Outdoor activities: “There’s nothing to do!”

Choose toys that promote cooperative and group play.

Outdoor time is important for children. They need exercise and time to let out the energy and noise that has been building up inside them during quiet times indoors. In our family, it’s a time for all the children play together and I find it goes so much better if they find some kind of game, project or activity to do together rather than just milling about without a purpose.

Toys that can be used by multiple children at a time are more versatile.

Older children can usually make good decisions as to how they are going to use their time, but the younger ones need a little more direction of some appropriate play ideas. I find if I spend just a few moments getting them started I can leave them and they will happily play together for quite long periods of time. Friction and bad choices are more likely to happen when I send them all out at once without some guidance.

It’s a bit harder when the weather is wet (see wet weather ideas) but make the most of the fine days and be flexible with your routine. If the weather is fine in the middle of the day and may not be in the afternoon (when you usually send them out), make use of the sunshine when you have the chance.

Here are plenty of ideas to get you started. I’d love your ideas too, so please leave a comment if you can think of something to add to the list.

  • Weaving wall Bend and tape the ends of a piece of chicken wire or large piece of plastic garden trellis etc. Provide a variety of materials for children to insert and weave through like string, wool, fabric strips, ribbons, straws, feathers and nature items like leaves and sticks.
  • Washing dolls/teddy clothes Set up a tub with soapy water and a string washing line with pegs and set out the dolls clothes for children to wash and peg out to dry.
  • Washing the dishes Wash plastic tea sets and sand toys and anything else that will survive a good dunking. Provide wash cloths and T/towels to dry.

It was a damp day so the children made a “waterproof” cubby with our outdoor sheets.

  • Camping & sheet cubby houses Old sheets and curtains that can be draped over outdoor play equipment, chairs or a rope tied between 2 poles are a great open-ended activity. Have snack time or lunch in the tent. Provide tea sets and other pretend play equipment to add variety.
  • Watering Children love to water pot plants and gardens. A hose turned on very low (just a trickle) will keep a toddler going for ages.
  • Boats Place end caps on a length of gutter, use a plastic crate, half a shell sandpit lid or whatever else you have on hand to fill with water. Sail boats or float objects in the water. These can be actual boats (bought or those that the children have made) or just leaves, sticks and other nature item.
  • Bird watching/animal care Install a nesting box with viewing flap or birdbath to encourage birds in the backyard. Avoid feeders that encourage birds to become dependent on you providing food. Keep pets.
  • Water painting Provide house paint brushes and containers of water for children to “paint” paths, patio floors, walls etc. Make clear guidelines as to where the water may be used. Most hardware stores have very cheap sets of large brushes.
  • Pavement chalk Available through most discount variety stores, pavement chalk can be the stimulus for many other games. Designate surface to be used that will be washed clean by the rain to limit cleanup or provide brooms and water as part of the activity. My children like to draw road signs, arrows and directions on the paths around our backyard which then leads on to many other creative vehicle games.
  • Paddle pools, water tables, sprinklers and other water play activities in warm weather. (See here and here.)
  • Hoppers (see here.)

Sand play will always be a favourite and is great for a wide variety of ages.

  • Sandpits Shade will make these more attractive in summer. Add water for instant (but messy) mud fun. A toy oven or even a cardboard box oven and some old kitchen equipment (eg pans, pots, utensils, plastic plates, cups etc.) promotes pretend play. “Shops” is a popular game and some kind of shop front such as a small bench, limestone block etc. will spark interest. Children can collect nature items to “sell” and pay with leaves etc.
  • Herb and veggie gardens Planting, watering, weeding, tasting and other fun to be had here.

  • Blackboards use blackboard paint or prepared board and make coloured chalk available. Good for shops and many other pretend play games. Also paint brushes and water work well on blackboards.
  • Woodwork Provide real tools and the oportunity to use them in a safe way. An old tree stump or large block of wood with hammer and nails to pound in. Lengths of wood to cut in a vice. Small wooden wheels or bottle caps with holes drilled in to hammer onto wooden blocks for vehicles. A designated workbench and good selection of tools and materials to work with will be well used.
  • Wheat tray Large bags of wheat are available from places like City Farmers for a reasonable price. Use sand or water toys and many of the ideas in the sensory table post. Caution – it does attract mice and birds so keep in an airtight container and teach children to sweep up spills.
  • Jumping Provide an old mattress for children to jump and bounce around on and perhaps a low, safe launching place to jump from. A waterproof covering is ideal but not essential.
  • Trampolines are a standard favourite and buying one with a safety net reduces the associated risks.
  • Balls and skittles Weight plastic bottles with sand or wheat and glue closed.
  • Hoops, buckets, bins and beanbags Hang hoops or create other targets (eg. buckets) to throw beanbags through or into. Older children can use a scoring system.
  • Vehicle tracks Make oversized road signs (stop/go sign, traffic lights etc.) and set out markers (beanbags, rocks, sticks etc.) for a race track for children to use their bikes or ride-on toys around.
  • Cardboard boxes Old large boxes can be cubbies, forts, boats and a myriad of other things. The bigger the better, just let the imagination run. Adult help to cut windows, viewing flaps, insert card tube telescopes etc will add to the fun.
  • Bubble blowing A variety of blowers adds to the interest. Provide small containers so that spills do not waste your entire supply. There are many homemade recipes for mixtures on the internet – glycerine is usually needed for good bubbles.
  • Stocking ball  (See here.)
  • Treasure/scavenger hunt Bury “dinosaur bones” in the sandpit (bleached chicken bones) or give children a list of items to collect around the yard – make it pictorial for young children. Spray-paint rocks gold to make wonderful pirate treasure and hide them in the sand or around the yard. Kids love to search for treasure.
  • Kites & parachute men Easy run-along kites in windsock style can be used without help. Parachute men can be made from garbage bag plastic attached to toy men or popstick people for dropping fun if children are able to climb up on playground equipment or similar.
  • Spray bottle water tag Choose small spray bottles for little hands.
                                          Yes, that is my eldest SON on the right!
  • Dress-ups & mirror Spread out a sheet so that clothes can be looked through without getting too dirty. Providing a mirror enriches dressing-up games and makes them so much more appealing.
  • Window washing Provide a small amount of soapy water and a window squeegee for lots of fun.
  • Finger painting/soap painting Lux soap flakes mixed with warm water and a little food colouring and whipped makes good finger paint that washes off quite well. (Be careful about the kind of food colouring you use and possible staining of clothes.)
  • Musical noise maker Hang pots and pans, old tools, cutlery or anything metal that will make a satisfying sound when banged and tapped.

  • Butchers paper wall art Mount a large roll of butchers paper on the wall with a smooth surface behind. Child pulls down a new length to paint or draw on before cutting off their finished creation.

Send out the dolls, teddies and prams and lots of “family” type play takes place. My eldest son likes to role-play protecting the “family” from many and varied dangers and going out hunting in the vein of Little House on the Prairie.

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2 Responses

  1. What an amazing selection of ideas! Thank you.I love that you can have time for the kids to play outdoors a lot when you homeschool…something I am missing out on right now while they are in public school.
    Do your kid’s personalities generally like to be outdoors?
    I realise that you have outside time as part of your daily routine. But 2 of my 3 kids are more ‘indoors’ types (the 8 y.o. boy and 4 y.o.girl), so it is hard to get them outside, let alone interested in what is outside (currently not much as we have just moved countries…).
    I see that you have had to prepare a number of things for them to do (get the jumping mattress out, get the sheets and boxes for the cubby house) before they go and play. Do you give them this kind of structured outdoor play often, or just once a week or so, leaving them to creatively think of things on their own the rest of the week?
    Possibly you have already talked about this in another post I haven’t seen?

    • Hi Lisa, thank you for your comments. The way I approach outdoor time varies a lot depending on the age and mix of children playing together. Right now, I have 3 older children (9, 7 and 5.5) who choose and organise their own activities without my help. They know the equipment we have and get out or ask for what they want. The twins (3) pretty much tag along with their older siblings. There have been times in the past when I have set something up almost every day; when they were too young to make their own choices or when the dynamics have not been going well between the children and more direction is needed. It also depends on my own energy levels and time available. If I can see that they are not using the time well I may step in and give them a directive or more often these days for the older kids, I just threaten to use their time for them (i.e. jobs!) if they do not make a good choice of activities for themselves.The arrangement also changes depending on their school load, the weather and the time they have free to play outside. Sometimes a large block of time is available, other times 2 sessions of play in the morning and later in the day have been planned or we just go out whenever the weather allows us to do so. Some like it better than others, but all go regardless! We are blessed to have a great backyard for them to spend time in.

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