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the things you do when you don’t have a backyard…



When we found our current home in L.A. a few years ago, we fell in love with the view and the location in the Silver Lake hills. We didn't care that there wasn't a backyard or any outdoor space because we had a balcony overlooking the city. And at that time (pre-baby), a cool view was all that mattered. But now, all I want is a backyard. Sure we go to the park and play on the street outside our house, but I want Ruby to have an enclosed area to run around and play. It's amazing what I'd give for even just a 5×5 foot patch of grass! Even with our lack of outdoor space, I've somehow managed to figure out her favorite activity of all time…


The most exciting thing to enter Ruby's 20 month-old life is a water table. Ruby has played with water tables in our friend's backyard and loves them. So I recreated it at home with a large plastic bowl, some of her bath and beach toys, and instant entertainment was born. We brought it to our friend's house during a BBQ and propped it on a little side table (above), and she was occupied for over an hour.





At home, we just hang out on the stoop (Brooklyn-style) with our little water table on our front steps. It seems really cheesy in theory, but she doesn't care (or notice) that it's not a real table. It has water, toys, and vessels for pouring over and over again. One day, we'll have a nice big yard where she can run around and play. But for now, we're making the best with what we've got…

Do you guys have any other ideas for on games we can play outside without a yard?

{Photos by Bob Cho. Ruby top photos: shirt from My Little Square, pants by Mini Boden, Ruby bottom photos: Hoodie by Frankie & Ava, leggings by House of Mia, sandals by Saltwater.}


  1. ok, first, she is ridiculously cute. also, my kids used to love to play with big bins of beans, rice, lentils, etc. you can vary the size to keep it interesting, and it is way less messy than sand.

  2. so i’m not sure what an actual water table is but we also live in an apartment and also do some version of these whether on the balcony or in the park. generally, even a cup of water is a major entertainment hit – just goes to show, kids’ imaginations are much stronger than we give them credit for sometimes!

  3. You could do a variation on the same theme using rice, lentils, pasta and the occasional sparkly bead. My Kitty (33 months) loves her sensory tub just as much as water play. Other favourites in our house are bubbles (giant and ordinary) and empty pop bottles filled with oil and coloured water shaken up and set to settle in the sunshine.

  4. Bubbles — they sell kits with tons of different bubble making contraptions and you can also make your own from various household items. My kids literally could spend hours playing with bubbles.

  5. She’s so adorable. My neighbors probably think I’m crazy but after work, you can usually find me in our big fenced in backyard with my 17 month old son naked playing between his little kiddie pool and his water table. He has a blast with it!

  6. Adorable and great idea! thanks 🙂
    My 20 month old son has really been having fun with a box that he can crawl into. I give him chalk and he goes in the box and just scribbles. Then I throw in some toys while he is in there and he has a great time.

  7. I was a preschool teacher before I had my daughter and the kids loved sensory tables. We would do different things in them depending on the weather. Some things we did are put baby dolls in the water to give them a bath.. add bubbles and bubble wands to the water table.. ice with food coloring on super hot days.. sand or dirt with plastic bugs or dinosaurs to excavate.. toy cars in the water table for a car wash.. sand with sea shells to dig for shells “at the beach”, homemade flubber to squish around in. There’s so many things you can do with one little table!!
    Some other things you can do in a small space is buy some butcher paper, tape it to the ground outside and let her paint it with finger paints or foam paint.
    Something else to do in the hot weather is painting the ground with water. It’s fun for the kids to make different shapes and watch them disappear. No clean up too!!
    Have fun 😉

  8. we technically have a little yard, but there it’s a lot of rocks, pebbles and drops offs and it’s just a headache going out there most of the time. we did put a little pool out this weekend and it was nice to sit on our stoop and watch atty splash.

  9. We’re also without a backyard (or balcony) for our two kids (ages 6 and 2.5) and it does get really hard. Before we moved to America we had a house with a large backyard in Australia. Our kids could ride their bikes and scooters, play in their cubby house, plants veggies, run around on the lawn, kick balls… What I wouldn’t give for just a tiny bit of that outdoor space. There are lots of great parks in our area so we do spend a lot of time outside but it requires a lot more effort on everyone’s behalf. I would love to just let the kids go outside while I make dinner, clean the apartment or work on my blog.
    Unfortunately in the San Francisco Bay Area (where we live) places with backyards are not easy to come by and the monthly rent is ludicrous. Add to that the huge demand for a little bit of outdoor space and it just becomes impossible to find somewhere. We’ve been looking since March and just got our 7th knocked back application 🙁 We’ll keep looking for that little bit of outdoor space for our kids but in the meantime we’ll make use of those great parks we have nearby.

  10. When my oldest daughter was younger she loved “painting” the outside of our house with water. We’d give her a bucket with a small amount of water in it and a selection of paintbrushes and rollers. She’d spend hours painting the house with the water. Such a fun (and cheap!) activity and it keeps kids entertained for such a long time. Cleaning with a bucket of water and a big sponge was another activity that she loved too.
    Not the easiest to do if you have no outdoor space but these activities would work on a balcony.

  11. Man! A yard is a dream right now. I barely have a balcony that is big enough for me to put a chair out there. One day. That’s what dreaming is for! I think I might have to try this with my niece and nephew! If you try any other ideas, could you please post them. I’ve been looking for fun, easy stuff to do with them. Thanks in advance.

  12. Add a few paint brushes and sponges (we cut out little shapes) to her water table toys. My boys love to water ‘paint’ and stamp the concrete

  13. Its funny what we do for our children. When my daughter was a baby, we moved into a carpeted apartment, because I was afraid she would fall and hurt herself. She never did fall and the only scar she ever got was from trying to shave like her papa. She’ll be 14 in exactly 3 days and we would never give up our wooden floors again. Perhaps, not even for a baby. XD I don’t know why I didn’t think of rugs. lol

  14. We have a decent sized balcony, to which I’ve added astroturf and a toddler-proof mesh fence against the railing. When I want to hang out there with my daughter, I take a couple of large mixing bowls and fill one with ice and the other with Palmolive soap and water, sometimes a third bowl with colored beads. An epic soup making session ensues!

  15. Reminds me of my now 12 year old – we spent an entire summer pouring water from one juice can to the next! I’m with the moms who tell you to add big paintbrushes to the mix. Add some big rocks and you can paint all day.

  16. I know exactly how you feel! Imagine living in a two bedroom flat in Paris with no balcony and not even the possibility to play in the street like most North American kids. We would love to have a house in Paris. If only!!
    xoxo PARIS BEE kids blog

  17. What a great idea! We have a balcony and I was bummed it’s too small for a traditional water table but will try the big bowl idea. 🙂 What I did tho is set up an easel outside and let her play with chalk out there. Sometimes we look out the balcony and I’ll draw something I see and she guesses what it is, then we point outside to where it is. Also lately we’ve been using those giant bubble tubes from Target and I’ll wave them in the wind over the balcony so we watch where they float to. A little different than traditional blowing bubbles. If you take a lot of walks in the neighborhood (or closeby to parks with straight paths), my 20-month old loves her plasmacar. They put their feet up and make it “go” by turning the wheel back and forth, it’s slow but great for going back and forth on the sidewalk. And lastly right outside of our door is a planter with a bunch of giant pebbles. She can spend 30 minutes just arranging them in lines, stacks, throwing them back in, etc.

  18. I love how creative and savvy you are with her, Joy. Parents can spend oodles on expensive toys when kiddoes love pots, pans and boxes lol. I don’t have any outside games to make, but I do have an outside suggestion. Kids Place in Pasadena. It’s so much fun for little ones 🙂

  19. A blob of shaving cream on the table (that they can squish in their fingers and draw designs in) is a big hit with preschoolers–except for the ones that don’t like to touch wet things.
    A ball of dough (just flour and water+a drop of food coloring if you want) to squeeze around
    Having a little tub of soapy water with food coloring (seriously, food coloring is endlessly fascinating for them but just watch that they are wearing smocks)
    Seconding the lentils/rice! Anything cool and dry that you can run your hands through, really.

  20. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this. I live in an apartment in NYC, and my son would LOOOVE a water table…I’ve toyed with the idea of buying one and puting it in my living room with a tarp, I think this is a much better idea!

  21. We live in a high rise condo in Alexandria. Every week I look at what’s going on during the weekend and pick with my husband what family friendly event looks fun. We go to festivals that different counties, farms, and museums and embassies have that are usually free or a small fee. We take our daughter to the parks. Northern Virginia has a lot of great choices for spray/water parks at cheap prices. Also started mini golf too! Sometimes we’ll go into Old Town down by the water and watch the boats or street performers. In the summer I take her to the family friendly happy hour at our local bakery where they let kids splash in the fountain and have specials like cookies on a stick.

  22. Creative and perfect! I think Olive would love this… She is obsessed with “wawa” these days! I agree with an above poster — “painting” with water is lots of fun!

  23. We have a little slab of concrete with a perimeter of wood chips for a backyard but my son loves to just dig and dig in the wood chips and collect the rocks he finds in them. We also have a little kiddie pool because it’s definitely needed when living in AZ, and we use that like a water table and he loves it! It’s hard to not have a backyard, especially with toddlers who want to explore and run free.

  24. Check out for some great ideas!
    We actually just moved out of our apartment today and into our new home in Pasadena. The #1 thing on my furniture list was an outdoor playhouse for my toddler daughter. I also bought a swing to hang from our tree. We have married yet childless friends looking to buy condos in LA and we always tell them to buy a house instead for the yard (and garage!).

  25. We do the same thing! We have a small patio (and zero grass), so we are big fans sitting on the stoop. We get a lot of miles out of any activity w/ flour. Trying search pinterest for cloud dough… here’s a good one too:
    Oatmeal is great too (or any grain that you can buy in bulk on the cheap), then I toss in some of her smaller toys with spoons, etc… Have fun!

  26. Similar to that, we live in an apartment building and the only “lawn” is a small grassy area next to our parking area. I got Lily an $8 plastic kiddie pool at Babies R Us, bought a couple gallon jugs of Poland Springs water since we don’t have a watering hose on our building, filled it to an inch with water and just let her play. She loves it and it’s perfect on a hot summer day when I don’t feel like driving to the park or the beach. We fill a tote with some bathtub toys and she has a blast, and I can sit and read a book and play with her and not feel trapped inside all day in air conditioning. We don’t have storage room for the pool, so it lives in the trunk of my car when it’s not being used!

  27. My daughter is just a few months older than Ruby and she also loves water tables, sensory tables, sidewalk chalk, etc. I give her a few flower pots and let her dig in old potting soil that I’ve taken dead plants out of. She’ll dump dirt from one pot to the other. She also loves watering my actual potted plants to. We go hunting for bugs, sticks, rocks around the neighborhood a lot too. Her favorite thing to do outside right now is ride around the neighborhood on her Strider balance bike. It’s really just walking with a bike between her legs at this point, but she swears she’s “biking”. It’s been a huge hit, and no grass required. 🙂

  28. A cheap Ikea chalk board is one of my kids all time favorite toys, it’s a chalk board on one side, magnetic whiteboard and clip for hanging paper to transform into an easel on the other side. It’s light so can be brought outside and my kids use it all the time, from around Ruby’s age and they still use it now. My eldest is 10 and my youngest is 4. When they have friends over its the first thing they gravitate to. Well worth the few dollars me thinks 🙂

  29. As I read the suggestions I was compiling a list of creative ideas for myself! Oh, and my grand-nieces (officially, but mostly for me) 😉
    I was also reminded of a $45 Zen Painting set I saw last year. A piece of 8-inch-square stone, a brush, and small tray for water. Paint a design on the stone and the zen part is watching it disappear. Your free ideas are much better. Kids are naturally zen, I guess.

  30. Our guy is obsessed with his water table too. What is up with toddlers and the water obsession? Fortunately it fits on our front porch, but love the idea of creating a smaller one with a plastic bowl. Very creative!

  31. Get a big bowl and mix (1) 16 oz. box of cornstarch with (1 1/2) cups of water. Instant goo! If you squeeze it in your hands, it become hard, but then you release your hand and it melts through your fingers. You can add drops of food coloring if you want something vibrant rather than just plain white. Best part?? If it gets on the ground, it washes away with more water. I’m only 20, and I don’t have kids, but I loved doing this as a child. It kept my sister and I busy for hours.

  32. This is great! I wish I had come across this before I spent $57 on a premade water table (though my daughter does love it). To help other parents save money, I just wrote a roundup of clever DIY water table approaches and featured your bowl approach in it –
    As for other games to play outside without a yard, like the commenters above, we’re big fans of sidewalk chalk in our house. We also like just simply sitting, watching and talking about the airplanes flying by in the sky, the dogs being walked, the bugs, etc….


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