Credit: Design: Zoe Burnett

The 12 Coolest Outdoor Toys to Give Them the Best Summer Ever

published May 19, 2021
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The first blush of warm weather always feels like a rebirth to me, but with hope for the pandemic’s abatement on the horizon (huzzah!), I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for summer. In order to soak up some quality “we time” outdoors with your family, now’s the time to invest in outdoor-ready gear that puts the fun in functional. 

Take my friend from college, Kate Koehler Lefco, a Portland, Oregon-based mom and school social worker: Early on in the pandemic, she splurged on an above-ground, 10×30-inch round metal frame pool — something she just knew her three boys (aged 4, 5, and 7) would love. “I drove to Longview, Washington, to get the last one at Big Lots [and then companies started selling them all summer for six times what I paid!]” 

Her 50-mile drive was totally worth it: After donning their life jackets, her kids run around the inner edges really fast until it forms a de facto whirlpool … again and again and again. “They were in the swimming pool every day last summer,” says Koehler Lefco. She added a dog fence around it for safety and uses a pump, chlorine, and solar cover to keep the water clean and warm. “I thought it was a pandemic purchase, but I think we’re going to do it every year. Next year I’m going to get an even bigger one!”

Koehler Lefco is spot-on. When you find an outdoor toy that can hold kiddos’ attention for longer than a TikTok video, you’ve won parenting gold. I chatted with other parents and did a deep dive of research myself to find the very best outdoor play options for warm summer days, including monkey bars and a gardening staple you may already own. 

A big top trampoline.

Manufacturer recommended age: 7 and up

“My very active 10-year-old would never have made it through quarantine this last year without her trampoline!” says Lane Walsh, broker associate of Dwell Denver | Compass. “It keeps her active and entertained and, more often than not, I find her out there with a blanket and a book, lounging in the sun. It’s been the best investment in backyard fun that we’ve ever made!” 

Springfree Trampolines aren’t the cheapest on the market, but they’re truly beloved, thanks to their high safety ranking — they’re reported to be the only trampoline on the market to eliminate 90% of product-related injuries, and the only trampoline company that meets Australia’s stringent standards. So you can rest easy while they jump high and free.

A private climbing set for monkeying around.

Manufacturer recommended age: 3 and up (max weight: 150 pounds)

There’s only one problem with your neighborhood playground, and it gets exacerbated in a pandemic: It can get waaaay too crowded for comfort. If you’ve got room to spare, consider this UV-protected, heavy-weight plastic monkey bar set to scratch that itch on your own home turf. Bonus: Extra reason to host playdates at *your* place (so less schlepping!).

A ginormous floating balloon.

Manufacturer recommended age: 14 and up

When it comes to balloons, bigger is unequivocally better — just ask the people behind the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This 50-foot-long balloon strikes a similarly jaw-dropping note. All you need to do is walk it around outside on a clear, sunny day to fill it with air, seal it, and give it an hour or two to “rise” — then watch as the less-dense warm air inside makes it float into the cooler outdoor air. Said one reviewer, who gave it five stars: “It’s nothing but a trash bag on steroids, but we had fun!” Ah, science.

A rainbow-shaped sprinkler.

Manufacturer recommended age: 3 and up.

Instagrammers, start your engines. This Crayola-bright sprinkler is total eye-candy, and spews enough water to keep little ones coming back for more. We love that the material is phthalate and lead-free, and that it’s super fast to set up (you just hook your hose right up to a corner). You will, however, need to invest in a pump to inflate the 90″ wide, 60” high rainbow; it’s not included. 

A teensy gardening set — just add overalls.

Manufacturer recommended age: 5 and up

Thousands of great parent reviews can’t be wrong. So it’s no surprise that Colorado-based water resources engineer Arista Hickman says her son adores this set of garden tools. “They are his size and are made of real wood and metal, so they’ll last a long time,” she says. “He loves them because they are just like mommy and daddy’s. We like them so much we sometimes use them ourselves!” Bonus: Colorful, sturdy handles add extra fun to outdoor playtime.

A classic camp game to-go. 

Manufacturer recommended age: Not listed.

The throwback lawn game cornhole — aka bean bag toss — was reportedly invented in 1883 as a safer version of horseshoes, no metal spikes required. Leave it to the Australians to come up with a portable version like this one, which is hewn of lightweight blonde wood, with six outdoor-friendly polyester bags included. 

A pair of colorful binoculars.

Manufacturer recommended age: Not listed.

Hitting the hiking trail or picnic park gets so much more exciting for wee ones when they have a pair of binoculars at their side. Because what’s cooler than spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird or bald eagle up close? These sky-blue binocs feel like a splurge for kiddos, thanks to their artfully illustrated custom box and great zooming capabilities. 

A fairytale set of light-up ribbons.

Manufacturer recommended age: 6 and up.

Don’t let the sun set on your outdoorsy fun. These batons light up to cast a magical aura on al fresco frolicking after dark. The attached ribbons have a pearl-like shimmery finish, making them extra pretty to twirl through the night air. Says one reviewer: “I love looking out the window and [seeing] my daughter running through the yard making different shapes and things with the ribbon.” Even the fireflies will want to step it up a notch when they see it.

A bubble-licious lawn mower.

Manufacturer recommended age: 2 and up.

Sorry, kids. Mowing the lawn will never again be this fun. “My 2-year-old loves this mower,” one reviewer says. “The amount of bubbles that it disperses will definitely keep the kids occupied and fascinated. The music it plays is also a nice touch.” The mower — which is made of nontoxic ABS plastic — releases a whopping 1,000 bubbles per minute. But our favorite part? It comes with four refills to keep the fun going. 

A portable rainbow.

Manufacturer recommended age: 1 and up.

“My 19-month-old son quite likes this stacking wooden rainbow,” says Bayonne, New Jersey-based freelance writer Sarah Enelow-Snyder. “I appreciate that it’s made of wood, which reduces my already-too-large plastic footprint, and the material vibes well with an afternoon in a tree-filled park.” Made of FSC certified alder wood with water-based dyes, the rainbow’s arched pieces can become everything from a tunnel to a dollhouse — just add imagination, of which kids have plenty.

A garden hose. Yes, a garden hose. 

Manufacturer recommended age: N/A, as this is not technically a toy. Use with parental supervision.

For Athens, Georgia-based writer and editor Alison Miller, nothing beats the humble garden hose to excite her daughter. “To turn on a garden hose is to open the valve on a legion of outdoor activities, from washing the car to watering flowers,” Miller says. “Our 7-year-old loves making mud. Pro tip: Have your kids play in their bathing suits and hose them off when they’re done. An expandable model, like this one, is easy to store and will save you from kinks.”

Whether you invest in a big-ticket backyard item, or choose to stock up on smaller toys, be sure to take lots of time to steer the family outdoors. Sunshine is fleeting, and so is summer — let’s all make the most of this one!