“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)
Books to Inspire Nature Play
See this post for all my favorites books to inspire outdoor nature play.
Note that I do not think anyone NEEDS any of these books! These types of books certainly are popular for publishers to put out in the last couple of years. And I get it. I think they can provide a fun way to flip through for ideas you might not have otherwise thought of. I certainly have appreciated having these and have learned a lot of new skills. I enjoy these types of new and fun activities with my kids, but we certainly aren’t referencing these books every week. They are there if we want to try something new.
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 screened-in porch. I absolutely love that the plastic bins can individually come out. The kids can handle moving them around and clean-up all on their own. PLUS, the bin itself serves as a play element.
Note that this is protected from the elements since it is housed on our porch. You could also store these types of things in a small shed or garden-tool bin.
Our 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.
(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 like acorns.
(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)
- Spray Bottles
- Sheets, Tarps (for building shelters)
- Garden tools (hand rakes are fun and so are kid-sized shovels and rakes)
- Wheelbarrow (kid-sized)
- Tray for outdoor art & play dough
- Peg dolls for fairy houses
- Schleich animals
- Small tubs for sensory play / water play
- Sand pit
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!
(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
- Large mixing bowls
- Spray Bottles
- Watering Cans
- Large 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.
Art & Handcrafts
- Outdoor-friendly chalkboards (I made ours with a flat wood boards and chalkboard paint)
- Brushes (some for watercolors, some for homemade mud paint)
- Small jars and/or paint trays
- Sun Art Print Paper
- Flower Press (we made our own)
- Twine or String
- Stick Weaving Loom
- Nature Lacing Stand or Geoboard
- Lacing Needles
- Masking Tape
- Wood art board
Wildlife Observation & Nature Collection
- Egg Carton Scavenger Hunt
- Magnifying glass (regular or hiking)
- Insect observer (large or small)
- Nature collection bags for hikes (you can just reuse plastic bags)
- Foldable Field Guides or Pocket Guides
- Bird Feeders & Bird Bath
- Insect Hotel
- Jars or tins
- Drawer organizer for nature collections
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 minimal 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, wood tree slices make for great lily pad jumps in an obstacle course and can also be used to roll down ramps.
- Rope Rings and Stakes for ring toss game
- Bean Bags (we have a bean bag toss game with boards)
- Wood Boards (various sizes work great for construction projects, ramps, etc.)
- Milk crates
- Balls (a variety of sizes)
- Wood Block Set
- Old Tire(s)
- 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
I like to be well set up so that I am not having to run in and out of the house. Here are just a few things I keep with our outdoor supplies:
- Blankets **
- Water bottles
- Insect Repellant
- Rags & Towels
- First Aid Kit
- Hand sanitizer
- Camping fold-out chairs
** 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.
Nature Play Ideas Checklist
I have used this list for Nature Play ideas for a few years . I find it is helpful to just glance at every once an awhile and have one or two ideas in the back of my mind that could be fun for us to do that week. I do not see this as a checklist where I feel like we have to do everything here or my kids will have a deprived childhood!
It simply is a list of ideas. Potential. Opportunities. Inspiration.
Hopefully it is of use to you!
Thanks for reading! Enjoy your backyard play adventures.