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Creating a Kickass Backyard For Open-Ended Play » Daily Mom

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Summer is almost over and a lot of us are finally dreaming about the cooler season of fall. Pumpkin spice everything, boots, scarves, and warm apple cider are just a few of the daily daydreams you may be having as you pack up your inflatable pool and pull out the fire pit. For many places in the United States, fall is one of the few times during the year where everyone actually wants to be outside. And even though you probably spent a fair share of time outside this summer, this time you don’t have to worry about bugs, humidity, or sunburns. Fall is the time to get the kids outside before it gets too cold, so why not create a backyard that both you and the kids (and probably some other kids from the neighborhood) can enjoy before winter cabin fever sets in!


The key to having an awesome backyard that everyone will enjoy is to have a variety of things for the kids to play with while making sure there is enough space for them to simply be kids. That means running, jumping, and creative, open-ended materials that allow their imaginations to run wild. Although organized activities can be fun and are a great way to spend time with your kids, open-ended activities that they develop themselves during independent play can foster critical thinking skills, spacial awareness, and creativity. Below are some things that can make your backyard THE place to be this fall:

Open-Ended Toys

If you think you need actual toys in your backyard for the kids to have fun, think again. Some of the best toys are found right in nature and in your recycling bin! Kids love to create, build, and explore with some of the most common items you have laying around or that you plan to put out with the trash.

Next time that Amazon order comes in, save the box. In fact, save all the boxes (come on, we know you have more than one!). Your kids (and maybe even the neighborhood kids) will love building rocket ships, forts, race cars, and more, with simple materials like boxes, small wooden stakes, paint, and whatever other materials they can find.

Here are some of our favorite open-ended toys and materials that your kids are sure to love:

Materials

Most of the items for open-ended play are things you already have around the house (or you might have to make an Amazon order to get some boxes. What a shame). Below are some of the best open-ended materials that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get:

  • Paint
  • Boxes
  • Small wooden stakes or sticks
  • Wooden blocks (you can get excess materials from home improvement stores)
  • Rocks and stones
  • Playdough
  • Tissue boxes
  • Rubber bands
  • Dirt and sand toys

Sensory Play Sand

One of the greatest “toys” you can get for your kids is a 50 lb bag of sand (or more if you have a giant sandbox). Sandboxes are the original sensory bin, and if you’re like us, you probably spent much of your childhood playing in the sandbox.

Be sure to stock your sandbox with tools that your kids can use in a variety of play scenarios such as kitchen tools, transportation types of toys (tractors, trucks, cars, etc.), buckets or cups, paint brushes, sifters, funnels, and other items you might find in the great outdoors. This will help for them to work on their practical skills, social skills, and more, all while you sit back and enjoy the smell of the changing leaves. 

Play sand is one of the best tools you can have around for young kids. It is an open-ended toy that kids can explore in any way they wish, which is great for a variety of reasons:

  • Use their hands to explore. Once kids stop putting everything in their mouth, kids primarily use their hands to explore their surroundings. Children have an innate need to touch, mold, and deconstruct. Sand provides the perfect base to do just that.
  • “Dig” into imaginary play. During sandbox play, kids can become completely absorbed in their imagined mini-worlds. Our kids have always enjoyed dressing up in costume, but we find that in the sandbox, kids feel free to jump into character and play out a variety of imagined roles with little more than their great big imagination.
  • Strengthen hand/eye coordination, as well as finger and hand muscles, which are precursors for handwriting, many sports, and tasks like buttoning clothes and tying shoes.
  • Develop their vocabulary. Playing in the sand is often a social exercise that requires communication skills such as speaking and listening (especially if you’re in the middle of a big role play). Sand also can feel like so many adjectives: rough, smooth, bumpy, squishy, runny, dry and more. As your little one explores the textures of sand, they’ll further develop their sensory vocabulary.
  • Practice social skills. When forced to share a common small space, kids will learn how to work within the space that is given in such a way that doesn’t interfere or hurt others in the same space. We’ve witnessed some of this occurring at public playgrounds, but these skills certainly take effect in smaller sand boxes.
  • Collaborate. All great sand box play sessions seem to end in the build of a major road. When you watch two or three or four kids working together on such a project, you’ll witness some amazing brainstorming, collaboration, and negotiation.
  • Experience impermanence. Much like life, nothing is set in sand; castles fall over, it rains, and little brothers knock stuff down. Kids will learn to enjoy things for the moment and create something amazingly different and just as awesome the next time they play in the sand.

All that said, play sand is often made of crushed rock instead of beach or river sand. This crushed rock or crystalline silica is already a known carcinogen according to the EPA and OSHA. Some brands of sand even contain asbestos tremloite which can put you and your kids at risk of lung cancer. Seriously.

As a mom, you want the safest products for your kids, and choosing just any old play sand won’t do. Beautiful, soft, and sparkly, Sandtastik is a safer non-toxic sand that contains no crystalline silica, no quartz, no asbestos, no wheat or gluten, no nuts or seeds, or any other potentially hazardous impurities that are often found in the cheap play sand sold at hardware stores. If you have children under the age of three who are known to put everything in their mouth, you don’t want them getting anywhere close to that stuff. Made from feldspar rock, Sandtastik is great for outdoor or indoor play, which makes it perfect for the cooler days of fall and the freezing days of winter.

Picnic Table

Having a bunch of open-ended materials to play with is great for your fall backyard, but a picnic table is a must. Not only will snacks need to be eaten between all their hard work, but it is a great surface for their ideas to come into play. It is the perfect place to set up anything from coloring to snacks to even some play dough. This table from Kidnic is the perfect option for an outdoor spot for your kids. Made from recycled plastic, the table is lightweight, easy to clean, and needs little to no maintenance.

The Kidnic picnic table doesn’t require any assembly, and it is easy to store. It takes only 20 seconds to set it up or take it down, and it compacts down for easy storage when not in use. It is a perfect addition to your backyard, front yard, or even your living room for when those cool fall days turn to freezing winter days.


You may think that you need the newest, coolest, and biggest toys to have the best backyard in the neighborhood, but that’s simply not the case. Kids love to build and create using their imaginations and materials on hand. They will spend HOURS using their imaginations to play, all while developing extremely important social, verbal, motor, and tactile skills. So get out those boxes, a little bit of paint, some sand toys, and a few snacks, and let your kids go to town!

Photo credits: Ashley Sisk, Kristen Douglas

Tags: backyard palys, backyard play, cognitive skillls, dramatic play, emotional skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, imaginary play, independent play, Kidnic, kidnic picnic table, motor skillsg, neighborhood, open ended play, open play, open-ended materials, play sand, sandastik, sensory play sand, social skills, summer, summer play, summertime, undirected play

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Daily Mom

We are a team of fun loving, web combing, baby wearing moms and dads who saw a need for a website where we could share all the useful tips we come across daily. Modern mothers need one place where they can learn how to raise a baby, cook a meal, build a fire, save some money and then spend it, and do it all while looking perfect and being green.Ok, who are we kidding? It would be impossible, but we still try.Daily Mom will bring to you everything that can be of use to any mom and mom-to-be. We are here to educate, laugh with you, and make your lives easier (or harder depending on how many crafts you decide to do).

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