This post is by regular contributor Kate Fairlie of Picklebums.
Our kids have a selection of commercially made outdoor toys. They ride bikes, play cricket and throw balls. They have a trampoline and a swing set. They have garden tools, and the toddler even has a hideously noisy lawnmower toy.
They love all those things but the toys that keep them outside for long periods, engrossed in their play, are the open-ended toys that encourage their imagination. Some of them would not even really be considered toys, more un-toys! Most of these were either free, recycled or really, really cheap.
Isn’t it funny how it is the inexpensive play things that are often the best?
Here are a few of our favourite, cheap, easy to find, open-ended outdoor play un-toys;
Logs and Planks
One of the best things about having to heat our house with wood is that we have an endless supply of stumps and logs. We rolled a few of the biggest logs into our backyard when we first moved here about eight years ago and they are still one of the most played with items. Over the years we have added a few longer logs and some wide planks of wood into the mix which makes for endless combinations and options for play.
They become tables, chairs, a creative canvas, a place to practice hammering nails, a climbing frame, a test of balance, even a cubby house.
If you are not lucky enough to have lumps of wood delivered to your door, keep your eye out for people removing trees. Often council workers removing street trees are more than happy to load a few stumps into your boot to take home.
Pots, Pans and Other Recycled Containers
Toy buckets never seem to last long at our house. They quickly become brittle when left in the sun, then the handles break or the buckets crack. So I’ve given up on buying official ‘sand pit toys’ and our sandpit is now stocked with pots and pans from the op shop (thrift store) and containers from the recycle bin.
Large food grade buckets are great for transporting water, making huge sand castles or storing other items, and are often given away by food-related businesses. Our local ice cream shop periodically has a pile of ten litre buckets to give away.
Smaller containers are also loads of fun – ice cream tubs, yoghurt containers, oddly shaped plastic packaging – all of these items make their way to our outside toy box. And when they break they can go straight back into the recycling bin.
The op shop (thrift store) is a great place to find old pots and pans for the sandpit or mud kitchen but also keep your eye out for cutlery, wooden spoons, wooden bowls, trays, old fashioned hand beaters, ice cream scoops and other interesting items.
We adore playing with loose parts inside and they are just as much fun outside. Some of our favourite items include – pine cones, gum nuts, sticks, stones, off cuts of plastic pipe, old sheets or lengths of fabric, and smaller off cuts of wood.
Water, Sand, Dirt and Plants
I can collect a pile of the most interesting recycled items to play with but what really sparks my children’s imaginations is water, sand, dirt and plants.
Water is precious where we live so our kids don’t have access to endless amounts of it outside. We use a recycled, 10 litre drinking water container with an easy to use tap and the kids know they only get two fillings of the water container. In this way they have learned to value water, even in their play.
We have a large homemade sandpit and it is one of the few places where all of our kids enjoy playing, regardless of age. The toddler is all about digging his hand into the sand, while the five year old is trying to dig to the lava underground and the nine year olds are making elaborate tunnels and castles for their fairies.
Even if you don’t have space for a big sand pit, perhaps you have space for a clam shell sand tub? Or even a small tub of sand? Or how about a digging patch? A little corner of the garden where your kids are free to dig and get dirty is a magical place.
Our children will spend hours outside making ‘potions’. We’ve purposely planted lots of kid friendly plants that can be picked and picked and picked and still not die. We’ve included plants with interesting flowers, scents and leaves – you can read more about our choice of plants that are good for play here.
These are the kinds of toys that keep out kids outside until it gets dark and I drag them in to eat.
What sort of toys or un-toys keep your kids busy outside?