Top Outdoor Toys for the Engineer’s Garden
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Summer, finally, and we can all go outside again. Breakfast on the patio, barbeque parties, kids playing in the garden. Oh winter, how we miss you not. Key to any parent’s summertime relaxation, of course, is that the kids are happy, and busy. Any parent will know that the true value of any toy or activity can be calculated by multiplying the amount of time the kids are kept occupied by the educational merit. Possibly subtracting the cost of washing powder.
Based on a very subjective interpretation of this formula, and some objective observations of my own kids and those of neighbours and friends, here are some of my personal favourite outdoor toys to keep the kids occupied in the garden this summer, introducing them to some of my favourite (highly interesting) engineering principles while they’re at it. That’s the main thing of course - ensuring an interest in engineering continues to run in the family. At the same time, having time to drink a second cup of coffee with a newspaper on your Saturday morning is nice too.
The opposite of cutting edge, but what engineering family does not need one of these hanging in their garden? Variations of the block and tackle have been used by civilizations dating back to the Mesopotanians and the ancient Egyptians almost four millennia ago, and you can either put one together yourself or buy a set for kids. Watch their faces light up when they realise the pulley gives them super-power strength and, when they get to that wondering age, witness their brows furrow as they start to see how it works. It will only be a matter of time until you find one of your garden chairs hanging from a tree, or emptied water bottles dangling from each end.
Bring the beach to your garden with a box full of sand. Much like the beach, a sandpit in your garden entertains kids for hours and hours. Many nowadays come with a roof attached to keep the sandpit in the shade - a much more stable and aesthetically pleasing solution than the wobbly umbrella hammered into the lawn that I remember from my 1980s childhood. Fill it up with some appropriate sandpit toys, and leave them to it. Ours love building road networks, with ramps up and down for the motorway. Top tip: throw in a few buckets of water and you can get them building canal networks and dams too.
A favourite garden toy with both my four and two year old, it’s proven exciting enough to lure the seven year old kids from next door over to play too. I (at a youthful 37) have also been known to partake in an aquaplay session every now and then. The kids spend literally hours on end, several times a week, setting up complex logistics, moving the boats into the dock where the crane can unload the containers into the toy trucks. Watch your little ones operating the water pumps, locks and pivot bridges, and admire as they send in rescue craft to right the overfilled, top-heavy ships. Building new layouts is an activity in itself, and you’ll enjoy the eureka moment when they realise why it takes a few seconds for the hand-powered water-turbine to actually push the boat around. Welcome to hydrodynamics, little engineer.
Multiple sets, sizes and configurations are available from two main brands: Waterplay and Aquaplay, although others exist too. The sets can be dismantled for transport and reconfigured to vary your setup. As with any water toy, supervision is a must for the little ones.
A far cry from the little six to eight inch things we used to have as kids, these days they’re normally about 13 inches (approx. 40cm), and can be as big as 19 or 20 inches. For larger ones, though, you’ll need either a huge garden or a field/park nearby. My son was delighted when he discovered a backhand “rocket launch” throwing style, which sends the thing straight up into the air to perform a satisfying loop before landing stylishly on its undercarriage ten or fifteen yards in front of you. And yes, you can use it to make aerodynamic principles super interesting. I quote: “If you throw it up too quickly, it gets pushed over backwards daddy”. My bad.
A classic outdoor toy. And your kids will sleep well after what amounts to a hundred or so tuck-jumps in an afternoon. What more to say, apart from that the kids jump on a giant air bag, which shoots a foam rocket upwards. Nearly into space, of course. There are lots of variations out there. I went for one that has different rocket/wing shapes. It gives the game a bit of variation, and therefore staying power. And it gets some cogs turning as the kids ponder what makes one of the rockets stay in the air so long, while another performs loops.
We don’t actually have one of these, but our neighbours do. And we are only a tiny bit jealous… Watching it buzzing up and down is the number one spectator sport for the kids in the nearby houses at the moment. The educational potential is huge - I had a conversation with one of the local kids where he was figuring out, while watching it fly, how varying the speed of one or more rotors affects the pitch and steers the drone.
A few years ago, a drone might have been considered an ultra-fancy toy for overpaid execs or die-hard enthusiasts. But nowadays you can get your little pilots behind the joystick for the cost of dinner. And while they’re busy spying on the neighbours, you can have dinner in peace and quiet. P.s. don’t use it to spy on neighbours, that’s rude, and probably illegal.
So with those suggestions for outdoor toys in mind, enjoy the summer. May your kids’ minds be inspired, their night-time sleeps long, and their clothes only moderately muddy.