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25 outdoor play gifts for under $50

When it comes to toys, we have long vouched for the stick and cardboard box. But of course, your kids are expecting a little more under the tree. Along with the gizmos and gadgets that are sure to top many wishlists, we hope you'll consider some toys that facilitate good old-fashioned outdoor play.

After searching high and low for some of the most unique and affordable outdoor play toys on the market today, we are excited to present you with 25 gift ideas that will get your kids moving, fuel their imaginations, and most importantly, bring a smile to their faces. No batteries included -- because there are no batteries necessary!

Want a shot at winning one of these? Enter our biweekly sweepstakes by sharing a photo of your neighborhood playground. Start by downloading our Tag! app -- for iPhone or Android. The more playgrounds you share, the better chance you have to win!

For more gift ideas, check out our Outdoor Play Gift Guide board on Pinterest. You can also pay a visit to some of the toy manufacturers represented here, most notably Hearthsong, Imagine Toys, and Imagine Childhood. And don't miss our list of all-time favorite toys, here.

Buddy Bounce Ball
Branch Blocks
Kitty Hawk Flyer

Buddy Bounce Ball

Branch Blocks

Kitty Hawk Flyer

 

Giant Lawn Bowling
Triple Climbing Ladder
Spooner Board

Giant Lawn Bowling Set

Triple Climbing Ladder

Spooner Board

 

Flingshot Flying Monkey Sets
Fun Wheels
Solar-Powered Airplane

Flingshot Flying Monkey Sets

Fun Wheels

Solar-Powered Airplane

 

Circus Stilts
Catamaran Construction Kit
Twizzler

Circus Stilts

Catamaran Construction Kit

Twizzler

 

Fairy House Kit
Dodgeball with Shield Set
Stomp Rocket

Fairy House Kit

Dodgeball with Shield Set

Stomp Rocket

 

3D Sidewalk Chalk
Zipfy Sled
Unbelievably Big Bubbles Kit

3D Sidewalk Chalk

Zipfy Sled

Unbelievably Big Bubbles Kit

 

Brick Construction Kit
My Little Sandbox
Super Swingball Outdoor Game

Brick Construction Kit

My Little Sandbox

Super Swingball Outdoor Game

 

Connecting Sled
Happy Giddy Tunnel
Catapult Kit

Connecting Sled

Happy Giddy Tunnel

Catapult Kit

 

Tree Swing
Check Out our Pinterest Board

Tree Swing

 

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The P.E. teacher that every child needs

When asked about his school day recently, my nine-year-old son was faster than usual to share. “We have a new PE teacher and class is more fun than last year.”  My seven-year-old piped in, “We play games like capture the flag and ultimate soccer.” Nodding my head between bites of grilled chicken, I knew I wanted to meet this physical education teacher who was generating such enthusiasm at our dinner table. 

Lindsay Frank—or Ms. Lindsay, as her students call her—believes in the value of play, and this sets her apart.  Rather than focusing on drills, as she was taught by her education professors, she wants her students to take advantage of their natural desire for fun. 

Her inspiration comes from a 6th grade PE teacher who made PE so wonderful that Ms. Lindsay could not imagine a better calling.

The Nike-initiated report Designed to Move: Framework for Action convinced Ms. Lindsay she was heading in the right direction. For generations, physical activity and childhood were considered to be as connected as yin and yang or milk and cookies, but as Designed to Move’s research shows, “physical activity is systematically designed, innovated, and engineered out of daily life.” Elevators replace stairs, motorized scooters replace bikes, and “here’s the iPad” replaces “go outside.” 

Ms. Lindsay’s PE students recognize that she is unusual, and national trends toward organized sports and repetitive drills support their perspective. Outside of school, kids are enrolling in traditional team sports at younger ages, but as KaBOOM! CEO Darell Hammond points out:

This trend isn’t necessarily setting the stage for an active lifestyle later on in life -- 70 percent of kids give up sports entirely by age 13. When asked by Michigan State University researchers why they quit sports, kids almost universally said, "It's not fun anymore."

With almost half of her students under the age of 10, Ms. Lindsay is working with them at a time when they are shaping their future preferences and motivations. By making the activities in her class accessible to all students, appropriate for their ages, and, most importantly, fun, she helps them develop positive attitudes toward physical activity, which teaching them essential life skills, such as confidence, cooperation, and creativity.   

And the way I see it, these skills are far more important than throwing a perfect pitch.

 

Here are two of Lindsay Frank’s favorite games:

Everyone is "it":
Upon a starting signal, students are encourage to try and tag
as many fellow players as they can. Tagged players must kneel on the ground,  remember who tagged them, and stay until they are freed when the person who tagged them is tagged. Fun comes when students tag each other at the same time and must play rock-paper-scissors. The loser has to kneel and the winner gets to stay in.

 

Ultimate Soccer:
Players are divided into two teams. There are no boundaries, no goalies, and no positions. Players must work together to score on soccer goals. Anyone can defend the goal, but they cannot use their hands unless they are in the goal. If a goal is scored, the person who retrieves the ball from the goal may throw it out or kick it to continue the game. Because there are no rules about where players should be on the field, players get to find out by themselves if they prefer to kick the ball on or try to defend the goals. It is a continuous play game with little lag time so players are constantly moving.

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Need a place to hide? Here are 13 handsome homemade forts.


As the cold sets in, most of us will feel an urge to find a cozy retreat. Small spaces beckon to us, spaces where we can huddle up with loved ones and perhaps enjoy a steaming cup of hot cocoa or tea.

Children have mastered the art of building small spaces, often out of scraps and other loose parts. Let's look to them for inspiration -- because who says forts are for 'kids only?'

Have your kids made a great homemade fort? We'd love to share it -- please post a photo to our Facebook page

  • Photographer Ken Mayer says, "My brother, sister, myself, and our friends built this ultimately 3-story monstrosity from scrap we found along the I-66 right-of-way." Photo by Ken Mayer.
  • "My son and his friends constructed [this] out of scrap wood a couple of years ago... I was so impressed... I was also jealous," says Jeff. Photo via Upstream of Consciousness.
  • Says the photographer, "Few things are as captivating as an honest-to-goodness homemade fort!" Photo via Take Joy... Take Peace.
  • Homemade forts don't have to be elaborate. Cardboard boxes or some blankets and scrap wood will do. Left photo by Brian Mooney (cc). Right photo via A Delightful Glow.
  • Old blankets, sheets, shower curtains, or scrap cloth always add a cozy finishing touch. Left photo via Let the Children Play. Right photo via Child Central Station.
  • Too cold outside? Indoor forts are always an option when the elements aren't cooperating. Photo by ZRecs (cc).
  • Says the photographer, "Fort Awesome was erected in Harvard Yard in the Winter of 2004. It is one of Harvard's greatest engineering achievements." Photo by David Mooney (cc).
  • Snow provides endless, and potentially elaborate, fort-building possibilities! Photo by Emily Carlin (cc).
  • Here's another "snow brick" fort -- and a great place to hide from errant snowballs. Photo by paula (cc).
  • Sticks and stones can break my bones... or they can be used to build an amazing natural fort! Photo by Jason Wilson (cc).
  • Sometimes the best view is from the inside looking out. Photo by John M. Cropper (cc).

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Four tips for fighting winter cabin fever


Think kids can’t handle cold weather? Apparently some schools do, keeping students indoors for recess at mild temperatures of 35 to 40 degrees.

One the other end of the spectrum, one Minnesota elementary school principal told USA Today that his policy is, “if it’s 15 below (or warmer), they go out, no matter what... At 20 below, it gets iffy.”

One of our favorite mantras, courtesy of ActiveKidsClub.com, is: There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. While this may not hold true during extreme weather events -- for instance, a certain hurricane named Sandy -- it is a good mantra for families to live by as the darkness and cold set in.

So bundle up, and get outside! Here are four of our favorite winter play ideas :

Hold a block party.

It’s tough to get your kids outside when all the other kids in the neighborhood are holed up in front of the TV, so use a block party as an excuse to lure nearby families out of their homes.

Free Range Kids posted a story on one such party in February — in MINNESOTA. If it can be done in Minnesota, you can do it too. Tempt your neighbors with the wafting aromas of chili and hot chocolate and the delighted squeals of playing children.

Photo by Daa Nell (cc).

 

Build a fort.

Kids love an outdoor hide-out, and you don’t need nails or construction skills to build one. Kids can build their own with whatever “loose parts” on hand: for instance, tablecloths, shower curtains, cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, or newspapers.

The best part? The structure isn’t permanent so they can keep themselves busy destroying and rebuilding it over and over again. Here are some of our favorite homemade forts.

Photo coutesy of popupadventureplay.org.

 

Freeze things.

Use the weather to explore the properties of matter with your kids and get artistic while you’re at it. Create cookie cutter sculptures, colored blocks, lanterns, balloon marbles, and lace -- all out of ice! Visit our Winter Play Pinterest board for more inspiration.

Photo via queenvanna.com .

 

 

 

Play with fire.

Fire helps stave off cold and darkness, two elements that can bring on the wintertime blues. If space in your backyard permits, teach your kids how to safely build and feed a fire. It’s an amazingly simple way to keep your family entertained outdoors for hours after dusk.

Plus, you can turn winter walks in the park into “treasure hunts” for kindling.

Photo by Daniel Imfeld (cc).

 

What advice do you have for playing outside through the winter?

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A playground designed and built by teens


We've written here before about folks who want to ban teens from playgrounds. But Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop has a much better idea -- why don't we get teens building playgrounds instead?

From October 1-15, a group of Philadelphia teens worked with Public Workshop to "design-build" a one-of-a-kind adventure playground in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s PHS Pop-Up Garden. The teens built the framework, then invited kids and their families to imagine what was on, around, and in between. They designed and built ramps, the climbing wall, the swing, a treehouse, a see-saw, and much more.

Using simple materials found at any hardware store, the teens, kids, and parents exemplified a can-do spirit while highlighting the importance of play, civic engagement, and community building.

Alex says, "smartly targeting certain age groups to design and build particular portions (relative to their abilities)... leads to maximum social impact, a well-built structure, a really cool playground that was singularly impossible to imagine by one person or a group, and a heck of a lot of FUN." Check out these inspiring photos:

Photos courtesy of Alex Gilliam at Public Workshop. Check out more photos and like Public Workshop on Facebook.

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11 costumes you can make from a cardboard box


If you've been following this blog for a while, you might say we're a bit obsessed with cardboard boxes. Well, our love affair continues. If you're thinking about dashing to the store to buy some uninspired costume-in-a-bag this Halloween, think again!

First, check out these 11 DIY cardboard box costumes. Not only are they cheap, creative, and environmentally friendly, but your kids can get in on the fun.

Have you made a costume from a cardboard box? We'd love to share it -- please post a photo to our Facebook page

  • Kids love trucks. Even garbage trucks. This costume wins the prize for cuteness and authenticity. Photo via Dabbled.
  • Witches and ghosts are so unoriginal. Why not let your kid dream up (and make) a costume no one else will have? Left photo via Oli's Glob. Right photo via The Oregonian
  • Amid all the Halloween candy, these costumes will satisfy your salty cravings. Left photo via Family Crafts. Right photo via The Lovebug Journey..
  • A cardboard box makes for great crocodile jaws! Photo via Evil Mad Scientist.
  • Let your kids air your dirty laundry. This photo comes to us from "Coolest Homemade Costumes," and we're inclined to agree. Photo via Coolest Homemade Costumes.
  • We saw lots of Lego people when looking for cardboard box costumes. This Lego Harry Potter was our favorite. Photo via The Oregonian.
  • Ahoy, mate! Photo via Creative Crafts.
  • By consuming his body weight in sugar and wearing this airplane costume, your child can fly high on Halloween! Photo via LilSugar.
  • If your child is obsessed with the Avengers, it's time to put your art skills to the test! Photo by Nikejerk3, via Gfest.

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Would you bring your kids to the bar?


No kids allowed! The blogosphere has been abuzz lately about the growing popularity of banning children from airplanes, restaraunts, and even grocery stores. The latest story comes from Brooklyn, N.Y., where a beer garden has banned children after 4 p.m.

OK, some might ask: Why would anyone want to bring kids to a beer garden?

Actually, the beer garden (pictured right) was created to be family-friendly, boasting lots of outdoor space and even bocce ball courts. In some ways, the environment seems to echo what we look for in an ideal playground, minus the beer. We celebrate multigenerational gathering spaces that offer a little something for everyone -- if not alcohol for the adults, then shady benches, or chess tables, or even fitness equipment.

Regarding the question of whether or not children should be allowed in bars, our admittedly ambiguous answer is: It depends. In Ireland, the classic pub has long been regarded as a family-friendly spot -- a place for children and adults alike to unwind after a long day. On the flip side, we doubt many parents have ever thought to bring their kids to an upscale wine bar, or to a college bar pushing Jager shot specials.

Which is precisely why these "no kids allowed" bans have us scratching our heads. Gathering places tend to self-select their clientele based on what they offer and how they offer it. Clearly, all adults, whether or not they have kids, need some space of their own. Likewise, all adults, whether or not they have kids, should also have spaces where they can interact with people across the generational spectrum. The health of our communities depends on it.

Secret clubhouses might be "kids only," but playgrounds are for everyone. Maybe some beer gardens should be for everyone, too.

What about screaming adults? Top right photo via Urban Edge. Above photo by Mr. T in DC (cc).

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If you send your kids outside to play, they might live longer


There are lots of reasons why you should send your kids outside to play, and here's another: You might be giving them five more years to live.

It may sound like hyperbole, but with one in three kids being overweight or obese, today's children are on track to be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. A recent study published in Pediatrics found that surprisingly, older overweight children actually consume fewer calories than their slimmer peers. It concludes that low levels of physical activity "may contribute more to maintaining obese/overweight status through adolescence."

Clearly, establishing healthy eating habits is vital to our children's health. But kids also need to move and play. It's not just about their health as kids but throughout their adult lives. This great video from Designed to Move says it best:

 

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