7 Ways to Encourage Imaginative Play Outdoors

The sun's shining and it's never been a better time to get the TV and the electronic gadgets turned off and get outside.  Just like play indoors, there are lots of opportunities for storytelling and role play outside.  Encouraging these opportunities can help children develop their storytelling, literacy and drama skills, widen their imagination, and help with an understanding of some maths and physics principles, as well as the more obvious development of physical and social skills.

Here's how you can create opportunities for imaginative play outdoors:

1. Create Child-Friendly Areas

You may not want children marauding across your prize-winning courgettes or marigolds, so create areas where they can interact with the earth or other natural materials, and let them play.  Try not to place too many restrictions on what can and can't be taken outside.  Plastic animals, dinosaurs, dolls etc will all wash fine, so let them play!

One of our plant pots is currently a Lalaloopsy adventure playground:

Plant a special area with herbs and child-friendly plants, maybe with some whimsical objects or interesting shells or stones to spark all sorts of imaginative adventures and tales.

2. Encourage Role Play

Dressing up and role play doesn't have to end at the back door.  Remember when we made dressing up costumes with odds and ends, rather than buying them off the peg at the supermarket?  Visit your local charity shops on the look out for fun dressing up clothes that you won't be worried about getting messy.  Provide kitchen equipment, or a play kitchen or barbecue, and some tea sets.  Hours of fun!

You could also join in with re-creating your local high street, complete with signs and shops; or play shops with petals or leaves for pennies, with which to buy exotically shaped stone and leaf goods; and never overlook the potential of a simple cardboard box or length of pipe.

Just as you would hoard junk for creating indoors, start an outdoor junk collection too.  That massive appliance box would make a brilliant car/space rocket/house.  Just add some play silks, stones, sticks, leaves, pine cones, shells or seedpods. and they're away.

3. Provide Shelter

Whether to shelter from the sun, to set up as a camp or home, a place to have a snack and a drink, or just to lie down for a rest, make sure the children have some shelter to relax in.  A playhouse is great, a bamboo, willow or bean tent amazing, but for more creative opportunities a play tent or wigwam is ideal.  And of course it works indoors too if the weather changes its mind.

Instead of pretend tea parties, why not get the children involved in making their own picnic breakfast, lunch or dinner?  (Or all three!)  Ask them to plan the menu, help you shop for it, prepare, serve and eat it.  Lots of opportunities for learning - maths, literacy, science, nutrition, cooking - and fun!

4. Let Them Get Mucky

Or wet, or both.  A mud kitchen would be ideal of course, but most of us don't have the room for one alas.  Instead, gather a selection of equipment in a large bucket or wheelbarrow and let them get stuck in.  Raid your cupboards or ask around of friends and family for items such as:
  • old colanders or sieves, metal or plastic
  • plastic containers, plates or bowls
  • jugs, metal or plastic
  • old utensils

Mud pies never tasted so good!  Although you may want to make it a rule that everyone strips off at the back door, or provide a bucket to wash up in before they come indoors covered in mud.  And all that mud is fantastic for the immune system.

Sensory play is also ideal outdoors, whether in a permanent sand pit or simple containers or a tuff spot; ditto paint or bubbles or chalks, rice or porridge oats.  Have a look on Pinterest for sensory play ideas.  And why can't art and craft activities take place outdoors?  Go all Jackson Pollock on a sheet, or buy a cheap roll of wallpaper to doodle on, or just take your easel outside.  Who knows what creating in the great outdoors will inspire.

5. Create Scientists

Encourage children to examine the natural world and everything in it.  Investigate the water cycle, or floating and sinking, don't shy away from the wind or rain, measure it; create habitats for mini-beasts or identify the species you find; create bird tables full of treats and then see who visits.  Lend them an old digital camera and let your budding nature photographer snap away at caterpillars, butterflies and ants.

Gardening is science too, and what better way to learn about the life cycle or needs of plants than to help them grow.  Plant some fast-growing salad leaves or vegetables, such as radishes, and give the children sole responsibility for tending and watering their plot.  Involve your child in caring for the garden, teach them how to sow and grow, how to safely look for and gently handle the mini beasts that live there.  And best of all they get to eat their plants too!

See: How to Teach Children to Garden

6. Don't Overlook Active Play

Make sure there is space to move and toys and games to encourage the children to be physically active too.  Running races or chasing is great, but encourage other skills such as hopping, balancing, jumping, throwing, skipping, sliding, swinging, rolling.

The pound shops have a great selection of skipping ropes, balls, foam javelins etc from now onwards, so stock up.  There's no reason why your swing set or climbing frame can't become a pirate ship for the afternoon, or a simple hula hoop a treasure island.  A bubble machine is ideal for chasing, running and jumping, with or without a paddling pool.  Just imagine how many fairies may be lurking in those bubbles...

7. Allow Plenty of Time

The magic ingredient of all imaginative play is not the resources, but the time to enjoy them.  Provide lots of blocks of time for free, unstructured play, either alone or with friends or siblings.  Freedom to enjoy the outdoor space, plus their own imagination, is the main ingredient for all play.

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Post in association with Big Game Hunters.