Gear up for summer!

In Minnesota, we do a great job of making the most of winter, but we absolutely live for the immense relief at the end of our signature lengthy deep freeze. 

For parents of littles, there’s extra joy in the shift from bouncing off the walls to running barefoot and carefree through the fresh-cut grass. You’ve spent the winter months holed up, watching a few too many Disney movies and nervously navigating snot-infested indoor play areas. 

Cold and flu season is no joke in the toddler years — when they touch EVERYTHING, lick everything, catch absolutely every last thing. 

Over long winters, amazing milestones take place. Crawlers turn to walkers, walkers begin to run. Both fine and gross motor skills develop and solidify and continue to grow. Some of you might be reveling in your first “real” play-outside year.

While parks and pools and playgrounds and zoos are wonderful to explore with small children during the sunny season, I’m a big fan of long, lingering days spent in your own backyard. 

Perhaps you’ve already cruised the outdoor toy aisle at Target in giddy anticipation. From bubble mowers to teepees, there are many things to choose from! 

I’ve broken it down to the very basics — simple, easy backyard items that seem to universally please the toddler crowd. (If your “backyard” is a balcony or garden walkout, a park down the block from your apartment, grandma’s place or a friend’s house, keep in mind that some of these items travel quite well!) 

1. Gardening set

Our kiddos want to be just like us. They mimic, repeat (watch out, F-bomb enthusiasts) and offer “assistance” with our chores. Toddlers LOVE helping in the yard with their own little garden gloves and trowels. 

The best part? You can get your weeding done while they play, explore, get a little dirty and meet a few worms. 

2. Water table

Endlessly fun and worth every penny. Your tots will drive boats, migrate whales, splash and play. I favor the water table to the actual kiddy pool because it’s easier to dump at night (and therefore won’t attract so many mosquitoes) and allows for water play without a 100 percent commitment to getting wet. 

When you want full immersion, go to a public wading pool or local lake. 

3. Sprinkler

But that’s not to say backyard bathing-suit fun isn’t awesome. It’s cool (and cooling to help kids avoid heat stroke). And running through the sprinkler is as “classic American childhood summer” as it gets!

My all-time favorites for this age are the Melissa & Doug Sunny Patch varieties. 

4. Sandbox

Whether family-built (from old lumber and a few trips to Home Depot) or procured during a Memorial Day sale, a backyard sandbox is — in my opinion — an absolute must. 

It will provide hours of focused, stay-put sensory entertainment in the fresh air. Parents will have fun jumping in to play along — dare I say — lounging with a trashy summer novel in hand.

Get one with a cover to protect it from stray cats, wind erosion and thunderstorm flooding.  

5. Ouch-free balls

Playing ball is a fun way to interact and provides excellent stimulation of hand-eye coordination. 

The Little Tikes lightweight T-ball set is always awesome, as are foam-based Nerf footballs. And you can’t go wrong with a brightly colored inflatable beach ball either. 

6. Sidewalk chalk 

Taking the arts outside is a new and novel concept for many toddlers. 

As they ask you to draw a dragon, a fire truck, a kitty and the solar system, you’ll get in touch with your own inner Matisse and, in the process, unearth one of the simple pleasures of childhood. 

7. Bubbles

Endless bubbles! Wands of all sizes! A cheap and easy staple of summer during the toddler years and for many years to come. 

There are many homemade bubble-solution recipes online — check out Pinterest. 

I’m a big fan of the mega jug of Miracle Bubbles, a shallow dish and a simple “big bubble” wand. Create, chase, pop. Repeat. 

8. More!

Of course, there are water pistols, blow-up slides, elaborate Rainbow play structures, that super cool Step 2 Roller Coaster. You might be ready for big wheels, training wheels, and the Radio Flyer wagon. There’s plenty of fun to be had, for sure. 

My picks are not the final authority on summer play, however, I mindfully selected items that provide EASY, safe, fun, affordable, bang-for-your-buck ways to fill the summer days. 

Let the sun shine!

Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at Send questions or comments to