A "horse swing," the first of the author's natural toys, was inspired by a young locust tree with an interesting curve at the base.
PHOTO: STEPHEN MENDELSON
Most toys produced nowadays seem outrageously expensive,
easily broken, and unnecessarily complicated ... but my
youngsters have inspired me (and taught me how) to create
natural toys out of free, readily available materials.
A Horse Swing
For example, while taking a stroll through our woods one
day, I spied a young locust tree with a beautiful curve at
its base. Immediately, I realized that the bottom of the
trunk would make a sturdy and graceful swing for my
daughter. So, since I also needed some posts of about the
tree's diameter, I cut it down. (At the time, I thought the
bent section was unique, but—as is often the case
after one first notices a "new" thing—I've since seen
many others like it.)
Back at the house I stripped off the trunk's bark,
which is quite an easy thing to do while the wood is green.
Then, using a brace with a one-inch bit, I drilled two
parallel holes from the swing-to-be's side, one at each end
of my child's future "flying" steed.
Next, I sawed a pair of 1"-diameter lengths—each about
8" longer than the width of the locust log—from a
straight hardwood branch. Once I'd whittled off the bark
and blunted the ends (children and sharp objects should
never mix!), the stubs fit through the holes. Ropes were
then attached to the available ends of the crosspieces to
suspend the swing.
Our "hanging horse" can be used safely by any child old
enough to hold him- or herself in place on it, and of
course the height can be adjusted to suit the length of the
little one's legs.
The remainder of the locust tree was stripped and cut
into fence posts, and the process produced a pile of curled
bark. Our four-year-old masterminded a water engineering
project—using the leftovers—that became more
elaborate as time went on. I thought his homemade aqueduct
was a fine toy, but just a toy ... until I visited our
neighbors farther down the mountain and saw their spring
water flowing through a bark-strip conduit!
Another bark project will turn the small scraps (those that
are about 2" or 2 1/2" wide and 3" to 4" long) into little
First, use a nail to press holes into the bark at any
points where you want to locate masts (the uprights are
made from thin sticks whittled to a point).
Trapezoid-shaped pieces of paper (or big leaves) can serve
as sails. Just slip them onto the sticks and mount the
masts in the nail holes.
When you blow on the little "barks", they sail prettily on
the water, and there are almost always a few exciting
sinkings to watch.
A Playing Platform
The next time you have to cut down trees near your house,
leave a little more stump than you ordinarily would for a sturdy foundation on which to build a playing
To make one of these structures, it
was necessary to set a post in the ground at a point about
six feet from two serviceable stumps. Then we spiked a 2 X
4 from each stump to the post, to form a triangular base, nailed some old boards across these two beams, and
added a small ladder.
Since this "playform" is shaded by greenery, it has the
feel of a tree house ... or it can be a pretend pirate
ship, a goblin's cave, or a knight's castle. And you can
bet it sees a lot of use on hot summer days!