Practice

The combination of my research, understanding the historical context of children’s play and playgrounds, and learning the capacity of young children and how they want to play led me to experiment with dozens of Loose Parts in the backyard. Below, I share seven examples, each with a brief narrative of our experience, how you can use the Loose Parts, where you can get them, and alternative materials. Afterwards, I share a list of many more examples of Loose Parts that you can experiment with in your own backyard. While these seven examples may seem simple on the surface, the experiences I’ve observed my children having with them are quite profound.

#1 Stick

It’s late afternoon. The rain clouds have cleared and the sun is shining brightly. I’m high up on our ladder, tending to our one apple tree in our “orchard.” The tree is overgrown, dense, jungly. It hasn’t been cared for in years. Silas has woken up from his nap, and both he and Nyla watch in wonder as giant branches shimmering with moisture careen down from the sky and ricochet off lower branches like silvery pinball balls. The children “ooh” and “ahh” at every bump and twist. Being an Aspiring Good Father, I decide to give them jobs. I come down from the ladder and set down the tree trimmer. I instruct them to help me clear the branches away from the base of the tree in the orchard and move them to the center of our backyard. I tell them that, once they get all the branches piled up and I finish the trimming, we can all cut them up to be hauled away for compost. Before I finish, they have already given a nod of compliance and race into action. They love trees, leaves, and playing in the fresh air. Nyla grabs a branch and starts to pull it to the center of the backyard. Silas follows. So I pick up the tree trimmer and climb back up the ladder.

The tree is so full that I get lost in the canopy and focus on my work. Every now and then I look down to the base of the tree below and see the children clearing the branches. They aren’t fighting over expensive, breakable, manufactured toys or making a mess like they might indoors. I smile. I love when an impromptu plan goes well.

A few minutes later, I hear Nyla tell Silas, “Come in through the door.”

The “door??” I turn around on the ladder and peer through an opening in the canopy. I see the massive swath of branches they’ve been clearing. Instead of a giant pile in the center of the yard (as I instructed), they have arranged the branches into a sort of circle, with an open area on the northern side. I see Silas run in through the “door,” squealing with glee as he joins Nyla in the space they have apparently dedicated as their “home.” Over the next hour, the children scour the yard for containers, sand toys, pebbles, leaves, and other organic materials. A neighbor friend drops by and the three children sit in their new home and begin to sort their materials. When I finish putting the tree trimmer and ladder back into the garage and return,they invite me into their creation. The home has magically morphed into a shop. They introduce me to their collection of products and demand I make payment. I find some nearby dandelions that seem to be accepted as tender.

Nyla and Silas surrounded by apple tree branches in their new home.

Nyla and Silas surrounded by apple tree branches in their new home.

Rather than removing the branches that day, we decide to leave them in the yard for the children. Because I had cut so much of the tree, the pile of branches was quite large—a good 10’ x 8’ footprint. It looks like a mess, a tangle, a slash pile, a total blight on our manicured yard. My wife wonders, “When are you going to finish out there”? But for the children, it becomes the basis for imaginative play.

A week later, the children’s fondness for the apple tree branches wanes. I cut up the small branches for compost and clean up the larger ones to be used as poles for some unknown future project.

Uses

I’ve found sticks to be one of the most versatile natural toys in existence. They are a quintessential Loose Part, interoperable and able to be combined with a dizzying array of other toys and scenarios. Some examples include:

  • Walls, roofs, floors, windows, and doors for forts, castles, or dens
  • Weapons, from swashbuckling swords to pirate pistols
  • Mythical, magical, or practical equipment, from wizard staffs to fairy wands to land surveying tools
  • A crutch for the wounded or walking stick for the explorer
  • Sporting accouterments, from ball field goals to obstacle course materials
  • Body parts for snowman, stir rods, and straws for potions and concoctions

Where to Get

Wherever trees grow—which is almost everywhere—you can find sticks. If your yard is devoid of appropriate sticks (for example, twigs will not do!) or if you don’t have a yard, there are still a lot of good options, including:

  • Trees from a friend’s land
  • Forest Service or yard waste collection sites
  • Tree care service providers
  • Saw mills and lumber yards
  • Online ecommerce stores such as Etsy

I’ve found that you can get sticks and tree parts for free or close to free from all but online ecommerce stores. Sticks are unique in that they have minimal value commercially. In fact, they are typically costly to dispose of, and people are eager to give them to children. All it takes is a phone call and a short explanation.

Alternative Materials

Consider the range of a stick: full trees and large branches provide poles, and cuts of different lengths provide stumps or slices; there are tree boughs, seeds (depending on the tree), needles, and pine cones; and cutting smaller branches can provide blocks and coins. These expand and enrich the play possibilities, enhancing the profile of an ordinary stick and turning it into a shinning example of a Loose Part.

When sticks from trees aren’t available, there are many other good options, including:

  • Household rods
  • Landscaping materials like bamboo
  • Plumbing pipe
  • Construction lumber
  • Cut-up cardboard boxes
  • Closet rods
  • Handrail stock from lumbar yards

Alternate materials can be purchased at common home and building stores, like Bed Bath & Beyond and Home Depot. Whenever I buy paint at Home Depot I make sure to get paint stirring rods, as they can be recycled after use into terrifically sized daggers and swords (for those with children inclined towards noble swashbuckling and knight play).

#2 Rope

Nyla sits on the couch. A wickedly joyful smile peers out through the early dawn light cascading over her locks of hair and face. It’s her birthday and we’re opening presents. The next one is from me. I’m anxious, wondering if she will be confused or disappointed by my gift. She sets her freshly opened shimmering gold princess dress down, brushes aside the dolls, and reaches for the box I wrapped late last night. She feels the weight and shakes it. The irregular balance and sound doesn’t trigger any memories. She is perplexed. Her smile fades into curiosity. She pushes onward and tears off the paper. Silas reaches across the couch to assist. The lid is pried open. I almost hold my breath—she’s turning six and the last thing we want is a downpour of tears on her special day. She reaches in and slowly, bit by bit, yanks out a rope and pulley. She shrieks with joy. Literally shrieks. I’m so relieved! She “gets it” with such immediacy that a wave of pride charges through my body—I see that I’ve managed to raise a child who sees a rope and pulley for it’s potential: an open-ended, imaginative, creative play opportunity.

Later she instructs me to secure the pulley to a high branch of the poplar tree that flanks our backyard. Nyla quickly retrieves a galvanized steel bucket and ties the end of the bucket to the rope. She and Silas take turns standing and sitting in the bucket as we pull it up. Quickly, another idea strikes them, and we untie the rope and move to the orchard. She asks me to tie the rope to the maple tree and a nearby aspen tree.

It begins to rain, and it’s time for Silas to nap. He heads into the house, looking back longingly as Nyla ties the pulley with the galvanized bucket dangling from it to the rope that spans the two trees. Nyla races to the house and returns with rain jackets. She drags the bucket up the line and climbs up the wall by the maple tree, then jumps into the bucket and launches off the wall. The knot she’s tied is junk, so the rope slips apart and she tumbles down to the flat landing, crumpling with the bucket. She’s bruised—and a bit upset. But her courage does not yet depart her, and she continues the experiments—through the rain, on her birthday, getting soaked with mud and decorated with scratches and bruises.

Nyla pulling a galvanized bucket through the rain, draped from a pulley and a rope tied between two trees. Purpose: play.

Nyla pulling a galvanized bucket through the rain, draped from a pulley and a rope tied between two trees. Purpose: play.

Uses

Ropes are special. They can be used independently, but have the added advantage of being able to be connected to just about anything. For this reason, they are joiners. They provide a surprisingly diverse range of play opportunities, whether being used to lift, pull, tie, or swing. Some examples include:

  • Create rides, from swings to tight wires.
  • Hang buckets that hold water, treasures, or other organic material.
  • Secure textile to form forts or castles.
  • Create borders to indicate imaginary buildings or obstacle courses.
  • “Sewing,” such as making capes or secure dress-up clothes.
  • Fashion lassos or bridles to play cowboys of the old west.
  • Building animal, insect, and mythical creature dens, such as spider webs.
  • Tying to trees to create ladders.
  • Drawing wild and fantasy beings, like snakes and serpents.

Where to Get

There are a wide variety of different types of ropes, and it can quickly become overwhelming to decide what kind of rope to get. My considerations for a rope included:

  • Durability: I wanted a rope that could be left outside and withstand the elements (rain, snow, sun).
  • Price: I didn’t know if the children would play with the rope, so I was eager to find an inexpensive option.
  • Comfort: I wanted something that would feel good in their hands so they would be eager to handle the rope and not be turned off by the texture.

In looking at the different materials that are used to make ropes, some are obviously better when it comes to being left outside in the elements. For example, nylon is a plastic that is far more mildew resistant than a cotton rope. This is one area where I decided to make a trade-off. To keep the price low and find a comfortable rope, I decided to be open to getting ropes that might only make it through one season. You can spend more or sacrifice comfort to get one that will last longer, but I don’t think it is worth it.

I began my search by looking for climbing ropes, because I imagined my children wanting a rope strong enough to lift, pull, and hang. Plus, they are colorful and designed for handling with bare hands. However, because climbing ropes are built to hold weight and have all these amazing characteristics of stretch, they cost more. Finding an inexpensive rope really limits your options, which is ok and makes the decision easier.

In our front yard we have a rope swing that is a 1″ natural fiber rope tied to a log. This rope is aesthetically pleasing—it has a bit of an iconic/quintessential look to it—and it has lasted for a couple years. But it’s very uncomfortable on children’s hands and legs, and in retrospect I think they would be happier with a different material. I’ve tested out some cotton ropes, but those mildew very quickly. If you live in a dryer area, they might work fine.

Notice that strength isn’t one of my major considerations. Since the rope was going to be used as a joiner (versus a piece of a tree house, for instance), I figured a rope that can hold hundreds of pounds was no safer than one that would break at 10 pounds—and in fact was perhaps more dangerous.

Once you decide what kind of rope will work best for you, you have a few options of where to get them:

  • Climbing gyms (they retire ropes early out of concerns for safety, and either donate or recycle them)
  • Sporting good shops or hardware shops
  • Specialty shops

Alternative Materials

Two other materials you can use as joiners are:

  • Bicycle tubes (with the air valves cut out)
  • Chains (with any sharpness removed)

I love using bicycle tubes because bike shops that have service centers replace a lot of tubes that have holes in them. They tend to collect them and then recycle them, and I’ve found that they are all willing to give you the tubes for free. Use a scissors or Exacto knife to remove the valves. Bicycle tubes are interesting to play with because they are very elastic and create new modes of playing.

Considerations for Pulleys

It’s worth getting a pulley or two if you’re going to get a rope—they introduce a surprisingly engaging group of physics and mechanics. Children instinctively seem to know how to use pulleys, which might seem counter-intuitive to us as adults. Knowing what kind of pulley to get was not so instinctive.

Here’s what I based my decision on:

  • Lifting ratio power: I did not want a block and tackle style that could offer something in the 7:1 or more lifting ratio power. This would make it easy for children to lift very heavy things, which, while fun, would require constant adult supervision and did not seem safe. Instead, I wanted a simple pulley that had just one wheel and would limit the amount of lifting power the children could have, equal to their strength.
  • Fit: The pulley has to fit the rope.
  • Durability: I wanted a metal pulley that wouldn’t be easily broken by misuse. I assumed the children would not be pulling evenly, but instead would be putting erratic pressure on the pulley from incorrect angles, etc.

Gift Wrapping Guide

Here’s a slight digression that I think is worthwhile mentioning.

I think these toys can be wrapped when given to children. Gift-wrapping is a ceremonial act that indicates the value that you as the gift giver assign to the gift. While it may seem silly to wrap some of these toys, my experience has been that children respond well to receiving a gift when it follows the common patterns of other gifts they receive. That tells them the gift has meaning and that you as the parent see value in the object. The object may not have cost you anything, and it may be used, but wrap it anyway! For large gifts, you can wrap them as you might a bike or other too-big item: Put a bow on them.

Nyla opening her rope and pulley, wrapped for her birthday along with bamboo poles.

Nyla opening her rope and pulley, wrapped for her birthday along with bamboo poles.

Keep in mind that for children who are inexperienced with Loose Parts or other toys that come with no instructions, pictures, or marketing pizzazz, you may need to help them move into action. For these reasons, I tend to:

  • Have little to no expectations of how my kids will respond to the toys.
  • Start small and inexpensive—ideally free.
  • Iterate: if at first you don’t succeed then try, try again!
  • Don’t be afraid of failure (I’ve had a lot of failures, but I just remove them).
  • Expect internal and inter-family conflicts about some items that may blemish the backyard.

#3 Tire

It is 2:30 PM and Silas is napping. I put the lawnmower and weed whacker back into the garage and return to the backyard. There are gardening and weeding tools scattered around. I walk around admiring how nice our backyard looks after having spent the morning cleaning it up. The trees are in full leaf, delicately slicing streams of sunshine across the grass. A robin soars from one bough across to a post on the fence that runs along the side of the yard, then drops down to pluck up some twigs and flutters away. Squirrels hop along the base of the apple tree in the orchard. I can hear gurgles from the stream in the valley beyond our gates. It’s pretty idyllic. Then I remember I need to get my car tires replaced. I wonder if my children would enjoy playing with one of the car tires.

An hour later, I’ve returned from the local tire shop. I learned that the tire shop charges a fee to recycle tires when you purchase new ones. Instead of paying the fee for each of the four tires, I decide to keep two of them. We wash the tires off in the driveway. With a slight bit of trepidation and anxiety, I roll one of the used tires into the beautifully appointed backyard. Silas is awake now and the children have been watching as I put a piece of my vehicle in the backyard. I step back, hoping for the best…

In no time, the children have climbed aboard the tire, as it lies on its side. They circle about the rim, balancing by holding each other’s hands, laughing and crashing and climbing aboard over and again. They find a nearby watering can, fill it to the brim, and return to “paint” the tire with water. At one point—and with much tenacity—the children lift the tire upright. They proceed to try to balance on it, but fail, bombing down into the freshly cut blades of grass. Then Nyla climbs into the tire, her body performing a contortion to weld her shoulders and limbs into the recesses of the rubber. The instant her last limb is brought into the cavity, the balance is compromised and the tire teeters, with her in it, landing flat against the ground. I imagine the weight of an asphalt-grade vehicle part crushing down upon her small figure. My heart skips a beat. She is facedown inside the tire and not making a sound. I run towards them with the vision of her emerging with a bloody mangled face racing through my mind. But as I near the tire, she untangles her pretzel self and emerges, with scrapes and a burst of glee dancing across her face.

Nyla and Silas getting acquainted with the car tire newly set in our backyard.

Nyla and Silas getting acquainted with the car tire newly set in our backyard.

Later, the sun cuts past the tree boughs and heats up the lawn. They children have managed to move one of the baby pools next to the tire. They’ve filled the pool with a few inches of water and are jumping from the tire into the pool. It is a slippery proposition. They slide and fall and crash more, cooling off from the heat.

Of course, having a used automobile tire in the backyard draws criticism from my wife. When she comes out to inspect the goings-on—with an iced drink and her sun hat, having just showered off the day of gardening to enjoy the beauty we’d created—her face gives way to a quiver of sadness when she sees the car tire smack dab in the middle of the lawn. Moments later, however, her mood brightens when she sees how much fun the children are having.

Her reaction was exactly what I was feeling as I had rolled the tire around back. Is this crazy? Am I making our backyard look like a…a junkyard? Eventually, I rolled the tire into the sandbox, where it is less of a visual atrocity but still easily accessible.

Uses

The rubber that tires are made of is resilient and does not attract cats, dogs, rodents, or insects. It also retards weed growth (not to mention grass growth!). Unlike typical wood or fibers, the rubber does not decay (at least at any noticeable rate) since rainy weather and freezing temperatures don’t cause it to rot. The Consumer Products Safety Committee reports that tires used in playgrounds do not catch fire, do not leach, are not toxic, and have a documented cushioning benefit. If tires are treated with paint, flammability concerns are even further reduced. These characteristics provide a long life for a tire in a playspace. Their shape and buoyancy lend them to some lovely play opportunities, including:

  • Climbing, jumping, and building (such as jungle gyms or structure building)
  • Lifting and rolling (creating an unusually large but light toy for circus and sporting-type games)
  • An instant space for crawling and residing, such as forts, dens, and launch pads
  • Planter box, such as growing flowers and other flora

Where to Get

Buying new tires is not ideal, due to the cost. However, as I discovered, tire service centers face the challenge of what to do with used tires that have been replaced on their customer’s vehicles. Thus, they provide an ideal source. But there are other options as well:

  • Your own tires after they have been replaced.
  • Tire service centers (just call them!).
  • Smaller tires can be acquired from places that have go-carts and other amusement park rides that use tires.
  • Larger tires can be acquired from working farms after use.
  • Automobiles, farm equipment, hardware supply stores (think wheelbarrow wheels).

Tires work best as Loose Parts when they are sized such that the children can manipulate them. Tires too large for small children to move about become less engaging.

Drainage

When designers use tires in playgrounds, they consider drainage. For example, some designers require holes to be drilled in the tires to allow drainage, while others fill the tires with sand to impede water collection. What’s unusual about tires is that when the water does collect in the recesses, it is surprisingly difficult to get out due to the lip of the rim. I’ve found you can’t quite get it out just by flipping and dropping the tire about. I used a ¼” drill bit to drill four holes in either side of the rim to ensure water drained and didn’t accumulate and get yucky.

Alternative Materials

  • Gymnastic landing mats, ramps
  • Inflatable swimming tires
  • Reclaimed industrial wooden spools (also known as wire or cable reels)

These types of materials can be found at Etsy, Amazon, or Home Depot stores.

#4 Bucket

It’s early morning and we’ve returned from a short bike ride around nearby Wonderland Lake. Lunch is a ways away, so I decide to make a run for some supplies for the backyard. I load Silas and Nyla up in the car and we drive to a local indoor climbing gym and ask if they have any rope they can donate to our cause. This gym, like others, has an ongoing supply of used climbing ropes that are no longer suitable for climbing. They are a big climbing gym and have a lot of this used rope sitting around, so they are happy to donate some to us as long as we promise not to use it for climbing. We follow the manager into the gym, past multi-story climbing walls studded with holds, and into the back where they store equipment. She pulls out two 50’ ropes and four 10’ ropes. We are thrilled to get so much rope for free to add to our collection!

It’s afternoon now and the cousins have arrived from California for a visit! The children are in the backyard experimenting with the ropes, tying them in spider-web-like configurations, using tree branches, the fence, and—amazingly, finally!—the geodesic dome. Then two medium-sized galvanized buckets draw their attention. Inside of the buckets are dozens of tree coins, thin slices of an aspen tree branch I had made days earlier. They untie a shorter rope from the spider web and secure one end to the handle of the galvanized buckets, then repeat the process with a second bucket. Then they drape the ropes over their shoulders and march to the swing set. The older children climb up the swing set and manage to climb on top of the monkey bars—all while holding the galvanized buckets from the ropes slung over their shoulders. Now the buckets swing down below, where the younger children proceed to remove and replace the tree coins. The buckets are swung back and forth. The children jump. They use all their might to haul the buckets up and down, tying and retying. I wonder what is dancing in their imaginations? Is it a construction site? A sky shop? Are the older children feeding wild animals below with cookies from the clouds? It is anyone’s guess, but they are entertained for hours.

Nyla and Silas securing climbing ropes to hang buckets of tree coins.

Nyla and Silas securing climbing ropes to hang buckets of tree coins.

Uses

Buckets have such incredible capacity for play. For example:

  • Carrying supplies
  • Mixing potions and soups
  • Transporting water
  • Building materials for forts and dens
  • Use as a ladder
  • Use as a swimming hole
  • Use as a zip line, or to be hoisted up into the air
  • Sand castle building
  • Homes for pretend beings

Where to Get

Buckets can be made of just about anything: plastic, metal, wood, glass, and even ceramic. Each material has advantages and disadvantages. Plastic has the advantage of hurting less if the bucket is thrown and contacts a child. Wood has an appealing aesthetic but decays quickest. Glass and ceramic are a nice weight, but can be dangerous if shattered. Metal is a favorite of ours for it’s ability to withstand the elements and children’s propensity to handle their toys roughly, but can have sharp edges, especially around the handles and lip.

While it is easy enough to find buckets online, I’ve found that it’s nice to see them in person to get a sense of their size. Regardless, you can acquire buckets at some of the following places:

  • Landscaping, gardening, farm, and hardware supply stores
  • Online at eBay, Amazon, and supply stores

Alternative materials

You can avoid buying buckets (if you don’t have any) by using materials that are typically found in households, including:

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Discarded pot plant containers
  • Kitchen containers (plastic and cardboard milk jugs, for example)
  • Cooking pots and pans
  • Glasses (I suggest plastic over glass, as glass can easily break)

#5 Sheet

It’s a lazy afternoon. Chinook winds kick sand up from the sandbox now and again, dusting the arcs of the children’s swinging. They tire of pumping and drift, swing chains clanging haphazardly. The moment slides quietly into entropy. Nearby, rocketing high into the air, is a teepee I made earlier in the day. Or at least part of a teepee. Wielding my Eagle Scout skills, I had lashed four larger tree limbs together in a tripod-like arrangement and then spread each of the legs to create a teepee. I am pleased to see that my skills from decades ago are still intact, but the children are uninterested. As their interest in the swings wanes, I decide to see if I can find a sheet to make the tripod into a more legitimate teepee, with hopes that it will captivate the children. I find a small piece of fabric and return to the backyard.

I wrap the sheet around the legs, rolling it around two of the legs at the ends to create a doorway. It’s pretty poorly designed, but is holding its shape. I crawl in. It works! I peak my head out again and yell over to the children, “Come into the teepee!” In a flash they transform into Excitement Rockets, sailing out of the Doldrums and into the Adventure Backyard, diving, sliding, and cascading into the teepee. In no time, they take possession of the teepee and I am given a swift exit. As any new homeowner will, the children quickly begin interior design, furnishing, and slight renovations.

Their favorite toys—from sticks to ropes to buckets—are drawn as if by magnets to this new playspace. The next day and throughout the weeks that follow, the children assume the roles of archaeologists, yet rather than uncovering layers of dirt and time, they rummage through our house in search of sheets. When a suitable sheet is found, it is quickly brought outside and added to the collection of toys and other Loose Parts. The teepee becomes an outpost for a larger village, consisting of sprawling dens constructed at the bases of trees, festival sites on the lawn where colorful mosaics makes up the platform upon which feasts are held, and much more.

Nyla displays her wares beneath the makeshift teepee.

Nyla displays her wares beneath the makeshift teepee.

Uses

Sheets are uniquely qualified. They are materials that children can manipulate,but also block out the outside world, making for a private setting beyond the purview of adults (which is important in child development). Because they are flexible and easy to cut and tie, they have a range of other engaging play opportunities. These include:

  • Material for floors, walls, ceilings, doors, teepees, forts, dens, and homes
  • Slung around the body as robes, capes, dresses, and general ceremonial garb
  • Corners pulled together to create a bag for carrying things
  • An accessory for built/imagined creatures, or material for building a creature (think dragon, snowman, etc.)
  • Decoration of a playspace (think hanging a tapestry in one’s home, but outside and by children)
  • Roadways in a playland

Where to Get

While sheets can be purchased at obvious bed and bath type stores, these are also a perfect material to find used or recycled. You can find sheets at these types of places:

  • Extras in your own house that are too old too use
  • Friends who may have extras that are not used
  • Online or brick & mortar bed and bath stores
  • Garage sales
  • Second-hand stores

Alternative materials

Sheets combine ideal size and softness. However, there are a lot of different types of textiles that work nicely and have other benefits. Some include:

  • Towels (especially good for lying on top of grass, and snow play)
  • Silks and sarongs (lightweight and small, easy for smaller children to use)
  • Canvas (more durable than most sheets, some canvas includes waterproof backing)
  • Tarps (come in a variety of sizes, well-suited for a variety of surfaces, waterproof, relatively inexpensive)
  • Large pillows (nice for floors, walls, stacking)
  • Tapestry, rugs, carpet

#6 Water

“Hey guys, I know! It’s perfect!” Nyla says as we drive home after a visit to Home Depot. Being inspired by the last few months of Loose Parts play in the backyard, I have decided to test out some construction materials that I’d seen documented at playgrounds and preschools around the Web: vinyl gutters and PVC pipe. When I first took the materials off the shelf at Home Depot, I felt a wave of anxiety and awkwardness. Was I really buying gutters and pipe for my children to play with as toys? Yes, yes I was. Are they really going to play with them? I don’t know. The gutter cost $3.97. Together with the pipe, they cost less than a couple cups of Starbucks coffee. I knew that bringing them home and putting them into the playspace would make the backyard look like a junkyard. This was a fully committed plunge into the world of Loose Parts and Adventure Playgrounds.

But my fears quickly melt away on the drive home. Nyla is excited, and her excitement is contagious.

When we arrive home, I carry the gutter and pipe into the backyard. And then something unexpected and magical happens. The children quickly set to gathering other Loose Parts and begin crafting something spellbinding. They tie the gutter up to a low limb on a tree using rubber bicycle tube. They make an arrangement of miscellaneous boards, buckets, and containers, and place the loose end of the gutter on top of these. They collect tree coins and then run into the house to find an array of discarded bath toys—a dilapidated mermaid and two spare yellow ducks—before returning to their creation.

They move a garden hose to the top of the gutter, securing it with more bicycle tubes, and then turn it on full blast. They have created a water slide! For the next hour they launch tree coins, mermaids, and ducks down the slide. Eventually, the bicycle tube lashing loosens and the slide crashes. They resolve to balance it on the mess of planks and buckets, and continue. At one point, the hose is attached to the end of the PVC pipe, which has been moved to the deck above the backyard. A giant stream of water plumes through and down from the end of the pipe, a cascading waterfall crashing into the gutter. It is magnificent. Games of nonsense ensue, with the children collecting and placing tree coins in elaborate sequences, only to watch them get pushed by waves of water and roll across the slide.

It’s time for lunch—and I hear thunder, which means rain. I start picking things up. “Maybe it’s just a giant stepping on the ground,” says Nyla. They’re glued to it. Minutes later I have to physically remove them from the backyard and into the house for lunch.

Nyla and Silas running tree coins down the water-filled vinyl gutter.

Nyla and Silas running tree coins down the water-filled vinyl gutter.

That day, they return to the backyard two more times. Silas is so adamant about wanting to keep playing that he refuses to nap. They negotiate to eat dinner outside, and by bedtime I remove the third set of soggy, muddy, grassy, dirty outfits and put the children down for a well-deserved slumber. Yee-haa!

Uses

Water is magnetic. It draws children in any environment and holds their attention for hours. To allow water into the realm of toys, it is best to find a way to make it self-serve. In my experience, garden hoses are a good start for this, but children will often leave the water running indefinitely. To regulate water use, I’ve found a simple self-closing sprayer works well. Likewise, I’ve found self-closing spigot attachments work. Other useful approaches include large containers of water, whether entirely open like a bucket, or five- to seven-gallon water jugs with plastic spigot spouts. My favorite—although more expensive and requiring some assembly—are hand pumps that can be mounted on 30-gallon containers. With self-serve water, so much is possible. Some examples:

  • Water slides, whether for children or objects
  • Tubs for washing bodies, clothes, parts
  • Supply for making soups, potions, and other concoctions, whether as part of an outdoor mud kitchen or independently
  • Source for pools, ponds, bird baths
  • Rivers and landscaping
  • Watering plants, flowers, and other things the children might wish to grow
  • Painting on rocks, fences, decks, and other surfaces
  • Pouring and practicing other motor skills

Where to Get

Parts to facilitate self-serve water can be found in a variety of places:

  • Garden, landscaping, or home improvement supply stores
  • Online at Amazon, eBay
  • Garage sales, free stuff on curb, or Craigslist

Alternative Materials

If you’re not interested in buying or sourcing anything new or used, your own kitchen can surely spare some containers to carry water to the backyard!

# 7 Mud Kitchen

Saturday morning and my wife is at an exercise class. I decide to stay at home, and have managed to get the children outside by around 9:30 AM. They seem bored, and I’m a bit bored too. I survey the backyard and see one unfinished project after another. There’s our neglected land we want to convert into a garden. There’s our orchard that was manicured the previous summer but is now in dire need of weeding. There’s the row of bushes and trees that all need trimming. Closer to the house along the side fence are unused trellis. I think of all the outdoor kitchens—mud kitchens—that have inspired my wife and me to dream of crafting one of our own. The pictures online present kitchens that are elegantly designed with serious craftsmanship—no doubt the work of Super Dads. I glance back across the lawn and see my children mulling about in the weeds and sandbox. I wonder what can be accomplished in a day, using the spare trellis and other junk that might be piling up in our garage. I head into the garage and see an old IKEA spice rack and hooks. I decide to see what I can fashion quickly that my children can play with that morning.

Just 30 minutes later, I’ve screwed the trellis to a rotting old plank and attached four 2x4s for legs. Nyla and Silas help me carry the rickety contraption to the backyard and we place it beneath the deck. We forage for some sand, dirt, leaves, twigs, and other organic material. I put some water into a sand bucket and presto—we have a mud kitchen. The children immediately start playing with the mud kitchen and continue to do so for hours.

Nyla and Silas mixing potions in the rickety mud kitchen.

Nyla and Silas mixing potions in the rickety mud kitchen.

Uses

While mud kitchens have the primary function of providing an outdoor kitchen to “cook” in, they can lead to all sorts of play around the backyard. Some of these include:

  • Cooking in the mud kitchen
  • Collecting organic materials for the mud kitchen
  • Transporting water to the mud kitchen
  • Creating a dining room for the “feast”
  • “Feasting”
  • Setting up drying racks for mud creations

Where to Get

While you can buy elaborate pre-fabricated mud kitchens of excellent craftsmanship, I suggest sourcing materials simply and progressively over time, allowing children to co-create their kitchen.

  • Garage sales
  • Free stuff left on sidewalks
  • Free stuff offered on Craigslist
  • Your garage or friends’ garages
  • Your indoor kitchen

Alternative materials

  • Cardboard boxes
  • Crates

I hesitated to include the mud kitchen as one of the toys in this book because of how elaborate it seems. But it has been one of our more outstanding experiments for two years running, and you can actually start very simply–see my book Mud Kitchen in a Day for more info.

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