How Climbing Trees Builds Creative Thinking

Have you ever climbed a tree? Do your kids like climbing trees?

This has never been high on my list, even back in the nursery school days, but my 3 year old N has climbing in her soul and will climb just about anything: rock climbing walls, trees, jungle gyms, furniture, fences, etc. She seems to gravitate especially to trees that offer a challenging climb, and I like it because it gets us out into the fresh air and builds strong minds and bodies.

I love good ol’ fashioned play like this, and thought we could all use a visual reminder of how important free-range outdoor play is for kids.

outdoor play kids

The spirit of play is at the heart of imagination, creativity, and innovation. In playful environments, we’re prone to divergent thinking (generating numerous ideas about a topic) and are more inclined to push the limits of what’s possible into the impossible.

Climbing trees may not seem like highly cognitive work, but let’s take a look at what might be involved…

tree climbing kids

First of all, you have to map your idea (a will to climb a tree) with your reality (how will you climb that tree?). And then you have to send signals from your mind to your body to problem solve the execution. Our neighbor’s poor flowers were pelted by too many little climbers who have deemed this the most climbable neighborhood tree, so you might also have to navigate around the mini-flower-shielding fence that’s now in your way.

You might have to make room for a friend, which can build emotional intelligence and help develop spatial reasoning.

You might not yet be ready to climb a tree, but you’re building your confidence by climbing things that are within the zone of proximal development. Go you!

tree climbing kid

And when you reach that branch that always eluded you, the feeling of pride is beyond belief. You’ve accomplished something that only you could accomplish. You’ve tested your strength and your limits, and proven to yourself that you can achieve what you set your mind to.

I always watch my children closely and offer a lot of support when they first take on new physical challenges, but since my goal is to empower them I will step back once I get the cue that they’re comfortable without my assistance. I was talking with a friend today about free-range parenting (maybe you’ve heard of this movement?) and I follow this parenting philosophy to a great extent. I’m very involved in my childrens’ lives and everyday experiences, offer them a great deal of compassion and emotional support, but I’m raising them to be confident, independent thinkers who can make decisions for themselves without a lot of supervision.

I’ve partnered withGoGo squeeZ, the first squeezable, re-sealable, no-mess, 100% fruit, no-sugar added apple­sauce based snack for kids in the U.S, as a Playbassador, which means that I have more reasons to share fun outdoor activities that celebrate play and creativity. All opinions in this post are my own.

GoGo squeeZ believes in the simple mantra of “always play” and is putting this belief to work through the “Pass the Play” campaign with the goal of bringing the simple joy of play to those who need it most across the country.

DIY Water Wall

Does it feel like summer in your part of the world? It’s heating up here, and my kids have been enjoying this easy and inexpensive new backyard water feature. All you need is a nearby water source, recycled plastic bottles, and a wall to attach it to.

My older daughter helped me build this one afternoon last week while my toddler was napping. She loved the responsibility of holding the bottles steady while I drilled and took a lot of pride in our finished water wall. It’s not gorgeous, but it’s a lot of fun and an upcycler’s DIY dream.

water wall build

To replicate this upcycled playscape in your own garden or patio, I’ll break this down into some simple steps.

collection of water wall materials

DIY Water Wall Supplies

Plastic bottles

Screws (our nifty kit is from IKEA)

Drill. The one in the photo is no longer with us. Sniff. However, our brand new, favorite drill is a cordless wonder is the Makita DT01W (affiliate). It comes with two sets of rechargeable batteries, so you’re never without power!

Exacto knife. This one (affiliate) is a good deal

DIY Water Wall Steps

With the exacto knife, cut a hole in the side of the bottle. The hole will be large enough for you to fit your hand into it so that you can easily position and drill in the screws.

score bottle and add screws

Using the exacto knife, score an “X” on the side of a bottle and push a screw through the “X” from the inside. Repeat one more time so that you have two screws poking through the bottle.

Screw the bottles to a fence or wall. Tilt them slightly downward to help the water pour through. You might have to shift the bottles around or cut the holes a bit more to make the water wall work properly. Test as you go.

water wall testing

Test it out to make sure it works. Add a bucket at the bottom to catch the water, which can then be added to plants or returned to the top of the water wall.

Invite some friends over to play.

water wall play

Set up a water-filling station and add some pitchers, watering cans, and cups.

And be prepared for eye-opening, open-ended fun.

Inspiration for this project

I’ve been inspired by Let the Children Play once again! Last summer Jenny gave us the idea for our mud pie kitchen (and here’s her mud kitchen), and other outdoor hands-on activities that get my kids thinking and building in the fresh air. Her water wall post (full of water wall inspiration from around the web) has been sitting in my mind since she posted it in October (she’s in Australia where it’s bloody hot in October), and it’s altogether responsible for the hours of fun my kids and neighborhood friends had with our newest backyard water feature. Thank you, Jenny!


Sensory Activity: Wheat Berries

Could your child spend hours sifting flour or scooping sand? Sensory activities like these can fully absorb the minds of young children as they test the limits of materials and build imaginary worlds through pouring, filling, and building.

This sensory activity is so easy, it doesn’t require a lot of materials, and the process of exploring tactile materials through hands-on play is good for growing brains.

But why wheat berries? Like rice or sand, wheat berries are fun to scoop, but the larger, rounder size has a different tactile feeling than these other materials. I’m not advocating for one over the other, but presenting this as an option that came on like gangbusters with my kids.

And you can grow or cook this nifty grain after the playing is done…scroll down for more on that.

wheat berry sensory activity


  • Wheat Berries*
  • Large Container
  • Small toys, bowls, and scoopers

* I found our wheat berries in the bulk bin aisle of Whole Foods, and used a full bag for this project. You can find wheat berries in most bulk bin aisles and online. I spotted this organic 25 Lb Bag of Hard Red Wheat Berries on Amazon and there are plenty of other choices there.

sensory activity

I poured the wheat berries into the tub and placed a few plastic eggs, a couple homemade paper funnels, a couple bowls, a scooper, and an egg carton next to the tub. My kids dropped what they wanted inside and started playing.

sensory activity

They came up with all sorts of ideas that surprised me, but perhaps the biggest surprise was watching them play alongside one another (well, across the table, actually) in total harmony.

The other surprise: This activity went on for days. Each night I would clean everything up, put the lid on the tab, and tuck it away under a cabinet. And the next day my toddler would ask me to pull it out.

sensory activity

The only mistake I made was setting this up over a shaggy carpet. It was such a mess, but nothing the vacuum couldn’t take care of. On a nice day, this would be fun outside, but I would caution you against setting this up over any dirt or land that you wouldn’t want wheat grass shooting up in.

They also brought dollhouse furniture and little action figures over to the tub, where they ran them through various adventures. My three-year old built a paper canoe (seen above), to fill with berries and take Strawberry Shortcake on rides down the river.

I loved watching how inventive they were with this simple grain as the backdrop for their creativity.

sensory activity

And suddenly the tub doesn’t seem so big anymore! When they exhausted all of their play options, walking right in the wheat berries, and eventually sitting in them became a game in itself.

More Wheat Berry Fun

wheat berry

Wheat Berry Gardening (above), Tinkerlab

Wheat Berry Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts, Ellie Krieger on Food Network

Wheatberry Salad with Bell Pepper and Red Onion, Barefoot Contessa on Food Network

A nice explanation on why wheat berries are good to eat, and a recipe for Greek Wheat Berry Salad, A Life Less Sweet blog

Have your kids played with this fun sensory grain?

Sensory Activity: Wet Paper

paper sensory activityDoes your toddler enjoy squishing play dough, scooping rice, or dumping buckets of sand? It’s widely recognized (read here and here) that sensory activities play a central role in infant and child brain development.

This is one of those amazing activities that just “happened,” invented by a toddler who was curious about the combination of paper and water, and could be easily replicated in a home or school.

Clean up was a snap!
sensory activitiesI placed a towel on the kitchen floor, and filled a tub of water with a small bowl and ladle for water play. My three year old was building things in the other room with paper, and little R toddled and selected these two pieces of polka dot paper. Pretty.

sensory activitiesBut that wasn’t enough, apparently. She kept walking back and forth, grabbing small handfuls of paper to fill her tub.

sensory activitiesIt seemed that the challenge was to gather paper and squash it as deep into the water as possible.

sensory activitiesI thought I’d help her out a bit when I noticed the slippery trail of water from the kitchen to the dining room.

sensory activitiesAnd then I foraged the recycling bin and tore this magazine apart for her.

sensory activitiesShe finally sat down to work through the big magazine pile, happily engrossed in this meaningful activity.

sensory activitiesAs a last step, I handed her a pair of kitchen tongs for picking up pieces of paper. She’s not quite ready to use them for picking objects up, but she enjoyed snapping them and poking at the paper.

And just so you don’t think this all went to waste, it inspired me to turn the soggy paper mess into a paper-making project the next day. Stay tuned for that!

More Paper Sensory Activities

sensory activity shredded paper

Sensory Activity: Shredded Paper (above), Tinkerlab

Papier Mache as a Sensory Activity for Autism, Sharon’s Creative Corner

Sensory Tub with Shredded Paper, I Can Teach My Child


Sensory Activity: Shredded Paper

If you’re afraid of a mess, I have to warn you up front that this is a messy one.

But it’s not a dirty kind of mess and if you stick with me here, you might become a shredded paper convert like me.

paying bills with kidsIt all started innocently, and rather boring, enough. It was a bill-paying day, and I set the kids up with their own stack of mailing labels stickers, pens, and old checkbooks while I dealt with the heavy stuff.

They were happy enough, but things heated up when we moved on to paper shredding

shredding paper in paper shredder with kids

I had basket full of old bills that were ready for the shredder, and two happy-to-please assistants who took the shredding job very seriously.

Shredders are potentially dangerous, and I would absolutely not let my kids shred on their own, but with careful supervision the act of shredding can build confidence, teaches accuracy and careful attention to details, and it’s just plain fun to make a loud ruckus.

When it’s not in use, I unplug the machine and lock it in a closet. When it’s in use, I run through the rules of good shredder usage with my three and a half year old: Up to 3 sheets at a time. Hold the paper at the top when you feed it in (no fingers near the shredding area). And it’s not for my 18 month old.

While my three year old shreds, her sister hands her stacks of paper. They love it.

Okay, so take a look at that little basket of paper up there and remember how small it appears. And remember that appearances can be deceiving.

My friend and her son came over a couple hours later to play and make some ice cream. While we were talking, my 18 month old dug her hands deep into the neatly packed shredded paper bag, and in moments the room erupted into this happy play scene…

play in shredded paper with kids

And that’s only half of the paper.

They could not have been happier. In fact, just before this moment, the kids were all winding down and ready to go their separate ways. But as soon as that bag emptied out, they found a whole other hour of play inside their little souls.

It was so fun, in fact, that my older daughter chose to keep playing rather than go to her beloved gymnastics class.

play in shredded paper with kidsMy friend is a master at imaginative play with kids, and had them bury themselves in shredded paper, pretend they were dormant volcano monsters, and then erupt without any notice. You can probably imagine the shrieking and laughter that followed.

And we all agreed that this is the perfect toy: free, open-ended, and entertaining for a long spell.

So it was messy, yes, but it was easy enough to sweep up. And rather than cart it off to the recycling bin like I had planned, it all found its way back into the closet and ready for another day of fun.

More Shredded Paper Ideas

Alpha Mom makes a bird’s nest with brown paper bags.

10+ Ideas on what you can do with Shredded Paper (like make animal bedding, papier mache, and mulch) from Bohemian Revolution.

Adorable and seasonal Shredded Paper Seed Starters from Made. These are on my to-do list.

Can you think of a time that your kid/s turned a banal situation into a burst of play? Have you played with shredded paper? Would you try this yourself?