I got an email recently from Leslie, titled, “Please help make us the cool kids on the block!” She wrote:
We recently moved to Billings, Montana, and my five year old boy and three year old girl are having a bit of a hard time fitting in. I think we might need cooler toys. Everyone around here has a trampoline, or an xbox and we are not there yet. I do want them to have fun outside, and fit in. What do you, your friends, and readers love? I did a small amount of research and bought them Strider balance bikes last year, but we didn’t have too much luck with those. I have to be careful about the price to appease my mechanical engineer husband; although I tend to agree with your theory, cost per laugh would be appropriate here. I would love things that I could involve the neighborhood kids with too. I will consider anything, and promise to send pics of our choices. Thank you so much for your ideas.
Leslie, I don’t know if we’re the cool kids on our block, but I do know a bit about moving across country with two kids and trying (desperately) to make friends. And I’ll admit that in our current neighborhood, we now have kids swarming around our pad pretty much 24/7. In my experience, you don’t need money or expensive toys (I mean seriously check out our decrepit aka free swingset above)…you just need a spirit of…wildness.
From my experience, kids play better when there’s this sense that they’re in charge. They direct the play. With that in mind, here are the “rules” we live by:
1. We Say YES.
When you are playing over at our place, I almost always say YES to the following questions:
Can we use the hose?
Can we use the sprinkler?
Can we dig a hole?
Can we make mud?
Can we use this old log/stick/piece of wood?
Can we use some rope?
Can we use a hammer?
Can we take art supplies outside?
Can I draw on myself?
The key has been to figure out how to say yes. For example, digging a hole in the middle of the lawn? Yeah – that’s a NO. But giving them a section of the garden where they can dig to their hearts content? YES.
2. Make Open-Ended Materials Available
Forget toys, the smartest thing I did this fall – from a play perspective – was buying a few bales of hay. (I mean yes OK it made a huge mess that we are still cleaning up and we have sworn NEVER AGAIN but live and learn, right?) But the good news is that there are a ton of open-ended materials that are much more containable than hay. Open-Ended Materials We Stock Up On:
- Pieces of wood (these make fantastic ramps, jumps, forts, etc.)
- Rope (the kids have used these to make everything from ‘animal traps’ to hacking up swings on our poor old tree).
- Bungee Cords (we go through these things so fast – they use them for freaking everything)
- Extra-Large Rubbermaid bins (fill ’em with dirt, with water, leave ’em empty. The kids will figure out what to do in about .2 seconds)
- Umbrellas (these Totes stick umbrellas from Target are big, fairly durable, and the neighborhood fav for outdoor forts – stick with the stick, not portable style for max durability)
- Old Sheets or Blankets (perfect for fort building)
- Duct Tape
- Stuff From Our Recycling Bin (empty yogurt containers, cans, etc.)
- Pulleys (you can find a bunch at any Home Depot type store)
- Old Pots/Pans from Goodwill (there was an issue one day when I failed to realize that the kids were playing soooo very nicely with my husband’s favorite All Clad pan. Talk about sh*t hitting the pan when Mike came home. I mean fan. Sh*t hitting the….fan.)
3. Don’t Make Them Share.
There’s nothing lamer than some adult hanging over a group of kids going, “Susie, you’ve had your turn. Please give the ball to Johnny.” Sharing sucks. IT SUCKS. (And I’m not alone – check out this book) A strategy that’s worked for us? Prevent the conflict in the first place by hitting the dollar store for multiples of:
- Water Guns: I suggest buying multiples of the EXACT SAME guns if you can….but if not, at least make sure you have enough guns for everyone (and throw in extras for the adults). These are our favorites.
- Bubbles: You can get the big sizes for refills, but also buy a bunch of the individual bottles so each kid can have one. I buy – no less – than 25 each summer.
- Balls – basketballs, soccer balls, dodgeballs, wiffle balls, and especially these little soft balls that are intended to be water bombs in the summer.
- Pool Noodles: These are such a huge hit, and they’ve never even seen the inside of a pool. Amazing how open-ended these are.
- Sidewalk Chalk: Crayola’s Sidewalk Chalk is the best. The colors are – hands down – the brightest.
- Buckets and Shovels
- Flashlights (or headlamps): They seriously go nuts for these. This may not be a dollar store item, but totally worth it. We’ve been collecting these over the years and now have about 8. Flashlights are one of those items that seem to be too hard to share.
- Foam Swords: You really can’t have enough of these. (And girls love them too.) Amazon carries sets of 12.
4. Keep It Accessible….Even When You Aren’t There
Once the weather warms, I store all of our water guns, bubbles, pool noodles, chalk, buckets, shovels, swords and outside balls in bins on our front porch. The rule is that anyone can use them, anytime. (We also have a rule that they must be put away when you are finished, but that’s a tough rule for young kids, so it’s more of a general guideline than something we try to strictly enforce.)
5. Toys Worth Spending Money On
There are a few toys that have been worth their weight in gold. They are:
- Skateboards – real ones!! Penny boards are a great first skateboard that will last for years…or if adults want in on the action, try a longboard (the kids ride it on their belly, or Mike will ride double with the kids). The super cheap ones don’t last, and a barely functioning skateboard isn’t fun for anyone.
- Scooters – Razor Kick Scooters work with many ages, but I’ve been hearing more & more about Micro Kick Boards if you want a smoother ride…
- A Tee for T-Ball (and several bats, and a whole ton of whiffle balls) – The Little Tikes Tee is a good choice for the very young, but we’ve found that once the kiddos hit 5, you’ll want a real tee.
- Portable Soccer nets – we love this one by Step2.
- Basketball Hoop (one that can be lowered…but not the baby version once they approach 5.)
- Swingset – I tend to think simple is better….but I’m having a heck of a time finding one with enough swings to replace our old, worn-out set. Maybe the Flexible Flyer “Swing and Play” Swing Set?
- Real, Kid-Sized Yard Tools (Rakes, Shovels, Brooms, etc.) Melissa and Doug makes a set, but we think it’s better to go with multiple individual kid rakes because if one wants to rake they ALL want to rake.
Of course, if you really want to grab the neighborhood kid’s attention, you could always go the route of over-the-top-water fun:
Works every time.
(This smaller double-pool-and-slide is what we used to “bribe” the neighborhood kids over when we first moved in. We had kids from ages 1-7 going crazy on this thing. It didn’t last long, but it was the best $40 we ever spent.)
6. None Ya (As in “none of your business”)
Finally, we try to stay out of the kids’ business as much as possible. Dispute over a truck? Yeah, I’ll empathize. That stinks. How frustrating!! Or I’ll employ a trick from Raines’ amazing preschool teacher, Lauren*: “Are you telling me because you want me to do something, or because you just want me to know?” You’d be surprised at how often kids just want to be heard. Many times the kids respond with “I want you to know!!” and then run off to play. In the event that they are looking for some action, Lauren suggests coming back with: “What have you tried?” At this point, they’re totally bored and typically will go work it out themselves.
The times I intervene are when I’m worried someone will get hurt, or if I notice that my own children are so tired they are terrorizing the neighborhood *cough*Pax*cough.
So there you have it. Our “rules”. Snort. As you can imagine, many of our neighbors think we’re nuts. But, you know…walks like a duck and all that. There are worse things than a few shades of crazy, right?
Readers – any other ideas? What do you guys do to bring all the boys&girls to your yard? (Besides milkshakes…hahaha).
*local Mamas, Lauren just joined forces with the insanely fabulous Creative Clubhouse and is starting her own preschool program this Fall!! (You can find it under “Creative Corner”.) Knowing Lauren, it’ll be an awesome blend of Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Waldorf all wrapped up with a huge dose of outdoor time. My preschool-dream-come-true.