Ingredients

It’s a hot Saturday. We unload from my Land Rover and open the back to view our prize: a straw bale that we picked up from Harlequin Gardens, a nearby nursery and garden center. The children eye the straw bale with amusement and wonder. I lift the straw bale out of the back in a flurry of straw pieces and dust. As the debris settles, I urge the children to grab the baling rope on the far end of the bale. They do, and we awkwardly carry it around the side of the house, through the gate, and into the backyard. We pause for a moment to reorient ourselves. The straw bale juxtaposes our manicured lawn, lending it a farmyard aura. We decide to place the straw bale on the northeast side of the yard, off to the side of the swing set and somewhat obscured by large lilac bushes. There we have a collection of small stumps and a rotted old post that butts up against the fence.

The children get to work immediately and without instruction. Nyla pulls straw out from the bale one stalk at time at first, and then in handfuls. Silas mimics her, and soon they have handfuls of straw. Nyla marches out from the enclosure of stumps and lilacs and walks towards the big tree between the swing set and the house. She arrives at the base and crouches down, then arranges the straw in a roundish-type design and scampers off. Silas does the same. They repeat the process another half dozen times and then scrounge up rocks and other tidbits to place in the center of the round straw pilings. These, they announce, are nests.

I imagine experiences like this are common for those living on farms where straw is plentiful. We live in what’s called rural North Boulder, and while some residents keep chickens, goats, and other animals on their property, our small backyard is not filled up with these kinds of things. I am amazed at how quickly the straw bale is accepted and incorporated into the children’s play.

Following is a list of Loose Parts that you can introduce into your own backyard.

Nyla manufacturing her own tree coin toys.

Nyla manufacturing her own tree coin toys.

Organic

  • Bark
  • Grass
  • Leaves
  • Logs
  • Mulch
  • Pine cones
  • Rocks
  • Reeds
  • Seeds
  • Shells
  • Stones
  • Stumps
  • Tree slices (coins, pancakes, etc.)
  • Twigs
  • Woodchips

These are by far some of my favorites. In some cases, the material is too heavy for children to manipulate by themselves, such as large logs or stumps. I like to think of those as part of the playspace, and welcome habits such as hammering nails into them or crushing rocks into dust (versus trying to protect their pristine, unblemished quality).

Junk/Recycled/Hardware

  • Buckets (galvanized/plastic, of varying sizes)
  • Cable ties
  • Car tires
  • Child-size wheelbarrow
  • Chains
  • Containers
  • Cord
  • Crates
  • Innertubes of bicycles (cut into lengths with the valves cut out)
  • Rope
  • Poles
  • Pulleys
  • String
  • Shipping pallets that are heat-treated and stamped with “HT”
  • Wagons

Getting anything that has been previously discarded or recycled takes a bit of gumption. It is going to be dirty—you can wash it. It is going to have dents—kids will add to those. You might be dumpster diving—well, not really. Most supplies like these end up as single-stream recyclables, so while you may be retrieving from some sort of disposal bin, you are not going to be dealing with bio-waste.

Textile

  • Blankets
  • Canvas
  • Cushions
  • Drop cloths (ground cloth, tarps, etc.)
  • Sheets
  • Towels

These are all great for making forts, cubbies, or den areas. It is helpful to have a place to store these—ideally inside of the house to keep them easily accessible but out of the elements to minimize deterioration (depending on your location, this may or may not be a problem).

Kitchen

  • Bowls (large metal or plastic)
  • Canisters
  • Condiment containers
  • Cooking tins
  • Cooking utensils (the sturdier the better!)
  • Drainer for dishes
  • Pans
  • Pots
  • Sifter, colander
  • Spice shakers
  • Towels, dishrags, pot holders

Although Loose Parts have, by definition, no fixed use, these items tend to work really well with other “true” Loose Parts. They may or may not be used in the way you would expect, but are great for stimulating creative, imaginative play scenarios.

Farm Supplies & Equipment

  • Hand pump
  • Horse shoes
  • Hose
  • Miscellaneous farm tools
  • Straw bale
  • Tub

I find these items—with the exception of the hose—harder to come across freely, but they add an intrinsic richness to play when you can obtain them.

Landscaping Materials

  • Dirt
  • Boulders
  • Bricks
  • Flagstone of various dimensions and weights
  • Glass pebbles
  • Mulch (different textures and colors)
  • Pavers
  • Pea gravel
  • River stones (fairly smooth “pebbles” of about four to six inches)
  • Sand (colored and plain)
  • Sawdust
  • Stones (different sizes and colors)

It is worth experimenting with the quantity of landscaping materials. I’ve found that constraining the quantity of something allows the children to treasure it for its relative uniqueness. For example, sawdust in vast volumes tends to be avoided, while a small handful becomes a prize.

Construction Materials

  • 4–8 planks that are springy, maybe 6″ wide, no knots in wood (get at least 6)
  • 6’ vinyl gutters x 4
  • 10’ vinyl gutters x 2
  • Galvanized steel garbage cans
  • PVC pipe
  • Pipe insulation
  • 30-gallon plastic tub with top

If you’re going to get into these types of materials—and I strongly recommend that you do—you will be well served by suspending your judgment while at the hardware store. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but I felt like a real fool spending my weekend morning buying a piece of vinyl gutter for the kids—until they started playing with it!

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