Lastly, let's talk shade.  For most of the summer, we benefit from a large tree whose branches sweep over our balcony, so if I really need extra shade, I jimmy up our Shady Baby Stroller Parasol (pictured at left).

For those that need serious shade, I've had my eye on Restoration Hardware's Freestanding Umbrella Stand, currently on sale for $69, or a very cool, non-umbrella shade solution by Coolaroo, $100 – $150.  Both are pictured below.

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Lounge & Dine For Night

  Once Mike comes home, and we put away the sweater boxes and art easels, we usually end up using our outdoor space for eating.   The only addition you really need is lighting.  I'm 17842_lgcurrently using a few pickle jars filled with sand and a pillar candle….but I'm dying for Uncommon Good's Solar Powered String Lights, $50, pictured at left. So. Totally. Gorgeous. 

They also carry something similar that stick right into the ground (for those of you with backyards).

Lastly, bring out a cozy cotton throw, for cool summer nights.  And listen to the blissful sound of horns honking crickets chirping.  Or of a city going to sleep.



ps.  Readers – any other ideas?  What have you done??