Anything can be anything in the world of a child–provide them with natural pretend play materials and toys they can use to fuel their imaginations and build their brains with this list of ideas.
Play is the most critical work of early childhood, and natural materials for open-ended dramatic play can provide the vehicle every child needs to build a healthy brain and a creative imagination. Anything can be anything in the world of a child. Provide toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners with natural play materials and toys that are open-ended enough to meet their needs with each new creative imagining.
How DO Children Learn Through Play?
Children learn to understand the world as they move and play. As parents and caregivers, it is essential to provide creative play environments that allow children to discover the world at their own pace.
The first stages of pretend play usually occurs once a child reaches three, four, or five years old. You will notice a toddler entering the imaginative play years when they begin to try on all of the activities and roles that they see going on around them.
As preschoolers pretend to be mommy, daddy, doctors, teachers, and cooks, they show us the world as they are experiencing it. And, children will continue to play through each new experience until they have understood it. So, they will often repeat behaviors multiple times to take in each new experience until they have learned enough about it to move on.
If, play is the work of early childhood, then providing toddlers and preschoolers with the tools and resources they need to play through these developmental stages is a parent and educator’s primary duty. As Fred Rogers said,
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood,”Mr. Rogers
When considering free play materials for toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners, it is important to remember that young children learn about their world through play. Toys that can be imagined to be anything thus make the best open-ended toys for dramatic play.
Why Are Natural Materials are the Best Toys for Open-Ended Play?
Natural materials are the best toys for open-ended play for several reasons. Unlike store-bought plastic toys made to look like real items, items found in nature (that are clean, and a safe size and shape) can provide preschoolers with toys they can use to learn through play in creative new ways.
It can be hard for children to flex their creative muscles when their toys are designed to be something specific because they limit the imagination. This makes keeping open-ended natural materials on the toy shelf essential for a young child’s creative development and intellectual growth.
Children will always be better off imagining that a large flat stone or a big wood slice is a pizza instead of using a piece of plastic that looks like a pizza in their dramatic play. Why? Because a pretend pizza can only be a pretend pizza–otherwise it is pretty much useless!
It’s also difficult to imagine that a plastic toy phone is anything but a phone. While a large smooth shell can be a phone to talk on, money to buy something with, animals grazing on a farm, cars driving down the road, houses on a street, etc. And, a big round piece of smooth natural wood can be a pizza (shells and rocks make great toppings), a steering wheel, a plate, and so much more!
Because children must first use their imagination to turn the item from the natural world into something to play with, natural play materials can ignite a preschooler’s creativity the second they start playing with them. A stick is just a broken tree limb until a child imagines it to be a fishing pole–is it not?
Natural Materials Develop the Imagination and Stimulate the Sensory System
Another primary reason that items from nature make the best open-ended toys for kids is their ability to stimulate the sensory system and assist with sensory development. Using natural materials in pretend play provided the sensory stimulation that your child’s developing body so desperately needs.
Plastic toys can not fill toddlers’ and preschoolers’ need for sensory stimulation in the same way that natural materials can. We recommend going on nature hunts to find these items with your children in your biome to increase your connection with the natural world around you. My daughter and I find a lot of our natural play materials on our daily nature hunt.
Make sure that the natural materials you find are clean and in a safe size and shape for toddlers and preschoolers before allowing them to use them as a toy. And, be sure to teach toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners not to abuse or misuse them. In our home eating these items, throwing them at others, or abusing them in any other way is not tolerated, and the children in our care know they can no longer play with them when they are misused.
Best Natural Toys for Open-Ended Imaginative Play
Sticks and stones are two of the most classic and the best natural toys of all time–but there are so many more! And, best of all–most of them are FREE! Here’s a list of 15 natural materials used in Waldorf and Montessori Education, and the Reggio Emilia approach to promote open-ended imaginative or pretend play.
*Note: Please not give any small natural items to toddlers that are still mouthing objects–they are a choking hazard.
Acorns are one of those natural objects that preschoolers can imagine being a great many things. My daughter loves using them as food in her dollhouse and likes to pretend that they are pieces of money. An acorn can also be a person or an animal, or anything else your children can imagine. We also like to make them into acorn necklaces and acorn marble ornaments.
- Acorns – decorative acorns with real caps.
- Wooden acorns – large wooden acorn counting and sorting toys for kids.
Playsilks are some of the best things around when it comes to a toddler’s imaginative play habits. And, they will grow with your children from babyhood all the way through childhood and into the teen years. But, please don’t be fooled by cheap imitation fabrics and play scarves.
Choose 100% silk play scarves to provide your child with the sensory stimulation their developing nervous systems needs and requires. Real silk always makes the best accessory–from peek-a-boo with the baby to a teenager’s gorgeous scarf. There is nothing more fashionable, or better for your children and our planet than choosing 100% silk play scarves.
Playsilks are also great for dress-up play and draped on play stands and nature tables. And, real silk play scarves also make excellent capes, baby blankets, baby carriers, and so much more! Make your own by purchasing silk by the yard and cutting them into 34 – 36 inch squares and sewing up the edges–or you can buy them at the following affiliate links.
3. Pine cones
A young child can imagine a pine cone to be so many things; animals, bushes, etc. Preschoolers and kindergarteners like to play with pinecones in a multitude of creative ways. Pine cones also make lovely sparkling evergreen trees in a Winter Wonderland Fairy Garden.
4. Rocks & Stones
Stones and rocks are some of the most classic natural toys for kids. They can be painted or used as they are in a number of fun and useful ways. There is no limit to what a simple stone can be in the mind of a child. If you would like to learn how to paint rocks click on the link, but remember–toys are best when they can be anything.
Colored floral stones and gemstones also make fantastic natural toys for dramatic play–they can be jewels, treasures, windows, rivers, pools, etc. But, please make sure they don’t have cadmium on them because it is toxic.
There are so many things a young child can do with a feather, especially when it comes to dressing up time, mudpies, and sandcastles. Encourage your children to put a feather on their hat, use it as a quill, or anything else they can imagine!
- Colored turkey quill feathers
- Natural phesant feathers
- Colored ostrich feathers
- Natural peacock feathers
I am in constant amazement at how I see preschoolers using sticks and small logs. Sticks can be so many things–a fishing pole, sword, flag, broom, and of course you can use them to build almost anything! I’m sure you will be able to find some of these on a nature hunt into the great outdoors in your neck of the woods.
A shell can be so many things. A shell can be a phone, while shells can be money, food, animals, etc.
Yes, you read that right–corncobs. Remove the kernels and dry them out before use. They can be fishing poles, logs on a pretend fire, toothbrushes, building supplies, or anything else your child imagines them to be.
9. Wood Pieces and Natural Tree Blocks
Wood pieces from nature make excellent pretend play toys for dramatic play activities. Toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners use them to build or become anything the child desires. There are easy to make by cutting small limbs of a tree into pieces. Some of ours are pictured below. We keep our natural tree blocks in a small basket inside and a large bin outside.
- Use small tree limbs and branches to make your own Waldorf-Inspired tree blocks. Learn how to make nature blocks–> HERE.
- Tree Blocks – this is a lovely set of tree blocks if you don’t want to make your own.
- Wood slices – these make fantastic plates, steering wheels, pizzas, pies, etc.
10. Sand bags and Bean Bags
Sandbags are a wonderful natural play material for kids of all ages. They can be used for hand toss games like Hopscotch, Target Toss, Cornhole, etc., in addition to many other purposes.
- Cornhole bean bags – these sandbags are made out of canvas and filled with corn. They are made to be used for the game of cornhole, but they are also a wonderful toy for pretend play.
- Mini-toy bean bags – Perfect way for kids to develop the skills of throwing and catching in a fun way.
11. Boot or shoe laces
Boot laces are not exactly a natural material, but I couldn’t leave this fantastic resource off this list of toys for kids. Boot and shoelaces can be used as tow ropes, circles for simple games, the string for a fishing pole, and you name it.
Make sure you choose laces that are thick enough to untie easily. Little ones can get these all wound in knots, and thick ones are a lot easier to undo. You can also provide toddlers and preschoolers with finger braided ropes or crochet lengths of yarn instead of laces to play with.
With all these natural materials, you will need some sturdy baskets to hold them. The dollar store has baskets, but we discovered that they were too weak and ended up replacing them. After tossing too many baskets into the waste bin, we went with some of these.
13. Play Stands
Play stands are the perfect place to set baskets full of these natural materials for dramatic or pretend imaginative play. They are also wonderful hideaways that can have a silk scape or cotton sheet draped over the top.
14. Silk Scapes
Silk scapes are wonderful for pretend play. They are larger than play silks and are often draped over play-stands, chairs, headboards, etc. They create a beautiful hideaway for young children. They can also be used for dress-up play.
15. Cotton sheets
Cotton Sheets are great for building forts, boats, trains, and secret hideaways. A bunk bed with a sheet tucked under the top bed is a wonderful place to hide, while a sheet draped over a chair, table or sofa can be almost anything. Any old cotton sheets can be used. If you don’t have any thrift stores usually have a large supply. If none of these options work try the affiliate link below.
Natural Materials Make the Best Toys for Kids
Children need play spaces where anything can be anything to flex their creative muscles. They need play materials that are open-ended enough to meet their needs with each new imagining. These natural materials for pretend play provides the perfect solution.
There are many other toys you can include with these natural materials to create an imagination-rich play space. You might also enjoy this list of Open-ended Toys for Pretend Play.
This post is a part of the A to Z of Pretend play blog hop. If you click through this post is under “N” for Natural Materials. Click on the link to see all of the other amazing posts about pretend play.