My kids’ favourite toy? An old plastic barrel. Seriously.

Of all the play things in our yard—the hockey net and sticks, balls and bouncers, a hand-me-down jungle gym, pop-up tent and more—I never thought that an old, dirty, plastic barrel would be my kids’ favourite toy.

Ten years. An entire decade!

That’s how long it’s been kicking about in the backyard. I’ve tried to stuff it into my trunk and steal away with it to the recycling centre. Yet each time, the kids beg me not to take it away.

“But we looooooooove it! Don’t take our barrel!” they say, draped across its dirt- and grass-covered body.

I can’t even remember where or why I got the barrel. Maybe it was meant to go under the rain gutters so I wouldn’t have to drag the hose out to water my veggie garden? Perhaps it was to hold up a plank of wood as a makeshift table?

Whatever the reason for its initial purchase, my oldest son (then two) saw it in the yard and immediately claimed it.

“Oooooooh, what is that? Mine!”

It’s been a horse, something to ride, coo over, and shower with love. It’s been part of their circus play, a picnic spot, and something to drape blankets across to make a fort. It’s the first item brought out in the spring, and the last thing put away in the winter.

Over the years, I’ve watched both my boys try to climb its slippery back. They fall, and try again. And fall. And then… success!

When they were each around five years old they’d take a running start, leap, and land with both feet for a few seconds of tippy standing.

“Watch this!”

They’ve unscrewed the top and stuffed it with mud (that changed its balancing point!). They’ve taken a break on it to eat their lunch. They’ve often worked at walking on it while rolling across the grass.

That silly old barrel has been the best play prompt. It has helped them develop physical literacy and skills like balance, coordination, and body awareness. It has also taught them resilience.

In turn, those skills have helped my kids develop their confidence, and that confidence has created a natural motivation to try new and more complex skills.


Related read: 9 ways to tell if your child is physically literate


While the kids’ obsession with the barrel has always seemed, well, curiously funny to me, to them it’s just another way to play. It feeds their intrinsic motivation to play, just for the fun or challenge of the activity.

Left on their own, they’ll often take other items from around the yard and instinctively use them for active and creative play too. 

Place a pile of wood in the yard and they’ll turn that into an obstacle course to crawl, shimmy, and race through. The picnic table isn’t simply for sitting around during dinner—it’s for building a fort, a castle, or a cool spot to chill out and savour a popsicle.

Adding diverse items to your environment—whether that’s your yard or a nearby green space—will create a loose parts collection for creative and imaginative play.


Related read: What’s in a cardboard box? 12 new play ideas for kids


This unstructured free play will decrease stress, enable new experiences and physical skills, and is crucial for children’s development. As they explore, test, and manipulate objects, kids use both their sensory and physical senses, and gain feedback from their whole body.

Will I ever get to reclaim “my” barrel?

Doubtful. They’ve recently set it up as a hurdle, complete with a sprinkler to add to the complexity and fun.

“Mom, watch what we can do now!”

Photos courtesy of Christine Latreille.

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