Play is the most important work of early childhood. Children begin to understand the world around them through movement and play. As parents and caregivers we must provide play environments that allow children to discover the world at their own pace.
The first stages of pretend play usually occurs around the age of three. This is when children begin to try on all of the activities and roles that they see going on around them. By pretending to be a mommy, doctor, teacher, or cook they begin to assimilate the world as they experience it. They play through each new experience, each new developmental step over and over again.
When considering free play materials for a young child keep in mind that it is best if anything can be anything. Children need play materials that are open-ended enough to meet their needs with each new imagining.
Children are better off imagining a shell to be a phone instead of using a toy phone. A pretend pizza can only be a pretend pizza while a round piece of wood can be a pizza, a steering wheel, or a plate.
This is why having open-ended natural materials on the toy shelf is so important. It’s hard for children to flex their creative muscles when their toys are all something. It’s hard to imagine a pretend phone to be anything but a phone. While a shell can be a phone, money, animals, cars, houses… you get the idea.
Natural Materials for Pretend Play
This post contains affiliate links for your convenience.
Below I have listed several types of natural materials that are often used in Waldorf schools to promote open-ended pretend play. Please don’t feel that you have to include all of these items unless you want to.
Using natural materials in pretend play also provides the sensory stimulation that your child’s developing body needs. Plastic toys just don’t fill the need for sensory stimulation like these materials can, and don’t allow anything to be anything.
I recommend going on nature hunts to find most of these items with your child over time. See Go on a Nature Hunt for more information. If you can not find them I have provided affiliate links where you can buy them for your convenience.
Acorns can be imagined to be many things; people, money, food, etc.
- Acorns – these are decorative acorns with real caps.
2. Play Silks
Play silks are some of the best things around when it comes to pretend play. You can make your own by purchasing silk by the yard and making 34″ – 36″ squares or you can buy them.
They can be used as capes, baby blankets, baby carriers, etc. They are also great for dress up play, and draped on play stands and nature tables.
- Red, orange, white, yellow play silk set
- Pink, blue, green, lavender play silk set
- Set of 6 mini play silks
A young child can imagine a pinecone to be so many things; animals, bushes, trees, etc.
4. Rocks & Stones
Rocks can be painted or used as they are. There is no limit to what a simple stone can be in the mind of a child. To learn about painting rocks click on the link. Colored floral stones and gemstones are also wonderful for pretend play. They can be jewels, treasures, windows, rivers, pools, etc.
There are so many things a young child can do with a feather, especially when it comes to dress up time, mudpies, and sandcastles.
- Mixed Saddle and Coque Plumage Feathers
- Colored Turkey Quill Feathers
- White Ostrich Feathers
- Natural Peacock feathers
Sticks can be so many things. I am in constant amazement at what I see kids using sticks and small logs for. I’m sure you will be able to find some of these on a nature hunt.
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 for a fire, toothbrushes or anything else your child imagines them to be.
9. Wood Pieces
Wood pieces from nature are wonderful for pretend play activities. They can be used to build, or become anything the child desires. There are easy to make by cutting pieces from small to medium branches of trees. Some of ours are pictured below. We keep a small basket inside and a large bin outside.
- How to Make Waldorf-Inspired Nature Blocks from Adventure in a Box [Click on the link to learn how to make your own nature blocks.]
- 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
- Sandbags – these are made out of canvas and filled with corn. They are made to be used for the game of cornhole, but they are wonderful for pretend play.
11. Boot or shoe laces
Boot laces are not exactly a natural material but I couldn’t leave them out. These can be used as tow ropes, circles for simple games, the string for fishing poles with a stick, you name it.
Make sure you choose laces that are thick enough to untie easily. Little one’s can get these all wound in knots and thick one’s are a lot easier to untie. You can choose to provide braided ropes, or crochet lengths of yarn instead of laces.
With all these natural materials, you will need some sturdy baskets to hold them. The dollar store has baskets, but we found that they were too weak and we were replacing them too often. After tossing too many baskets, we went with some of these.
13. Play Stands
Play stands are the perfect place to set baskets full of these natural materials for pretend 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.
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 provide the perfect solution.
There are many other toys you can include with these natural materials to create an imagination-rich play space. See Open-ended Toys for Pretend Play to learn more.
This post is a part of the A to Z of Pretend play blog hop. This is N for Natural Materials. Click on the link to see all of the other amazing posts about pretend play.
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Nell has over 20 years of experience working with children and is the founder of Rhythms of Play. She believes in the power of the imagination, learning through play, making this world a greener place to live, and getting outside in all seasons! Learn more…