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?
We spoke to a slew of experts: child psychologists and toy insiders, children’s librarians and Little Gym owners, parents and kids. (And, for the record, this author has a toddler and a kindergartner himself, and maybe knows a little too much about playing T-ball and blowing bubbles.) The following list breaks down their 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 outdoor toy overall
“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 the author) have such high praise for them. According to Silver, these balloons “were a No. 1 seller last year, and I expect them to be again this year.” 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.”
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 the author can attest after four years of owning them and them still remaining in great shape. The stems are made of solid wood, the heads of Technicolor metal. And they also have rubber handles that make them easy for no-slip gripping (and also allow for 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.”
The best outdoor toy trike
“I can never overemphasize the appeal of classic outdoor toys like a good, sturdy trike,” says Tracy Camp-Johnston, who is an early childhood educator at Burgundy Farm Country Day School with 25 years of teaching experience. The Radio Flyer trike is stable enough to prevent most tip-overs, yet it still allows kids to get plenty of exercise and to enjoy some feeling of speed and freedom. “They’re a great alternative to an early bike,” adds Scott. And from Silver: “It’s about a child learning balance, but also about learning to be comfortable moving themselves. The first time they move on a trike, it’s actually something big to a very young child, having that feeling of movement and learning coordination, the way the body sways and balances; much better than just throwing training wheels on a bike.”
The best thrill-seeking outdoor toy
An at-home amusement-park experience: “For a younger child, these are just pure excitement, but they’re also really pretty safe,” says Silver. “For the young kid who likes the idea of going fast, going up and down — this is a great way to get acclimated to going a little fast and being high up.” Which is very true to the experience of Annie Young, mother of two, former 15-year New York City educator, and owner of the Little Gym of Roslyn in Roslyn, New York, where she has become something of an expert on kids who love action: “I knew this toy was going to be a hit with my toddler the minute I saw it,” she says. “It provides nonstop excitement.” And, as a bonus, these sets are also suitable for indoor use if you have a room with at least 20 or so feet of clearance.
The best outdoor toy sandbox
It may be obvious, but kids thrive in the sandbox — “a place where they get to create fun and adventure with the natural resources around them,” says Mike Conners, a junior kindergarten teacher from Burgundy. The Little Tikes version, with its pleasingly familiar design and built-in molded seats and easy-to-secure cover, has been a high-quality favorite among parents for ages — and when it comes to an investment that’s going to get as much use as a sandbox, this is a case where you’ll want to go with an established winner. More on why sand play is particularly wonderful in these times: “The textures, learning to pour, learning to build, learning to measure … We have to encourage kids to do more sensory motor play like this, because our children are just stuck to keyboards and screens,” says Scott. Sandboxes also allow parents or other caregivers to curate play, introducing objects that help teach colors, numbers, or encourage fine-motor development.
The best outdoor ride-on toy
“These are ride-on toys that kids propel using their arms by wiggling the steering wheel,” explains Debbie Imperator, manager and toy buyer of Funky Monkey Toys & Books in Greenvale, New York. Perfect for the 2- to 4-year-old range, but also, notes Imperator, “they can actually support up to 220 pounds, so parents can take them for a spin.” The self-moving element is important developmentally, according to Scott, but also, it makes it much harder to lose control and risk accident and injury, which can happen with ride-on toys that start rolling out of control. The PlasmaCar is less about speed than it is about enjoying twists and turns and motion in general, so they’re ideal for cul-de-sacs, large driveways, or spacious patios.
The best outdoor archaeology toy
This toy actually detects metal, lighting up and beeping when, say, a penny is sensed in the sandbox. Schacht of the Toy Insider loves how it “encourages parents and children to spend time together on the hunt for treasures.” While a functional tool, this metal detector was 100 percent designed with kids in mind. It is small and lightweight enough for little bodies to handle for hours on end, and affordable enough to where parents won’t mind if it’s dropped a time or ten during the archaeological outings. On rainy days, when you can’t bury objects on the beach or in the woodchips at the park, the author recommends covering them with a sheet and playing anywhere you have room in the house.
For ages 4 through 6
The best outdoor toy overall
This is our pick for the best overall outdoor toy for four reasons: First, it gets kids outside — you simply can’t play with it indoors. Second, it encourages wandering and exploration. Third, the game is quite affordable at under 15 bucks. And fourth, multiple experts we spoke to said it deserved top billing, including Beurkens, who called the Outdoor Nature Scavenger Hunt Card Game a toy that “takes advantage of the natural curiosity of kids this age.” It comes with a deck of cards, each with a descriptive word and drawing on it (like, say, a green splatter along with the word “Yuck!”), which they can then match up to anything relevant they find in the park or backyard. “Kids love looking for the various items on the cards, and the excitement of successfully finding things keeps them motivated,” adds Beurkens. “There is also exposure to new words that fosters the literacy skills children are developing at this age.” Scott, meanwhile, loves how it’s a game that the family can play together: “It’s amazing to compare what you see versus what a little child sees — what they’re curious about,” Scott says. “This is a wonderful way to get to know your child.”
The best outdoor science toy
Schacht recommends this focus-free, 10-times-magnification telescope because, of course, “the best toys are those with an educational component that are so much fun, kids never know they are learning.” Little ones can peer through the two jumbo eyepieces and see the moon — or use it to nature-watch by day, as it’s perfectly suited to use before sunset, too. (It should be said that it is not, unfortunately, powerful enough to zoom in on the stars, but still a great value for how well it works in other ways.) Among other useful features (like an adjustable tripod), it also comes with a guide that depicts the lunar phases.
The best outdoor bouncing toy
By age 4, according to Beurkens, kids have mastered the gross-motor and balance skills needed to go nuts on this modified pogo stick, which has a foam base and handles for added comfort and security. “The jumper’s sturdy base allows them to have more success than with a regular pogo stick,” Beurkens says. “They can set up races, create paths to navigate around, or jump to the mailbox.” Silver is also a fan of the young-kid-friendly design: “A lot of kids even 5 or 6 years old don’t have the balance to be on a traditional pogo stick,” he says, but the wider base here “encourages the kids to have success, to continue, to get active.”