Play is so important to child development that some pediatricians prescribe it. While play can take place indoors or out, when children are limited to indoor activities, they miss out on half the benefits. Outdoor play is more likely than indoor play to be physical and to promote fitness and reduce obesity. It provides exposure to the sun, which children need, in safe doses. Outdoor play may even help to prevent nearsightedness, as it encourages children to use their distance vision. And those are just the physical benefits! Being outdoors helps children appreciate the natural world, and it is a wholesome stress reliever for kids and adults, too. While free play in the great outdoors is wonderful for children, you will also need to have some activities on the ready for times when they need a little direction. Try these!
What exactly is geocaching? It’s best described as a technology-driven treasure hunt, although the treasure is likely to be a plastic container full of dollar store trinkets. That’s okay, because the hunt is the thing. It’s also an activity driven almost entirely by a community of enthusiasts, so that’s a cool thing, too.
Here’s how it works. Download a geocaching app to your smartphone. It will show you caches hidden in your area. Round up the kids and walk or drive to the location, then start searching. Your app will get you close to the cache, but it can be difficult to get your hands on it, as it may be disguised or hidden. Once you find it, open it up and sign the log book which should be inside. If the cache has trinkets inside, let the kids pick out an item to keep. It’s good geocaching etiquette to replace any items you take with some of your own. At some point, you can register your find online. If there is a problem with the cache, you can log that online, too. If your family really enjoys geocaching, you can create and hide your own caches.
Geocaching is challenging for the whole family. It provides exercise for the brain and the body and takes your family places that they might never visit otherwise. Teach the children to use caution when searching for the cache and not to reach into areas where there might be snakes, stinging insects or thorns. It’s a good idea to carry a stick for probing. Generally, however, the risks of geocaching are no greater than the risk of any outdoor activity, and the payoff in terms of adventure can be huge!
2. Obstacle Courses
Want your kids to use their creative and problem-solving skills? Try obstacle courses. These can be challenging physically and mentally, and older children can help design them. (You’ll want to be in on the action to make sure that your child doesn’t include a hazardous activity.)
You can buy obstacle course kits, but you can also use items that you have on hand. If you have playground equipment in your backyard or items such as play tunnels, these naturally lend themselves to obstacle courses. Here are some other materials that can be used:
- Stepping stones. Kids have to step from one to the other. Any missteps and they have to start over!
- Hula hoops. There are a million ways to use hoops. You can lay them flat for the kids to step into, hang them for the kids to climb through, or cut them in half and stick them in the ground so that kids have to belly crawl under them.
- Flat boards. Use these as balance beams. Put them flat on the ground for young kids or raise them a little for bigger ones.
- Pool noodles. Like hoops, pool noodles are very versatile. Use one for a limbo stick. Use them for hurdles. Because they are soft, kids are unlikely to get hurt using them.
- Balls. One of your stations can be one where kids have to do something with a ball. It can be tossing a certain number of tennis balls into a bucket, throwing a bigger ball through a hoop or bouncing a basketball a prescribed number of times.
Timing the kids as they make their way through the course adds to the fun. Some kids will enjoy competing with friends and siblings. Others will enjoy achieving a personal best.
3. Classic Outdoor Games
Classic outdoor games like tag can still engage modern children. You may need to supervise at first, but soon kids will get the knack of playing these games on their own. You should avoid stepping in to settle disputes, as these games can teach conflict resolution.
- Red Light, Green Light. One player is “it.” The others line up a distance away. When “it” says “green light” and turns his back, the other players run toward him. They must stop when the player who is “it” says “red light” and turns around. Those who don’t stop promptly are sent back to the starting line. The winner is the one who reaches “it” first.
- Swing the Statue. The player who is “it” swings another player by the arm. When “it” lets go, the other player has to “freeze” and hold that position. The winner is the one who holds position longest, but most of the laughter will come from seeing players frozen in awkward poses.
- Sardines. The game of hide-and-seek was tweaked to make this game. One player hides while the others count. Then all the players try to find the hider. Each player that finds the hider crams into the hiding place. The last player to find the group loses, but again, the competition isn’t really the point. Most of the fun is in trying to fit multiple people into one hiding place.
Other classic games that you may remember include “Mother, May I?” and “Duck, Duck, Goose.” You can also play simple games of hide-and-seek and tag. “Capture the Flag” is a good one for older children. Find rules for these games and lots of variations online.
4. Scavenger Hunts and Treasure Hunts
Some people call them scavenger hunts and others call them treasure hunts. Either way, children love them. One type requires that searchers solve clues. Each clue takes the players to the location of the next clue, and the hunt ends with some kind of “treasure.” The treasure can be inexpensive toys, treats or a small sack of coins.
A treasure hunt clue should be fun and not too hard, like this one: “I’m used to giving your plants a drink. / I can fill up a bucket, as quick as a wink.” (Answer: garden hose). If you don’t want to invest the time to write your own clues, you can find lists of printable clues online.
A simpler kind of hunt consists of a list of items that players must find. Traditionally, kids went door to door asking for items on their list – thus the name, scavenger hunt. Today most parents don’t want their children going door to door. Instead, you can send the children on a nature treasure hunt that requires them to find items such as a round stone, a red leaf, and a seed pod. If your children are old enough to have phones, they can take pictures of the items instead of actually collecting them. Turning the hunt into a photo safari allows you to add items such as butterflies and spiders.
5. Ball Games
Children don’t have to have a team or a field to have a lot of fun playing ball. Try these favorite ball games that can be played by two or more children. Maybe you’ll get asked to play!
- Catch. A simple game of catch can entertain some children for many hours. Use a soft ball for younger children, and move to a harder ball and a glove as children grow. Catch also lends itself to many variations. For example, two players each have a ball and must throw at the same time, each catching the other’s ball.
- Flies and Grounders. In this traditional ball game, players earn a point for fielding a grounder and two points for catching a fly ball. The player who is throwing tries to fool his opponent about which type of throw to expect.
- Horse. If you have a basketball goal, you can play a lively game of horse. A player tosses the ball through the rim. The next player must duplicate that shot. A player who misses gets a letter. The loser is the first one to spell H-O-R-S-E.
Other popular ball games include foursquare, kickball and keep away. Instructions can be found online.
6. Sidewalk Chalk
A box of sidewalk chalk is like a box of magic. You can do so many things with it! It’s great for creating pictures and for practicing letters and numbers, but that’s just the beginning. Try these sidewalk chalk activities.
- Hopscotch. Use sidewalk chalk to make the traditional grid. You can also find a different grid online, or invent your own. Hopscotch involves kids hopping on one foot in a prescribed pattern without falling or landing on the line.
- Number and letter practice. Write letters in random order on the driveway and let your child spell words by going to each letter in turn. Or call out simple math problems and let your child go to the number that is the correct answer.
- Chalk games. Tic-tac-toe and hangman are more fun when written large with sidewalk chalk. For tic-tac-toe, use two different colors of bean bags or rocks, and you won’t have to erase your X’s and O’s.
- Create-a-scene. Help your child draw a scene on the driveway and then let your child enter the scene by lying down in the middle of it. You can create an underwater scene, then let your child put on a swimsuit and dive right in. Your child can ride a chalk surfboard, walk a chalk dog or hold on to a bunch of chalk balloons. Of course, you’ll want to immortalize these scenes with your camera. You may have to get on a step stool to be able to look down on the scene and photograph it properly.
7. Bird Feeding Stations
Bird watching is interesting and educational, but it’s easier for the kiddos if you can get the birds to come out of the trees. Do this by creating a bird feeding station. You can buy a variety of bird feeders at the garden store, or you can make your own. A pine cone that has been smeared with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed is an easy DIY feeder. Hang by a string, and get ready to watch!
Identifying the birds can be done with a classic bird book or with an app. There are also apps that can help you identify birds by song. Teach the children to look at the birds’ feet, beak and wings to determine important information about their habits. If the birds won’t let you get close, buy the children inexpensive binoculars, or build a simple bird blind with a piece of cardboard or plywood.
Most kids are fascinated by rocks. Unless you are a geologist, however, you may not be qualified to teach your child about rocks and gems. A good way to get around this is with a visit to your local rockhounding club. (Rock hunting is usually referred to as rockhounding in the United States and Canada.) If there isn’t a club in your area, look for a rock shop with a knowledgeable owner.
You may want to start a young rockhound with a few purchased specimens. Visiting a natural history museum with a rocks and minerals section is also fascinating. But the outdoor fun starts when you and your child start looking for rocks on your own. Beaches and riverbeds are the easiest places to find rocks, but you’ll be somewhat limited in the types of rocks you will find. Road cuts, where bedrock has been exposed, are good places for rock collecting, but you’ll want to choose a road without a lot of traffic for safety’s sake. Rock collecting is not allowed in most parks, and you’ll need the landowner’s permission to collect on private property.
Older children will enjoy rock hunting kits with items such as pick, chisels and magnifying glasses. Safety goggles should be worn whenever tools are being used, to protect against grit getting in the eyes. Gloves are a good idea, too. Rockhounds also carry spray bottles of water and cloths so they can clean their specimens for easier identification.
9. Kite Flying
You’ll need two ingredients to teach your kids how to fly a kite: the right kind of breeze and a big open space. You need a steady breeze that makes flags flutter, not one that is whipping the flags madly. And you need an open space for two reasons. First, your kite will have less chance of landing in a tree or power line. Second, you won’t have to deal with the turbulence that comes when the wind goes around obstacles. A beach that’s not too crowded is ideal for kite flying.
Start with a simple kite like a classic diamond shape. If the weather conditions are right, you can launch a kite by simply letting it go at the right moment. One person holds the kite about 100 feet from the person holding the string. When the wind is steady and strong, the person holding the kite releases it, while the other person takes in some of the string. Launching a kite by running with it is actually harder than this method. Once the kite is up, the person flying the kite should take up line if the string gets slack and let out line if the kite starts to dive. If you need to take in or let out string quickly, you can use the hand-over-hand method and wind the line up later.
Be sure to teach your children about kite safety. Never fly a kite near an airport. If your kite should become entangled in a power line, never try to retrieve it. You should notify the power company instead. When taking down your kite, stay clear of other people. A diving kite can cause a nasty cut.
You can learn more about kite flying at the National Kite Month website run by the American Kitefliers Association.
10. Bubble Making
If you think blowing bubbles stops and starts with the store-bought kind, you and the kids are missing out on a whole lot of fun. Make your own solution, and you’re combining a science experiment with classic childhood play. One recipe calls for two cups of water, a quarter cup of dish soap and a quarter cup of corn syrup. Some recipes call for glycerin instead of corn syrup. You can find glycerin in some pharmacies in the first aid section and in some grocery stores in the baking section. You may find that homemade bubble solutions work best if allowed to sit uncovered overnight.
Once you have made your bubble solution, it’s time to experiment with bubble wands. You don’t want a dinky little wand like you get with the dime store bubbles. You can make wands the size of a saucer with floral wire. Use heavier wire for bigger bubbles. For really giant bubbles, you can make a rectangular-shaped wand with wooden dowels and string. Dip this contraption in the solution, gently open it and let the breeze blow through it. You should get a long, undulating bubble.
The kids will enjoy experimenting with different bubble recipes. Some solutions will make stronger bubbles, while others will make more iridescent ones. You can also add food coloring for tinted bubbles. Your bubble solution will keep for a long time in a covered container.
11. Water Play
Water is magical, especially on a hot summer day. You don’t need a backyard pool for water play. A water hose for squirting each other and a sprinkler for running through will entertain most kids for hours. You can also seek out nearby pools, splash pads and water parks. Many neighborhoods have free pools or splash pads, and municipal facilities are usually affordable. Commercial water parks tend to be expensive, but they are worth an occasional splurge.
For water play that’s both entertaining and educational, consider a water table. You can buy commercial versions, but you can be more creative if you make your own. A simple water table consists of a plastic container raised to kid height. Outfit it with various containers for pouring. Add another level by using PVC pipe and funnels to transport the water. You can create a water wall in a similar fashion. Position pieces of pipe and containers on a sturdy wall so that water poured in at the top makes its way through various vessels before coming out at the bottom. Put a container at the bottom to catch the water so it can be used over and over. Older children can get involved in the design of water tables and water walls. For safety’s sake, be sure to empty any containers at the end of play.
The habit of walking may be the most healthful habit you can build with your child. Children who are taken for walks from an early age are more likely to continue the habit as adults. Here are some ways to make walks more interesting for children.
- Vary the route. You may enjoy walking through your neighborhood and chatting with the neighbors, but children often prefer parks. Parks often have nature trails, water for tossing rocks into and playground equipment for climbing. Urban walks can be interesting, too, with lots of vehicles to see and store windows to look into.
- Map the route. Some children are fascinated by maps. They can use a city map or one that you have drawn to help plan and follow a route. Some children may be interested in creating their own maps. As they get older, they can use a smartphone to navigate. That’s a good real-life skill for them to learn.
- Vary the time. A walk after dinner is good for the digestion, but early morning walks have their charms, too. Nighttime walks can be enchanting. Look at the stars, listen for frogs and owls, and be sure to carry flashlights – a big part of the fun for most kids.
- Combine walking with other activities. You can toss a small ball back and forth as you go. Walking and nature study also form a likely duo. Collect nature specimens as you walk, or see how many different birds or insects you can spot. Many parents find that they have meaningful conversations with their kids while walking. The side-by-side orientation of walkers is less intimidating than being face-to-face and may make children more likely to open up.
- Add a gadget. A fitness tracker or pedometer is a good motivator for children who are somewhat competitive. And although one purpose of walking is to take a break from screens, games like Pokemon Go can be very effective in getting children moving.
- Take a hike. If you are walking in a more rugged natural area, what you are doing might be more precisely labeled hiking. When you hike, you and the kids will need sturdy footwear, and you may need to bring water and emergency supplies. With parents who are prepared and prudent, children can enjoy hiking from an early age.
13. Tailgating and Lawn Games
A lot of games that are known as tailgating games are highly suitable for older children – just skip the cold brews! Ladder ball and bean bag toss can be enjoyed by young and old, and some children can give adults a run for their money. You can also try traditional lawn games such as croquet, bocce, washers and horseshoes.
Besides providing exercise, these games also give children practice in taking turns and in being a good sport. If there is a wide discrepancy in age or skill level, there are many ways to make the competition more even, such as giving younger kids an extra toss in ladder ball or letting them throw from a closer line. Scoring gives kids practice in math, and learning the specialized lingo will add to their vocabularies.
14. Jumping Rope
If you want an awesome aerobic activity for kids, look no further than jumping rope. Using a single rope is good exercise, but children are more likely to enjoy jumping with a long rope such as the ones used on school playgrounds. You don’t have to have a special jump rope. You can just buy a length of rope at the hardware store. A piece about 20 feet long should do the trick.
It’s best to have two people to turn the rope while another jumps. In a pinch, you can tie one end of the rope to something that is about waist high and have someone turning the other end. Jump rope rhymes help kids keep the rhythm and add a touch of whimsy. These ten classic rhymes have been around for decades.
If your children really get interested in jump rope, you may want to invest in some higher grade ropes, especially if they get into double dutch, which uses two ropes that are turned in opposing circles.
The Bonus for You!
Outdoor activities are great for kids, but they are wonderful for parents, too. You’ll reap the benefits of exercise, and you may find that you worry less. You may also enjoy a closer, deeper relationship with your children.