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Top Ten Toys For Outdoor Learning

This list is something of an anti-shopping list. The most important toys for kids are often simple materials that provide the most productive and joyfully immersive learning. I have included a few links to products I recommend.


1. Time in nature. Without spending time outdoors, all the outdoor learning materials in the world do very little. Some parents feel that their kids don’t like playing outdoors or wonder why they come indoors after 10 minutes of playing outside. As a young parent, I was surprised to find that my child complained of boredom and begged to be inside! I remembered my own childhood of independent outdoor play until sundown—but I had forgotten the background presence of my mom working on her flower beds. I was astonished when she told me as an adult, laughing, that her beautiful front flower garden wasn’t her hobby as much as it was a means of keeping an eye on us kids. The solution to “bored” kids is a simple one: Go outside yourself. You don’t have to be out making mud pies with your kids; your mere presence is the key. Bring your projects with you or take a page out of my mom’s book and develop an interest in gardening. Consider starting the New Year with a fun (and free!) time tracking tool. Another solution is to enroll your kids in outdoor school: veteran outdoor students are the quickest way to scaffold kids from boredom to interesting uses of nature materials and outdoor play time. Look for a continuing program, rather than a camp.

2. Play clothes that allow comfortable access to nature in all weather, preferably unrestrictive, durable, and easy to wash. Shoes are the most important part of an outdoor kid’s wardrobe: tall rain boots make the perfect everyday shoe for the Pacific Northwest. If your child doesn’t yet have rain pants, you’ll be amazed to see how rain pants make her comfortable sitting down, rolling around, and making herself at home in the outdoors—not to mention you’ll become comfortable with going out to play on drizzly days, which will increase outdoor time by a huge percentage here in the PNW. In the winter, layer clothing to keep kids warm, and pay attention to the extremities on frosty days: use mittens, a hat, a scarf, and snow boots. One of my best secrets for keeping kids warm on freezing days is using a double set of base layers—despite how thin base layers are, they are magical for trapping heat. If you don’t have the budget for dedicated base layers, look for close-fitting pajamas in synthetic materials like polyester. No one will ever know. See Dressing Your Child For Outdoor Preschool.

3. Other kids. Playing with other children in nature is the best way to keep kids active outdoors. Kids playing together naturally run, jump into puddles, play tag and devise other games. This is wonderful in built environments such as playgrounds and it’s even better in natural environments. In nature settings, kids navigate uneven ground and climb natural obstacles, with increased benefits for kids’ core strength, stabilizing muscles, route planning, and balance. In winter, chasing friends keeps kids warm for much longer than they would be comfortable otherwise. Kids playing together naturally develop skills for group decision-making, learning to share, creating rules, pretend play, understanding other’s feelings, making relationship repairs, exercising abstract thinking, and other important social and cognitive skills. Mixed-age groups or skilled teachers provide just the right amount of guidance to capture the learning opportunities presented by group play. 

4. A library card. Buying books is fine, but nothing beats a continual supply of fresh books from your local library. A library card enables parents to respond to kids’ curiosity moment by moment with the most specific and engaging information—whether it’s a book about squirrels, springtime, soil, or stinkbugs. Physical books are better vehicles for learning than videos or internet searching because of the ways that adults and kids interact as they read books and the opportunities for developing vocabulary and other pre-literacy and literacy skills. 

5. A shovel—and not the flimsy plastic kind that comes in kids’ sand pails. At Chickadee Hollow we use regular-sized metal gardening trowels, by overwhelming popular demand. As a child, my brother and I used the full-sized work shovel from our parents’ garden shed to mix bucketfuls of “stews” and finely sieved “cocoa powders” from nature materials in our backyard. The act of digging is a good task for integrating sensory information, enhancing body awareness, and providing the cognitive benefits of “heavy work.”

6. A bucket. As my childhood story demonstrates, a bucket is a great addition to a mud kitchen. A sturdy bucket is a helpful partner to a shovel for building projects involving sand and dirt. A good bucket can also function as a step stool, a drum, a fulcrum for a seesaw, a collection basket, a support for an impromptu bench or table, etc.

7. A ball. One of the most versatile balls is the rubber playground ball. These balls are great for a wide range of ages and games, are bouncy and not too hard, and come in plenty of colors. One of the best days I enjoyed as a nanny was employed in kicking a ball along the sidewalk and following where it led through miles of streets and alleys, while it introduced us to neighbors and pocket parks and unfolded a free and spontaneous adventure. 

8. Art supplies. As a young person, I once compiled an art supply box as a Christmas gift for a preschooler that basically held office supplies: an entire ream of computer paper, several rolls of tape—masking tape and lots of scotch tape, a wide selection of markers, and scissors. I stand by it! While it’s great to plan messy or goal-oriented projects, and it’s great to experiment with constructing paintbrushes and even paint (use a mortar and pestle) from nature materials, it’s also important for kids to have basic materials accessible to them without needing permission or supervision. Plain paper, tape, markers, and scissors are the basic tools for an infinite number of child-directed projects from party hats and paper boats to storefront signs and machine models.

If you haven’t overlooked the basics, feel free to add quality colored pencils (like Prismacolor), liquid glue, glue sticks, colored paper, quality watercolors (like Prang), watercolor paper, cardboard scraps and tubes, popsicle sticks, googly eyes, etc. My mom taught elementary school art and she was always on a soapbox about poor-quality art materials—they’re a waste for kids as much as anyone. Kids who only have access to the useless Crayola brushes in Crayola watercolor sets become frustrated with the paintings they manage to produce: an exercise in futility at best.

Note: A clipboard is great for outdoor portability for budding artists.

Tips for doing art with kids on the beach: embrace the sand and plan a project using sand, consider incorporating other natural materials like pebbles, shells, or driftwood, mix colors on the lid of the paint pan, use found water or a water-holding paintbrush, consider oil pastels or solid paint sticks instead of paint, bring a plastic bag to contain the wet art for the hike out, and don’t forget baby wipes for clean-up. Give paintbrushes an extra rinse when you get home if needed—please don’t rinse paint directly in natural water sources.  

9. Water. Water features are some of the best toys to give a child—bathtubs, wading pools and water table toys not excepted. However, take your kids to a natural water feature and watch their minds light up. Summertime puddles in the Pacific Northwest can be full of tadpoles, river pools full of caddisflies, tide pools full of crabs and other creatures, and marshes feeding spots for mallard ducks and great blue herons. Water surrounded by small pebbles or sand is great for building moats, dams, and other explorations of fluid dynamics, especially shallow moving water, or waves. This autumn, while the salmon ran up the Stillaguamish river, the kids found salmon skeletons, salmon in varying stages of decay, live salmon, and salmon predators and scavengers including herons and eagles. They didn’t have to go anywhere near the (large) river to discover salmon in closed-in pools and seasonal creek beds, and it goes without saying that close supervision is absolutely essential to children’s safety around all water features, including shallow water. 

10. Music. Music is nurturing to kids’ brains from the womb—and making music together engages creative and social processes that can’t be replicated by any other activity. Singing together, drumming together, or dancing together are traditions in every culture that have served as meaning-making practices for community life as far back as we have records of humans. Music is essential to being human, but children do not always have rich experiences with music that capture its possibilities. Music can be created with handmade instruments or artisan-made instruments, but don’t overlook the simplicity of singing. Songs teach vocabulary, strengthen verbal memory, pass on cultural heritage and values, strengthen the auditory cortex, develop understanding of patterns, offer opportunities to learn musical techniques, and offer opportunities for emotional expression. Songs are available anytime, anywhere. Albert Einstein famously said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Nurture a musical mind, and you'll nurture intelligence across all domains, as accessibly as belting out “The Other Day I Saw A Bear,” or “There’s a Hole In The Bottom of The Sea,” or “Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes,” or “Make New Friends But Keep The Old.”


There you have it, my friends—the top ten toys for kids that encourage learning and outdoor play. I hope that this is a timely reminder, as we are currently in the holiday season, of how to maximize our kids' learning environments without overloading them, of what we already have that we can be grateful for, and of what is truly essential.



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