Outdoor activities – Mud kitchens

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Outdoor time has not being going as well as it could lately so it was time to spend a little bit of thought on setting up some structured play opportunities to help the children use their time wisely. Not wanting to spend a lot of money, I perused my Pinterest board for outdoor activities and decided that it was time we had a mud kitchen.

Despite the fact that we have a very good sandpit, the little boys are continuously drawn to digging in the dirt, so after our recent weeding spree which resulted in a veggie garden with no actual plants in it we decided to dedicate one shady corner to the project.

IMG_3114Everything we set out we have had for a long time. Simply moving it all to a new location and adding dirt and water resulted in a whole new activity which was received with great excitement. The plastic oven above hasn’t been touched for months but was immediately put to use. 10 minutes to set up, a zero dollar outlay and the mud kitchen was ready for action.

IMG_3122It would have been a good idea to get all the children to put on painting shirts (Dad’s old work shirts) before they had at it but I naively thought they wouldn’t get quite so dirty as they did! Much fun was had and some (mostly) harmonious play was a nice change to the recent conflict we have been experiencing.

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Just don’t forget to set aside 20 minutes for the cleanup afterwards 🙂

 

 

 

 

Rainy day activities outdoors: Cubby houses

 

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When our cubby first arrived a number of years ago, it was a big hit. Meals on the verandah were frequent. Two years later a make-over is required.

Operation cubbyhouse make-over is finished!! Many friends and families I know complain that their cubby house is a white elephant. While our cubby is one of the first things in use when visitors come around, it has not been well-used by our own children recently. Like all things, the novelty has worn off and it is time for a “home improvement” project. (Particularly as the wet weather has arrived and it gives the children something to do outside even when it is raining.)

The following ideas will help make our cubby (and yours) an attractive play option this winter. Don’t forget to change the contents occasionally and limit what is available at once. Everything out together will make for one huge mess and actually works against producing worthwhile play.

Choose open-ended accessories and toys that promote imagination. How do you know if something is open-ended? Ask yourself what you can do with it. A toy vacuum cleaner can pretty much be used for vacuuming and that’s it, making it a closed toy choice. A pile of sheets can be princess gowns, bedding, room dividers and so on, therefore it is an open-ended play choice.

RECOMMENDED PLAY HOUSE ACCESSORIES:

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Blackboard and chalk. Buy some blackboard paint and make one whole wall a drawing space. Not a little square mind you – a whole wall. Either paint onto wood and mount across the wall or paint the cubby wall itself if it has a fairly flat wood surface. Screw up a bucket of coloured chalk and a duster and watch the many different ways it will be used. We find that a damp cloth often works better than an actual duster to remove the chalk. I also hung up two smaller blackboards that can be taken down to serve as menu boards and order tablets etc.

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Telephone. My Mum loves to tell us about the working field telephone they had when she was young, strung up between the cubby and their house for real two-way conversations. Unfortunately we don’t have this option but a pretend phone is a must. You could add some phone books to look up numbers. I came across a telephone station idea on the web that had a large mirror behind it. I have never considered a mirror being linked to phone play but apparently children enjoy watching themselves talk on the phone and it is great for language development. It seems to be true because the moment the mirror was up my son grabbed a phone from elsewhere (I hadn’t screwed them on the wall yet), pulled up a chair and sat down to watch himself chatting to imaginary family members.

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Door bell. Well mannered cubby visitors must learn to knock or ring right? Toddlers and young children will love ringing the bell every time they go in and out.

Letterbox. Add some paper, envelopes, drawing equipment, stickers for stamps and a sack to collect and deliver the mail with. Really cool letter boxes are the ones with a little flag to put up to let the children know the mailman has been. If Mum or Dad occasionally stick in a letter the excitement will be huge. Perhaps an invitation to afternoon tea?

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Curtains. I asked all the children what they would like to have added to the cubby. There were several usable ideas (pictures, letter box and curtains) and other not-so practical ideas (roller shutters, water piped from the gutters to a real tap, a real oven and a working light – there are no electricity points in our backyard.) I happily agreed to the curtain idea and sewed some up from an old sheet. A quick hem around each side and double over the end to thread the hanging wire through – about the limit of my sewing skills!

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Table and chairs. No cubby is complete without a child-sized table and chairs. Activities like the letter writing can be set up on it or use it for the more traditional restaurant, cafe and home kitchen play. There was enough sheet left to make a table-cloth to match the curtains.

Pretend cooking equipment. Items such as plates, cups, cutlery, tablecloth, napkins, pots, pans, muffin tins, cake tins, wooden spoons, whisks, egg flips, cutting boards etc. Children love to use real items so use old stuff from your own kitchen or visit the local recycled store for some cheap kitchen gear. While I prefer natural materials such as wood and metal, the reality is that outside these dishes will be covered in sand and water in no time, so I have re-homed some of the many plastic sets people give the children for Christmas and kept my nice natural equipment for pretend play indoors where it will survive for much longer.

Small bookcase, kitchenette or shelves. Set them at child’s height and use them to store the cooking equipment. Add some cup hooks and pegs to hang up the pans and what-not.

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Stove or oven. Even a box turned on its side will do at a pinch. A kid needs somewhere to bake his pies! I have kept ours out on the verandah for extra space and sandy baking projects as the older girls have been complaining that the sand messes up the cubby after they have swept it! Hmmm sounds a lot like my house….

Rocks, pebbles, glass jewels (the kind you add to vases), pieces of natural wood and other such items have unending possibilities for food based play. Avoid plastic pretend food items as these limit play. A plastic pizza is a plastic pizza. An attractive river stone can be a freshly baked bun, biscuit, muffin, piece of meat etc.

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Child-sized broom. Cut the handle off a regular indoor broom to make it child-sized and hang up a dustpan and brush. You will be surprised at how many times the children choose to sweep out their house.

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sheets IMG_0338Old sheets, cushions and some kind of bed. We picked up an old cot mattress and a large couch cushion during verge collection in our area that make great bed bases, along with the small decorative cushions for pillows. They are not too big or heavy and can be stored standing up against the cubby wall when not in use. More importantly, there are enough for several children to be “sleeping” at once; very important during hospital play. There is also a very large old-fashioned bassinet that fits the small children very well.

Dress-ups and a mirror. I don’t leave my dress-ups outside, but occasionally pop them into the cubby. Dressing up is enjoyed by all but if the children can see themselves in a mirror, the fun triples. While a couple of princess gowns are nice, a pile of old sheets, scarves, hats, shoes, fabric pieces and other accessories allow children so many more play options. Again, a princess dress will usually be used as a princess dress. A fabulous piece of cloth has endless options.

Themed pretend-play accessories. Set up a few extras for a doctor’s surgery, shop, restaurant, beauty parlour, pet store or more. See this post for heaps of theme ideas.

Water table. (Picture of ours here.) During cool weather, this can be filled with sand or rice or wheat or anything really. Add a few accessories and watch the play develop. Sensory tubs as they are often known are great for rainy days. See this post for lots of indoor ideas, or my toddler activities Pinterest page for heaps more. Some of them (the messy ones) lend themselves to outdoor play more than others.

SIX CUBBY HOUSE MISTAKES TO AVOID:

1.Using it as a store-all for all the outdoor toys. You can’t play in a junk pile people!

2. Leaving it empty. A box on legs is still just an empty box and unlike giant cardboard boxes which have endless uses, an empty cubby is just not that much fun.

3. Putting it too far away from the action. Children occasionally like to hide away but as a general rule, they will be far more likely to consistently use a play house if it is located centrally to the rest of your outdoor area or close to the house. Joined on to a sandpit for example is excellent as the sand then becomes part of the play and opens a whole new dimension of pretend play ideas. Mud pies in the cubby oven are good for hours of entertainment.

4. Small, high windows. For much the same reason as above; children like to be able to pop in and shut a curtain etc. to feel like they have a little privacy but most of the time want to be able to see what is going on and not feel too shut in. Having a good, low window at the front to play shops, serve food through etc. is ideal.

5. Getting hung up about keeping the cubby tidy. It’s not your house or the kid’s bedroom! Let them make some mess. Let them bring in sandpit sand, pebbles from the driveway, leaves or whatever else is making for great pretend play that day. That’s why you include a broom and dustpan!

6. Buying a cubby that is too small. It’s handy if an adult can stand inside but not necessary of course. Think ahead though – if 2 little children fit well, what about when they grow or more children are welcomed to the family? Or when visitors arrive? If you are going to have a well-used cubby, there needs to be space for the mini kitchen, the bed, the blackboard and all the other great accessories that make or break a play house. Too small and you will be very limited in what you can do.

While I haven’t added every idea to our cubby as yet, I am done for now. When interest wanes and something new is required,  I’ll get back to the doorbell, letterbox and other items.

What great ideas do you have to make your cubbyhouse a great place to play?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Outdoor activities: Hopper races and obstacle courses

We are blessed to have a great backyard. Plenty of space and very child-friendly. We still however hear the occasional moans about not wanting to go outside and having nothing to do. While that doesn’t wash in our house and the children are sent out anyway, I am finding that they are not sleeping at night as well as they should be and I suspect it is because of lack of physical exercise. In the heat they tend to gather in the shady sandpit and while it is lots of fun, doesn’t give them the exercise they need.

My usual response to the “I have nothing to do” complaint is to tell the kids to sit on a chair and think of something. I let them know that in 5 minutes I will be coming back and if they don’t have a plan will be giving them something to do. The children all know this is code for WORK so usually they will quickly re-direct themselves. If not, a corner of my garden gets some weeds pulled out or the sand around the sandpit gets swept up. Good exercise for them and great for me!

One outside activity we have done together that was enjoyed by everyone was hopper races. We set out hoses, broom handles, ropes, sports equipment, mats and a bunch of items from around the backyard and arranged them into an interesting obstacle course. The children then hopped through with their hoppers, circling some items, jumping over others, hopping backwards in some sections and weaving through other parts. They helped design the course and decide on the level of difficulty. Handicaps for the younger and slower members were decided on and the races began. Lots of hot sweaty fun was had by all and what’s more, they were totally exhausted by the end of it. Mission accomplished!

Outdoor activities: more water play ideas

How do you keep little ones entertained and playing happily outdoors for extended lengths of time? Opening the back door and simply sending several young children out is not always a very successful method. Without direction to their play it is very likely that you will be dealing with bickering, squabbles and otherwise less than useful use of their time.

Spending 5 minutes getting them started on an absorbing and appropriate activity very often makes for a harmonious time as they happily go about their play in a focussed way. This 5 minutes at the start of playtime often saves me many minutes umpiring disputes and redirecting poor choices. More ideas will follow under the heading of outdoor activities, but today it’s more water based ideas.

In the warmer weather I find it so much easier as all my children from the youngest to the oldest love water and sand based play. All water based activities require some supervision so I choose tasks to do that allow me to oversee what is going on either from a distance or close by depending on the activity. Our water table is a favourite, as are the following:

Water painting

  • Buy a couple of different sized house painting brushes from a hardware (the cheap sets are fine) and a small bucket. Fill the bucket with water, give some directions as to which outdoor areas; furniture, fences, paths, walls etc. can be painted with water and let them at it! My children, especially the younger ones, love water painting, particularly if I occasionally admire the lovely new “colours” they have painted everything.
Sprinklers
  • I know it doesn’t fit into the water saving category but if it is your watering day, set up a sprinkler on the lawn and let everyone run about in it. Old as the hills, so easy and great exercise.
Paddle Pools/sandpit shell halves
  • I’ve mentioned this before, but an inch of water or even a couple of pots and pans full of water for scooping, tipping and pouring while sitting in half of a plastic sandpit clam shell or paddle pool is good fun. Combine it with a little sand and it becomes great fun.
Sandpit
  • Point the hose into the sandpit and turn it on just a little so a trickle comes out. That’s it! Provide cars, boats or whatever else you have in your sandpit toys.
Puddle Kingdom
  • Sometimes we empty out our outdoor storage containers and put a bunch of them together on the grass. We then fill each one with a little water and again, free play! Jumping from one to another, making “houses” or whatever they fancy makes this an interesting pastime.
Water trampolining
  • We occasionally set up the sprinkler underneath or near  the trampoline for wet bouncing fun. This isn’t so good for the younger children though as it does get quite slippery. The 3 year old and up are steady enough on their feet to make this loads of wet fun.
Water slides
  • If your backyard has a slope, then a long sheet of black plastic with a little detergent and lots of water is a wonderful slide and wears those energetic youngsters out.
Water Chasey
  • Not quite our usual outdoor activity as this involves me, but when it is really hot we play water chasey with the hose. Simply put, the kids run around like crazy and I spray them with the hose, watering the garden in between.

Paddle pools and slide

  • Another one that requires adult supervision is the paddle pool properly filled up or with a small amount of water and the slide from our little plastic castle into it for the children to climb up and slide into the pool. When they’ve had enough sliding we bring the sandpit toys over and everyone sits down for a play.

Outside activities: Water play

The warm weather continues, which in some ways is wonderful and others not so much! Instead of enjoying outdoor time, my children start pressing themselves up against the glass sliding door and asking to come inside where it’s cool. Time to bring out the water play. We bought this water table secondhand for $5 last year and it definitely was a bargain. All the children, even the toddlers, enjoy standing around it and getting thoroughly soaked as they play with the sand toys in the water.

I like to use outdoor time to get some of my own responsibilities completed, so all water play needs to be set up so that it is safe – no deep containers for children to fall into. The swimming pool and slide etc. does not come out at these times – that needs high level supervision. I do keep an eye on the children but, as I am not right next to them, water levels are kept to a minimum. The water table is ideal as it is up high and only holds a few inches of water.

Before we owned it though, water play was just as enjoyable. We used the lid of a clam shell sandpit and filled it to a shallow depth (about an inch) and the littlies could sit in it and play – double the wet fun. The older children prefered containers like buckets and tubs filled to a deeper level so I put these up on benches away from the little ones. While I do not expect the older children to take on the responsibility of supervising their brothers and sisters around water, the fact that they are playing there means there are several pairs of eyes on the situation, including mine. I know I will be called very quickly if a toddler starts trying to get into the deeper tubs – particularly as it interrupts the older children’s games!

Babies and toddlers are happy with just a couple of containers of water to splash about in but as the main game seems to revolve around tipping the water out again, you or an older child needs to be available to constantly refill their containers. The bigger children don’t mind scooping a saucepan of water out of their tub over and over again as they have the freedom to access the hose and refill it to the agreed level as required.

If you can stand the sandy mess, add the water play to the sandpit and you won’t hear a single complaint for hours! Nothing much is better for young children to keep busy in than water and sand. When it’s time to come in, I just stand them in a line and hose them all down before sending them in for proper showers and baths.