12 Tough Outdoor Resources for Play and Learning | Creative STAR Learning

Jeanne A. Curley

Very often when I ran courses participants would tell me that they only have a patch of tarmac for the children to play on. Whilst in the long term, all sorts of changes can happen, in the short term, the space needs to be used cleverly. Permission is usually needed – which is a laborious and slow process – to make structural changes such as removing the tarmac, permanently attaching items to the walls, etc. However, a few well-chosen loose parts can make all the difference in the short term and to get going with outdoor play.

How children view each resource is often very different and they like to explore them in ways that adults do not always consider. The photos in this blog post are from a blank asphalt space which was used by young children with Additional Support Needs (ASN), and who tended to explore the world in a very physical way. Many of them liked cause and effect activities. This means that if something can be knocked over, it will be. If a resource can be moved about, it will be. If something can be stretched and pulled and manipulated until it breaks, then this will happen. And there is an ongoing fascination with the drainage holes and posting small items into there. You can see one of the drainage holes in the above photo.

At break and lunch times different children of all ages would pile into the area. Some are buddies for the younger class. Others just need a safe place to play in a big, busy school with over 500 children.

What this means is that this area got high amounts of use daily. This also meant that the resources had to withstand high amounts of wear and tear. So I thought it would be useful for you see what resources held up to such intensive and hard play. You may be surprised to know these are almost all loose parts and most can be acquired for free. This means they are all versatile and open-ended resources which can be used in a multitude of ways having no fixed purpose. Also, apart from the Smartsack Peg bags, all can be left outside too. (The peg bags would do fine in a shed – if they and their contents get very wet then it is best to let them dry out).

These resources below are listed in no particular order and I’ve added links to relevant posts:


Everyday the tyres would get rolled around, walked on, climbed upon, stacked and are generally used in lots of creative ways. We also used them as semi-permanent barriers in the past too when creating different play areas.  This post gives lots of ideas and practical advice and information about tyres. Used bicycle tyres are also surprisingly useful.

Bread and milk crates

It may sound daft, but I think it’s the holes that make these resources so handy as well as their ability to be stacked. You can tie ropes on to them for pulling, they can be woven, they can be pimped in so many ways. And of course, each and every bread crate can be turned into a cosy wee sitting space with a few cushions or fleecy material. When it comes to milk crates I’m a big fan of H-crates.


There are many different sorts of guttering. If you want the sort that won’t break when children jump on it and try to bend it in interesting ways, then go for the heavy duty black guttering as seen in the photo below. Lighter coloured smaller guttering is easier for little children to carry around but is much less robust. You can cut guttering into a range of different lengths as well.


Once you and your children start using ropes, then there is no return! I have a lovely collection of sisal, blue poly rope, washing rack rope, washing line, climbing ropes and interesting ropes with no name! Provided the ends are sealed then generally ropes last well and are a versatile resource. Start slowly with one rope attached to an item and build up your own and your children’s comfort levels at using ropes safely in play.


There are many different types of hoses. As a general rule those which have been manufactured as a toy are less robust than those which were designed for real life purposes. Again, we have a variety of types and these are always well-used by groups of children.

Plastic pipes

The big black plastic pipes come in a range of sizes and lengths. They are designed to last and so is the play value! Ask a friendly builder for some off-cuts.

Fishing nets

Of all the nets that are available, it is the traditional fishing net which is worth its weight in gold. What is interesting is children’s reaction to it. Some love the appeal of bring properly caught. Others find the text and holes harder to handle. However one net will last you years. They are great for making quick displays too.

Cable drum

When one of these arrived in our outdoor space, I did not think it would last long. One year later and this object has been moved and rolled all over the place. They come in a range of sizes but ones children can easily move are particularly handy.

Logs and stumps

Whilst sticks and wooden disks decay, the rate tends to be a lot slower with bigger logs and stumps. My husband very kindly arranged for a tree to be cut into suitable stumps that are just possible to lift but a bit too heavy for younger children to freely move. This is because we wanted a circle as a wee play area. Currently it is being used as a sandpit.

Steering wheels

When a car is going to be scrapped, then save the steering wheels. These are quite heavy but very tough. Some children in some classes work extra hard inside to earn the privilege of having a steering wheel to play with.


We have to supervise the use of pebbles with the ASN class I worked with as occasionally a stone will go flying through the air. Generally all is fine and the alphabet pebbles always go down well. I’ve had to find ones that are big enough not to be posted down the drains.

Smartsack Peg Bags

These bags are the toughest I have come across. Although the plastic label has been ripped off the front of some, they have been taken to all sorts of places, filled with heavy stones, dragged along tarmac and STILL they keep going. The funniest thing is that the company market these bags for hanging on cloakroom pegs and promote their other bags for outdoor use. So beware of this when placing an order and buy the ones in the photo below.

I would also add that these suggestions are just for starters – I did miss out wooden planks, old drums and other bits… I also know there are many other great items out there. If you have any resources which have withstood the test of time, please let me know what they are! I’m always on the lookout for such items. Leave a comment below or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter. Thank you in advance!

I now have a free download – The Ultimate Loose Parts Play Resource List – with advice about their care and maintenance. I hope you find this useful.

This blog post originally appeared in February 2013.

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