Susannah Robbins continues her series about the importance of learning through play with young children. This time, the joy of summer play.

[New City Magazine – June 2021, page 18-19]

As I write this the sun is shining, my office window is open and I can hear the children playing outside in the garden with my husband. It reminds me of the quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘some old fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat’, she’s right isn’t she? So often have I had the conversation this past year that the most recent lockdown was the hardest – the weather made it seem even more restrictive and bleak. We anecdotally recall the first lockdown through rose-tinted glasses, remembering the warm, favourable weather and all the outdoor time that we were able to spend together in our family bubble. So it is with cautious hope and gratitude we watch this new season roll in, and pray that she brings good news that is here to stay.

The great outdoors

Summer reeks of the promise of adventure, of being outdoors and reaping the benefits of the hard winter graft. We toil against the elements the rest of the year, so summer feels like our playtime, ours to revel in and enjoy. I try to not plan too many structured play activities for summer, as the children tend to busy themselves and create their own play when outdoors. However when my input is required let me tell you that summer is my favourite season for enjoying sensory play! Take it outside where possible and use natural ingredients so that any overspill doesn’t harm any wildlife.

Ice play – this is perfect for a hot day! You can simply provide your child with a tray and some ice cubes, set up an experiment to observe how quickly they melt, or add them to some cornflour so that as the ice melts it makes ooblek. You can freeze small plastic toys and see if your child can problem-solve how to break them free, or freeze some wilting flowers – the ‘before’ shot will be utterly stunning, the ‘after’ shot however will be a squishy, pulpy mess!

Water play – provide a big bowl or plastic container and fill it with water. You could add ice to the water, or bubbles, a few drops of food colouring or even make the water warm to add an extra sensory element to it! However, many children will happily play and splash in water even without these additions. Give them a ladle and cup and your child will scoop and pour to their hearts content. Interestingly this play is great as it encourages the child to explore capacity, whilst honing some complex motor mapping skills.

Shadow play – place some toys on the pavement and use chalk to draw around their shadows. Put on a shadow puppet play using a bedsheet and some toys, or even just your hands – let the children direct – you’re bound to have a much more magical adventure that way (no offence). Can you find a way to let the shadows show the passing of time? Maybe you can have a go at making your own sun dial!

Shade Play – If you need some activities to play in the shade, to give yourself and your child a well-earned sun break then don’t think too hard! Simply bring some of your regular and well-loved activities outside. Bring a cushion and maybe a blanket outside into a shady space and share a story together. Bring out some colouring in books and some paints or crayons. Bring out the Lego box and challenge each other to build the biggest and best vehicle or tower. Just by moving these activities to a new place you will spark a renewed interest. Novelty value is an easy friend here!


This is such a great time of year to sit back and watch your child. Notice how they interact with their environment and each other. Be child-led, follow their interests and support their play without directing or hindering it! We adults really can get in the way of some top-quality play so embrace the opportunity to relax, enjoy the sunshine and see where the day takes you. However, we must remember that it is also the ‘Great British Summertime’ and it is useful to have a back-up plan! If the weather has turned and you need to stay indoors then why not recreate the better weather in your own home! You can craft a paper plate sunshine (or cloud and rain drops if that’s more appropriate!). You can pretend that you’re at the seaside by using polenta to fill a tray for some sensory play (use out of date food stuffs where possible, as this means that, rather than wasting food we repurpose it, and can use and reuse it for many years to come). Or perhaps your child is interested in learning about the seven layers of the ocean, something that you can easily demonstrate using empty jars, water and food colouring and some plastic sea life toys.

Enjoy the extra hours of daylight, take your time and playfully explore your world together, through your child’s eyes. A lot has happened this year – can you see any evidence of this in your neighbourhood? Perhaps you can spot some sun-faded rainbows still posted in windows, or messages of thanks and support to the NHS and critical care workers. Perhaps you could capture these signs of the times on a mobile phone. Who knows, maybe next year all this will be a thing of the past, a story to be retold and remembered?

Photos: © courtesy of Susannah Robbins

See also:

Read the 1st part of this series: Play theory

Read the 2nd part of this series: Learning through play

Read the 3rd part of this series: Baby play

Read the 4th part of this series: Purposeful praise

Read the 5th part of this series: Resilience

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