As a New York mom, the local playground is my go-to place to hang. Like a watering hole for animals…like the town square in days of yore…I feel that way about the playground. Both for my son and me, it gives us a place to socialize. It also, perhaps most importantly, is where he can get exercise and get playing!
However, there are plenty of days when we wander over to the playground, and it feels really empty of friends, the equipment is saggy and I’m so not inspired to push my kid on those swings.
That’s when it is important to have tricks up my sleeve and a few tools in my pocket.
So, I’m sharing a game and some tools that are great for stimulating those play-muscles which sometimes need a gentle shove in a certain direction.
Red Light Green Light: My Favorite Playground Game
As a theater teacher, my initial impulse is to make believe with very little, or play a traditional kids game with a dramatic twist. To whit, here is my take on Red Light Green Light.
Gone is the structured line of kids, also you’ll notice that there are no “outs”. This game is not competitive so much as it is collaborative. I involve music whenever possible (go ahead and pack that portable speaker to the playground!). I also love the idea of a narrative through-line that inspires where we are going and the obstacles in our way. As always, I use a great story to springboard playing.
Of course, you can always play this game indoors on rainy days too. It is a staple of our birthday parties since it is so physical and transformational – and works well with any favorite theme. Trust improvisation to keep the game rolling!
The Best Playground Toys
Here’s what I look for in a playground toy…
- Must be small! It is so essential that I keep everything really streamlined. Seeing as how I get to the playground on foot, I can’t pop my trunk to get the kid gear in there. Therefore, anything I want to take to the playground has to be carted by me or my son!
- Must be cheap! These are the kind of toys you don’t want to break the bank on. The following are all under $15. Which make them great birthday gifts too.
- Inspires physical activity…otherwise why are you outside at all? I love toys that help develop gross-motor skills.
- Ignites the Imagination…I want toys where there is the opportunity for dramatic play; where kids can try on a funny voice, voyage to another land, make up a character names, etc. Experts agree that play is the primary means of learning for kids, therefore offering toys that expand those imaginative possibilities is essential.
- Is missing a plug, batteries and certainly a screen. My go-to toys are old-fashioned and need to be powered by imagination and nothing more.
- Requires collaboration. The playground is a lab of life. What better place to practice turn-taking and friend-making than in a neutral space out-doors? Therefore, the toys that we bring, always are for sharing, and have variations that encourage lots of socializing.
So, here is my list of favorite toys to have at the ready when you are park or playground-bound. They can fit in a bag (be it diaper, tote or your kids’ own backpack) and they cost less than $15.
I’m not paid to promote these products, I just really like them and hope they provide some playground inspiration for you and your family!
I love the Pink Ball made by Spaldeen but really any bouncy ball will do.
I carry a couple at a time since it can be a hilarious game to release multiple balls at a time and have your kid/s try to catch them!
Rather than bringing any kind of plush toy to the playground, I prefer the kind that can get dirty and wet. Creatures with a face automatically inspire dramatic play. Hanging out by a tree or in the fountains in the summer with these guys unlocks the imagination. This kind is food-grade and comes in a variety of creatures that are sure to inspire creative story-telling.
These rockets get kids jumping and running. These are also especially cool since you can see them light up at night. Great for developing Gross Motor skills. Playful twist: Imagine you are an astronaut blasting off into space before each “stomp” – check all systems, engines and make sure you have snacks for the moon! It checks lots of boxes for a great STEM toy too.
This pogo jumper is a much safer and funnier (it squeaks!) pogo stick than I remember from my 80s childhood. Additionally, this can help children learn about sharing and turn-taking on the playground since it is such a fun toy everyone will want a go at it. Kids can count a certain number of jumps and then trade off or you can use it as part of an obstacle course.
These balloons provide hours of silly fun. The amusement lies in inflating them and then letting the air whizz out of them. Additionally, you can tie them off and bat them around. The lift-off that the wind provides makes for hilariously unpredictable careening!
Continuing on the theme of portable play, these kites can literally fit in your pocket making them a delightful addition for your playground-go-bag. While a real wind would certainly help with the lift-off factor, the kids-cardio workout of running along the kite to make it fly is worth it!
These parachute divers are an improved addition from what I had as a kid. Namely, their strings will not tangle and their aerodynamics are much improved. Make up a name for your characters and create a scenario where they are on a rescue mission for added dramatic play!
Delicate but durable, this balsa plane is controlled by 2 rubber bands which make it’s journey that much more awesome than simply throwing it. Kids will get a gross motor workout chasing after the plane and furthermore they can get fine motor practice by winding the toy up. Rather than simply winding it up, kids can give the plane a personality and character or imagine that they are the pilots.
I love the option of making bubbles at home. This kit is super fun and comes with a variety of wand options. It isn’t hard to envision magical creatures or superheroes who have the ability to make these fantastical bubbles. Head to the playground with your own bubbles for a little extra empowered play. This checks off lots of STEM boxes too!
These are great to put in your pocket for a little extra fun on the playground. Have races down the slides or create characters with names and stories for them. Furthermore, I like that these cars don’t have a traditional (ie movie franchise) character built around them so kids can imagine characters for themselves.
Ribbons, like empty boxes and pots and pans, are the kind of toy that you likely have lying around the house, that can provide endless fun for toddlers and kids. This silk streamer is a gorgeous strand of color and magic that takes the ribbon one step further. I love this company for their quality goods, and the simple addition of a wooden dowel on the end of the ribbon turns it into a fantastic wand. This is open-ended – again, not pertaining to any specific princess or wizard – and therefore allows kids to interpret it for themselves. First, read a great new fairy tale, like King Arthur’s Great Grandson by Kenneth Kraegel or The Monster Princess by DJ MacHale. Second, tote the wand to the playground. Finally, sit back and watch how the influence of the story, and the open-endedness of the toy combine in perfect dramatic play harmony!
- create a portal to another world,
- trace shadows or actual bodies,
- draw hybrid-animal sidekicks
- play hopscotch
- play giant tic-tac-toe.
- invent a game with shapes, letters, numbers and a ball!
Whatever your artistic bent, the giant and colorful chalk will automatically make you feel creative.
Play a game of I Spy with this optic explorer. This is a great way to venture to new parts of the playground in search of critters or unique objects. Additionally, this toy brings the playing to a more mindful and relaxing place, a perfect wind-down before heading home.
My favorite kind of bubbles – unless we are talking about making our own – is this brand. The bubbles seem to hold their shape and last remarkably well. I additionally appreciate that they are easy to blow and the wand is kid-friendly too.
When you don’t want to really play dress-up, bring some wings to the playground. Kids will imagine that they are the creature and move so much faster and more bravely simply by wearing this accessory. I like these bird wings since they are gender neutral and beautifully made. My son has a pair of Dragon and Firebird Wings that he loves and they magically make him super fast!
Here’s hoping this makes playgrounds more imaginative, collaborative and generally delightful! What are your favorite toys to bring to the playground?
Thanks for watching and reading!