It’s warm. You’ve got your natural sunscreen ready. And, your toddler is itching to go outside.
What to do? Especially if your toddler is solo, you might want to start with everyday games that are interesting and engaging. Reinvent the familiar in an unfamiliar space. Create an opportunity for hours of open play.
Open-ended play works well as toddlers are learning to push the boundaries very quickly. So, I have come up with a few prompts that encourage your toddler to play without much structure.
Take your inside play things outside. Do you have a play kitchen? Take it outside. Do you have a bunch of stuffed animals? Outside they could become wild animals for your budding young Jane Goodall to meet and study. Musical instruments—or even a collection of pots and spoons—outside become very interesting because little people can make big sounds.
Mudpie Kitchen. You don’t need a specific piece of play kitchen equipment to set up your own mudpie bakery. Set up a work space at toddler arm level with a variety of containers within reach. Provide a bucket of dirt and a basin of water. Go exploring for rocks, sticks, flowers, leaves, and other decorations, and it’s time to bake.
What do you already have outside? Is there anything that could be transformed? Your sandbox could become a treasure chest or an archaeological dig. Your furniture could become an obstacle course when extreme running, jumping, and climbing is called for.
Tricycle Obstacle Course. A toddler who has already learned the basics of peddling a trike or some other wheeled contraption might be looking for a new place to practice this skill. Set up your outdoor furniture, a tree stump, a collection of 5-gallon buckets, and whatever other large treasures you find in your garage. Leave plenty of space to get between the obstacles. Make it interesting enough that there is more than one way to get through. My mother’s method with games like this was to start my children at the beginning and tell them she would count. They would run or ride far away then rush back to her to hear how far she had counted. Both my mother and my children seemed to find this very engaging. They could occupy themselves for an hour as the numbers themselves became part of the exploration when they ask, “If I do this, does it make my time faster or slower?”
Sometimes painting can be messy business. Outdoor painting is a worry free business that can get as messy as it needs to get. Finger painting? That’s for indoors. Outside, how about toe painting–or belly painting for extra giggles. Sidewalk chalk gives a great big canvas. My children loved to use sidewalk chalk on our dark brick house
Big Paint. Sometimes a paint brush just isn’t big enough to capture the wave of color we need. Giant sponges and cleaning brushes, however, make nice, big paint brushes for little hands. Mix sidewalk chalk or powdered paint in buckets of water, making very thin paint, and you have color that your toddler can spread all over the sidewalk, driveway, or wooden fence.
Most outdoor painting leads to outdoor water because it will get messy. Water can be big with a hose or a sprikler or small with a water wall. A water wall is a collection of old containers and tubes screwed onto a back board. When the child pours water in the top, the containers dump water into other containers. What makes a water wall or any outdoor day even better is bubbles. Bubbles are very nearly a requirement for toddlers. Big snaking bubbles and tiny, foamy bubbles.
Car wash. Did your mudpie bakery or your big paint get combined with your tricycle obstacle course? It might be time for a car wash. Set up a bucket of soapy water and a big sponge then line up the trike, toy cars, and anything on wheels that won’t suffer too much from some attentive cleaning. Drive the vehicles to a pile of rags for the final stage of drying. You might call it clean up, but your toddler doesn’t need to think of it that way.
Whatever you are doing outdoors with your toddler, don’t fill in time so tightlythat you create stress. Toddlers have new-found ideas and physical abilities to explore. They are driven to explore. Sometimes just going outside together and looking around is enough to spark a deep need in a toddler to explore.
A couple of my favorite gentle reminders for open play and open exploration are:
“Summer in Nature for Your Children” – How simple prompts can launch a child into their own explorations.
“Make Sure You Leave Space” – Importance of our role as parents in doing little or nothing as our children find their way, including finding their own play.