13 Retro Outdoor Toys That Have Totally Held Up (Meaning: Kids Still Love ‘Em!)

published Jul 12, 2023
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Girl tying the laces of her roller skates
Credit: Jamie Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

In my ’80s childhood my friends and I did a lot of toy-less backyard play, like “Ghost in the Graveyard” (a mashup of hide-and-seek and tag, best played in the dark for maximum terror). We also climbed trees unsupervised so that the old lady who lived behind us felt compelled to call my mom and warn her of our impending deaths. Ah, good times. 

We did have some classic outdoor toys, and they were so different and simpler than today’s amazing new backyard toys. Seeing all the hype for the Barbie movie (and the amazing new Barbie dreamhouse!) got me thinking especially about roller skates — and then my nieces asked for them for their June birthdays! That inspired me to make a list of backyard toys we’re so nostalgic for — toys that truthfully our 2023 kids would probably love as well.

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Pink perfection! These remind me of the kind of skates I used on our driveaway. They’re starter skates, nothing fancy, but they’ll get your child moving and mastering a skating motion. These adjust to fit kids from about age 4 to 8 — shoe size 11 junior to 2 in big kids — and they come in plenty of other colors and patterns, too.

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Is there a neighborhood in America that hasn’t had one of these, somewhere, every summer for the past 40 years? It’s green so it kinda blends into your lawn (you know, a bit). The turtle shell is a cover, so your sand won’t get wet and dirty in between uses. My brother and I played in our backyard sandbox for long stretches at a time, making sand pies or plowing toy cars through sand until they were a dusty mess. Then it was time to switch to playing “car wash” with the hose.

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This nostalgia-fueled set is the most wholesome toy we’ve seen all year. The mini wagon is easy enough to be pulled by a preschooler who can also delight in filling it with toys, rocks, or whatever else they’re into. It comes with sidewalk chalk for the driveway and a bubble wand — enough to give a little kid a terrific afternoon.

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Dick's Sporting Goods

This is the OG model, from the Wiffle brand. The bat is so thin that it’s best for ages 6 and up — grade-school kids who are capable of hitting a real baseball through a window so you buy them this instead. Even a hearty whack from this bat to the Wiffle ball won’t send it too far or too fast. It’s still very satisfying for the kids (and for you, when you inevitably give it a try).

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If your kid is under age 6 and wants to bat a ball, start them on this, which is for tots 18 months and up. Most preschoolers can connect the fat bat to the ball — especially because the ball just sits waiting on the stand. It all folds for storage in your garage or shed, or you can fit it in your trunk for outings to the park or for camping trips.

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In my family we used this “catch” game at the beach, where a breeze off the water could send the ball perilously off course. It’s age-graded for ages 8 and up, as you need some hand-eye coordination. I always liked that the scooped racket helps you dramatically capture the ball if you have to dive.

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The modern face on this car looks weird to me, but maybe it was odd that the Cozy Coupe had a face to begin with. Preschoolers for generations have loved it. This Little Tikes classic came out the same year as the turtle sandbox, so 1979 was a good toy year. My own kids didn’t usually move in this; they just sat in it to play imaginary games (and for that you can use it indoors as well). But the rugged plastic is made to withstand some sun and rain outdoors. Be warned: You have to put the pieces of this ride-on together.

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Back in my day we just literally used the lawn sprinkler as a toy, jumping over it in our bathing suits. This Melissa and Doug version is a modern classic, beloved for a couple of decades now, and it sends the water out in a fountain shape that makes it easy for a couple of kids to get splashed at the same time. There are a lot of great new water toys for 2023, but this, which hooks up to your hose, is a ton of fun for under $20.

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A trike is still the ultimate driveaway accessory. A big-wheeled tricycle is fun to look at, but a pain to maneuver, so you’re better off getting your child age 2 to 5 this classic Fisher-Price model, which lets them sit a little higher. They can stash treasure under the plastic seat. There’s also a Barbie version for the same price.

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Confession: I was a majorette for most of my childhood, from age 5 to 18. I was often in the backyard twirling a baton. To really do things right, you need your child’s arm measurement and a top-quality baton that is weighted correctly. (Physics is involved!) But since we’re just talking toys, this set of three starter batons can entertain young kids from about age 3 to 7.

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I was confused by Jacks when I was little, because after a few turns I lost the thread of how to play. Bounce the ball and pick up one or two Jacks while the ball is in the air? I still need to look up the directions today. But for me the highlight has always been the super-bouncy balls, and this comes with two of them. Plus this toy is so cheap it can go in a favor bag if you have a summer party.

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Speaking of bouncing balls, did you know that you can still get the original Superball? It’s just a lot smaller now (in fact, it's ping-pong-ball sized). It’s made of Zectron, a highly pressurized rubber, which is why it goes so high. It’s safe for kids but not dog-proof, so don’t let a dog bite it or it comes apart.

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A friend from Indiana reminded me of this lawn game that everyone who grew up in the Midwest used to play. Decades ago the part you threw had a super-dangerous pointy end, so there was an air of uneasy excitement whenever a friend got out the Jarts. The ends are rounded on today’s version. The Jarts won’t land upright, stuck in your lawn, but they are weighted about the same as the old Jarts and are still fun to aim for the bullseye ring. Nostalgic, but safer!