When You Don’t Have A Backyard


Houses certainly have their appeal when you have three kids. It would be a joy to open the door and tell the kids to go play outside – while I had a coffee and read the paper.

“Go play outside” was a constant refrain from my childhood. It was the 80s and we had free reign of the neighborhood from a very young age. I spent a lot of my youth climbing hedges and tramping through a patch of forest a few blocks up the road. I played neighborhood hide and go seek. I zipped up and down the lane on my bike, back and forth, back and forth. We did it all without a parent hovering.

But now I’m raising apartment kids. Or kids in an apartment. When we go outside, an adult is coming with them. Someday they’ll be riding elevators and walking or scooting or cycling city blocks alone but with a five, two and less than one year old, it isn’t going to be soon. So how do we survive with no backyard?

Our Living Room is Our Backyard

I wasn’t too precious when furnishing our old/new home. There is only one side table that I have a bit of anxiety about the rest is mostly IKEA, some new, some secondhand. We bought a sturdy couch and the kids jump on it and off of it often. They build forts in the living room with pillows. They run back and forth from their bedroom to the living room and to the front door and back. We live in a concrete building and try to keep the running to business hours.

If you want to keep living in an apartment with growing children you have to lean into it. You have to accept the messes and the dancing and the hopping and the limits to how much space can be off-limits. If you can’t accept this, if you want a small home that looks guest worthy 24/7 or a lot of ‘adult space’, I think you will struggle. You’ll probably move into a house so that you can get that kid-free space. Again, I see the appeal.

A-B-O. Always Be Outside.

Be ABO-ing as much as possible. Walk, scoot, push that stroller, lug that baby in the carrier. When you don’t have a backyard you need to get your young kids outside and moving yourself. If you have to run an errand for sure bring someone along. You’ll be at your local park a lot. Bring a book or some work or call a friend to meet you. I love watching my kids at the park and helping them but we are there a lot.

It might seem like 40 minutes is too small an after dinner window to take kids out for a walk or a scooter ride but it’s not. Every chance you have get outside. It’s always worth it.

Also, sidewalk chalk. I’m not into telling anyone to buy stuff but… man, sidewalk chalk can make even the most grumpy kid happy. It’s good multi-age fun too – my almost six year old and 2.5 year old love it equally. We always have some in our stroller so we can draw playground murals and play tic tac toe and tag that we were there. It’s also a great way to make friends. Open a box up and share it with the whole playground.

Become regulars at the library and more.

We purchased a family membership to Science World a few weeks after we moved back to Vancouver. Excellent investment. I would guess we have averaged a visit every week. The kids love it and we love it too: space, activities, education. There is lots of funny messy play and toys/games that we don’t have the space for and that I don’t want to buy. So we essentially rent them for the afternoon.

Our second favourite city haunt is the Vancouver Public Library. Besides books the Children’s library has toys and a soft play area. There is a lot of free programming too and the librarians are very helpful when we are asking about books on Minecraft or Volcanoes. And it’s free! Win, win, win.

If you’re going to survive living in an apartment with young kids you need to get out of that apartment. Become regulars at your community centre, library and anywhere else that has space for your city kids to play.

Remember that someday they will be able to go out on their own.

That age of independence is up to you (and the local law) but as I see city kids walking themselves, and sometimes their siblings, to school, I see my future. And that future looks pretty good. My kids should be able to walk or cycle to school and activities on their own once they are older. More exercise for them and more time for me! A recent local study showed that children in downtown Vancouver walk more and get more daily exercise than children in a nearby suburb. 

Another nod to no backyard not being a problem.

Anyone else have ideas for small home fun with kids? If you have harsh winters how do you keep the stir crazy at bay?

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  • We made a deliberate move from a house with a backyard we couldn’t half the year use due to weather. Now, we don’t have a yard, but we love within walking distance of half a dozen parks, and we can use them year round because the weather is mild. We also chose a location with easy biking trail access for walks, and the neighborhood is secluded enough that they can scooter in the street.

    Your tip about always being outside is great. We can walk to school half an hour early and scooter/bike slowly, or stop at the park.

  • When I lived in a 240 sq foot studio efficiency for a while, I bought a season pass to the local botanical garden. I went at least once a week to walk around and look at the flowers and greenery. I’d bring a lunch and read a book. Since I wasn’t allowed to have pets, I also got a season pass to the zoo. Sure, it’s a little odd to hop a bus to go pet a giraffe rather than go home and pet your dog when you’ve had a rough day at work, but the principle is the same.

  • I love that – always be outside! My boys are 3 and 1 and we are always outside in the front yard on the driveway or sidewalk. We live in a house but I want to change the perception for neighborhoods that people never see kids outside anymore. We have also become the gathering place for the neighbors to stop and chat. Lots of impromptu block parties that way. Looking forward to hearing more ideas!

  • We live in Regina…so harsh winter days are common! To combat this we have a lot of bath tub time in the winter (just a little water is enough to keep them entertained). We also have an unfinished basement, so we bought a bouncy house that the kids love! We also buy quality outdoor gear so we can all still get out on nicer days!

  • We lived in a 975 sq ft apartment and my husband worked from home we had different activities for each day of the week. Winter for us starts to get cold and rainy in early November then we have rain and/or snow with cold days until March. Then our springs are fairly wet until May. June, July and August is hot & sticky so if we play outside we do it super early in the morning. September & October are our nice months so we spend as much time outdoors as possible. Monday is the library, Tuesday we go to the park if the weather is nice enough or go for a mall walk, Wednesday is the kids play place in the mall (they have indoor bounce houses!), Thursday is the local Science Center (free day) and Friday we go grocery shopping during the day followed by open gym at the gymnastics studio in the evening. Weekends vary based on what local events were going on. I take crochet or knitting with me most places we go and a book.

  • I love this post (and your blog)! We have harsh Winters for 6 months every year, but we still spend lots of time outdoor. We just make sure the kids and us have good outerwear which are easy to put on.

  • I had a revelation last winter, which is that the kids are happy being outdoors in all sorts of nasty weather, because I dress them properly for it. With that, I invested in a good pair of rain boots and rain pants for myself. Dorkiness be damned – we will ABO, all year round, and this time I am going to be dry and comfortable doing it :)

    • Oh, I’ll be out in a rain suit this winter. Do they make muddy buddies in adult size? :)
      P.S. I’m pretty sure I saw One Fit Dad with your crew in Stanley Park this summer. We were on our way out… plus felt wayyyy to internet stalkerish to say “hi, I recognize your kids from your wife’s blog”.

  • We have a yard but on days when we are stuck inside for whatever reason we do a lot of dancing and singing to our favorite YouTube playlist. The boys also like to watch Lego stop-motion videos and act out what the characters are doing. They also like to put on “shows” which keeps them moving. I also have to be okay with the couch doubling as a jungle gym.

  • This is great encouragement! We live in Mn and have been having a gorgeous fall, but I’m already dreading winter when we are stuck inside. My husband and I have been trying to find that happy medium between letting the kids be kids (jump on the couch and build forts with the cushions) and respectful of things…we’ve definitely had to loosen our ideals to preserve our sanity :)

  • I take my two little to various McDonald’s playlands in my city. I live in Vancouver, but in the USA :) I feed the kids first then I will buy myself something to drink. I also use our Fred Meyer grocery store child wAtch. It gives me an hour break to shop or sit in the deli. My kids get to play with other kids and new toys.

  • I was raised my early years in San Diego, CA. The city and climate….well, I believe it is heaven. When they moved us to another state, into a more rural setting with a yard, we learned we could still thrive (although transition took time). We learned the value of a different kind of work. Yes, it can be learned in the city with thoughtful planning. I believe city life can be rich and full, but having lived both, I also see that my parents wanted us to embrace diversity and culture. City Mouse Country Mouse – our values, our choices, lifestyle will be that frame of reference our children have. I value it all. I’m grateful for both sides of the fence, so to speak. From the swimming pool and museums to the acres of garden and horseback riding that pastures can only bring. Perhaps that is why I live minutes from the city but have an urban garden/chickens for my kids to still taste ‘country living’.

  • I remember a video from years ago of a mom with her toddler in a shopping cart. She danced and spun him around and ran pushing the cart in the parking lot. Free fun. IKEA ‘s wide aisles are also good for this :)

  • I love apartment living. A house was way too much maintenance for me. I am fortunate that my balcony overlooks a grass courtyard and my son is old enough at 9 to take himself down there to play. He gets a bit of independence outside with his friends and I can still keep a covert eye on him.

    • Diane – that sounds like a great apartment scenario. I would love to live on the first floor of a building with a courtyard. For now, it’s up and down in the elevator for outside time.

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