Mud and a Water Bucket: Outdoor Unstructured Play for Toddlers

I recently read this article in Huffington Post (worth a read, but basically summed up by the quote below from Angela Hanscom) that really got me thinking: experts recommend 3 HOURS (!!) of unstructured outdoor play for kids every day.  That doesn’t include organized sports. I have a 3 1/2 year-old and an 18-month-old, and we try to get outside A LOT.  But 3 hours a day, and unstructured?? Meaning I’m not sitting around blowing bubbles for them, or pushing them on a swing, or “cheerfully” encouraging my son to keep trudging home on an “extra long” walk. the importance of outdoorFree play for toddlers.png

But it made sense to me – as much as parents should provide guidance through great activities for their kids, there is also so much learning that takes place when kids are playing and exploring without our direct help!  Imagination and curiosity (as well as all those gross and fine motor skills!) bloom when kids are left to their own devices…in fact, they often see and do things in unique ways that adults would never think of!

Movement through active free play, especially outside, improves everything from creativity to academic success to emotional stability. Kids who don’t get to do this can have so many issues, from problems with emotion.png

Free play isn’t necessarily unsupervised play or unguided play, especially when dealing with toddlers.  Structured educational activities open up a great opportunity for unstructured outdoor play after you are done. Freezing and Melting Ice Exploration or The Titanic Game! (Buoyancy with Aluminum Foil Boats) are some fun science activities that appeal to all ages. (I mean, after all, many great scientific discoveries came about because of ‘mistakes’ made in the laboratory!) Rather than cleaning up right after the activity is done, step back and let the kids continue to ‘experiment’ with the materials on their own.  You have already created a safe environment and provided a framework for how to manipulate the materials, so kids’ imaginations can take over after you are done being the ‘teacher!’  (Other fun activities that set the stage for lots of outdoor free play are: Bubbly Designs: a baking soda and vinegar activity , Color Mixing with Ice and Colorful Liquid Density Columns.)

Here are a few more easy ways to set up and invite outdoor free play for kids under 3:

  1. Sand: Even you don’t have a real sandbox in your backyard (or even a backyard!), you can make a portable one using a plastic bin and some sand from the hardware store.  Fill it with cups, scoops, sieves, brushes, (even natural items like rocks or sticks)... basically anything that will manipulate the sand.  Set it outside, put your toddler down and back away.  (If you have a sand-eater like I do, you may have to step in once in a while. But let’s face it, all kids are going to ingest some sand here and there, and unless your cat has been using it as a litter box, it probably won’t hurt them!)

    The sandbox is a favorite at our house, although my little girl always ends up covered in it!
  2. Dirt: We have had several dirt mounds in our yard over the years, since my husband loves to landscape and build stuff. And honestly, the kids have always liked the dirt mound better than the sand box!  Dirt is cheap (free, if you know where to look!) and with a few shovels or toy trucks it can become your kid’s new favorite toy.  And for everyone out there who is cringing over the idea of mud and dirt everywhere, let me just remind you… IT WASHES OFF.  Kids are very washable, especially when the weather is warm and you can hose them off outside!

    What kid can resist a good dirt mound and a stick?
  3. Water: Much like a sandbox, you don’t need to spend a bunch of money on a Little Tykes water table for your kids to enjoy water play.  My kids always pull off the cute spinny and squirty parts from their water table as soon as we get it out anyway.  Get some cheap buckets or plastic bins and fill them with water!  What they really want is a bunch of water to splash around, fill up cups and dump them, float things, build rock dams, and make mud soup.  In fact, you could set the bin of sand and the bin of water next to each other (on top of the dirt mound if you are really feeling brave) and see what happens!

    Our water table doubles as a mud pit.
  4. Paint: Repurpose all the old cardboard (from larges boxes or even cereal boxes) into canvases for messy outdoor art!  Set up the kids with cardboard sheets or full boxes and fingerpaint in the yard or driveway (and back away).  Let them create!  This is a good time to remember that children are very washable.  And fingerpaint is too! You can hose off the driveway when they are done (or leave it for Dad to find when he gets home and tell him it’s permanent spray paint).

    Perhaps they got more paint on the cardboard than they did on themselves. Perhaps.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Love this post. We love getting dirty when we play. We currently have a table full of sand on the deck. Do I have sand everywhere in my house, yes, but he loves driving his trucks thru the sand so much ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I have struggled with the reality of everything being dirty ALL THE TIME. But now I’ve accepted it and plan to replace the carpet in 5 years. 😉


  2. Kayla says:

    This is a lifesaver!!! It’s so hard thinking of ideas. I’ve been stuck in a rut lately! Thanks for sharing 🙂


  3. Amy says:

    Great ideas, we need to get more sand for our sand and water table. I have not tried paint, but will have to put on my list, looks like so much fun!


  4. The paint looks super fun. It is good to let kids get messy. As long as they are safe allow them to have fun.


  5. healthyhappymomofmany says:

    I love for my girls to make a mess and be creative, its when they start putting it in there hair or wanting to taste it that drives me a little bonkers. haha. We are working on it.


  6. ashrupp says:

    Yay! So many fun free outdoor play ideas! It’s easy to forget that you don’t need a lot of gear to make kids happy outside. They just want to get messy!


  7. We probably don’t get outside every day (although my daughter has that option, whenever she wants), but when we do, it’s usually for a zillion hours at a time. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this with us at #FridayFrivolity this week!


  8. rodandmegs says:

    I have five kids, and we are definitely outdoor people! My kids for sure get three or more hours a day of unstructured outdoor time. Building things, getting dirty, inventing games and machines… I love this post.


    1. Thanks! It’s seems like such an old- fashioned notion in this day and age of technology, but it’s definitely what’s best for kids!


  9. rawsonjl says:

    My kids are Waaaay beyond the toddler years and they still enjoy getting messy and dirty.


    1. Haha! That’s the way it should be!


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