No more boredom! How we encourage good old-fashioned child-led play in the backyard with our young kids.
The kids have been directing their own play more and more lately. It’s gold! They can easily spend a whole day in the backyard, deep in good old-fashioned play.
One of the contributing factors for this is their age. At 5 and 3 years old, the girls have got to the point where they can play collaboratively together, and are looking to me less and less for direction and entertainment.
Another big factor, is that we’ve tried really hard to set up an environment and atmosphere where open-ended, child-led play is encouraged. I believe that this has made a big difference in the way that they play. It’s a work in progress (and I don’t think we’ll ever be truly ‘finished’), but I thought I would share some of the things that are working for us so far.
(This post is sponsored by Finlee & Me, a wonderful Aussie online shop that stocks a unique range of high quality kids toys – including some of the items I mention in this post. I’ll let you know which ones as we go along…)
8 ways we encourage good old-fashioned backyard play
Allow ample ‘free time’ for play
This has actually been really tricky for our family. When you take into account school, after school activities, birthday parties, family commitments and other scheduled events, there’s not a huge amount of free time left. It can be tempting to try to ‘fill in’ any gaps with play dates (relationship building!), trips to the beach or zoo (fun!), or trips to a museum (educational!), but it’s also important to leave regular space for free time. Time to be bored. Time for kids to learn the skill of entertaining themselves.
We went through a transition period where the kids didn’t know how to come up with their own ideas. This is where an ‘I’m Bored’ jar of activity suggestions could come in handy. You could make your own (which would be really cool), or Finlee & Me have a range of beautiful idea boxes, which I personally think would make great gifts. We have their Backyard Box, which has 60 outdoor nature activities for 3-10 year olds, printed out on wooden discs. “Draw pictures in the dirt with sticks”, “Go on a rock hunt”, and “Look for leaves that have been nibbled on by bugs” are just a few suggestions – good honest outdoor activities that require no prep and are lots of fun!
The kids have now developed their own internal bank of experiences and ideas, and rely on external suggestions less and less, which is the aim really. I haven’t heard the phrase “I’m bored” for ages! Yay!
Serve morning tea outside
It can be tempting to stay indoors purely out of habit, even on a nice day. Serving morning tea in the backyard gets us over that mental barrier. (This was our healthy Humpty Dumpty snack in case you’re interested. Nom nom!)
Sort & cull!
Part of encouraging the kids to head outdoors, is eliminating distractions from indoors. I’ve spent months sorting through and culling the kids toys, and I’m still going! Basically anything that’s overly plastic, anything with batteries and anything that has a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to play, has had to justify its place in our house. It’s hard to throw away (or donate) some things, especially those that I’ve paid good money for or have been received as gifts, but it’s been really liberating for both me and the kids to have a house (and backyard) that isn’t overrun with things that flash and light up. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but I honestly believe that less ‘toys’ equals more play.
Tweet: I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but I honestly believe that less ‘toys’ equals more play.
Provide open-ended materials for play
I know I was just saying to sort and cull, but part of that process is choosing what to hold on to, and what to actively cultivate. We’re beginning to have more ‘materials’ than toys. In our backyard, this includes real (metal) gardening supplies like hoes, shovels, rakes, spades that are within easy reach on our fence. I’ve also added a few old saucepans and muffin trays in case the kids feel like ‘cooking’.
We also actively collect natural ‘loose parts’ such as rocks and pebbles, sticks, gumnuts, pinecones and other seed pods, shells, feathers, coral skeletons, old snail shells, unusual leaves, cicada exoskeletons and other treasures of nature that we might be lucky enough to find.
We were lucky enough to receive this beautiful all natural teepee from Finlee & Me, which, with its simple classic design, can become anything the kids imagine. At our place it’s been a camping tent, a reading nook, a place to store their treasures, a field hospital, a day spa and a hundred other things!
It comes in its own carry case so you can pack it up again, but we prefer to keep it set up (with a few hidden pieces of electrical tape to keep the poles and the connectors firmly attached), and move it around to wherever the play action is at the time. When the kids aren’t playing with it, it leans easily in a spare corner.
Last weekend we made a matching mini-teepee (using our Stick-lets and a spare cot sheet), which the kids decided was a dolls’ hotel. A fun afternoon of imaginative play! In case you are wondering what Stick-lets are, they’re another of the really cool open-ended play materials from Finlee & Me, which I can see us taking on camping trips for many years to come.
They’re made from a weather resistant, flexible silicone that you can stretch to connect or lash together sticks of various sizes. You can make whatever you like! Think sculptures, forts and tunnels or, as in my kids’ case, teepee dolls’ hotels and fairy obstacle courses. 🙂
Let them make a mess
It’s not just letting them making a mess of themselves, it’s also about letting them make a mess of the backyard. We’ve let go of any pretext of a cultivated garden for the next few years, and my kids know they are free to dig wherever they like. It’s all about giving the kids the freedom to decide, spontaneously in the course of their play what, when and how they’ll use the space.
Sometimes we plant seeds to see if they grow, and sometimes the kids dig them up again a day later. Sometimes they have the patience to wait for the plant grow, but then cut off the leaves and flowers with their scissors. And that’s OK.
The bottom of our backyard has a few tree stumps, an old tire and a few pieces of timber, which tends to alternate between an obstacle course and a fairy village. There’s usually a pile of sticks and some random bricks stacked up against the fence. The kids have the freedom to move things around, so I never know exactly what it will look like from day to day – but it always looks like fun.
They are making an obstacle course for the #fairies. #playmatters #afterschool #playoutside #nature #backyard A photo posted by Danya Banya (@danyabanya) on
Let them take risks
I’m a big believer in letting kids calculate and take risks. That’s how they learn to access situations, isn’t it? And so, as long as what they are doing won’t result in death or permanent injury, I let them make their own judgements. Sometimes they fall. Cuddles help when that happens. And then they try again.
Encourage a sense of wonder for mini-beasts and nature
It’s not unusual for the kids to randomly call out delightedly “Look Mum, I found a slug!” or “Mum, look at all the eggs on this leaf”.
All things creepy, crawly and slimy are considered awesome and amazing at our place. We have pet spiny leaf phasmids (which is a type of camouflage insect), and we often ‘adopt’ pet snails for a week here and there. Even spiders are treated with respect in our house; non-poisonous ones are safely relocated outside, after taking the opportunity for a close inspection of course!
Use the backyard as an art, craft and sensory play area
Squishing in the mud, swinging on a swing, the hard work of digging with a spade are all great sensory outlets for kids.
Creating art and craft outdoors is lovely under natural light, the clean up is easier, and it encourages you to incorporate a few natural elements into your art and craft too.We ‘create’ outdoors all the time. Sometimes it’s led by me, but often it’s child-led too (these might not make it on the blog necessarily though). Here’s some photo links to just a few ideas we’ve written up (and I could add another dozen, but I’ll leave that for another post).
These are a few of the things we’ve been doing in the backyard at our place. What about you? Do you agree? How do you encourage good old-fashioned backyard play?
If you liked the products featured in this post, make sure to follow Finlee & Me on Facebook and Instagram for sneak peaks of the latest additions to their online store. They stock some precious things over there, so promise you won’t be disappointed. x
[Disclosing that this post was sponsored by Finlee & Me, however all opinions are my (or my kids’) own. Please refer to my disclosure policy for more information about sponsored posts on Danya Banya.]
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So many wonderful ways of playing outdoors and those products just add to the fun.
My recent post Playing with rainbow coloured spaghetti
Lots of fun ideas! I totally agree with the less toys = more play theory
Thanks Kate! We've been steadily reducing the number of 'junk' toys for ages now – and it has made such a difference.
What awesome backyard fun your kids are having…and I love the teepee day spare!
My recent post A Flying Bat Craft
Thanks! And yes, the girls thought the day spa was 'fabulous darling', especially because I let them paint their toenails. 🙂
love this post! Free time is so important and life is often so crazy busy that is pushed aside.. Thanks for these great suggestions
Thanks Kate. Free time is the hardest one to implement, I reckon!
What gorgeous photos and great outdoor play ideas. I have to admit that my hubby is a LOT better with outdoor play than me, so I always appreciate some new inspiration 🙂 Thank you x
Thanks Chelsea 🙂
amazing post! love all these ideas and the products that encourage free play! I am also trying to set our backyard up better to encourage this 🙂
that stacked chair creation is amazing!!!! go girl 🙂 and also love that beautiful teepee, so magical x
Thank you! And yes, we love these products too! The teepee has had so much use – the kids keep coming up with new ideas for what it can be. My eldest makes a stacked chair creation every other week at the moment – it's become her 'thing'. Maybe she will grow up to be an engineer. 🙂