There are endless outdoor toys and pieces of equipment we can fill our gardens with, but if we start afresh and think creatively, there are all sorts of more unusual, inventive, wonderful ways to play in the garden. All you need are a few nooks and crannies, some bits and pieces and a good dose of dirt, water and imagination. Try some of these activities to really delight and engage your children and turn your garden into a magical place to play.
1 Make a cable car
Pretend your garden is in the mountains and add some adventure by setting up a mini cable car in your garden. For around £5 you can buy a kit to construct and rig up between two points of different heights. The children can load it up with stones or use dolls-house dolls as passengers, learning all sorts of lessons about weight, gravity, speed and engineering as they do so! Myriadonline.co.uk has a great selection in their outdoor play section.
2 Have a wash day
With just a piece of string and some ordinary clothes pegs, create a mini washing line for your child at their height between two trees or other points. Give them a washing-up bowl of soapy water and let them wash their dolls’ or teddies’ clothes (or even their own!) and hang them out to dry. They’ll love to copy you – and they’ll be practising that pincer grip you need to learn to write. If you add a sponge and a towel, that bowl of soapy water can also double up as a bath for their dolls too.
3 Make a scarecrow
Whether you grow anything in your garden or not, a scarecrow will bring it to life and is really fun to make. Make a cross-frame with two sticks of wood tied together with string. Use a pillowcase for the head, an old shirt and trousers (or dress) for the body and gardening gloves for the hands. Drape them on the frame and stuff it silly with straw, which you can buy cheaply from a pet shop. Tie string at the neck, sleeves, waist and ankles and draw on a face. Then personalize him (or her) as you wish – sunglasses, a bandana, a flower in the buttonhole, a handbag? Hammer your scarecrow into a good spot or put him on a bench to make visitors and passers-by smile.
“Have your child set up a cake stall in the front garden with a table, table cloth and a toy till with a little spare change”
4 Have a cake sale
Children love to play ‘shops’ from an early age, so they will jump at the chance to be in charge of a real stall with real money and real products! Make some individual cakes with them, such as chocolate crispie cakes or jam tarts. Then have your child set up a cake stall in the front garden with a table, table cloth and a toy till with a little spare change in it – or a money belt for that market trader look! They can give their stall a name, make a sign, decide prices (and any special offers e.g. 10p per cake, 30p for 4!) and make the labels. Make sure they know how to approach neighbours and passers-by politely and then all you need to do is sit back and keep an eye on proceedings.
5 Get stuck in the mud
Choose a little patch of ground and dig it over a bit so the mud is loose and add a little water. Old-fashioned mud pies and mud castles with plant pots are always fun but you can get much more creative and fancy than that. Make some very realistic “chocolate” cupcakes by filling some paper cake liners in a muffin tray with mud and smoothing off the tops with a spoon. Decorate the tops with natural objects like berries, flowers and pebbles and let them bake in the sun for an hour or so. Similarly, you can compress mud into an ice-cube tray to make a load of mini bricks to build houses or garages for toy cars.
6 Build a fairy house
Add a magical dimension to your garden with a fairy house. Go for a walk and gather lots of natural objects like leaves, ferns, twigs, rocks, shells, pebbles, grasses, pine cones, and bark. Then find a good location in your garden such as the base of a tree or under a bush. Build walls by poking twigs into the ground and weaving thinner twigs in and out of them. Make a roof out of large leaves, tucking their stems under the twig walls. Furnish the inside with a carpet of daisies, a rock for a sofa, a piece of wood for a table, pebbles for chairs, a twig ladder. Add a garden with a twig fence, a winding path of stones, a swing made from a twig and grass, a dancing circle made by pressing pebbles into the soil. Sprinkle with flower petals to encourage the fairies to move in!
7 Become a street artist
Invest in a tub of giant pavement chalks and let your children become street artists on your patio, driveway or wall. They could draw around each other and you, and then colour in the faces, clothes and hair to make portraits. You could draw the layout of a farm and fill it with toy animals, or draw a road network for toy cars. Children can write their names in fancy ways, create a mural, play hopscotch or hangman… the possibilities are endless.
8 Skip – the French way
You rarely see this classic, old-fashioned game these days but it’s very engrossing and great exercise – and all you need is three metres of elastic tied in a loop! Two people are the “enders” and stand with the loop of elastic around their ankles so the elastic is taut – although you can substitute a tree or garden chair for one or even both of the enders. Make up a routine and take turns jumping it in the middle. There are all kinds of footwork you can include: one or both feet in the elastic, out of the elastic, on the elastic, gripping one side of the elastic between your ankles and jumping with it over the other side of elastic, jumping to land on the elastic with both feet… If someone completes the whole routine perfectly, the elastic is raised a few inches each time until they make a mistake and are “out” and another player goes in the middle.
9 Get things moving
There is lots of transport fun you can have in the garden. Designate an area of soil to be their very own building site where they can have fun digging, scooping, transferring dirt and making tracks with their trucks and diggers. Or use lengths of plastic guttering which you might be able to pick up on Freegle to make a slope for toy cars to whoosh down or fill with water to make canals for boats. And if you bring their wooden train track outdoors, it will have immediate renewed play value! It could be built around a tree or through a bush with stones piled up for tunnels and engine sheds.
10 Play with fire!
Children are drawn to fire like bears to a honey pot. Yes, fire is dangerous, but under adult supervision, there is no reason why children shouldn’t ‘play’ with fire. It is an opportunity to teach them about respecting fire, how to be safe around it and how to build one. A portable fire pit is a great way to have a fire in a contained and safe way without blackening your garden. Mindstretchers.co.uk sell a ceramic fire-proof fire bowl designed specifically for children but you can buy ordinary ones from a garden centre or even make your own from an old tractor tyre rim or washing machine drum. Then enjoy toasted marshmallows and storytelling right through to the Autumn.