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Keep on Truckin'

Age: 0 to 5 Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: Spare trucks or cars, water, pails, soapy water
Skills: Imagination, Behavioral Schema, Sensory

Ah, mud. We love it almost as much as our kids do -- an for good reasons like we’ve shared in activities like Making Mud and Faces for the Trees. When you combine mud play with another super toy -- trucks! -- you’re taking a simple, compelling play context—construction and trucks—and moving it outdoors. It’s a magical recipe: kids play with their trucks, using them to haul and dump stuff, bulldoze, make tracks, and just ride all over the muddy ground. We sat back and observed kids at play (something all Tinkergarten leaders are trained to do), and several unintended consequences fascinated us. Kids seemed preoccupied and then excited to see their toys get dirty. It was as if the trucks went through the same liberation that these children did in their first week of mud play.

We also noticed that even our smallest explorers (18 month-olds) did more pretending when they played with trucks. And then we had a thought: Maybe we could sprinkle an extra dash of pretend to the mix. We laid out some blank paper, and kids started making tracks -- literally! We also modeled using sticks to draw and delineate roadways for the trucks. Soon our older pretenders (4 and up) were using sticks and rocks to create trees, houses, schools -- an entire world began to form.

When it was time for snack, kids did not want to stop, so we rebranded cleanup as a car wash for their trucks, and everyone left their mud for the thrill of suds and nature brushes (Thank you pine trees) -- but we know those trucks are destined get down and dirty again soon.

The Guide

  1. Convoy! Got a few trucks around the house? Thought so. Gather a few of them up and take them outside. If friends will join you, bring an extra truck or two.
  2. Set the stage. Ask your kids: have your trucks ever played outside? What will happen if the trucks play with us outdoors? in the mud? with the rocks? What could our trucks help us build/move/make out here?
  3. Make some mud. Have water available to kids, rough up the earth in an area with open dirt -- then, as the saying goes, just add water.
  4. Model play. Start to get your truck into the dirt, mud, and other elements. Make noise -- rev your engine and screech as you turn, beep when you back up. Fill the dump truck with rocks, dig up the ground with the excavator. Seem pleased (we bet you’ll actually be pleased).
  5. Pull back and let them at it. It will not take long for kids to catch on. Give your truck away and start asking questions to prompt more exploration. If any children don’t seem to be into trucks, give them time to watch. Place a truck nearby and see if they join in later.
  6. Extend the play. Drag a stick along the ground to create roads; pile sticks to create bridges. Maybe make a river or moat. Use trucks to help haul materials to build something (for example, a house for squirrels).
  7. Car wash! The best handwashing game ever. Use nontoxic but sudsy soap like Dr. Bronner’s and a large container to create the car wash. Explorers love to get the trucks super soapy -- and maybe themselves a bit, too.

Why is this activity great for kids?

There’s just something about trucks. Transportation play creates a context of pretend that even very young kids can connect to, which allows them to develop their imagination. And if you think girls just aren’t into trucks, we gently suggest you give them more chances to access them -- you might be surprised. Even if all kids do is making vrooming sounds, this engaging play context gives them a chance to push language use. The outdoor setting offers multiple opportunities to use super-sensory natural materials, especially gooey, sticky mud followed by a sudsy, soapy car wash. Finally, messy play is its own kind of magic. Many of us had sandboxes where we got trucks dirty -- really dirty. But lots of kids today don’t have a chance to get themselves dirty, let alone their toys. Research shows that embracing a bit of mess is liberating for kids, helping them become more flexible and creative thinkers. So keep on truckin’ -- you’ll be heading in the right direction.

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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