On Thanksgiving Day in 2018, Tanner and Drew Bennett, then 8 and 10, watched American Ninja Warrior for the first time. In the NBC competition series, now in its second decade, contestants attempt to get through a gauntlet of physically demanding obstacles with names like Spider Jump and Hourglass Drop. The boys were mesmerized, and spent the next three days mimicking the show’s challenges in the woods. Their little sister, who was then 5, emerged from the fun with a black eye. But the boys were undeterred. They went on to start training at local ninja gyms and even competing. As of January of this year, Drew is ranked second in the U.S. in his age group. So when the novel coronavirus shut the world down, their father, Ty Bennett, decided to take their existing backyard Ninja Warrior course to new heights.
“This is the longest I’ve ever been home [at one stretch],” says Bennett, who is a speaker for sales and leadership groups around the world. “The boys paid for this addition out of their savings and me and a neighbor built a pretty huge structure.”
They built their new course on the family’s basketball court, about 21 by 30 feet, making three lanes of new obstacles like a salmon ladder, in which contestants do pull-ups from ascending ladder rungs, taking the bar with them; a flying squirrel, in which one grabs a set of moving rings and swings to grab another set; and wing nuts, which involves swinging laterally from one giant, wingnut-shaped object to another. It’s all adjustable, so Drew and Tanner can imagine new configurations and increase difficulty over time. More importantly, it’s outside and at home, allowing the family to enjoy their summer weather in Utah without risking their health in potentially crowded public areas.
Bennett isn’t the only one who saw his home turf as fertile ground for safer adventure during the pandemic, particularly as some states are locking down again. Some have installed enormous inflatable slides and diving platforms in their backyards, while others have gone the splash pad and bounce castle route.
“People are saying, ‘How can I create a different experience in my same environment?’” says Matt Maxfield, Vice President of Development and Operations for Klymit, an outdoor-gear company, also in Utah. “How can I kind of change the look and feel of that environment to have a different experience?” Backyard camping has been one part of that. Klymit has sold out of hammocks, for example, many of which are hanging on back porches instead of in the backcountry.
For Maxfield and his wife, who have three children between the ages of 4 and 9, getting outside is non-negotiable. While they’re close enough to the Wasatch mountains to be able to hike into the hills, mitigating health risks is now part of their process, too.
“We feel like we're in more control when we know what we're getting into,” he says. “So if we're going to a park, we know what's there and what it’s going to look like and we plan ahead. Are we going to need to use the restrooms there, things like that. If we think we might, we take along hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes so we can make ourselves safer.
Pre-planning, he said, also allows them to be more present. “We also don't want to focus so much on that aspect of it,” he says, “that you lose the fun.”
Ali Beatty’s decision to outfit her yard with homemade obstacles stemmed from a similar outlook. She and her husband and their 3-year-old son, Sawyer, moved to a summer camp in rural Connecticut, where her husband is a ranger for the Girl Scouts. Part of the appeal was having so many trails and outdoor spaces ripe for the picking. But since the pandemic began, Beatty said, even a walk in the woods has been more stressful than transportive.
“It wouldn’t be fun for anyone if I spent the time petrified of what [Sawyer’s] touching,” she says. So she and her husband got to work, bringing obstacles and nature-like structures to their outdoor space at home. Things like a wooden, hexagonal climbing dome; a homemade mud kitchen with running water; a series of logs laid flat for practicing balance; and a slide that they found from a Buy Nothing group and refurbished with homemade stairs.
So far, the at-home adventuring has worked well, but it’s the see-saw swing — also sourced from their Buy Nothing neighborhood group — that’s been the biggest hit so far.
It was that desire to create a distinct but safer environment that prompted Stacie Abdallah to take on her yard in Atlanta. A mother of three boys ages 3 to 6, she decided to both beautify structures she had already, like the swing set and a shed, and expand on her existing gardens with bigger raised beds, a small garden for the boys (mostly for worms and digging, she joked) and a greenhouse, which she built with a kit. Abdallah is a school counselor and the founder of Stacie’s Spaces, a resource for DIY home decor, so once schools in Georgia shut down she, like Beatty and Bennett, had both time and high-octane kids on her hands.
Part of the kids’ outdoor adventure, however, has been pitching in on the home-improvement. From helping with painting to shoveling mulch (with tiny, child-size shovels), Abdallah involved the boys in every step.
“We’ve had a lot of good, energy-zapping days out there, which has been good for us to just calm it down a little bit,” she says. Like countless parents across the country, Abdallah has been homeschooling her sons since March, and embracing a more peaceful life without commuting, activities, carpooling and constant motion. Instead, after morning lessons, journaling and devotional time, she takes the kids out back for “nature walks” — her term for her tours with them through their now-sumptuous rows full of summer fruits and vegetables.
This is where she shares her horticultural know-how, like what a squash plant looks like before it matures and how to make a soil block (which she also explained to this reporter).
Her gardens, which now include everything from tomatoes to blackberries and potatoes to cabbage and collard greens, have roots beyond the soil. Abdallah’s grandmother was a master gardener, planting sunflowers that, in family lore, refused to back down despite numerous cuttings. Later, after her grandmother had passed away, she learned that she’d built garden beds at her retirement home, and was featured in a local newspaper.
“I love seeing that picture of her and how beautiful she looked, just tending to [the garden],” she said.
For others, the pandemic has offered a reason to go big. Since March, when schools closed in Den Hoorn, Holland, 14-year-old Ferro Nooteboom and his dad, Arno (who also DJs under the handle DJ AjeN), have been building a rollercoaster behind their home.
The younger Nooteboom describes himself as a “coaster enthusiast” and started dreaming of building one a few years during a family camping trip. He builds virtual coasters for the online game, Planet Coaster, and has been following enthusiasts on YouTube. When school shut down, he was again inspired to try building a coaster, in real life.
“The first week of the lockdown in Holland, we still could go to the shops and we bought the wood and construction parts and started to build the first piece of the coaster track,” he says in an email. “We had a trampoline in our garden which we wanted to throw away. Then I discovered I could use the pieces to build the coaster track! Everyone was happy and very ‘green thinking.’”
Normally, Nooteboom would have been at school, taking martial arts classes and camping. But the closures of all of that left him to his own devices. Throughout the project, which he plans to complete by August, he learned how to use various tools, paint and build — all skills he’s excited to use around the house. And while the coaster construction may be a more controlled environment than venturing into crowded theme parks, it’s not without its hazards.
“The hardest part was constructing the steel track and making it smooth,” he says, as was assembling the wheels to stay snugly on the track during the ride. “My little sister will ride it when it’s finished, so everything has to be safe.”
For Maxfield at Klymit, this embrace of the outdoors at a time of uncertainty isn’t entirely surprising. The company launched just before the last economic downturn in the U.S., in 2007. While the circumstances are vastly different, Maxfield said that the desire for a new experience that’s relatively inexpensive is the same. While some people are making small investments in new gear or outside equipment, others are rediscovering their love for the outdoors, and literally pulling old tents and sleeping bags out of the closet.
Of course, that rediscovery can take a multitude of forms, from jaw-droppingly complex ninja courses to a carefully tended, homegrown veggie patch. To Maxfield, especially when leaving home carries new weight, spending time outside is more important than ever.
“There are plenty of stressors,” he said. “But some mountain air or desert air — whatever it is, just getting away from buildings and the computer and your screens — is a way to reset your body and mind and refresh. I think it's a frequency thing too; I always crave more. So when you get back home [you’re ready] to get out and do that again.”
All the better when getting out means staying home.