“Daily exposure to the outdoors stimulates the brain in many ways: (1) There are no expectations. Children are forced to use their imagination in order for that stick, rock or pinecone to become a part of their world. (2) There are endless possibilities. The outdoors challenges the mind to constantly think in new ways. (3) There is no pressure. When engaging in active free play, children can play with others or not, make up their own rules or follow someone else’s, be rough-and-tumble or quiet and contemplative.” (Balanced and Barefoot by Angela J. Hanscom)
The Heart Behind This Post
Lately I have been reading lots of books about nature engagement, and have been particularly inspired by ideas for backyard play.
I have been asking myself questions like:
- What if we had no toys but only sticks and rocks and whatever else we could find in the great outdoors?
- What if I had no predetermined expectations for outdoor play?
- How can our outdoor play foster connection?
- What materials can I provide in our outdoor play space to foster independent, creative, and limitless play?
- What are things we do indoors that could be done outdoors instead?
Think: Roxaboxen. This book is exactly what I am going for: children in the desert imagine an entire town with a wide range of open-ended activities using nothing but sticks and rocks and crates and other random things they find.
What Our Backyard Looks Like
I am particularly drawn to Play the Forest School Way and play activities similar in that style because we live in a forest. We live on a camp property in southern Indiana. It is a 2,500 acre woodland property–the center of camp has a lake, natural wetland areas, several creeks, a vernal pond, and even fun camp structures that are fun for my kids like challenge courses and a play house and an amphitheater.
Often I find that our daily outdoor time is spent hiking and exploring the woods. This absolutely makes sense for us to still do, as we all love it. But, lately I was sensing a need to put some more thought and effort in to our backyard play environment. And, truthfully, our “nature treasure” and loose parts pile was getting out of control and I needed motivation to get our stuff organized!
So, while we live in a forest and access to natural loose parts comes as an everyday thing, I do think what I am about to share will still be relevant for those of you that live in suburban or rural areas NOT in a forest! I just wanted to be clear about our particular context.
For those of you who live in an urban area, nature engagement with your children is going to be a totally different ball game for you. I recommend the last chapter of How to Raise a Wild Child if you live in the city.
I also want to mention that I think The Backyard Play Revolution has so many great ideas for open-ended loose parts play for the backyard that’s not so forest-school-ish.
Our Outdoor Play Supplies
Below I will be sharing a list of all our outdoor play supplies. I organized most of the smaller items in to an IKEA TROFAST storage system on our front porch.
Mud kitchen supplies stay in a crate with that area of the yard. Other large items like tree stumps, ramps, crates, and tubs stay either in the yard or in our storage shed in the yard. A few other things will have to stay inside the house in the dead of summer because of humidity issues–I don’t want mold growing on things!
(1) Natural Loose Parts
The term “loose part” has become a bit of a fad. Basically it means something that can be played with in a very open-ended way. The opposite of a loose part is a “fixed toy”—a Mickey Mouse figurine can only ever be Mickey Mouse (and always happy because he is smiling). A pinecone or “loose part” can be currency or an ice cream cone or a mixer or a bug or a rocket ship or … even a Mickey Mouse!
Here’s what we have for loose parts play:
- Tree slices (large & small)
- We made ours but you can purchase these at craft stores or Amazon
- Sticks (various lengths and widths)
- Rocks (a variety of sizes)
- Tree nuts
- Pine cones
- Large movable tree stumps
- Flat wooden boards
We also have some non-natural loose parts in the mix like old tires and rope. I’m also including a traditional wood block set made for us by my father-in-law.
We actually have a gravel driveway and the rocks there have proved to be a favorite yard toy for years.
Shells, dirt, sand, mulch, wood chips are just a few other ideas for natural loose parts.
We have small wood scoops for use with the small loose parts.
(2) Imaginative Play
Note that I’m including a separate list for imaginative play BUT the idea with the loose parts listed above is that they could also be used for pretend play. A pinecone can be a hand mixer in the kitchen or currency at a shop. A stick can be a horse or a wand or musical instrument. Small loose parts can be built in to small worlds like castles or bug villages.
- Play Silks (be sure to see this list for the play possibilities with play silks if you are not already familiar with these)
- Bow & Arrow
- Butterfly Wings
- Crowns (handmade, could be crafted or made with nature items)
- Wands (just a plain stick or one that is crafted)
- Sheets, Tarps (for building shelters)
- Garden tools (hand rakes are fun!)
- Wheelbarrow (kid sized)
You can also construct stick shelters or use play silks or tarps for shelters to go along with imaginative play. As mentioned earlier, I also think imaginative play can include building small worlds for wooden peg dolls or other toys–e.g. build a camp site or fairy houses.
I will also say: if you have a tent, you can always set it up in your backyard for a couple of days for your kids to just play in! We did this last summer for maybe 5 days and the kids were obsessed and so engaged and absolutely loved it. I would not leave the tent up for a really long time, but was nice to change up the play for a week.
(3) Mud & Water Kitchen
Note that you won’t find a Pinterest-worthy mud kitchen in our backyard. Here’s how I put it together: I scrounged around for items we already had. I spent no money. Remember you do not need elaborate & beautiful mud kitchens: you just want something your kids will want to play with!
The hose is nearby so the kids have a water source they can manage on their own to make mud.
- Pots & Pants
- Muffin tins, cake pans, pie pans
- Plates, Bowls, Cups
- Mixing spoons
- Spray Bottles
- Watering Cans
- Larger tubs for holding water
Again note that the natural loose parts listed above are often used as ingredients in our mud kitchen or used in water play.
(4) Nature Study, Art, & Handcrafts
I created a category for nature study and nature art because I find that we will bring back a variety of nature treasure from hikes to our yard and I wanted to have materials accessible to explore and play with those nature finds some more.
- Brushes (for homemade mud paint)
- Sun Art Print Paper
- Flower Press (we made ours)
- Twine or String
- Stick Weaving Loom
- Nature Lacing Stand or Geoboard
- Lacing Needles
- Masking Tape
- Egg Carton Scavenger Hunt
- Magnifying Glass
- Insect Observer (large or small)
- Nature Collection Bags (I just recycle plastic bags and take them along with us in my backpack for hikes)
- Foldable Field Guides or Pocket Guides
- Trekking Poles
I am aware there are a wide variety of lawn games but I wanted to share what we have: my preference is for (1) traditional games with not a lot of bells & whistles and no plastic parts, (2) games that can be used by small children and (3) games that can be used in a variety of ways. For example, the boards for our bean bag toss game can also be used as a ramp, or if they are standing upright can be pretend archery targets. Rope rings can be used for ring toss, or they could just be bracelets or something to fish out of the kiddie pool with a stick.
- Rope Rings
- Bean Bags (we have a bean bag toss game with boards)
- Wood Ramp
- Balls (a variety)
- Wood Block Set
- Old Tire
- Movable Tree Stumps
Other ideas for games are making water ramps with old gutters or PVC pipes. Make a pulley system. Make a scale. Create an obstacle course.
(6) Practical Stuff
- Blankets **
- Insect Repellant
- Rags & Towels
- First Aid Kit
** I love this style of outdoor tarp blanket because it is light enough to be used to make a play tent and it is really easy to clean if we spill food on it while picnicking (you do not have to put it in the laundry, you can just wipe it down or hose it down). Also, it compacts down small so it is easy to travel with.
Books for Inspiration
- Play the Forest School Way
- A Year of Forest School
- The Nature Connection
- The Backyard Play Revolution
- Nature’s Art Box
- The Stick Book
- I Love Dirt