Play Simple – An Autumn Pretend-Picnic

Serving up Conker Soup and Pinecone Stew

Autumn is my favourite time of year. But even so there can be times when the days are grey and gloomy.  At times like that, I’ll set up a pretend picnic for T-Bird and her toys. Her favourite is put together from nature finds we gather.  She loves it so much, she calls it a party!

toddler autumn pretend picnic
Bring home your autumn nature-walk finds and lay out a sensory-rich invitation to play. Pretend picnic fun with nature even on cold and rainy days!

Pretend picnics are such an easy activity, and is so much fun.  All you to do need is to go outside and pick up some leaves, sticks, nuts, flowers, stones. Whatever you come across that is either colourful, fragrant, textured or otherwise interesting to the senses.

autumn pretend picnic
A pretend-picnic of leaves, flowers and seeds foraged on a walk around the park.

Playing with crab apples

This time around, we stopped by the community orchard and picked up some little windfall crab apples, as well as a few flowers from the hedgerows.  I put the apples inside a wooden apple box I picked up at the local charity shop recently, which amused us both greatly.  

T-Bird was intrigued by these and we spent some time talking about how these were real apples, but not good to eat (only for the dolls!).  Of course, at some point she couldn’t resist having a bite, and found out the hard way that they really don’t taste good. As I suspected they may be a temptation, I’d taken the precaution of washing them well before putting them out.

toddler having doll's tea party
Yellow-leaf tea for you, Daisy Dolly?
Toddler making doll's tea party with real leaves and herbs
Time to make dinner…

Kitchen herbs for sensory play

I often include a few herbs from the kitchen windowsill. Rosemary and Thyme are particularly good because they can be pulled apart in interesting ways and have a strong smell.

Toddler playing with herbs
Herbs like rosemary smell so nice!

If you have any old jars of past-their-best dried herbs, these are great for sprinkling (avoid any strong spices though) – we mostly use them in our mud kitchen outside, but just a teaspoon or two for an inside picnic is easy to hoover up later and really adds to the fun.

Toddler feeding doll
Feeding Daisy Dolly

Pretend picnic for dolls and toys

Once our selection was laid out, we brought along the guests.  Dress code for T-Bird’s dolls is informal, to say the least.  One day she’ll let them keep their clothes on… one day…

yellow leaves in a bowl
Amazing colours can be found all around at autumn time.
Buddleia in a bowl
A sprig of Buddleia looks and smells lovely!
A sprig of rosemary in a bowl
Rosemary is good for the kids’ kitchen too!
red leaves in a bowl
Beautiful red leaves make beautiful pretend food.

I’d put the things we collected into some wooden bowls, and included some tools for mixing with – spoons, wooden tongs and scoops.  There were various random play cups, plates and bowls for serving with, and a couple of teapots and jugs for ‘pouring’.  

As we were inside, and we have a child-unfriendly cream-coloured carpet, I didn’t include any actual liquids, but that didn’t hold T-Bird back from making a mean cup of tea.

Toddler making doll's tea party with leaves, herbs and flowers
Conkers and thyme for a delicious dolly soup!

Pretty flowers for playing with

Leaves, herbs and flowers were carefully examined, smelt, and shredded, before being sprinkled over conkers and pinecones.

Pretend tea made from flowers in a tiger teapot
Hawkweed tea? Perfect for tigers.
Daisy in a vase
Proper parties need a floral centrepiece…

Some of the prettier flowers survived whole to make tiger tea.  Longer stems were carefully threaded into the pepper pot holes to make a lovely posy.

Toddler giving doll a sprig of lavender
Daisy Doll, hold this!
Toddler smelling lavender with eyes closed
Food smells good, so our picnic did too!

Lavender is another great plant to use. Aside from being very fragrant, it can be pulled apart in a very satisfying way to produce little rice-like grains.

Boy playing with pretend picnic
Big brothers can be chefs too!
Boy making pretend tea with doll
Inventing a new tea just for mum.

When we picked up big brother, G-Man, from school, he was quite disparaging about the idea of a pretend picnic (apparently they’re just for babies…).  However the temptation to mix and create was too much for him – as soon as he saw the admittedly superb spread we’d laid out, he decided that some of his toys should be allowed to join in too.

Silver Surfer toy at doll's tea party
Can’t have a doll’s tea party without the Silver Surfer..

Silver Surfer and assorted Lego minifigures got michelin-star worthy plates of food.

Lego Mad Scientist minifigure and conkers
Lego mad scientists have to eat too.

Interestingly, G-Man was much more interested in arranging items in patterns than in the shred-until-destroyed approach his sister took. His creations were all carefully laid out, with each object placed precisely.

LEGO minifigure skeleton with trick or treat pumpkin basket
Trick or treat? Definitely treat!

We had great fun with this activity. It kept T-Bird (not quite two-years-old) and G-Man (not quite six) occupied both separately and together for well over an hour, yet took hardly any time to prepare – and gathering our supplies was an additional fun activity in itself.

A note about safety.

It’s important to take care when foraging even for pretend picnics as poisonous plants like foxgloves and deadly nightshade are fairly common (and temptingly pretty).

Children are highly likely to put play items into their mouths when mimicking food activities, so I avoided any berries or plants I either knew were irritants/poisonous or that I didn’t know were not poisonous, for obvious reasons.

 T-Bird has moved past the mouthing stage now, but I still watched closely to make sure she did not try to eat or put in her mouth any of the potential choking hazards like the apples and conkers (okay, slight fail on the apples, but on the plus side, she now knows what ‘sharp taste’ means!).

Sensory play has great benefits for young children but does need to be supervised closely.  Use your common sense when deciding what is appropriate and safe for your child.  Even if all you collect are a handful of coloured leaves, daisies and dandelions, they will still make a feast out of it and have plenty of fun!

Weather too nice to play indoors?  See how we use our foraged flowers and leaves out in the garden!

scissor skills practice with leaves
Practice scissor skills with garden cuttings!
make play food sliced mushrooms out of wine corks
Make the kids some sliced mushrooms for their mud kitchen, out of just a handful of wine corks!

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