Wanna Be The Cool Kids on The Block? Try These Play Ideas…


outdoor play ideas for kids

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.

kids on swingset

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. how to do open-ended play

bring art outside

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.)
  • Boxes
  • 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.)

how to enhance creativity in kids

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.

kids with water guns and bikes

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.)

outdoor toy storage ideas   outdoor toy storage


Land of Nod Flea Market Wire Ball Bins (2)

Land of Nod Down To The Wire Floor Bins (1)

Similar planter and hook


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.

penny skateboard for toddlers

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:

backyard water slide

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? Check out our kid style blog for other activities and clothes for kids!

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.


  1. Shana! You hit it out of the yard (so to speak) with this one. Thank you! I’m happy to say we do some of this, especially the open ended play materials, but could do more so I’m going to use some of these ideas. I love your style! I really try to be a hands-off mom too. Make a mess, run around with a hose, whatever, just have fun and stay busy! πŸ˜‰

  2. Thank you so much. I need encouragement to be this kind of mom. Thank you so much. Like so much. These are great ideas for when we move closer to other kids πŸ™ sadly we don’t really live close to neighbor kids. But maybe to bribe playdates at my house?

  3. Our favorite this summer has been a giant tarp and a bunch of cans of shaving cream from the dollar store. All the neighborhood kids (age 2-18) LOVE it! We also have an old mirror leaving against the fence that’s fun for water play, paint, and shaving cream!

  4. We bought a pool with tons of toys. We will be putting one in next year, but until then the kids are splashing away in the pool and doing belly flops on the water bubble.

  5. These are FANTASTIC ideas… we are new in town with a 2 year old who is very extroverted and is so ready to have other kids over to play. Thanks!! I love everything about this post and can’t wait to implement!

  6. Shana…this is awesome!…I am not in this phase with my children but I still feel good reading this stuff πŸ™‚ weird..I think these are great “rules” to play by…and I find I did much of the same…

  7. Putting together a lemonade / baked goods stand. Nothing fancy but fun for the kids- employ help from neighbors kids with supplies, making signs etc. then the kids can split the profits and have fun along the way !

  8. I bought a few stomp rocket sets this year so we could have multie set ups for everyone. It’s great to see kids launching those things and chasing them down. Got the led ones for fun after dark as a special treat. Bought a bunch of glowbands and glow in the dark chalk. Kids went to town.

  9. Shana, these are great ideas and I love this question too. I would like to humbly add that if you have anykids that are a little older, like 8+, to set up a slack line in the backyard (we like Gibbon brand). There is something irresistible about it, even the adults will enjoy it.

  10. These are really great ideas! I wish we had a yard to implement some of them, as my boys definitely don’t get enough unstructured (i.e. non-playground) play time, living right in the city as we do, but there are definitely some ideas to consider. I’m definitely a non-interventionist when it comes to child’s play, and I really like Lauren’s script for dealing with child conflict. Thanks for posting!!

    • We like to bring a bucket of this sort of stuff to the playground. Kids love it. Chalk, matchbox cars, sheets and clothes pins. The kids love adding that to a playground they have grown a bit tired of.

  11. Oh my gosh, I totally want to be your neighbor now. All of these ideas would also make a totally kick-ass kid birthday party. =)

  12. Thank you for this post! I just posted a picture on IG of my “yard” AKA parking pad behind my city rowhouse in Baltimore and I was like “man, my house looks like shit.” BUT I say yes to my kid. I let him fill up the water table with dirt and make gloppity glop and dump dirt on the concrete and dig in it and use all our recycling for containers for it. He knows he can’t dig up my plants but there are some planters with just dirt in them that he can use. It’s not pretty and I know our neighbors think we are nuts but he loves it and will play for over an hour. Totally worth the mess.

  13. I love the idea of keeping the toys in bins outside! We typically have a yard full of kids, too and I agree with “Saying Yes,” having multiples of the balls/bubbles/water guns, and some “real” tools/rope/buckets/etc. even down to snow shovels in the winter. What I do need to work on is “None Ya”. πŸ™‚ I’m absolutely stealing “Are you telling me because you want me to do something? Or because you want me to know?” Brilliant. At 3 and 6 my wee heathens are constantly stealing each other’s toys or poking or (heaven forbid!) LOOKING at each other – I’m hoping that phrase will be my shield and kryptonite against the constant tattling.

  14. I have pined for the LoN ball basket for a while and would love to leave it outside either on my covered porch or screened in patio. I live in the deep South though, does it rust??

  15. We are doing some construction at our house and have a giant pile of sand (17 sq. yards worth) waiting to fill in a utility ditch. We let our son take it over with shovels, pails, and construction toys. It’s been a real hit. The most fun I remember having as a kid is when the city plowed all the snow from a nearby parking lot into a pile about 20 feet high. We dug tunnels, made snow creatures, slid down, and played all sorts of semi-cruel king-of-the-mountain games. So my vote is for a pile of something.

  16. GREAT article!! More moms need to to embrace “yes”. Give kids some liberty to make messes or get a few scrapes while having fun in the process. Really, its okay!
    Love the tip on asking kids “Are you telling me b/c you want me to do something, or just to know”. Genious!
    I also recommend a BIG PILE of dirt. When I was a kid, my mom paid for a large dirt pile to be dumped in the back yard. We played countless king of the hill games, built caves and roads over and through it, shot plastic tea cups off with water guns for target practice and played mud bath in our swimsuits with it. Loved dirt.

  17. So I don’t have any kids and therefore no tips, but I totally want to come play at your house! Water guns and chalk and bubbles?? Woohoo!!

    Also, I love Lauren’s trick and I’m totally going to tell my husband about it because sometimes when I tell him a story and he tries to solve whatever problem he thinks I’m having instead of just listening to me it drives me insane.

  18. When I was a kid, we had a swing set in our back yard and we had a couple of those flat hoses that were full of holes to “sprinkle” the yard with – we used to wind that through the swing set and pretend it was a water park/Double Dare course. It was basically awesome.

  19. This is a great list. I hate the idea of spending lots of money on expensive toys that won’t actually get played with.

  20. Shana. You have now reached Fashion Blogger Idol status. Now, not only do I want to dress like you “when I grow up” (aka, whenever the stork arrives), I now also want to raise my future kids like you. Love this article and all your ideas….and this is coming from an Early Childhood Family Therapist! Keep up the awesome work…er….parenting!

  21. Sheer awesomeness here. Walks like a duck – laughing but oh so true here, too. DYING to go to Target now for UMBRELLAS. Umbrellas?!?!? My crew will FLIP for that little brainstorm- thank you!!!

  22. Shanna, this is a great post. My boys are now in 7th and 9th grade but I think I employed a lot of these items and ideas when they were young. Now that my boys have a greater degree of freedom, we have invested in more expensive gaming systems, a good basket ball hoop, and we are now in the process of putting in a pool. We have made these expeditures because they actually bring us together as a family, but also because as boys get older and try to tests the bounds of stupidity, we want them to do it under our roof where we can contain the fall out.

  23. I’d add pieces of PVC pipe and cut up hose to that pile of dirt/sand. My guys will spend hours pouring sand through 6 inch sections, make them into tunnels, use them with the hose to shoot mud. I always feel like my backyard looks like a heap of junk, but everyone always wants to come get messy at our house.

  24. Yes! I totally agree! One to add, tree trunk slices a couple of feet high. My son’s montessori school has some one or two feet apart in the playground, and all of the kids love to sit, stand, jump on them.

  25. I miss you (we miss all of you) so I came here πŸ™‚ I guess we’ll have virtual friendship during the Summer! Of course YES to your post. We also let them paint on tree trunk pieces outside. And our girls love to pack their lunch/snack and go – just few houses down the street is enough for them to be on an adventure trip. Freedom. That is what they need. Well… that is what we all need, n’est ce pas? See you in September gal, XO

  26. LOVE this post! I also try to be the YES mom, and needed some more good ideas — thank you!
    I’d add hoola-hoops, in multiples!

  27. To add to the PVC suggestion, get elbows and other connectors too. My son doesn’t use them to connect the pipes but does like to pour water through the different shapes (the smaller pieces are great in the bathtub too). And pea gravel. I have a baby pool of pea gravel for playing with trucks/cars/blocks. I have to sweep the excess away (shame on me…into my planting beds) every so often, but mostly it stays in or near the container. Its filthy when you get it, use a nail to make holes in the pool/bin and hose it down really well otherwise you just have dusty flithy on EVERYTHING.

    You’ll think I’m nuts, but I use rice on the water table indoors. Its easier to clean than sand and works nicely in the little trucks.

    • Not nuts at all! We use rice in the water table outdoors to keep it in rotation during the winter months. (And have some SERIOUSLY happy squirrels for it, thank you very much.)

      Indoors, we rotate rice, pasta, sprinkles and if I’m being honest water (because who doesn’t love a winter “water table”???) in our sensory bins during winter months. We also set up truck time play bins with either aquarium gravel or coffee grounds. It’s all messy and crazy and so. much. fun.

  28. See, and I thought I just liked you because of the sweatpants you suggested from the Nordstrom sale last week. (I bought them and LOVE LOVE LOVE them). Shanna, you are the best! The ability to say “yes” is a tough one for a parent, but it truly brings out the best in all of us when we do. Your blog is my favorite! Love from CA!

  29. This post came at a perfect time- I’ve actually been getting a little tired of the revolving door of kids but this was a great reminder that it’s such a blessing and worth it! Totally changed my perspective, and great advice for making it work better for kids- thanks!

  30. A giant box of dressup clothes and costumes…they put on plays and film movies! Obstacle course fun, start setting one up and then they take over!

  31. I really needed to read this. Just recently I’ve noticed both my husband and me saying no to such innocent things are kids want to do. So rigth now my kids are amusing themselves by playing in the construction zone that is our street right now. Their diggers haven’t seen this much action in months!

  32. Awesome, Awesome post! My son is almost 4 and his cousin his close too. My daughter is 18 months, and these are AWESOME ideas! My husband made the boys a big sandbox and they loved it, and brought almost all of their trucks and diggers out of the house and into it. Then we moved, so we need something else to take its place! Their grandparents have a huge hill of dirt outside of their house, and the kids had so much fun with it when we were there. I love your boxes and bins for toys outside. I need to do that too! Thanks so much for this!


  33. These are awesome! Found you on the Tinkerlab page. I want to add about the foam swords: buy those foam noodles, quarter them the long way, and wrap one end in electrical or duct tape. Very inexpensive foam sword! We do also hoard, I mean collect, recyclable household items that can play well outside: bubble wrap, squirty dishsoap bottles, even cardboard is fun to get wet and reshape. huzzah!

  34. So, the HOA Nazis will probably have my head when I do this but I love the idea and will try to keep it corralled in the back yard. I especially like promoting unstructured play. Quick question… Maybe I’m too tightly wound but how do you set boundaries? We have neighbor kids that can’t take a hint. I could picture them playing till 10PM in our yard and making such a racket that our kiddos can’t sleep. Of course, the obvious answer is talk to the parents but the parents can’t take a hint, either. Thanks for your suggestions.

  35. We usually do as well cardboard houses and let the kids paint on it, and we usually say yes to all safe madness, even if that means I will have several green Hulks or that I will have to play in the rain with them…We always have something with water to play or paints and crafts and hardly there is any other toy than that

  36. We have a lot of sidewalks so chunky chalk is great for making hop scotch and twisty roads for toy cars. We also put long sheets of plain paper from a roll of paper out. Kids plop themselves down on it and draw with crayons, chalk and markers. Then we hang their creations up inside.

  37. What a great post! Full of such practical but fun ideas for what to buy and what to say to your kids and their friends to encourage play.

  38. Fantastic post!

    Learning to stay out of the querrals was a huge breakthrough for me, too. I’ll be borrowing Lauren ‘s language, though, because it’s perfect.

    All I can think to add are water balloons, sand pit (yes, pit. So much more fun than a box or table), and dress up clothes. Since we have girls, tutus in particular are big but agree that foam swords are big too. In winter, box of misc “parts” (tp tubes, random plastic doohickies,etc) with tape, pipe cleaners, and collection of “treasures” (anything sparkly, shiny rocks) seem to be fun.

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