Spring is upon us, and now is usually the moment when parents are thinking about how to get their kids out of the house, away from the screens, and into the fresh air. If only we weren’t living through a national quarantine. Then again, maybe you’re sheltering in place somewhere with a yard — or at least some nearby woods or still-open green space. Or maybe it’s comforting for you to use this sequestered period to stock up on items for a time of more freedom in the future. Either way, there’s a good chance that you and your family are in the market for some new outdoor toys. And so we set out to determine: What are the best ones?
To find out, we gathered suggestions from a slew of experts: child psychologists and toy insiders, children’s librarians and Little Gym owners, kids and parents (including one writer of this story, Steven John, the father of a toddler and a kindergartner who maybe knows a little too much about playing T-ball and blowing bubbles). The following list breaks down the most highly recommended outdoor toys by age: 2 through 4, 4 through 6, and 6 through 10. They range from self-sealing water balloons to an ATV-style roller coaster; a foam pogo stick to a geometric dome climber; a polished aluminum gardening set to suction-cup archery. Many of these products are classics, several are new within the past couple years; some are portable enough for you to take along to the park, others require your own private outside space. In almost every case, though, they have educational and developmental benefits, in addition to letting kids get dirty and run wild.
For ages 2 through 4
The best overall outdoor toy
“They’re just a bunch of balloons,” says Jim Silver, CEO of toy-review company TTPM. But that simplicity seems to be the reason three of our experts (including John) have such high praise for them. You simply attach the balloon bunch to a hose, turn it on, and, in Silver’s description, “you have some 40 water balloons that are filled up in a few seconds.” They even self-seal once full. Adds Laurie Schacht, chief toy officer with the Toy Insider: “These are the original and best-selling water balloons.” She reiterates the fact that “they let you fill and tie dozens of balloons in seconds,” which saves parents time and keeps the kids in motion (and playing independently). Also noteworthy: The small balloons are the perfect size for toddler hands, and because they’re soft-sided, they won’t cause injury even with the occasional head-shot. And, of course, they’re a great way for kids to stay cool on a hot day.
The best sporty outdoor toy
As far as sports go for the toddler-to-preschool set, there’s nothing quite like classic T-ball. “Children at these ages love to master new skills, and using a large bat to hit a ball off the tee is a fun challenge for them,” says child psychologist Dr. Nicole Beurkens. “It works on age-appropriate gross motor skills and eye-hand coordination, and can be played alone or with others.” Dr. Lee Scott, chair of the advisory board for the Goddard School, seconds the point about collaboration: “What’s fun is that children can use it to play so well together,” Scott says. Plus, “it allows kids to use different sized balls, so both younger and older kids can feel success.” And also: “Kids can try different balls to see, ‘Hey, how far does it go?’ So you can kind of make it more for even teaching science and math skills using distance, measurement. It goes beyond just fine and gross motor stuff.” Of course, T-ball is indeed great for motor development, as Scott says, “especially because little children often have trouble with hand-eye coordination,” and T-ball helps them get gradually accustomed to hitting a ball with the bat. “It’s a great starter for sports.”
The best outdoor toy for siblings
As for children’s social and emotional development, a playhouse like this Greystone Cottage — admittedly not a small investment of money (or assembly time) — “allows siblings of varying age to engage in parallel play, enjoying the same space while not necessarily doing the exact same activity,” explains children’s librarian Lesley Siegel of the Port Washington Public Library. “When it comes to outdoor play,” adds Silver, “a lot of it is purely physical, but then you have the other level, which is imaginative play.” Kids go outside in this playhouse — with a working doorbell, stove burners, plus all kinds of other kitchen accessories that you won’t care about them making a mess with because, well, they’re outside — “and it’s all about imagination.” If your little ones have a wide age gap (like the four-year spread of this author’s), you can also consider the larger, two-level KidKraft Cozy Escape Playhouse, which has everything from a kitchen on the bottom level to a climbing wall and twisty slide for the bigger kids. And again, don’t underestimate the freedom kids will find in a house that’s not confined to the walls of their own house: “If there’s dirt in there, that’s fine. If there’s water in there, that’s fine,” says Scott. “Kids get to live their play experience in a more complete way than they can indoors.”
[Editor’s note: Both the Greystone Cottage and Cozy Escape Playhouse are sold out, but several other KidKraft playhouses are in stock at Walmart, including a seaside cottage-inspired playhouse and a similar forestview cottage.]
The best outdoor push toy
The straightforward reason this mower is a tried-and-true hit: “Toddlers and preschoolers love to copy their parent’s activities,” says Beurkens, “which makes ‘mowing’ the lawn with their very own bubble mower an exciting activity for them.” (Even if their parents don’t actually own a lawn mower, they’ve likely seen other adults using them elsewhere.) And there’s a developmental benefit, too: “Besides the fun of watching the bubbles blow around as they push the mower,” notes Beurkens, “kids in this age group are working on valuable gross-motor, balance-, and visual-perceptual skills at the same time.” But to focus on the bubbles feature for a moment: “Never underestimate the power and allure of bubbles, and for kids of all ages,” says Siegel. When they’re younger, they’ll chase them around and pop them; when they’re older, they can master the blowing duties, either for little siblings and cousins to enjoy, or purely for their own self-satisfaction.
The best outdoor gardening toy
Here’s another chance for children to emulate their parents. But another reason kids are drawn to gardening is because, as Scott puts it, “they like getting dirty.” This G & F set stands out for how genuinely functional — and durable — the pieces are, as John can attest after five years of owning some that still remain in great shape. The handles are made of solid wood, the heads of Technicolor metal. The handles’ tops are coated in a rubber that makes them even better suited for no-slip gripping (each rubber covering has a hook that allows for equally easy hanging on the wall). Says Siegel: “They can rake, hoe, and dig,” and it has the potential to become all the more exciting because “maybe they’ll find a worm or some beetles while digging.”