Encourage More Pretend Play: 6 Backyard Adventures Your Kid Will Love

Let him explore the world without leaving your backyard.

How to Encourage More Pretend Play: 6 Backyard Adventures No Kid Will Want to Miss - MightyMoms.club

Feeling guilty about the amount of screen-time your kids are consuming?

Want to send them out to the backyard while you’re doing dishes or paying bills, and watch them pretend play their way through a magical afternoon?

Sometimes our kids need a little nudge…a gentle push to get their sputtering imaginations up to full roar.

You see, it’s actually work to delve into pretend play. Their brains have to create, adapt, and design a whole new world. It’s much easier to sit back and let a screen do all the work.

Don’t let that guilt trip you! There’s a time and place for technological screens. It’s just not all the time.

Here are six pretend play ideas you can use as a springboard to shoo your kids out the door and into the World of Imagination…

If you’re totally sold on this whole “pretend play is awesome” concept for you kids, by all means skip to the good stuff. For those of you, however, who like to know WHY behind the “let’s dump every toy we own into the backyard”, let me win you over with some SCIENCE.  

Why Is Pretend Play So Important?

Besides being awesome for parent-child bonding, playtime serves as “school” for some very significant brain tests:

  1. It builds their vocabulary. When else will she learn how fairies “flitter”?
  2. It helps them to understand and express feelings through re-enactment. The pirate was angry because he…
  3. It encourages social skills and negotiation with others. What should we do when both trains want to be on the same track?
  4. It boosts their motor skills, as they climb in and out of things, and put on costumes, hats, and shoes.
  5. It empowers them to experiment with making decisions. Will the princess walk the plank? Or run up the rigging to get away? 
  6. It builds a sense of independence, letting them learn how to create their own fun rather than an electric device or parent to structure it on their behalf.

In other words, pretend play is what childhood is all about. Sometimes, though, they just need a little fuel to get that brain-engine running.

Here are six adventurous ideas to inspire that imagination into action!

Pretend Play Adventure #1
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

My mini-obsession started after my mother read The Borrower Series to me out loud at bedtime. I was entranced. Enthralled. Completely excited about the adventures one could have…if only you were 4-inches high! (Sigh! #neverlucky)

  • Small bushes would be giant jungle gyms!
  • Tiny acorn stems would be hats!
  • A shoe could be a house!

The possibilities were endless. I would spend hours playing outside, creating “homes” for Arriety, Homily, and Pod. In fact, it’s a game that’s stuck with me…

When my girls and I are stuck waiting somewhere (doctor, dentist, etc.) I will often lean over and say…”If I were a fairy, I would…” explaining how I would swing from the “branches” of that potted plant, or climb up and look for snacks in that woman’s purse… Then it’s their turn to share an adventure!

Step One: Choose Your Location

Find a place in your back yard that looks “mysterious”, perhaps under hosta leaves, or next to the tomato plant. Somewhere with sun and shadows, with lots of places for little characters to hide, sleep, eat, and have adventures!

If you’d rather they didn’t use the yard, break out a large plastic container, fill it with potting soil and a few plants, and create a portable miniature garden.

Step Two: Bring Out the Toys!

Bring out a tub of toys for your little one to play with. I recommend items you can easily wash, and don’t mind if a few get lost. We have a tub in the garage with tiny items just for this.

Here are a few of my favorites:

When it comes to miniatures, make sure they’re age-appropriate! Your preschooler should be old enough to know what things should end up in a mouth (i.e. food) and what shouldn’t! (i.e. everything else).

Pretend Play Adventure #2
Birds of a Feather

The little boy who lives behind my sister’s house LOVES birds. So whenever my kids would come to play with their cousins, they would all race through the yard, flapping their firebird wings and using their bird calls to find each other. (Yes, it was a huge happy raucous!)

Step One: Help Them Build a Nest

Bring out a few older used blankets, cushions, towels, and toys to create a “nest” somewhere in the yard. Or, better yet, check out one of these hammock/cocoon nests!

  • Hammock Nest Pod – Comes with a stand if you don’t have trees in your backyard.
  • Hammock Rope Chair – You can use this indoor or out, and I’m shocked at the price: $33
  • Hugglepod HangOut – The ultimate “nest” for more than one, it’s even lit up in the inside!

Step Two: The Hawk and the Sparrow

Have one child be the “hawk” and fly around trying to catch the tiny sparrows before they reach their nest! (It’s pretty much tag, only with bird terms.)

Pretend Play Adventure #3
Shiver Me Timbers!

I’m pretty sure that pirate pretend play is written inside the Childhood Contract somewhere. I have no idea how these bloodthirsty marauders have become such a part of our gentle youth *cough* Disney *cough*, but kids do love sailing the seven seas!

If your tyke will be adventuring on his own in the backyard, you may find hiring a scurvy crew like this one very helpful! (Or be prepared to be pressed into service!)

Step One: Dress to Plunder

First thing, make sure your preschoolers is dressing the part. Every dress up bin should have at least one pirate costume inside!

This pretend play pirate set has a hat (with braids!), eyepatch, hook, gold “earring” and a fierce (looking!) cutlass. (As I’m writing this, that set is on sale for $10 – a total steal! #punintended)

Step Two: Set Sail!

Obviously, it’s going to be hard to terrorize the Caribbean if you don’t have the Black Pearl to get you there!

This tutorial will show you how to turn an ordinary laundry basket into a tame little sail boat – you just need to piratize it with a Jolly Roger flag and a rag-tag team of misfits!

Then let him loose on the backyard to try to capture a captive (the cat), plunder buried treasure in the sandbox (gold-sprayed rocks) and terrorize the backyard!

Pretend Play Adventure #4
Painting the Roses Red Wet

Now this is my kind of paint! Don’t worry, though, it’s pretty watered down.

Actually, it’s all watered down.

Okay. It’s water. My paint is water.

But your child won’t care! You just need a hot day, a few tools, and flat surface!

Step One: Set Up a Hand Pump (Optional)

Okay, this is a pretty big “Step One”, but it’s Just. So. Cool.  If you want your kids to help water the garden, this is your secret weapon. Plus, it conserves water because you’re using collected rainwater, so you don’t have to feel guilty about the water bill next month.

The result is your toddler’s (and possibly your preschooler’s) new favorite toy. They can push the pump down and watch the water fall…straight back into the barrel! #magic

Step Two: Break Out the Brushes

Go through the garage and pick out your (very clean, right?) brushes and rollers for your preschooler to dip into the barrel and practice “painting” the driveway, sidewalk, fence, house, dog, car… you see where this will end up, right?

Or, if your brushes look a bit “iffy” with dried paint sprinkled around like dandruff, this sponge painting set has all KINDS of different shapes for your child to explore.

The best part of this pretend play adventure? NO MESS.

Pretend Play Adventure #5
Chef de Cuisine

Another one of my favorite pretend play games growing up was to imagine I was the Head Chef for the giants living in the clouds above.  (So, I guess, all my pretend play games involved shrinking myself…Hmmm…there’s a therapy call in there somewhere…)

My siblings and I would scavenge the garden and apple trees for “food” that we could chop up into salads, pour into water soups, or arrange in other ways on giant hosta leaf “plates”.

My kids continued this tradition in the backyard, finding berries, using grass, bark…pretty much anything that would be actually nasty to eat. Mud pies, anyone?

This is NOT a good game to play if your child doesn’t know the difference between FOOD and NOT FOOD!

Step One: Gather Your Tools

You will definitely need some very sturdy (and rust-proof, if they get left outside) kitchen tools for your aspiring chef to use.

This outdoor kitchen set is really nice (and affordable) and it has LIDS, which is very important, because half the fun is taking the lid off, pretending to smell the deliciousness, and then putting it back down.

Step Two: Put On a Silly Hat for Dinner

Tell your preschooler that a very special guest would like him to make “dinner” outside. Then go inside, grab a funny hat, scarf or something, and decide on a silly name like Mrs. Featherbottom.

Then proceed to introduce yourself, sit down with your little picnic play basket, and pour out some tea. Then, as your preschooler shares his “dishes” make sure you are giggle-worthy in your delicious responses! He will be SO excited to cook for you!

Pretend Play Adventure #6
We’re Goin’ on a Bug Hunt

There are few things as exciting to a young child than the weird creepy-crawlies that give you the heebie jeebies. (Maybe this is an adventure best suited for Dad…)

Step One: Go Hunting (For Bugs)

Let him search for the creepy crawlies living in your backyard with a few bug catchers!

  • Critter Catcher – This is a small vacuumized tool that places specimens safely in a small plastic container so you can look more closely at them (without actually having to touch them!)
  • Outdoor Explorer Net & Gear – This complete kit gives you the basics (net, container, tweezers, etc.) along with binoculars, flashlight, and compass.

Of course, if you’re not sure your backyard has enough crawlies to keep him occupied…why not sneak out there during snacktime and place a few bugs yourself? He will love finding them!

Step Two: Map Out Your Adventure

Let your preschooler draw a map of your backyard and show where he found each little specimen! Then spend a few minutes identifying his finds in the Ultimate Bugopedia.

What’s Your Role in Pretend Play?

Should you head outside and join them on these adventures?


Some of the time, but not ALL the time.

Remember, one of the functions of pretend play is learning how to create their own stories. Definitely be nearby, supervising, but don’t feel you have to be in the middle of it all – even if you have an only child. Let his imagination bring in the characters, and then marvel at what he creates.

  • Be the Scheduler – make the opportunities for pretend play happen.
  • Be the Props Master – Gather the tools you need to inspire and encourage his adventure.
  • Be the Passenger – When you do join in, be content to sit back and let him drive the bus!
  • Be the Reporter – Capture these moments with videos and photos.
  • Be the Cheerleader – Encourage him to create new adventures – by picking one of the ones above or by creating your own!

Now’s the time to unleash your child’s imagination, and your safe backyard is the perfect place for him to do it. Bring out a book, phone, or laptop, sit in the corner to supervise, and then watch the magic happen!

Have You Read These Yet?

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We Love Citations!

Why Imaginative Play is Important for a Child’s Development. Telegraph.co.uk
4 Benefits for Imaginative Play for Young Children. HorizonEducationCenter.org
Why Make-Believe is an Important Part of Childhood. TheConversation.com
What is Imaginative Play and How to Encourage It. Learning4Kids.net