Brandon Jarvis looks through the window of the Dirty Diner in her playground. Jarvis created an interactive outdoor world on her property in order to get her daughter to play outside. She now has 11 stations and is teaching a workshop in August.

Building an enchanted forest

By Jenn Watt

Published on July 28 2016

Phoebe Stamp loves her grandparents’ house. She explores the outdoors running along the paths and over bridges discovering the wilderness. But when it came to the woods around her West Guilford home the then-15-month-old wasn’t interested.

So her mom Brandon Jarvis got an idea.

“In the spring I tried to coax her into it and she wouldn’t [go]” says Jarvis. “I said OK I’m going to make trails.”

This April with snow still lingering on the forest floor Jarvis got her father’s leaf blower and started clearing paths for her daughter to play on. She also had in mind a popular concept for children’s play called a “mud kitchen.”

These are outdoor play areas for kids that encourage them to explore and get dirty.

Jarvis an early childhood educator and mother in a large blended family started assembling the pieces from the local landfill. It didn’t take long until the mud kitchen became a “dirty diner” complete with seating for guests.

Phoebe embraced the new play area and Jarvis says there was so much to work with at the landfill she kept going. Next was a weaving section made with a plastic trellis spraypainted the colours of the rainbow. Then Phoebe’s interest in birds inspired her mother to put together a bird observation station. A painting nook followed with an old shower door becoming a transparent surface for the child’s paints then a “block and rock” table for creating. A culvert Jarvis spied at the landfill ended up in the yard which she incorporated into the landscape with some soil and grass seed.

“The tunnel it’s so cool” she says. “It cost nothing. It’s really a neat little playground.”

The latest creation is a sandbox made out of an aluminium boat painted purple and adorned with a fishing net and starfish.

Four months into the project the yard has been transformed into a magical forest for kids.

On one sunny Wednesday morning Jarvis wanders the woods with her daughter. Phoebe strides into the mud kitchen with confidence clanging pots and pans moving a small watering can from one surface to another and then notices an old fashioned telephone complete with a cord. She instinctively puts it up to her ear: “hello?” This telephone is coming with her the child decides tucking it under her arm and pushing on through the trees into the forest.

Her mother continues the tour – the bird station includes a brightly painted toucan a bird book and binoculars. A real-life bird has nested in the tree so Jarvis explains this area is out of bounds for raucus play until the bird is done with it.

Phoebe catches up and then surpasses the tour headed to the music station where she jangles hanging bells.

To capture all of the progress made in her playground  Jarvis has started a website called

“My blog has had almost 6000 views in just over a month” Jarvis says.

“So many people are sending me messages saying ‘where did you get that?’” she laughs. “At the dump!”

Jarvis is aware of the impression her landfill picking might have on others but says it’s worth the effort. Her family has been supportive; her partner Mark Stamp has been particularly helpful.

“I always have 17 things on the go” Jarvis says. “Mark is so sweet about it.”

Stamp helps her move the bigger items around the playground bringing sand for example to fill the boat to create a sandbox.

They have a nine-month-old Beckett who will also one day enjoy exploring the forest. The older kids help with putting together various stations she says.

While municipalities that run landfills don’t allow scavenging for liability reasons often there are sections for good quality items. But not everyone sets those items aside Jarvis says which bothers her.

“It seems unfortunate that that stuff’s going to get pushed back into the landfill” she says. Especially when there are people out there who could use the items.

“I have conversations with people all the time now at the dump” she says. “I know someone there who has built an entire shed with materials from the dump.”

Next on Jarvis’s list is the August workshop she’s doing for kindergarten teachers. It’s completely free and will demonstrate how to make musical walls. She would love to hear from anyone who has old windows doors and things kids can take apart and make noise with who might want to donate to her workshop.

After that she’s dreaming up a fish sculpture to go next to the nautical sandbox and in the future perhaps a water slide for the hill that surrounds her home.

The experience of creating her enchanted forest has also been good for her own well being.

“You need an outlet at the end of the day” she says. “This is incredibly therapeutic.”