We all want to encourage our children to play outdoors - especially if it means they’re not glued to a screen. But visit any toy shop right now and you’d be forgiven for thinking that every family needs a back garden the size of a park to fit all the outdoor toys and activities that your child ‘needs’.
There’s growing evidence that having too many toys actually does your little one more harm than good. So at a time when people are worried about money; when there’s a movement towards having less ‘stuff’; and when gardens are getting smaller, we look at which outdoor toys really work for your little ones....and which ones don’t.
Top five outdoor toys
1) Sand play and/or digging. Children learn huge amounts by experimenting with sand, as well as developing their creative and imaginative play skills. A sand pit or table needn’t be fancy, and you don’t need hundreds of specially bought accessories. A spade, a water wheel, and a few moulds will keep most children entertained. The trick is to rotate these with other accessories - a jug, a wooden spoon, a fork etc. Allowing little boys and girls to put their diggers and trucks in the sand can guarantee many a peaceful hour!
Children love to dig and it can be useful to have a dedicated box or tub that you can cover when it’s not in use - even if you just fill it with soil from your garden. (This can be as small or as big as your space dictates.) Doing this protects the rest of your garden from the perils of a toddler with a spade, and means you’re not worrying about whether the neighbourhood cat got there first. A tub of soil can soon become a world of its own, and will probably fill up with sticks, stones, grass and other toys as your child’s experiments develop.
2) Scooter/bike. It is a fact that a garden full of walkers, ride-on, balance bikes, two-wheeled scooters, three-wheeled scooters, tricycles and bikes is no more likely to help your child develop their coordination - or be happy - than if they simply have one bike, scooter or balance bike. Sorry, toy sellers.
3) A ball. The size, texture and what you do with it depends on the age of your child - but as soon as your child can sit they are ready for a ball. In the early days, they develop hand-eye coordination simply by grasping it. Later, they learn to roll it and crawl after it, before moving on to bouncing, catching, kicking etc.
4) Water play. This really can be a simple or as complex as you like. If you buy (or make) a sand table, it’s worth considering how easy it will be to empty out the sand to use it for water. (For all but the most vigilant parents, combined sand and water tables have a nasty habit of mixing the contents to form a gooey, algae-ridden green glob). You can find some great ‘water wall’ ideas online (if you have older children they will love to create their own) but a washing up bowl and old guttering will also work wonders.
5) A bucket and spade. That sand pit, digging tub and water play? They all benefit from a great bucket and spade. Going pond dipping? To the beach? Or on a woodland walk with infinite treasures to collect? An easy-to-use, decent quality bucket and spade is one of the most seriously under-rated toys any child can have.
Top ‘essential’ toys...that really aren't.
1) That trampoline, swing set and slide? They’re nice additions if you really want them, but essential? Absolutely not. Most people live within easy access of a park, and the reality is that a swing is unlikely to keep a child amused for more than 15 minutes at a time. The skills children learn when playing in a park far outweigh those in their own garden, and most people can use the space far more productively.
2) A playhouse. Before spending a few hundred pounds on one of these, ask a friend who already has one how much their children really use it. Tales of children too scared of the spiders, or who physically outgrow it within a couple of years, are far more common than those of children who use them for hours on end. Outdoor playhouses CAN be great...but with many of today’s toys we give children the finished product on a plate. A temporary structure that your child creates can lead to far better play. The fun of a homemade teepee/a den from a sheet and some chairs/a pop-up tent can make a playhouse obsolete.
3) Bubble machines. Guaranteed to entertain...for approximately five minutes…