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?

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Give the Gift of Wild Time

Have you heard about Project Wild Thing?  Based in England, it’s the brainchild of David Bond.  He was distressed at how different his children’s play lives were from his own, and wanted to find a way to market nature and outdoor play to children and their families.  The movement is based around a feature-length film, which you can view here.  I hope you’ll carve out some time to watch it … it’s truly inspiring.

As you wrap gifts and stuff stockings this Christmas, consider giving something that will cost you nothing but will mean the world to your kids … the gift of play time outdoors with you.  The Wild Time Gift Voucher is available as a free download on the Project Wild Thing website.  If you need a few ideas to get you started playing outdoors with your kids, download the free Wild Time App (available for iOS or Android).  Or check out our post about how to get around the most common outdoor play complaints.

Wild Time Gift Voucher

A gift that’s free, I don’t have to wrap, won’t need returned, gets us away from our screens AND makes my kids happy?  Sounds like a Christmas wish come true!

This post is not sponsored or endorsed by Project Wild Thing.  I just love what they stand for and wanted to share it with you.


Our Tree Identification Project: Resources for Identifying Trees with Kids

We’re taking on a project – to identify every tree in our backyard!  You can read about the project here and here.

Tree Identification with Kids via The Risky Kids

We had a map of the yard, we had gathered leaves and nuts, now all that was left to do was to figure out what, exactly, we had!

Elena and I sat down one afternoon to do some research. I’d checked out just about every book available from the library to help us identify our trees, so we leafed through them (pun totally intended) and tried our hand at identification. A few lessons learned:

We quickly figured out which books were more user-friendly than others. I’m guessing this is very much a personal preference, depending on how you like to go about the process. In the end we decided that The Sibley Guide to Trees and 101 Trees of Indiana: A Fieldguide by Marion T. Jackson were our favorites. The Sibley book is very detailed, but easy to navigate for both adults and older children. I also think it’s helpful to have a book specific to your geographic location as well. And Trees (A Golden Nature Guide)? Honestly I just liked the nostalgic feel of it. It did help us with the more common trees, though.

Field Guides for Trees

Fall may not be the best time of year for this kind of project. Because we started late, many of the trees had lost their leaves already. Many of the leaves are compromised, too. We plan to pick the project back up where we left off in the spring, as a key identifier of many trees are the buds and blossoms.

Don’t be surprised or discouraged if younger children aren’t interested in the actual identification process. Eli loved helping with the map and gathering leaves, but had no interest at all in identifying the trees. And honestly, it was challenging for Elena and I.

Beyond incorporating their help in the gathering process, there are other ways to involve younger children without frustrating them. Check the non-fiction section in your local library for books related to trees. Eli particularly enjoyed From Acorn to Oak Tree by Jan Kottke and I Can Name 50 Trees Today!: All About Trees (Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library). Consider leaf crafts or activities using nuts.  I plan to use these leaf identification cards next spring.

Kids' Books for Learning About Trees

In the spring and early summer I also plan to research the possibility of using apps or computer programs to help with the process.  I would also like to find a book or a good resource for teaching the best process for identifying trees.  Do you start taxonomically, like with birds?  Or do you do it by features, such as leaf type and shape?  Or does it even matter?

In the end, we were able to identify 8 of our 26 trees, so I’m very pleased. Are you curious to know what we have? Here you go:

  • 1 Northern Red Oak
  • 2 Elms
  • 1 Sugar Maple (should we try and tap it?!)
  • 1 Maple of unknown variety
  • 1 Dogwood
  • 1 Box Elder (and the annoying Box Elder beetles to go with it)
  • 1 Hickory

When it’s all said and done, I hope to have a nice map of our yard with every tree and bush identified. I think it would be lovely, and something I would pass on to future owners in the event we move. The trees are definitely something to be thankful for (although I’m not sure I would’ve been quite as grateful had you asked me last Sunday, after we raked and filled 38 bags with leaves!). We’ll shelve the project for now, and pick it up again in the spring. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for resources I’d love to hear them!


Our Tree Identification Project: Mapping & Gathering

We’re taking on a project – to identify every tree in our backyard!  You can read about the beginning of our project here.

Tree Identification Project

The leaves are starting to fall fast and furious, so we began the first part of our tree identification project over the weekend.  I started out by making a very rudimentary map of our backyard.  I walked the backyard and drew a circle on my map for every tree.  Each tree was given a letter (Tree A, Tree B, etc).  I knew we had a lot of trees, but was still surprised at the final count: 26!  (To put into perspective how exciting this is for us: in our last home we had five small trees.)

Eli and I then began the process of collecting leaves from each tree.  Once we had a leaf, I wrote the corresponding letter of the tree it came from on the back of the leaf in Sharpie.  I also made notes on my map if the tree had some distinctive characteristic, such as shaggy bark, or if it produced berries or nuts.

Beyond the connection with nature we get from just observing the trees and their leaves, we found ourselves making other discoveries in our backyard.  Beneath the oak tree there is a small woodpile.  Eli pointed out that there were all kinds of mushrooms and fungi in and around it.  We also noticed a few different kinds of animal droppings and we wondered together what kind of animals might lurk around the woodpile.  And then Eli spotted this guy:

Walking Stick Insect

He might not be a tree, but he is a walking stick!

Next up is the big task – figuring out exactly what kind of trees we have.  In preparation I’ve checked out just about every book on tree identification our library had!  I’d love to know if you’ve used other resources besides books.  Have you searched online?  Is there an app for that?  If so, we’d love to hear what’s been helpful to you!  We’ll update you on our progress next week!


Our Tree Identification Project: the Beginning

Suburban backyard

One of the best things about our new home is the backyard. Even though it doesn’t get played in nearly as much as I thought it would, it’s beautiful. I love looking out my kitchen window as I wash dishes, gazing at the trees and watching the squirrels and chipmunks zip around.

Mighty oak and dogwood

There are two tree directly outside the kitchen window that I can easily identify. The first is the star of our yard and the namesake of our street. It is an enormous, grand oak tree. I have to laugh, because there were years when I wanted to make crafts and projects with the kids that involved acorns, and I couldn’t find any near our old home for the life of me. Now we could fill a baby pool and swim in acorns if we wanted to!

The other tree is a dogwood. I’ve wanted a dogwood tree since our early days of home ownership in Nashville, Tennessee. I love dogwood blossoms in the spring, the way they seem to just float on air. We moved in this house in mid-March and had no idea what kind of tree it was. When those tell-tale blossoms made their first appearance I squealed like I had just gotten the world’s best gift on Christmas morning.

Dogwood blossoms

The idea came to me this summer that we should make an effort to identify every tree that grows in our backyard. For one, I think it will add another layer of appreciation we have for this home. Naming something shows you value it, and we are very thankful for these trees, and the beauty and shade they provide. (We will probably not be quite as thankful as we rake all the leaves, though!)

My other motivation is how excited my kids get at hands-on science activities. I’m a scientist at heart, with a degree in microbiology. Some of my favorite school memories involved the experiments and moments of study when we got our hands dirty. I remember the middle school assignment when we had to display and identify insects we had collected. I couldn’t believe something so fun and fascinating could be considered homework.

I don’t see my kids getting these same kinds of experiences nearly as much in school today. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it is a combination of factors. Insect identification probably isn’t covered in the statewide test, and so it is pushed aside for something that is measurable. I also wonder if liability issues and complaints from parents keep teachers from taking the kids outside to get dirty and explore. What if Johnny didn’t wear sunscreen? What if Lucy gets into poison ivy?

The other day Elena was telling me about an activity they worked on in science class. Her teacher brought in samples of dirt she collected around her yard. The students took those dirt samples and looked at them under microscopes. It’s so hard to get Elena to chat about her day. Getting details can be like pulling teeth. But on this day she talked for a good five minutes just about that experience – how the dirt smelled, how everyone’s seemed to have something different, how fun it is to use the microscope, how equally disgusting and fascinating the nematode was that they found in their sample.

Obviously these kinds of experiences have a deep impact on our kids and their excitement for learning. I see our tree identification process as a way to have that kind of experience in our own backyard. We are in the beginning stages of the project, so I thought I would share along with you as we proceed. I’ll let you know how we went about it, the resources we used, and how the kids respond. I think fall is a great time for this project, and I hope you’ll join in with us and share the trees you find in your backyard (or neighborhood, or local park … wherever)!

Have you ever made the effort to identify the plants in your backyard? If so, what were your favorite resources?


4 Complaints About Outside Play (and How To Get Around Them)

TOMS vs the mud. Mud wins.

After publishing the last Idle Parent post (“We play in the fields and the forest”), I heard from a few readers that being outside just isn’t their thing.  It struck a chord with Lisa and I, mainly because we’ve both heard similar comments many times before.

If you’re not a fan of outdoor activities with your kids, you’re not alone.  And believe me, we get it.  Neither Lisa or I grew up with outdoorsy parents.  I’ve never been camping in my life.  Lisa’s never started her own fire (at least, not on purpose … that I know of).  We are not outdoor gurus.  But we do recognize that our kids need to spend time outdoors.  Over time we’ve come up with our own ways of getting our reluctant, indoor booties out the door.  They’ve helped us spend more time outside with our kids, and – miracle of miracles – helped us find activities we actually look forward to.

Here are 4 common complaints about outside play and how to get around them … and start enjoying yourself instead!

It’s messy.

The number one complaint we hear about the outside activities with kids is that they’re messy.  Creek stomping, mud puddles, hiking, sandboxes … you name it.  The things kids love the most involve an element of messiness.  While there’s no way around it, a little preparation will make the messes easier to deal with.  Keep a change of clothes, some old shoes and a towel or two in the back of your car.  When messy play beckons, no matter where you are, you can let the kids play with reckless abandon without worrying they’ll muck up the inside of the car or ruin those new shoes.  This would’ve been excellent advice for me to follow after this particular outing.


You can also get kids in the habit of getting out of their messy clothes in a designated area of your home.  In my house they knew they had to do it just inside the back door on the mat.  Snow, mud, wet, or sand, it doesn’t matter.  It’s still a mess but it’s a contained mess.  Mudrooms and garages work just as well.

I don’t enjoy ___________ (insert common outdoor activity here).

I can’t stand outdoor games.  Lisa’s not a fan of nature walks.  Let’s face it, not everything will be your cup of tea outside.  Don’t give up!  Try a variety of things until you find the perfect one – the one both you and your kids enjoy.  Lisa’s friend swore she hated being outside until Lisa introduced her to kayaking.  Walks in the woods often ended in whiny kids, until we discovered how much we love geocaching.  Pinterest is a great source for ideas, as well as a book I reviewed earlier, 15 Minutes Outside.

It’s boring outside.

So maybe your kids love the local playground, but you’re hot, bothered and bored.  Our natural instinct is to either come up with excuses to stay inside or to pass the time on our smartphones, neither of which sets a great example.  Enjoy the few blessed moments of freedom from entertaining the kids and bring your own fun.  Arrange to meet a friend, bring your knitting or a book.  It will do the kids good to entertain themselves and it will do you good to disengage from technology for a bit.

Katydid6 meets IRL Katydid

I’m afraid of ___________ (insert yucky outdoor things here).

Bugs, snakes, poison ivy, strange sounds, rodents, getting burnt … all valid things to want to avoid at all costs.  But how can we expect our kids to conquer the world if we can’t conquer our fear of daddy longlegs?  I’m known for getting horrendous poison ivy rashes, so being in the woods makes me nervous.  Instead of avoiding nature, I’ve taken the time to educate myself on what poison ivy looks like.  I also learned ways to minimize my exposure after I’ve been outside by changing clothes immediately and washing my hands.  Afraid of bugs or snakes?  Spend some time going through an identification guide with your kids so you know what’s out there (the truth will set you free, right?!).  Or just make it a point to choose activities that ensure you won’t encounter whatever it is that gives you the heebie jeebies.

We hope these tips will get you started.  Just remember – it’s all about baby steps.  No one expects you to go from a recluse to an avid camper.  Start small and see where you end up.

Have you found ways around the obstacles that keep you inside?  Share them with us!