Who needs toys anyway?
We've been having so much fun at Nature playgroup lately, playing with mostly dirt and water! It has made me wonder whether we truly need plastic toys...or can the kids have a great time without them?
I will always be a fan of a good trampoline, and a swing or trapeze is a fabulous way for a child to spend their time, but perhaps we don't need to buy too many other things to keep the kids happy? There is certainly more awareness nowadays about the environmental cost of overconsumption, and kids toys are one area that is easy to limit. Many families belong to toy libraries, which are a fabulous idea as kids do get sick of toys eventually, and it's nice to hand them back and chose something else. What if we go a step further and limit the toys even more? That would certainly make life more simple!
What is available outdoors to keep the kids enthralled, whilst still allowing them to move their bodies, use their imagination and learn something new? Sticks, trees, dirt, water, leaves, big branches, logs, tree stumps, bark, mud, puddles.....
Who needs a plastic drum kit, when you have a stick and a tree or a fence?
A cubbyhouse? Build your own with sticks!
A battery-operated, ride-on toy? How about a log that wobbles?
A plastic slide? How about a grassy hill, a muddy hill, a giant piece of bark or a giant rock?
Glitter, paint and expensive art supplies? How about leaves, rose petals, mud, herbs and water?
Even toys that are designed for "creative play" can sometimes stifle children's creativity and imagination by having only one or two uses. All the creativity has been used up in the making of the toy! A stick on the other hand, can be a thousand things. A magic wand, a ruler, a building block for a tower, stuck into the mud or sand to build a castle or a fairy garden. It could then go on to become a pretend campfire, a mast for a bark boat, a horse to ride on, a person, a broom, a giant pencil for drawing pictures in the dirt...the list is endless. Children are amazingly adept at finding new and novel ways to use sticks, rocks and sand and I'm regularly thrilled with how creative their minds can be.
Play is just about the best way to learn. The pace of growth can seem miraculous at times, but there is a lot to work on! A wonderful place to play, explore and learn is outside. Even in a seemingly boring outdoor space there is a whole raft of possibilities for play. Different sounds, smells, colours and textures abound when you start to look. Learning, creativity, imagination and play become a whole body experience. All those things that we adults haven't noticed for years become wonderful and interesting again when viewed through the eyes of your child.
The very young can explore sensory experiences such as texture, temperature, taste and smell. Older toddlers might just love the sensation of mixing, pushing and pulling with "tools". Or they might feel like using their whole body to spin, run and balance. The children in my Nature playgroups cannot get enough of pouring water, mixing mud, jumping in puddles and splashing in the "rivers" we make. We pour vessels of water down the rocks to make these "rivers". Sometimes we make a path in the dirt for the water to flow, sometimes we just wait and see where it ends up. Then we run/walk back to the tap to refill the bucket or container and carry the "heavy" bottles back to the rocks to do it all again! The kids are fully engaged, excited but calm, strong, confident and capable. The children themselves are always the driver of the fun, we adults just help to make it happen! In these cases I just love the playfulness that this encourages. There is no mess to clean up when we leave the place behind, apart from the kids, of course! The kids will often require a change of clothes before heading home! The plus side of this is that clothes can be cleaned and dried, ready to do it all again. The kids generally sleep solidly after all that fresh air, adventure and physical exertion too.
It's not all sunny skies and calm children however. There are still big, screaming tantrums, loud voices, squabbles over whose turn to use the tap and tears when the kids fall over. We are still working with kids after all! On these days the birds stay well away from us, but the children are all eventually calmed in the open space, and have opportunities to run it off.
In the early days, not all parents have felt comfortable with the mess, the shoes off, the waste of water, the risks and other elements of their kid's play. This is a very valid point and these parents generally need a bit more time to come around to the idea of more time outside. Being a parent/carer is such a tough job as there are many expectations (both self-imposed and societally-imposed) and a constant stream of somewhat conflicting advice. It's hard to know what to choose sometimes! Like anything though, the more familiar we become with an idea and the more practice we have with managing it, the easy it becomes. The first steps are always the toughest as we work through the unknowns. Thankfully, the benefits nearly always outweigh the risks, and the risks are manageable with time and experience.
The good news is that once outdoor play becomes more familiar for you and your family, you'll discover that there are many, many places to visit for outdoor fun. Many of them are free to visit too, which is always a bonus! You'll have more energy, the kids will have more skills and ideas and you'll have lots of opportunities to create some fabulous family memories.
I hope some of these ideas have inspired you to get outside and give something new a go, or perhaps reminded you of something that you loved as a kid? Get out there, bring plenty of food, a towel and some spare clothes and see what the kids can come up with! As with most things in life...it's often more fun with a friend so why not invite some along and make a day of it.