Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

Play outside: grandmother watches two kids play with a xylophone made of kelp

What can you make out of kelp? A xylophone, for starters. Photo by Fiona Cohen.

5 hands-on ways to play outside in the fall

From horse chestnuts to bull kelp.

Play outside in the fall, and you encounter a changing world. Trees drop leaves and seeds, water soaks the land, and storms knock everything about. Here are five beloved ways kids can  experience the season in Seattle. All of them involve objects from the natural world that kids can safely touch and play with.


Horse chestnuts

Grownups may plant these street trees for the shade they provide in summer, but for kids, the best thing about horse chestnut trees is the seeds that hit the ground in autumn. Each seed has a leathery green coating covered in spikes. Pull the coating away and nestled inside is a glossy, smooth brown seed with a white spot. Take the seed home and it will dry out and harden, with the skin becoming wrinkly.

British children call them “conkers” and play a game with them.

But for most kids, it’s just fun to open up the shells, and feel the smoothness of the seed inside.

One nifty tool for finding a horse-chestnut tree is Seattle’s Street Tree Map.


Maple seeds

Every maple seed comes with a wing. Drop the seed, and the wing will spin like a helicopter blade, as the seed wafts down. Watch an individual seed, or throw handfuls in the air at a time. It’s fun to watch the seeds spin, and see how far they go


Fallen leaves

Fallen leaves offer lots of scope for play. For starters, you can rake them into a pile and jump on them.

As with any sort of active play, there are risks involved, and you should stack the leaves in a safe place and avoid raking in any sharp sticks. Despite the ever-present potential for mishaps, there plenty of sensory and and physical benefits for kids to hit the leaf pile. It’s hard to think of a better way for a child to decompress after a morning on Microsoft Teams.

Here’s a video that shows off the joy of leaf piles.

Another thing that makes autumn leaves attractive to children is their variety. As every manufacturer of toys and trading cards will tell you, kids love to collect and classify, and autumn provides a free opportunity.

Many kids will find it absorbing to look for different kinds of leaves, sort through them, finding the reddest, the yellowest, even the purplest, and the ones in different shapes. And the biggest. (The biggest maple leaves in the world grow here. Big leaf maples shed leaves that are as large as 64 inches across.)

If your child is inclined to make something permanent, there’s the option of making a leaf album.  (Though you’d need a special page to fit a large big-leaf maple leaf.) Otherwise, they can just sort the collection on an outdoor table, until they’re done with it, and then the leaves can go in the compost.


Create something

If you don’t want to jump on leaves, or study them, you can have lots of fun making things with them.

Leaves, sticks, cones and seeds are great material for kids’ creativity.

They can devise small “fairy houses” out of leaves and sticks and whatever is around. They can collage the colorful leaves they find into an art work, such as a face, or another  image.



The wind storms of fall yank long strands of kelp off the seabed, and it washes up on beaches in tangled heaps.

Of all the free toys that nature provides in fall, bull kelp is my favorite.

You can untangle the mess of kelp and see how long the strands of seaweed are. You can trail them in the sand, or flick the thin end of the seaweed like whips. The gnarled holdfasts look like little trees and are excellent additions to a sand castle tableau.

Broken into pieces, the hollow stalk can be many things. Buzz into one end and you have a horn. Lay a bunch of pieces down on a couple of driftwood logs and you have a xylophone. Sand castle engineers can use kelp pieces as pipes to transport water from a nearby stream to a castle moat.

What uses will your kids find for kelp? Time to bundle up, head for the beach and find out.

Originally published Nov. 1, 2020

More outdoor fun

3 magnificent fall hikes on the Eastside 

9 Seattle neighborhood parks where your kids can play for hours

5 great treals for a fall-winter family hike, in and near Seattle

About the Author

Fiona Cohen

Fiona Cohen lives in Ballard with her husband, two teenagers, a big vegetable garden and an absurd cat. She is the author of "Curious Kids Nature Guide," and is working on a new nature book for kids, to be published by Little Bigfoot in 2022.