Tools for the Free-Range Child

For children whose parents let them play freely outdoors, these items will occupy them for hours.

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boys lighting a fire
A group of kids practices lighting a fire.

Katherine Martinko

Someone recently asked what toys my young children like to play with the most, and it got me thinking about the fact that they play more with tools than actual toys. The term "tools" is meant to be broad, referring to items that facilitate creative play. So I compiled a list of the most frequently used items in our backyard, the things that my kids use on a regular basis and would not want to live without. 

To be clear, these are largely determined by location and the fact that we live in a small town in rural southwestern Ontario, Canada. We also spend a lot of time in the northern region of Muskoka, where my childhood home is situated on a remote lake in the forest. So I realize that not every child has access to a boat or a campfire on a regular basis, but these have been undeniably influential in my own kids' lives.

1. Bicycle

I taught my kids to ride bikes from a young age; they were off training wheels by age three or four. This is a profoundly liberating skill for children to have. It gives them mobility, independence, exercise, and speed, and I believe that every child should have a bicycle and be allowed to ride one regularly. Watch the "MOTHERLOAD" documentary film for more on the powerful sensory effects of riding a bicycle and why it matters so much for children.

2. Shovel

My kids love to dig. They spend hours digging in the dirt, making holes as deep as they are tall, mixing mud, digging trenches, and building walls. They're so good at it now that they've just been hired to dig post holes for a friend's new deck. 

If you have children who like to dig (and I think it is an inherent small-child desire), then designate an area of your yard for excavation or making mud pies. It will occupy your child for prolonged periods of time, I promise. Similarly, in the winter they use their shovels to build defense walls for snowball fights and to hollow out snow forts.

3. Pocket Knife

My husband and I gave our children their own pocket knives around age six. We taught them how to use them (always cut away from yourself) and then let them practice whittling sticks. It's the only way they'll learn. They use their knives to carve arrows for their homemade bows, to cut string, to open boxes, and more. Knife skills are important for life.

4. Rain Gear

I am often surprised at how ill-equipped children are for the rain. At my son's recent birthday party, which consisted of an hour-long Nerf gun battle in the pouring rain, several children had to be outfitted with garbage bag raincoats because they did not own any. This is unfortunate for kids, who, contrary to current parenting opinion, will not melt in the rain, and might quite enjoy a good soaking once in a while, especially when it offers a break from summer heat. Do your kid a favor and buy a good rain jacket and boots (or Crocs). These last forever and can be handed down.

5. Hose (or Other Water Source) 

Kids love the combination of water and dirt, I've discovered. Whether it's a mud kitchen, sand box, or a digging pit, having access to water makes their play all the more creative and intense. Let your kids use a hose, watering can, sprinkler, outdoor shower, or wading pool to muck around when it's warm enough outside.

6. Matches (Occasionally)

This is not something I give them free access to, but when supervised, my children are allowed to burn things. They enjoy building fires in our backyard campfire pit and when we go camping. They've learned how to stack kindling and newspaper and logs for a guaranteed blaze, and how to feed it steadily so it keeps growing. Building a fire is a skill that must be practiced.

7. Bug Collecting Container

Most children are fascinated by outdoor insects, and if you foster that curiosity without reacting to it with disgust, they'll get more knowledgeable over time. I've found that having a bug collecting container helps; it's a clear plastic jar with a magnifying glass lid where they capture insects for temporary examination. They add sticks and leaves to create a small habitat, then watch them for a few minutes before releasing. My youngest once caught a wasp and discovered the hard way what happens when you try to "pet" it.

8. Magnifying Glass and/or Binoculars

Children should be allowed to view their world up close, and a magnifying glass or binoculars allow them to do that. Take binoculars on a family hike or bike ride; look at the birds in the distance and try to learn their names. Overturn some big rocks in the garden and get the magnifying glass ready to inspect the parade of beetles and ants that flee.

9. Boat

To quote "Wind in the Willows" author Kenneth Graham, "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." I realize not everyone can do this regularly, but having access to a boat is a glorious thing for a child. Whether it's a rowboat, a kayak, a canoe, a raft, or even a stand-up paddle board, learning to propel oneself across the surface of water is exhilarating and worthwhile. 

10. Sketchbook

A personal sketchbook is a good place for a child to collect his or her drawings; it eliminates the dozens of loose papers and is easily portable for on-the-go entertainment. Some parents encourage their children to draw what they encounter in the natural world – leaves, birds, blossoms, and other seasonal sights. It can be a nice record of a particular stage of a child's life.