Materials for Creative Outdoor Play

Cover Image Materials for Creative Outdoor Play/ loose parts play materials including bowls, sand, shells

Play is one of the most important aspects of child development. As children play, they learn about the world around them, about the people around them, and about themselves. Play is how children integrate new information and form their understanding of what they experience. Therefore, the best way for children to learn about the natural world is to allow them to just play outside. We can help to deepen our student’s outdoor play and extend their play through providing materials for creative outdoor play. 

I have created a list of materials that I have used during outdoor playtime with my students. All of these materials are open-ended and allow children to use their creativity and problem-solving skills while they play outdoors. They help to enhance some of the natural benefits of spending time outdoors. Through the addition of these materials, students are able to stay outside and play for longer periods of time, simply because they are more deeply engaged in their play. 

2 girls playing in a mud kitchen

Types of Materials for Creative Outdoor Play​

Loose Parts​

According to the Canadian Public Health Association, “Loose Parts” are materials with no specific set of directions and that can be used alone or combined with other materials. Essentially they are collections of items that can be manipulated to suit the play needs of the child. These materials could be natural materials, materials from a hardware store, fabric, coloured rocks, or whatever collections you may come across. 

Loose parts can be obtained very economically (or even for free if you have the right sources.) I’ve found fabulous materials at my local dollar store or hardware store. If you are a garage-saler or thrifter, you can also find fantastic materials there. For those with big budgets you can also purchase loose parts kits from educational stores or websites. Often these sets are beautiful and a fantastic way to get started…they are just kinda pricey!

The beauty of loose parts is that they become whatever the children want them to be. Better Kid Care from Penn State Extension lists several examples of different types of loose parts for different play scenarios. Loose parts can be large, like stumps and allow for gross motor skills development. They can also be small and allow for more fine motor play. 

 For outdoor play here are some of my own suggestions:
  • rocks (could be river rocks, glass fish tank rocks, regular rocks)
  • tree cookies (flat disks cut from a tree branch)
  • branches
  • stumps
  • larger pieces of fabric
  • safe construction materials such as boards, pallets (check for nails, etc.)

The possibilities for loose parts play are endless. Rather than serving a single, defined purpose, like many toys, loose parts provide opportunities for students to be creative. Through this creative play, children are building their cognitive skills, physical skills, and even social and communication skills. 

a basket of loose parts or natural materials

Collection Vessels​

To go along with your loose parts you will want to have an assortment of baskets, bowls, and trays for collecting materials. I have a collection of baskets that have been used as stuffy beds, a place to keep nature collections or just a way to haul materials to the play space.

All of my collection materials have been purchased at thrift shops. I find at my local store there are always baskets of all sizes, wooden bowls, and various sorting trays. 


My students love taking the stuffies and puppets outside to play in the trees. I find that puppets are particularly helpful for those students that are reluctant to join in outdoor play. Becoming the puppet allows the students to immerse themselves into the play scenario without feeling insecure or self-conscious. It also provides a safe way for more shy students to join into play scenarios. 

Usually, I start with animals that would be found naturally in the play space. This allows students to associate the animals with the natural space that they are in. They start to make connections between the animal and the habitat space that they are playing in. The puppets also allow the students to start to see how that animal might interact with that space. This helps the students to build an understanding of how everything in the natural space is connected.

I found a large collection of puppets on eBay when I first started teaching. You can also find them at thrift stores if you are patient. Many nature-based stores and gift shops will have species that are native to your area as well. (These will be expensive…but again if you are lucky to have a large budget, go for it!) 

Animal Figurines ​

Similar to the puppets, animal figurines can help students delve into animal role-playing. Additionally, loose parts can be used to create living spaces or habitats for the figurines. 

Most of the animal figurines we use are so old that they were actually at our school since some of our teachers were students there. I have also bought a few expensive sets to add some more local animals to the collections. I found these sets from a teacher supply catalogue. You can also sometimes find animal figurines at dollar stores.

mud kitchen materials on an outdoor table

Mud Kitchen Supplies​

You don’t have to have a fancy mud kitchen for your students to benefit from the fun and creativity of mixing materials outside. We don’t have a mud kitchen at our school, but we do have a bin of kitchen materials that the kids use. The kids use these materials all year round. They have become snow chefs, leaf chefs, and even mud bakers. The kitchen supplies can also be used for water play. All of our kitchen materials came from a thrift store.

Some mud kitchen supplies you may wish to bring outside:
  • pots and pans
  • baking sheets
  • bowls
  • mixing spoons
  • spatulas
  • strainers
  • whisks
  • measuring cups
  • cookie cutters

Art and Writing Supplies​

Providing a selection of art supplies can help students that are need a break from the more active play. Having an art option provides a more quiet, creative outlet for those who are seeking a rest or who are needing a chance to recharge. It can also provide a means for students to deepen their creative play through creating maps, documenting play stories, or even creating their own props for their play.

Some of the art supplies that we take outside are:
  • drawing paper (various sizes)
  • writing paper
  • a plastic folder for keeping paper/art in
  • clipboards
  • coloured pencils (and a sharpener)
  • a craft box with scissors, glue, tape
  • other materials (depending on the age of the students)- water colour paints/pencils, chalk pastels

Shelter Building Materials​

I was building shelters with some of my middle years kids when the thought occurred to me that kindergartens might want to build shelters too. The results were amazing. The kids worked together to hold up the tarp, tie “knots,” and share their plans and ideas. The shelters they created took on various uses. Some kids just enjoyed sitting underneath the shelter in the shade. Others turned it into their house or the lair. The collaboration and teamwork amongst a group of 5 year olds was probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.  

I created a shelter bin that included: 
  • small tarps (from the dollar store)
  • rope (cheap dollar store rope…kindergartens do a lot of rope cutting.)
  • scissors
  • tent pegs
  • blankets (from the dollar store)
a child playing with wooden objects

Where to Find Materials for Creative Outdoor Play…​

As a public school teacher, I work with a very tight budget. Some of my materials, such as the puppets I have purchased with my own money. As much as possible I try to source used materials from thrift stores, garage sales, and even eBay. When I’m house cleaning I will also sometimes repurpose some of my old things, such as kitchen supplies, as play materials. You can also ask your school community if they have donations of materials, such as loose parts items.  

For new materials I often find things from teacher catalogues or craft stores (animal figurines, for example.) I also sometimes find materials at dollar stores, hardware stores, or stores such as walmart. 

Storing and Transporting Your Materials for Creative Outdoor Play​

Storing Materials…​

We store all of our materials at the school. I have very limited storage space so most of our materials are stored in clear plastic tubs. These tubs allow me to easily see what materials are in each tub and quickly access it. The materials that we are currently using get stored in a tub that is near our classroom door. This allows us to quickly grab it on the way out. The tub has some holes in the bottom (made by accident…plastic breaks in the winter) to allow for drainage. This is especially important in the winter when things are covered in snow. 

The stuffed animals and puppets are kept in a laundry hamper. This allows air to circulate through so that the stuffed animals can dry out and not get smelly. If they are particularly wet we will lay them out to dry overnight.

Transporting Materials…​

The best way to transport materials is probably an all-terrain wagon. We don’t currently have one of those, so we just carry everything in the tubs. We work together to transport our materials. The kids take turns carrying the bins and baskets. 

a child painting outside

Now Let’s Get Outside and Play…​

Now that you have some ideas for materials for creative outdoor play, its time to get outside with your students. I don’t necessarily take all of these materials outside at the same time. Too much choice can overwhelm the students. (It also leads to a big mess and materials getting lost.) Instead, I observe my students and watch where their play is taking them. I then add or remove materials based on what they are needing and wanting to play with. 

Before you start taking your students outside, ensure that everyone is prepared for outdoor play. Communicate with your families ahead of time to let them know that you will be going outside. You can help prepare them by letting them know what their students will need to wear during their outdoor play. You will also want to ensure that you are aware of what safety precautions you may need to take during outdoor learning time. Prepare your own teacher bag and first aid kit so that you are also ready to be outdoors.

If creative play outdoors is not for you, there are many other ways that you can take learning outside. You can even meet your curriculum outcomes while you take your students outside. No matter how you choose to do it, taking your students outside will have so many benefits both for you and your students. 

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