Do we even know what play or even outdoor play is anymore? Research  has been trying to show parents that unstructured outdoor play is important but  they are still feeling the pressure to put their children in structured play environments. In fact, structured play has   become so common that parents and childcare givers  are confusing structured play with unstructured play. Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College  says that play is “self-directed and self-chosen”¹ and that the child is free to quit at  anytime. Play also values the process instead of the end even in the sense that their is no clear end¹.

Check out Get Outside and Play week to win prizes  while encouraging outdoor play with your little ones. Runs across Alberta from May 27-June 3rd, 2017.

The last couple of posts I have been focusing on outdoor play. My most recent post took a look at the  benefits of outdoor play   and showed just how important it is to connect children with unstructured play outdoors.  Creating these outdoor play  opportunities does not have to be hard.  In fact, while it is one of the best ways for children to learn it can also be the easiest way  to entertain a child. Here are  8 ways to  encourage unstructured outdoor play. Just remember… Outdoor play is child directed so try hard not to direct the play yourself but feel free to join in the fun!!!

Ways to Encourage Unstructured Outdoor Play

Water Play

Fill up a bucket, small paddling pool  or water table with water. Give your little one some shovels, spoons, and containers. Watch them get  busily involved. Try not to stop them if they want to water the grass, put rocks in the water table  or get very messy.

Container and a Spoon

Give them a container and a spoon or a pail and shovel. Then  go for a walk in the park or around the block. See what they collect.  Our daughters love playing under our tree in the front yard collecting grass and pine cones to make meatball soup!

Put up a Tent

Put up a tent in the backyard. A tent creates a fun play space. Let your child play inside and outside the tent. Putting a couple of blankets and pillows inside the tent can add to the fun!

Send them Outside

Send them in the backyard to play outside by themselves or simply open the back door and let them wander outdoors.  Watch them from inside through a window and see what they decide to create and explore. I often now just open the door when the weather is nice. I have watched my two daughters aged 22 months and 3 years old play for hours outdoors together.


Give your child a bucket of rocks and let them play. Other options include giving them  a bucket of water  with the bucket of rocks or head to  the river to throw rocks and collect rocks in a bucket.

Magnify Glass or Binoculars

Give your child a magnify glass or a pair of binoculars. Then head to a park, go  on a hike or have them play in the backyard with these tools.  These items with a bucket and shovel also  go well together to stimulate play.


Sand can stimulate hours of play whether it is in  a sandbox, bucket or at the beach. Of course It is always fun to have a bucket and a shovel along! We used to live by the ocean and had many beaches very close to where we  lived. Whenever I did not know what to do with my two little girls I would just drive to the beach and give them a bucket and a shovel. We would stay there for hours….

Boxes, wood , tires, string

Have extra cardboard boxes, wood or tires laying around the house? Put them outside and let your child play, create and destroy.  Ok…You might think I am overstretching but my point is that  kids to explore, create and destroy. Give them a fun way to do this  with new materials and you will be surprised at what they make. Last year Calgary, AB had adventure playgrounds pop up around the city with this same idea.


Set the children free and let them engage in unstructured play outside!



Check out these other  posts on play!

Let the Kids Play: Benefits of Outdoor Play – Born to be Adventurous

Bring  Back Adventure and Risk: 7 tips to get your started– Born to be Adventurous

Fresh Air Living– Active Kids Club

10 ways to find adventure in your own backyard – Active for Life


  1. Gray, Peter PhD. (2008, November). The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights.


Join and receieve a FREE Snowboarding Guide for Toddlers and Preschoolers
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

5 thoughts on “Ways to Encourage Unstructured Outdoor Play”

  1. my kiddo will spend hours going from one garden to the next, playing, planting, building, singing…..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *