Activity/Craft,  Family

How To Encourage Imaginative Outdoor Play

AD/Collaborative post with Wickey – all thoughts and opinions are my own. Post contains affiliate links marked with an *.

Isn’t one of the best things about childhood being free to explore and use your imagination? When I was a child I was forever talking to myself, playing games and creating magical scenarios in my mind as I ran wildly through my garden or the local park. My friends and I would create characters and pretend we were pirates, princesses, kings and queens, even ninjas. Yep, being a kid and letting your imagination run wild is one of the best experiences in life.

Luke doesn’t seem to be all that interested in imaginative play, maybe because up until 2018 he was an only child. It’s something I’m really keen to work on as setting your imagination free is basically the best part of childhood. So with that being said, we have been spending a lot of time lately encouraging imaginative outdoor play

A boy laughing as he runs through the spray of a sprinkler.

There are lots of ways that parents can help encourage imaginative outdoor play. It can be hard to coax children into it, especially if they don’t have siblings/siblings are much older or younger. But it does give us adults the perfect excuse to let our inner child out and remember what it was like to lose yourself to your imagination for a few hours. As a creative person, I spend hours in my head thinking about what to write next, so coming up with adventures that Luke and I can embark on together has been really fun. 

If you’re looking for ways you can encourage imaginative outdoor play in children, I’ve listed a few of our favourite ideas below. There are lots of ways you can encourage your children to use their imagination and creating exciting playful scenarios has been proven to be beneficial to kids by helping to hone their literary and critical thinking skills as well as developing their social and emotional skills.

Themed Imaginative Outdoor Play Equipment.

The easiest way to get outside and enjoy some imaginative outdoor play is to bring something that can be easily transformed by your child’s imagination into your home. For example, outdoor play equipment specialists, Wickey, build and design amazing climbing and play equipment for children focused around princesses and pirates. Take the classic climbing frame with slide for example, or should I say, the Ghost Flyer – the fastest, most feared pirate ship to have ever set sail on the seven seas? Or the Smart Candy swing and slide set – it’s more than just a climbing frame, it’s a princess’s castle, full of wonders and treasures; maybe even a unicorn, who knows? When given the chance, it is amazing to see how our children use their imagination to change every day objects into wonderful adventures. Outdoor play equipment is a brilliant way of encouraging imaginative outdoor play in your own home.

Treasure Hunts

Following on with the pirate theme, nothing gets children quite as excited as the chance to win a prize. Take your humble scavenger hunt and up the ante somewhat. Instead of searching for things in nature, such as a pink leaf or a squirrel, you can try searching for clues. All good pirates and brave adventurers know that X marks the spot, so drawing up a map is vital. You can add some authentic flare by rubbing used tea bags over the paper and cutting around the outside of your map, before rolling it up like an ancient scroll. 

The easiest place to mark your treasure is, of course, in your own garden. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start your adventure elsewhere and follow the clues. Alternatively, if you are fortunate enough to live near the woods, you can always have someone else hide the treasure while you concentrate on deciphering the clues with your child.

Don’t make it too easy for the kids. Make sure that they have to use their imagination and their life skills to work out where they need to go next. You can include things such as maths problems, for example take 5 + 15  = ? steps forward and then look around you until you can see a landmark (a road sign, a big tree, a statue).

Basically, you take the Easter Egg hunt and you make it more exciting. Bonus points if your children want to dress up and really get into character.

4 boys throwing and jumping to catch a football in the woods.

Create Small World Tuff Spots.

If you’ve not come across tuff spots* before, hold onto your hat! Tuff spots are actually designed to be used by builders as a place for them to mix up cement, however, due to their light weight, huge surface area and raised edges, they’ve become increasingly popular with parents and childcare providers. That’s because they’re perfect for sensory and imaginative outdoor play. 

Small world play is where you use the children’s toys and other materials you’ve got lying around to make a small version of something you’d see in real life. A really popular and fun small world that can be easily and cheaply created is a farm. Using plastic farm* toy animals, Shredded Wheat for hay bales, a barn can be made from building blocks or a cardboard box and grass can be anything from green paper to strips of astroturf. The fun of using a tuff spot to create small world imaginative outdoor play is that you can also get a bit messy. Pigs can wallow in the mud, farmers can water the crops and your children can use their imaginations to fill in any gaps in the story. 

For more tuff spot ideas, you can have a look at my Tuff Spot Pinterest board.

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Sport Superstars and TV Favourites.

Are you children into sports? How about visiting your local park and letting them pretend to be their favourite sportsman? Kicking a football* around and trying to score goals against their arch nemesis (you) will be a really fun way for them to lose themselves to their imagination. Alternatively, one of my son’s favourite imaginative outdoor play ideas is to pretend to be Pokemon. Him and his friends run around for ages pretending to be their favourite pokemon and zooming around using their “special attacks” on each other. Luke also loves to pretend he’s a PowerRanger! 

Encouraging Imaginative Outdoor Play Isn’t As Hard As It Might Seem.

Really, encouraging imaginative outdoor play is just about letting your child set the pace and going with the flow. Try introducing new “plot” ideas to their games and see how they handle the new information. Allow them to control the situation and they’ll inevitably, want to be the best and win at everything. It’s important in this scenario to ask them what makes them the best, how are they powerful/better? Encourage them to explain their imaginative process to you using lots of descriptive language. 

Imaginative outdoor play isn’t just great for the kids, it’s beneficial to adults as well. It’s a great way to let off some steam and spending some quality time bonding with our children. It allows us to gain an insight into their minds and understand the way they see the world. It also gives us the opportunity to bring up certain scenarios and gauge the type of reaction they might have. 

What are your best imaginative outdoor play ideas? Do you have any that you think should be on this list? If so, let me know in the comments or tweet me @gloryiscalling.

4 boys jumping around catching a football in the woods. Dark grey text underneath reads "How To Encourage Imaginative Outdoor Play" on an olive green background.

Rachael is a 31 year old mum to 10 year old Luke and 5 year old Oscar. She lives in England and writes about family life, crafts, recipes, parenting wins(and fails), as well as travel, days out, fashion and living the frugal lifestyle.

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