The Case for Messy Play: Magic Potions & Kitchen Concoctions

Magic Potions and Kitchen Concoctions via The Risky Kids

This post contains some affiliate links.

I know, I know … you’re ready to hang me by my toenails before I even begin! First I ask you to let your kids run around like hooligans outside, now I’m imploring you to let them make big messes inside! Soon you’ll be asking if The Risky Kids is actually written BY kids posing as parents, with the hidden agenda of making your life as crazy as possible.

But no, I assure you, it’s me writing … a real, actual parent. And this real, actual parent actually despises messes. Yes, I can be that parent that has to restrain herself from walking around behind children and guests, tidying as I go. I realize, though, that making messes is a child’s work. And by forbidding messy play I am getting in the way of not only the sheer joy of making a mess, but the developmental processes that messy play encourages. I also firmly believe that when kids don’t have an outlet for making messes, they’ll just find their own way to meet their need for messy play. Have you ever discovered a mess in your pantry, or follow the trail of quiet to see a mad scientist at work in your makeup stash? Then you know exactly what I mean!

Today I’m going to focus on ways you can encourage messy play with common kitchen items. My kids are always asking if they can experiment, in which “experiment” is a code for dumping kitchen ingredients together and seeing what happens. Would I rather they make mud pies outside? Yes. But the weather and their mood doesn’t always cooperate. Would I rather they read or draw or play a game together? Yes, but they need this kind of play, too. Would I rather have a tidy kitchen and children glued to a screen? Absolutely not.

Messy Play

I’ve found a few tips and tricks that merge the best of both worlds. The kids are happily engaged in messy play, while the mess is contained and clean-up is rather minimal.  Here are some items that facilitate messy kitchen play. Keep them on hand and you can encourage experiments and magic-potion making whenever the mood strikes.

  • Trays: Essential for keeping liquids contained.
  • Small pitcher: Perfect for letting little hands pour their own water.
  • Squeeze Bottles: We use these all the time – in the bathtub, for snow painting, cookie decorating, and more.
  • Mason jars
  • Test tubes: Ours came in a Kiwi Crate (a subscription service I can’t say enough good things about). Not necessary, but they definitely make little mad scientists feel more legit.
  • Pipettes (Plastic Droppers)
  • Measuring utensils
  • Ice cube trays
  • Empty water bottles

Now that you have your equipment ready, here are some common household items that provide hours of messy fun:

  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar
  • Vegetable oil
  • Food coloring
  • Alka-seltzer tablets
  • Corn starch
  • Shaving cream
  • Gelatin

A few tips for success and fewer headaches:

  • Keep old towels handy for clean up.
  • Wear old clothes or have smocks for messy play.
  • Set up items while children are asleep or at school.
  • Only introduce a few items at a time.
  • Back off! It’s not fun for them if you’re nagging or admonishing them for every spill or mishap.

Finally, for some inspiration. Here are a few “experiments” to get you started.

Watching Ice Cubes in Oil

Melting Rainbows/DIY Lava Lamps

Fill an ice cube tray with water and add a drop of food coloring to each tray. Freeze. Once colored cubes are frozen, fill a clear jar with oil. Add frozen cubes and watch what happens as they melt. Once they’re done melting, add an Alka-Seltzer! If you haven’t prepped ice cubes, try filling an empty water bottle 2/3 full with oil. Fill the rest with water. Drip food coloring into the bottle, then drop in an Alka-Seltzer and watch the magic!

Homemade Foam Dough (via Bedtime Math) 

For a truly tactile experience, try making foam dough using shaving cream and corn starch.

Magic Potion Lab

Mad Scientist

Let your child come up with their own experiments and concoctions. Pouring, touching, guessing, observing … these are all valuable skills that come from messy play.

Have any tips, ideas, or photos of messy play in your home? We’d love to see them! Share them in the comments or post your pictures on our Facebook page!



Creating a Natural Backyard Kids Can’t Wait to Play In

Plans to enhance backyard play

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of moving into our new house. Last spring and summer we were too busy unpacking boxes and getting settled to put much thought into our backyard. Now that we’ve had almost a full year to observe things like what’s growing in the yard and how the kids play, we’re ready to make a few changes and improvements.

What do we love about our backyard? Well, the trees, for one. We have lots of trees that provide nice shade in the heat of the summer. We have a large deck with plenty of built-in seating as well as a swing. The previous owners also left behind a very nice playset. Although our kids rarely play in it, it is a nice draw for the younger kids in the neighborhood. It’s a very large backyard, so there’s lots of room to run and play.

As much as we love it, there is a downside. Because of the trees and the shade, it’s impossible to grow grass in the majority of the yard. As a result, a large portion of the yard becomes rather overgrown by mid-summer with weeds and brush. While we know that keeping some of that is important for wild life, it definitely inhibits the kids from playing in parts of the yard. We also worry about it being an eyesore, as most of the yards around us are very well manicured.

Our goal for the backyard is to transform it into an outdoor space that encourages play, invites relaxation and community, provides sanctuary for wildlife, and looks nice. It’s a tall order, and it will have to be done in phases over the next few years, but I know we can make it happen. Here are a few ideas I have that I think we can implement this spring and summer:


As we clear out some of the brush, I’d like to replace it with plants that encourage natural play. Some of the brush will stay, as it provides a habitat for insects kids love, like grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars.

Loose Parts:

Having the space is nice, but kids need things that will inspire play. Loose parts encourage all kinds of open-ended play. Sticks, rocks, PVC pipe, buckets, shovels, and funnels are a must. We have some pea gravel that the previous owners left behind – I’d like to keep it as well as a dirt pile for the kids to dig in.

Active Play:

In addition to the play set, I’d like to get some other items that fit well with the natural landscape but encourage active play. I’m thinking tree stumps for climbing, something to balance on, and a rope swing. We have some large rocks in a mulched area of the yard that I’d love to move to the wilder area so the kids can jump and climb on them.

Relaxation and Community:

We have a freestanding fire pit the owners left behind. We used it a lot last year, but it’s on it’s last legs. Mike is going to build us a permanent fire pit. I love thinking of evenings spent outside with the neighbors and their kids, visiting while the kids roast marshmallows.


You know I love my birds! I plan to add a few bird feeders. I think a bat house would also be a cool addition. We end up with a lot of sticks in our yard. Instead of getting rid of them, I plan to designate a spot in the yard for a woodpile. Not only will it provide kindling for the fire pit and loose parts for play, it’s a good habitat for bugs, amphibians and small mammals.

I will definitely keep you posted as these ideas become a reality in our backyard. In the meantime, feel free to follow my Risky Backyard Pinterest board for even more inspiration. If you’ve added anything to your backyard that’s enhanced the outdoor play experience, please share!



Family Game Night: Mancala

This post contains affiliate links.

There are so many wonderful games to play together as a family, and I’ve mentioned some of our favorites before. What gets tricky is when you try to find games that are interesting and age-appropriate when you have big age ranges in your family. With five years in between our kids, finding games that they can play together and enjoy is not always easy.


Mancala, or the African stone game, is a classic game, and one that I’ve found our entire family can play together. While it’s a 2-player game, we play it as a family by taking turns. And because we’re (okay, everyone but me) is competitive, it often turns into a round-robin tournament.

You can find Mancala rules online, but the object of the game is to collect as many stones in your Mancala before one of the players clears his side of the board of all his stones. We have a mancala board that we purchased, but I’ve seen lots of creative ways you can make your own.

Some of the things I love about this game:

Play is quick. The average game takes around 10 minutes. It’s perfect for short attention spans or to fill in short spans of time that can get dicey, like just before dinner.

The playing field is level. There’s a basic strategy, but even young kids pick it up quickly. Anyone can win.

It’s soothing. Something about dropping the stones into the wells is relaxing. It feels and sounds nice.

Accessibility. While it’s not a travel game, it is a game that can be left out for easy play. The board looks nice sitting on our coffee table, and since we leave it out it invites impromptu play.

What games have you enjoyed playing lately?


Indoor Fort-Building Fun and Inspiration

Fort building for kids

Have you ever met a kid that didn’t like to build or play in a fort? I haven’t! As we come upon the tail end of the winter, I’ve seen quite a few variations of fort-building going on in my home. I thought I’d share a couple of our favorite forts to build as well as some resources for fort-building inspiration.

The couch fort is an obvious classic. I think our couch cushions have spent more time on the floor than on the actual couch this winter! Is it bad that if I had advice for couch-shopping new parents, I would tell them to consider the conduciveness of the couch cushions to good fort structure?! Our couch in the basement has big, floppy cushions, which are super comfy but horrible for making a decent fort. Our sectional upstairs, however, is perfect: big, sturdy square and rectangular pillows.

Couch forts via The Risky Kids

Of course the couch fort gets built a hundred different ways, but I came across this on Pinterest one day and it’s now the go-to design method. Perfect for a flashlight and a good book!

Discovery Kids Construction Fort Kit

I’ve had my eye on Fort Magic, but haven’t been so sure if I want to spend that much on fort building supplies. The other day the kids found a similar kit on clearance at Bed, Bath & Beyond (I’m guess the fort goods are considered the “Beyond?”). They love it and have spent lots of time working together to build forts, which is almost priceless in my book. If you have Fort Magic and can speak to its quality, I’d love to hear from you.

Every Friday Allison from All for the Boys shares awesome forts from readers in her Fort Friday post. If you think kids don’t build forts anymore, check out the series. It will make your heart happy!

You can make or buy your own fort kit as well – what a great gift idea!

As we move towards spring, our thoughts will turn to cool ways to build forts and hideouts outside. Be sure to follow me on Pinterest for more ideas and inspiration for a playful life. And if you’ve made cool forts of your own, be sure to share them on our Facebook page!


5 Ways To Foster Independent Play At Home

Foster independent play

Last week I talked about our near break-up with LEGO. That experience led me reflect on the impact we, as parents, have on our kids’ play habits.

It seems simple enough doesn’t it? Give the kids some free time and plenty of toys and they should be able to play independently for hours. Well, maybe it’s that simple in your home, but not in mine. Had you raised this idea to me five years ago, I would’ve wondered what on earth you were talking about. Of course kids naturally know how to play! Fast-forward a few years and I realize my rookie parenting mistake – no two kids are alike, and no two kids play alike.

Elena could entertain herself in just about any situation. If she had a friend to play with, all the better. If not? She was equally happy. She spent her early years playing in homes where toy real estate was at a premium. Neither of the homes we lived in previously had rec rooms or basements. Toys were kept either in her room or the family room. In both homes, the main living area was an open floor plan, so if she was playing chances are one of us was nearby to facilitate play and keep her company. However, she has always enjoyed her own personal, quiet space. Playing with toys in her room was just as pleasurable, if not more so, than playing where we were.

Eli, on the other hand, has always needed more help to play independently. He prefers to play with someone else, and if he doesn’t have a playmate, he wants to play near wherever the adults are. He’s also pickier about the kinds of activities he enjoys. Where Elena always enjoyed crafting, puzzles, or looking at books, he prefers sports, games and role-playing activities.

Last spring, we moved to a new home with a basement. I envisioned the basement as a kids’ oasis, and put nearly every toy we owned downstairs. After a few months, I was perplexed. The kids rarely played down there. Unless they had friends over and specifically wanted to play something in the basement, they only ventured down if we made them. We had a basement full of toys, yet when given free time my kids would choose to sit on the couch upstairs and play on the iPad or watch TV every single time.

The success we had in moving the LEGO bins from the basement to Eli’s room forced me to think about how and where kids play. Why don’t they play a certain way, whether it be independently, imaginatively, or artistically? And why, we when have so many perfectly wonderful toys, do they not play with them?

These questions really vexed me. I want my kids to choose play that is both fun and good for their development. I want them to draw, build, and use their imaginations. I had to ask myself: am I setting up our home for show or for living?  I don’t like toys strewn about and I don’t like clutter.  But while out of sight might give me peace of mind, it also seems to put opportunities for free play out of my kids’ minds.  If the TV and the iPad are the only things that are easily accessible in our main living areas, why wouldn’t they choose them over other kinds of play every single time?

In the same way that we have to help children learn how to play independently* outside when they’re not accustomed to it, we have to help set them up for independent play success inside our homes as well.  We have to keep their desires and thought processes in mind and create an environment that fosters the kind of play we want to see them engaged in. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that play is like a muscle. If you haven’t used your play muscle in a bit, other than trying to beat your high score on Flap Happy, it will take some work to get it moving again. That’s where we have to step in as parents and provide the little nudge that gets the play muscle moving. How do we facilitate the kind of play we’d like to see?

Life with boys: a sea of Legos. #keepinitreal

We have to be willing to endure messes.


Play can be messy. It’s the bin of blocks spread all over the floor to find the perfect one. It’s glitter on the table for the latest masterpiece. It’s all the cushions pulled off the couch for the fort. When the day is over we can work together to clean the mess up, but trying to keep play tidy as it’s happening is a play buzzkill.


We need to have toys accessible.


The toys need to be where the children enjoy spending time, not necessarily where we think the toys look better (Guilty). Our basement is cold in the winter, and totally cut off from where we are. For Eli, who enjoys having someone nearby, this was a dealbreaker. Find creative storage to house the toys when they’re not being played with, and be aware of ways to incorporate play in the rooms you use the most, like this dollhouse in a kitchen cabinet.


But not so many toys that they’re overwhelmed with choices.


How many times have your kids whined that they’re bored, as they’re standing in the middle of a room packed with toys? I’ve threatened many a time to pack up the toys and send them to kids who would love the opportunity to play with them. The funny thing is, the less they have to choose from, the better they get at choosing. I store some toys in a closet and rotate through them periodically. It’s like Christmas when the “new” toys come out. And when they don’t get any reaction or play time? I know it’s time to donate those toys to someone else.

Prepared environment for crafting


Embrace the prepared environment. 


This is a term used in Montessori classrooms, in which the rooms are thoughtfully set up to encourage learning.  In the prepared environment there is order, accessibility, and the freedom to move and choose activities freely. At home, that means we have to plan ahead sometimes and have an activity ready, if only to get them started.  You might set out a selection of crafting supplies, which gets them started creating art. Select a few toys to have out at a time, so they’re not overwhelmed with choices or toy clutter. Leave out some planned discoveries to get their engines running.


Embrace your kids passions

Pay attention to their passions.


Once you find out what really excites them, look for ways to add playful opportunities to their passion. Pinterest is a great resource for creative and inexpensive ways to boost specific themes of play. Conversely, be willing to let go of toys that don’t speak to their passions. I have a habit of buying toys that I think are cool, but my kids don’t necessarily love. I bought a lovely (and not-so-inexpensive) Quadrilla set a few years ago. I loved the way it looked and imagined hours of endless play. They never loved it. In fact, they’ve never been big into building with wooden blocks of any kind, but that didn’t stop me from buying another kind of wooden marble run, Lincoln logs, and a big set of blocks. I’d get annoyed every time I looked at them collecting dust on the shelf. I finally let them go, freeing up space to spread out all of Eli’s Super Hero toys and accessories – which he loves and plays with frequently.

If no two kids play alike, then no two homes are alike when it comes to set them up for an enriching play experience. But we can use these guidelines to help us answer the questions that perplex us and come up with a solution that works for us. It seems like a lot of effort on the front end. However the extra time we spend thinking about how and where our kids play best will be rewarded with priceless hours of play. Not the mind-numbing, isolating “play” in the glow of a screen, but the kind of play that nurtures our kids and feeds their souls.

Have you ever thought about the way your kids play and how you can help them play better? What are your biggest struggles? How have you helped them engage in screen-free play?

* By independently, I mean free play in which adults are not directly involved, but not necessarily solitary play. Other children may be involved in the play.


DIY Pop Can Flyer {Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred Book Review}

DIY Pop Can Flyer

If there’s one playful skill I would encourage in my kids above all others, it would be the passion for tinkering. I’m so happy to see the Maker movement gain steam – all the way up to the White House! What I love about the Maker philosophy is how it combines useful skills that will come in handy all through life with the freedom to tailor the maker experience to whatever you are passionate about. Whether a child (or an adult!) finds joy in baking, woodworking, coding, sewing, drawing, or robotics, he or she is learning the satisfying art of creating something with their own two hands.

While the maker/tinkering experience can be tailored to any child with any particular interest, it’s definitely something that needs fostered and encouraged in most kids. While some kids will naturally keep themselves occupied with tinkering, many kids will need some help getting started. My kids, for example, will nearly always choose the path of least resistance – namely iPads and iPods – if not encouraged to choose something else. Often just minimal prodding along with setting up the environment for their curiosity to take over is all they need to get their wheels turning. Because this kind of play may not come naturally to many families, I’m here to help you get started. Through sharing our own experiences and resources I find valuable, I hope you’ll find something that inspires the tinkerer that resides in all of us.

Books, of course, are always a good resource. One such book that caught my eye was Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids by David Erik Nelson. It’s packed with 24 DIY projects to make with things you can either scavenge or find on the cheap. Along the way you’ll learn beginner skills in sewing, carpentry, electronics and more. Nelson is a former high school teacher who developed many of these projects while teaching troubled youth.

The book is geared toward kids in junior high and up, but any of the projects can be done together as a family. Given that we weren’t quite prepared to jump into circuitry or soldering, we opted to try one of the beginner projects: the Pop Can Flyer.

Pop Can Flyer Supplies

You’ll need a clean, empty 12-oz soda or beer can, utility knife, a ruler or tape measure, a can opener or kitchen shears, and a Sharpie.

DIY Pop Can Flyer

The first order of business is to remove the top of the can, leaving the rolled aluminum ring intact. This would be fairly easy with an old-school can opener. However, we have a convoluted model that wouldn’t grip the can’s edge. We went with heavy-duty kitchen shears instead. If you’re using shears, be very careful – the edges will be sharp.

Pop Can Flyer

Measure 2 1/2″ down from the can’s shoulder, and mark this length at several points around the can’s circumference.

Cutting a Pop Can Flyer

Use a utility knife to cut away the bottom of the can. Yes, I let the 6-year-old do this. Nothing gets him more excited than the opportunity to use the utility knife. I’ve seen adults that don’t know how to safely use one – better to start them young.

That’s it! Your Pop Can Flyer is ready to fly. Throw it like a football, with the can’s top in front and giving it plenty of spin. Now, here’s where the real tinkering can start. Play around with different Pop Can Flyer configurations. Gather cans with different diameters. Play around with the body length. Add cutouts, wavy or zig-zagged edges and see how it changes your can’s flight distance and path.

The sky (and your supply of aluminum cans) is the limit!


Tiny Games, Big Fun

tiny games app review

As families are often on the go, you can find yourselves with pockets of time where you’re just waiting. Waiting for your appointment time. Waiting in line at the store. Waiting for your meal to arrive. Waiting in the carpool line.

Often, it’s not a long period of time that we’re waiting. But 5 minutes here, 15 minutes there … it can add up.  It brings up a conundrum when you’re waiting with others.  On the one hand, thanks to technology, we can fill these pockets of time with our handheld devices. We can keep the kids happy with Angry Birds or leave them to their texting. We can catch up on Facebook or scroll through our emails. We can be in our own little worlds, heads down, while time passes us by. On the other hand, what kind of moments are we missing?

I’m not going to lie, we do this a lot ourselves.  But there are times when I wish we could fill this time better, connect somehow.  And sometimes we do fill it with activities that connect us.  But there are times when my ideas are met with grumbles.  No one wants to talk about their day or play tic-tac-toe with crappy crayons.

That’s when I’m happy to pull my own phone out of my purse and use technology to keep us connected and having fun.  I downloaded the Tiny Games app (available from iTunes) after seeing it mentioned on Bernie DeKoven’s blog Deep Fun.  I’m always looking for apps that are fun, not totally mindless, and that can engage us all.  They’re very few and far between.  The idea behind Tiny Games is to fill those empty pockets of time with something playful that can keep you connected and engaged with those around you.

Tiny Games app

You start by letting the app know where you are. While the app is free, it only comes pre-loaded with games for home.  We added games for waiting in lines as well. You can add games to your collection for $1.99 or add all the games for $5.99.

Once you tell the app where you are, it will ask you a few more questions, like what kind of a line you’re in:

Tiny Games app

It will then ask how many are playing:

Tiny Games app

Once the app gathers the information it needs, it will present you with a game.  You can read the premise and rules of the game and decide if you want to play or if you want the app to choose a different game for you.

Tiny Games app

We played a game called Race Horse Commentary while waiting for our food at Steak-n-Shake the other day. We each had to take a turn narrating part of a race horse, inserting a made-up horse’s name each turn. The catch? We also had to include the name of the horses the players before came up with. And the horses names had to go in alphabetical order! We never made it very far before one of us would forget a horse’s name, but it was hilarious hearing the names everyone came up with and the wild tales of our horse race.  No one bickered about whose turn it was with the phone, no one complained about how long it took our food to arrive, and instead of retreating into our own worlds we spent the time waiting having fun and connecting with each other. Before we knew it, the waiting was over.

I should note, not all of the games on the app are appropriate for children. However you can easily skip those and ask for a different game. Still, if you have younger children you’re in luck. There is another version of the app called Sesame Street Family Play for the younger crowd.

I just love it when you can use technology in a way that brings people closer.  Next time you’re waiting, give a Tiny Game a try and let me know what you think!

This post was not sponsored or endorsed by Tiny Games. We just enjoyed it as a family and thought you might enjoy it, too!



10 Toys to Inspire Outdoor Winter Play

Playing outdoors is essential year round.  In the warmer months, it’s not a hard sell.  Warm temperatures and plentiful sunshine can lure most kids away from screens and into the great outdoors.  Once the cold and snow set in, however, kids can need a little extra prodding to get outside.

We stocked up on some toys and props to make our front yard a welcoming place in the summer.  It’s just as important, if not more so, to put the same thought and effort into keeping your home stocked with toys that will encourage kids to play outside in the winter.  Here are 10 toys that are sure to inspire outdoor winter play.

Toys to Inspire Outdoor Winter Play

1.  Birdseed Shakers

Fill an old spice or parmesan cheese container with birdseed and have the kids sprinkle birdseed throughout the yard.  Bird feeders are wonderful, but many birds are ground feeders. This is a fun way to get the kids outside and ensure that these particular feathered friends aren’t neglected!

2.   Snow Block Mold

Sure, you can make a fort the old fashioned way … or you can make a fortress of snow bricks!  This toy sees year-round use at our home, as it’s also great with sand and mud.

3.  Spray Bottles

Fill inexpensive spray bottles with water and food coloring for snow painting.  This was a big hit with the neighborhood kids when the last snow storm hit.  Again, this is a great item to have on hand throughout the year for outdoor fun.

4.  Buckets

Perfect for hauling snow, filling with leaves, or stockpiling snowballs.

5.  Snowman/Snow Sculpture Kit

It never fails – the kids have made a snowman and when they come clamoring for items to decorate him with, I’m scrambling around and can’t find a thing.  Fill a tote with these items and keep it handy in the garage or a closet.

  • mittens that have lost their match
  • old/thrifted hats, shirts, and scarves,  and sunglasses
  • an assortment of rocks, nuts, and buttons for the eyes and mouth
  • old wine corks for noses
  • wooden spoon for carving snow sculptures

6.  A child-sized shovel and/or rake

A shovel or rake sized just for little bodies and hands will provide entertainment and help you tackle those wintertime tasks as well.  Oddly enough, these Leaf Scoops were a big hit during raking season, too. Beyond being super-helpful to have extra “hands” filling bags for us, they’ve provided endless fun as monster hands, dino claws, and snow scoopers.

7.  Snow Paw Snowshoes

Has the abominable snowman been in the neighborhood? Very cute, and I can imagine little monsters wanting to wear these in the house, too.

8.  Ice Globes

I bought this kit as an activity for us to do together.  I’ve also seen tutorials on making them with water balloons and calling them ice jewels.  Obviously you’d want to remind the kids that they’re not for throwing, but how about some ice bowling?

9.  An Assortment of Sleds

Have a few different sleds available.  We love our Zipfy , but I also like to have a 2-person sled, a round sled, an inexpensive snow board, and a foam sled.  Of course they’re fun when there’s snow on the ground, but they also makes great props for imaginative play.

10.  Trucks and Cars

Dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators are perfect for scooping and hauling snow.  And of course cars are necessary to reenact the massive traffic jams a good snowstorm brings on!

What are some of your favorite toys and props to encourage outdoor play in winter?

This post contains affiliate links.



The Risky Kids Holiday Gift Guide: 10 Screen-Free, Playful Gifts for Kids of All Ages

The Risky Kids holiday gift guide: screen-free, playful Christmas gift ideas for kids of all ages.

This post contains affiliate links, and includes some items I received for free. However all items are things we personally use and love!

This time every year the Internet is full of gift guides to fit every kind of recipient. While there are many wonderful guides out there, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t share with you some of our very favorite things. These are things that my kids play with year round, and best of all, none of them require a screen! We love them, and think the kids in your life will love them, too.

Kiwi Crate

1. Kiwi Crate subscription

We’re going on 2 years of being Kiwi Crate subscribers, and I’ve been so impressed with each and every crate. My kids love doing crafts, and I love it when they craft, but I’m not always so good with planning out crafts and having the right materials available. Kiwi Crate does it all for you, sending you everything you need to make at least 2 specially-themed crafts in every box. The crafts are well-thought out, the directions are easy to follow, and the art materials provided are always of amazing quality. A Kiwi Crate mail day guarantees smiles and fun!

Gibbon Slackline

2. A Slackline

We’re partial to the Gibbon Slackline, and they make several varieties, including ones specifically for kids and/or beginners. Put it up in your neighborhood and watch the kids flock to your yard, or pack it up and take it with you to the beach or camping!

3. Inline Skates

Last year we bought each of the kids these these inline skates, which have adjustable sizing – such a bonus when you have kids with growing feet! Soon every kid in the neighborhood was asking for skates! Fun for skating, family outings, or games of street hockey.

I'll trade you 3 sheep for some ore.

4. Card and Board Games

We like to gift ourselves a new family game every Christmas. This year it’s Carcassonne. Our family favorites include Ticket To Ride, The Settlers of Catan, Rat-A-Tat-Cat, Bananagrams, SKIP BO and Flash . When the kids were very little, Dancing Eggs was a huge hit. Make it a priority to have a family game night once a week and you have yourself the gift that keeps on giving.

5. Books

We always gift at least one book at Christmas. I especially like to gift books that encourage some kind of activity beyond reading, or that provide lots of detailed pictures and information that can be savored for a long time. This year Eli has especially enjoyed Unusual Creatures and Cool Creations in 35 Pieces. And while I usually find movie and TV character based books to be of terrible quality, I can’t say that for the Marvel Origin Stories. If you have a young fan of superheroes in your house, these books will be a hit. And if you’re the parent who has to read them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the content. Elena really enjoys Wreck This Journal (and its related books by the same author) as well as Craft-a-Doodle.

6. Stomp Rocket

The Stomp Rocket is such a simple toy, but yet so much fun. Be sure to buy an extra set of rockets, just in case you’re anything like us and get a little, uh, overambitious with your launching!

Penny Skateboard

7. Penny Skateboard

I balked a bit when Elena first asked for one. We had a skateboard already, and she was never very interested in it. But a Penny Skateboard is different. It’s smaller than a traditional skateboard, and made of plastic. It’s designed specifically for riding, as opposed to tricks. She opts to ride her Penny board over her bike and her scooter every time. I have to admit, with all the fun color combinations, I kind of want one myself!

8. Yo Baby

For those kids who aren’t quite ready for an actual skateboard, or for a fun indoor alternative during the winter, a Yo Baby Kick Flipper is a great choice. The Yo Baby is made to help you learn balance, coordination, and basic board skills. We use our indoors, but it can also be used on grass, sand or even snow.

Strider Balance Bike

9. Strider Bike

Skip the tricycle and the starter bike with training wheels and get your toddler or preschooler a balance bike. There are tons of different makes and models, but we loved our Strider bike. It had a metal frame, which seemed more durable than a wood frame, and it looks like a real bike. We got Eli one when he was 2. At 3 he was riding a regular bike without training wheels. Even when he could ride a bike with pedals, he still loved his Strider because he could go super fast on it.

10. Nerf anything

For such an inexpensive line of toys, I’m amazed at how much play time we consistently get out of them. The mini basketball hoop that mounts over a door gets all ages of kids playing in our basement. The Firevision line looks really cool. This year we’re upgrading our dinky guns (which have served us well for 3 years) to some bigger ones. Watch out when you come visit!

What are some of your favorite playful, screen-free toys for kids?


Lessons From Getting Lost: Tweens, Tech, and Outdoor Play

Penny Skateboard

If you have any questions or need inspiration as to how to get your young children outdoors, you needn’t look any further than Pinterest or the multitude of blogs available to us to find something that suits you.  I love that kind of stuff and use it frequently.  What nobody ever told me, though, was that it would get harder as the kids got older.

With younger children it seems the main things that keep them inside are the weather and motivation on the part of the parents.  There’s not a lot that will compete for their attention, and just about any excuse to spend some time with Mom or Dad will get them out the door.

My dilemma?  How to get my tween outside more.  For her, nature must compete with television, texts, and the lure of her iPod.  And even when those things are removed from the picture, there are other things she’d rather do than go outside.  Playgrounds are getting too boring.  She’s not into sports.  And all those adorable activities I’ve pinned?  Too babyish.  And so I find myself in new territory here … how do you encourage outdoor play to tweens and teens who feel they’re getting too old to simply “play?”

What does interest her these days is combining outside time with the feeling of being independent – riding her bike to a friend’s house or walking to Taco Bell.  For the last month or so, she’s been asking for a Penny Skateboard.  I’ll be honest, I had my doubts.  They aren’t cheap, and I was worried she wouldn’t actually use it.  She doesn’t really ride her bike just for the sake of riding her bike, and I didn’t think the skateboard would be any different. But she persisted and saved her money, and so I told her I would pay for half.  It arrived a few days ago and you would’ve thought Christmas came early.

Suddenly all she wants to do is be outside, riding her skateboard.  She rides it around the neighborhood, but want she really wants to do is ride it places … by herself.  The other day she wanted to ride it to the local ice cream shop, which is about a mile and a half away.

There’s a straightforward way to get there, and then there are a few shortcuts through neighborhoods that you can take.  She decided to take a shortcut on the way home, and instead found herself lost.

I got a text from her, saying she was lost and giving me the nearest address.

I sent her a text back, with a screenshot of Google Maps, showing her where she was in relationship to our home.

She texted me back, saying she figured it out and knew where she was now.

Suddenly it hit me that instead of viewing these tween years and all of its distractions as a doomed cliff to the end of outdoor play, it can be a fun challenge.  It can also be a way to mesh technology, the outdoors and the need for independence in some really creative ways that will serve her well throughout life.

Had she not been connected to her various social networks, such as Instagram, she would’ve never known about the Penny skateboard.  It’s certainly not anything I would’ve ever thought of myself.  Even if I did know about it, based on what I thought I knew about my daughter, I wouldn’t have purchased it for her.

Had she not had access to technology that allowed her to text, she would’ve gotten lost and not been able to reach me so quickly.  What had started out as a positive experience could’ve quickly turned into something that left her feeling scared and panicked.  She might be wary of venturing out again.  It could’ve squelched that spirit of adventure that she has, leaving her afraid to try new paths or wander just for the sake of it.

Had she not been given baby steps from an early age to venture out on her own, she would’ve never been able to attempt a trip to the ice cream shop by herself.  This didn’t happen overnight.  It started small … first our front yard, then a neighbor’s house, then down the street, then the playground a few blocks over.  Baby step after baby step of proving she’s responsible and proving to myself that we can slowly let go.  Had she not been shown that she can do these kinds of things on her own, this experience would’ve been a monumental disaster.

It really inspired me to keep pushing forward as she heads into her teen years.  It forced me to rethink how social networking and technology will influence her desires, and how these “distractions” (which are a fact of life now), can be used to encourage playfulness and stimulate growth just as easily as they can inhibit it.  I just have to think outside the box a little more than I did when she was a preschooler.  It made me resolve to pay more attention and ask more questions about what drives her, and what she enjoys doing, and then to encourage those passions that take her offline.

Quite simply, it made me realize that we’re not headed off a cliff … we’re springboarding onto something bigger and more exciting.