Tweaking your yard to make it free-play friendly is not only easy, but inexpensive, too. Here are eight ways your can make your ward more free-play friendly for your kids.
1. Add things they can manipulate
Give them the ability to squish, form and change the consistency of substances with an area for sand and water play – if you don't have sand, dirt works just as well. Add cups, pails and spoons for stirring. This kind of activity helps develop mathematical reasoning, including basics like measuring, adding and subtracting as well as more complex concepts of mass and volume.
2. Let them make believe
Kids are innately able to turn loose parts like sticks, leaves, stones or bricks into anything they want, whether it's bridges, magic wands, toy swords, or people and animals. The more basic the item, the more they learn to engage their imagination. A good imagination is a precursor for creating role-playing fantasies, which researchers have linked to improved early literacy (it helps build abstract thinking), language (learning how to get their thoughts across to others) and social skills, such as negotiating, persuasion and sharing.
3. Materials to build forts
Stock your yard with materials they can build with: planks of wood, logs, willow sticks, tarp or other outdoor fabric for roofs, and rope or twine for binding. Allow them to collect fallen branches, and discard big empty boxes in the yard for them to use. Let them know they can use these materials, but don't tell them how to use them, let that part come naturally. Building their own shelter, especially for eight to 11-year-olds, acts as a bridge between the safety of the home and their desire to test out independence in the outer world. Plus, it enhances early concepts of physics such as balance, stability and strength.
Page 1 of 2 – Learn why your backyard is the perfect place to introduce kids to risks on page 2.4. Things they can watch change
Encourage them to help out with planting in the garden, especially with varieties that change over the season, whether it's with edibles like tomatoes, herbs and berries, or with ornamental annuals or perennials that flower during the summer, like black-eyed Susans. Watching the changes over the season, as well as caring for the plants, will not only teach them about life cycles, but scientists have found that time spent with nature helps control ADD and ADHD, while increasing concentration, delayed gratification and self-discipline.
5. Encourage animal observation
Animals are key to building empathy, especially with kids aged four to seven. With the help of your kids, create a bird-friendly environment with feeders, birdbaths or plants that produce berries or nuts. Also, think underground. Let them use shovels to dig for worms, or place logs or flat stones on the ground the kids can overturn to find slugs and other creepy-crawlies. Cat-friendly plants like catnip or heather attract neighbourhood felines. For the really adventurous, try creating a backyard pond, you can stock it with fish, or just wait for the toads to find it.
6. Let them take risks and have adventures
Of course you want your kids to be safe, but children need to learn how to manage their risks before they become adults. Consider adding objects for them to jump from and balance upon (either natural items like logs or manmade items like stepstools). Have soft surfaces (grass, wood chips, mats) that they can engage in gymnastics and rough and tumble play, which is essential for the emotional and social development of boys. And invest in basic backyard items like balls, hula hoops and skipping ropes to encourage active play.
7. Give them places to hide
Science doesn't truly understand what it is about secret hiding places that make them an almost universal aspect of childhood—all we know is it must be good for the soul. A secret spot might be a simple place for contemplative activities like writing, thinking or watching the clouds, or it could consist of many places for playing hide and seek. Places to hide can be natural (like a bush or tree) or man-made (a shed, a rain barrel).
8. Encourage creativity
Add an art easel or table to your yard so your kids can draw or paint. You can even supply an outdoor chalk board, or just a bucket of sidewalk chalk that they can use on the fence or their fort. Consider providing a nature where they can record their observations or sketch the birds, sky or trees.
In order for your yard to really work for your kids, there are a few other helpful tips. Make sure there's shade for them to escape to on those hot summer days, as well as seating (large rocks or logs will do). Keep in mind that this type of play can be mucky. "It's messy," Collyer emphasizes, noting that most truly stimulating environments for children are. Don't worry about grass stains and don't be afraid to let them splash in puddles and muck about in the mud – let the washing machine take care of that.
Page 2 of 2