There seems to be study after study, advocating outdoor time for kids. Experts suggest a correlation to everything from better overall health, to lower anxiety to better eyesight. While we would prefer if our kids spontaneously wanted to play outside, getting outside and enjoying it takes practice. We’ve compiled this list of outdoor games for kids that parents can employ to help encourage independent outdoor play. Some of these you will recognize as your own childhood games outside with your neighborhood friends, others are new to this generation.
Outdoor Games for Kids with a Jump rope
Outdoor Games for Kids with a Ball
Check out our newest list: 65+ Fun Nature Play Ideas for Kids
1. Doggy, Doggy, Where’s Your Bone
In this game, the child who is the Doggy turns around while someone steals his “bone”. The bone can be any object, but with smaller kids using a toy bone might make it easier to understand. When the Doggy turns around, all the children attempt to look guilty while Doggy guesses who stole the bone. With little ones, let them guess until they pick the right person, then it’s the next child’s turn to be doggy. If you are playing with older kids, you can add a limit to guesses.
2. Mother May I
In Mother May I, the Mother stands with her back turned and grants or denies requests to move forward. This game works best with kids too young to realize the inherent unfairness of this game. Mother may have her back turned, but she probably knows everyone by voice. Therefore, she really decides who is going to win. If Mother is an adult and the kids are little, it can be a fun game to practice counting. Another option is to purchase the “Mother May I” Ball to add an element of chance to the game.
3. Sidewalk Picasso
Get some Sidewalk Chalk and let your inner artist take over. Start this activity on your own and pretty soon every kid around will be drawing and you can sneak off to get some housework done. You can find directions for making homemade sidewalk chalk online, but I question if this is actually cheaper than just hitting the dollar store.
4. Digging for Dinosaurs
Bury Toy Dinosaur Bones (or any other toy really) and let your kids dig them out. My kids did this with little cars at a touch-a-truck event once; it was their favorite part of the experience.
5. Scavenger Hunts
You can find all sorts of backyard scavenger hunt checklists online. However, making your own has several benefits. 1) You can customize it to your yard; 2) You can get bigger kids involved in the creation; and 3) You are teaching your kids to create their own games by example. Gianna shows you how here.
Take this game into the big kid or even grown up realm with the book, Treasure and Scavenger Hunts: How to Plan, Create, and Give Them! (available through Hennepin County Library).
6. Water Play
Go elaborate like the table below or go cheap with a plastic tub you already own. Let them benefit from water play without the mess on the bathroom floor!
Again, you can buy elaborate Gardening Tool Sets, but a package of beans, a plot or pot of dirt and some beans are all they really need. If nothing grows in the toddler years, they’ll be future years for that.
8. Hula Hoop
I’m as surprised as you at this. But my 2-year-old loves to hula hoop and she’s surprisingly good at it. This is a game that can grow with your kids. She can do it with her middle school sister.
10. Crayon Rubbings
You have probably done this at some point in your life. Peal an old crayon, then take a sheet of paper, set it on a surface with an interesting texture, and rub the crayon over the paper. With various colors and shapes, kids can make their own unique design. Modern parents can buy the rubbing crayons and skip messing with peeling off the paper.
This game of tag involves an Octopus who is IT and fish who need to get from one end of the yard to the other without being tagged. Once tagged, kids have to stay in place and try to tag others as they pass. Ziggity Zoom offers the same basic rules that I remember from my childhood with a little rhyme that we didn’t have in my neighborhood. This game is more fun with more kids. It can be played with older and younger kids, but grade school kids will like it the best.
12. Simon Says
Simon tells the other players what to do using the phrase, “Simon Says”. If he does not use that phrase and a player does what he says, they are out. Last player standing is the next Simon. This game can be played all the way into adulthood by increasing the speed and difficulty of the commands, but it is a great game to start with preschool kids to teach them how to follow directions. You can buy an Electronic Simon Says Parachute Game which adds the fun of playing with a parachute, but I wonder how many commands it holds and if children would tire of it quicker than there own commands.
13. Capture the Flag
This classic outdoor game is best for a larger group of kids. Kids divide into two teams and attempt to capture each other’s flags without being caught on the other team’s territory. Any of these outdoor games should be able to be played with items you can find around the house, but if you want easy access, MindWare has created a Outdoor Classics box that includes flags, a metal can, beanbags and other simple items to facilitate old-fashioned outdoor games. Boys Life Magazine made this cute short video explaining the rules:
14. Ghosts in the Graveyard
This game has a lot of different rule variations. It was a favorite in my neighborhood growing up. Whoever was the ghost would hide while the rest of the children counted from 1 o’clock to midnight. The kids would then link arms and walk around the house chanting “Star light, star bright, hope I see a ghost tonight” until the ghost popped out. At that point, it is a straight game of tag. The ghost has to try to tag someone before they make it back to safety. The first person tagged or the last to safety is the next ghost.
15. Hide-and-Go-Seek or Hide-and-Go-Seek-In-The-Dark
While grade school is the best age for this game, with a little help for parents, the younger ones can join in. We went through a phase in college where we played this hide-and-go-seek-in-the-dark every weekend, so there is no top age, either. One person is IT and counts to whatever number the participants agree on, while the others hide. Last one found gets to be IT next. Flashlights are a fun addition when playing in the dark.
16. Kick the Can
Although it’s THE classic, I’ve never played Kick the Can, so forgive me if I summarize these rules incorrectly. You can find them here. The person who is IT has to guard a can while those hiding try to run out and kick it. If IT catches a hider, they go to jail. The last person out of jail is the next IT.
17. Michelangelo’s Madhouse
I’ve heard this silly game called by other names. Whoever is Michelangelo takes each of the other players by the hands and spins around with them several times before letting them go. Each player than freezes as they land. This part doesn’t really affect the outcome of the game, so kids can “fall” as silly as they want. After each statue is set, Michelangelo walks through his madhouse trying to get the other players to laugh without touching them. The first to giggle (or if you prefer, the last) is the next Michelangelo.
18. Mother Says
Mother says is a bit like Mother May I. However, instead of each player asking permission to move. Mother will say something like, “Mother Says each child wearing red may take 2 steps toward me”. Or “Mother says each child with brown hair may take two steps back.” Just like with Mother May I, you can still see how Mother can cheat for her friends here, but it’s a little fairer than the original game.
19. Races of Every Kind
There are so many ways kids can race from one side of the yard to the other: one legged, three legged, backwards, crab walk, fastest, slowest, middlest?. Let your kids take turns calling out the race style. If you are planning for a party, you can purchase a kit like the one pictured below complete with potato sacks, leg bands and awards.
20. Weeping Angels
Okay, this game is really called “Red Light, Green Light”, but Doctor Who fans will see the similarity to everyone’s favorite not-so-scary aliens. In this game, kids can only move when the person who is IT has their back turned. If IT is looking, you have to freeze. If IT catches you moving, you have to go back to the start. The first person to touch IT is the next IT. If you are going to call it “Weeping Angels”, you could add the extra fun of a scary angel masks (or not – they are pretty scary looking).
21. Backyard Ninja Warrior Course
If you search for ideas, you’ll find that designs for these backyard systems can be complicated and outside the building skills of most adults, much less kids. But I think if you combine playground, fitness and sports equipment you already own or have access to with the goals of the age-old President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, you could come up with a course kids could build on all year. You can also buy pieces for this obstacle course.
22. Dog Training
Use your Ninja Warrior course to train Fido? Or check out a copy of 101 Dog Tricks, Kids Edition: Fun and Easy Activities, Games, and Crafts (available through Hennepin County Library). This obviously requires the right child and dog combination and maybe some supervision. You know your kids and dogs best.
23. Reading in the Wild
Reading outside is one of the simplest of solitary pleasures. Summer is a great time to start a new book series or participate in a summer reading program.
24. Bird-Watching or Urban Animal Safari
This would be more fun with real binoculars, but a quiet and perceptive child can watch nature from anywhere. Lie on the lawn and watch the birds and squirrels above. The squirrels in my backyard have a regular bedtime, and if we lie on the porch at that time, we can watch each of them come back to their nest and curl in. It’s amazing to see so many squirrels cuddle into such a small space.
25. Sports Drills
This activity will depend on your child’s current interests. We found a video we liked at the library with Backyard Baseball Drills. Drills are a good way to improve sports skills when your child is alone.
26. Science Experiments
After a few too many “experiments” that were basically mixture of random pantry items left for me to clean up, I decided to borrow Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family Friendly Experiments from Around the House from the library. The first activity that caught my kids’ attention was one where you drop Mentos into pop. Absolutely one of the outdoor games!
27. Learn to Juggle
A child can learn the basics of juggling in an afternoon and build on that skill all summer. Find instructional videos on YouTube and use old tennis balls or buy a juggling kit here.
28. Tennis, Anyone?
Our neighborhood park’s tennis courts have a practice wall. A garage door may also make a good practice wall. Either way, one person can play Tennis alone against a wall. We pick up used rackets and tennis balls at the thrift store.
Although it can be played with others. Hopscotch is a good game to play by yourself. You don’t have to wait your turn and you can keep practicing until you get things right. Housing a Forest offers 25 different ways to play Hopscotch. If you want to add a slippery water element to the fun, you could buy this Mermaid Hopscotch Game.
I know this isn’t a game, but it needs to be said. The proper response when a kid tells you they are bored is a chore list – unless you like being their cruise director of life. However, no one says chores need to be all work. Challenge them to a potato peeling contest or offer a trip to the zoo if they help you finish your list. If this works for you, please let me know your techniques.
31. Rhyming Jump Rope Games
You can find these games online or buy or borrow a book like Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes. Jump rope games can be fun for adults, too. Take an afternoon to teach your kids these outdoor games and maybe it will stick. (Ironically, Hennepin County Library has a copy of this book, but it is for “In-library use” only.)
32. Snake Bite or Helicopter
This game was recommended by my 7-year-old son as Snake Bite and my 11-year-old daughter as Helicopter. One person stands in the center and spins the jump rope around on the ground. The players have to jump the rope as it comes around. If the rope hits you, you are out. The last person standing is the next helicopter (or snake).
33. Water Jumping
This game is a bit like the game above, except the “it” person isn’t trying to get the others out. Instead they spin the rope while each of the others jumps five times with a cup of water. Whoever has the most water at the end of their five jumps wins.
34. Chinese Jump Rope
Here is another activity you can learn on YouTube. The jumps are more complex than simple jump rope, but still something small kids can learn easily enough. You may want to purchase a special Chinese Jump Rope. They look a little stretchier, but you could also do it with a long jump rope tied around the legs of two chairs.
35. Make a Pulley System
My kids love doing this. They tie one end of a jump rope to a basket or bucket and toss the other end over a branch. Then they pull things up and down. There is no point to this game but that is the beauty of imagination. They can spend hours with this game. If you want to be fancy, buy an actual Pulley System and mount it above your sandbox; but I like the impromptu jump rope system better.
36. Tug of War
For Tug of War, you’ll need two or more kids. Teams stand an equal distance from the center line and try to pull the other team across the line. This game can be dangerous and supervision is advised.
With three players, kids can play limbo with a taut jump rope or a broom. Each round the rope goes a little lower until the player falls while trying to go under. A variation for bigger kids is to play on skates. Just be careful not to clothesline anyone.
38. Jump Rope Races
If you have the space, jumpers can line up and race at the same time. If not, use a Stopwatch to time jumpers.
39. Double Dutch
Double Dutch is played with two ropes, two rope twirlers who turn the ropes in opposite directions, and one or more rope skippers. Played right, this is a team sport as everyone has to work together for success. Learning to work together rhythmically can be a summer-long pursuit.
40. Jump Rope Tag or Cat and Mouse
This game is played with four kids: two players and two rope twirlers. The mouse starts the game by jumping into the spinning rope and doing a certain number of jumps. The cat has to follow, doing the same amount of jumps while the mouse runs around the twirlers to re-enter the rope. The cat chases the mouse around. The cat can tag the mouse whenever the mouse is not jumping or when the mouse makes a mistake in the ropes.
All of the outdoor games for balls can be played with a simple playground ball.
41. Dodge Ball
I never liked this game as a kid, but I love playing with my kids. The goal is to hit your opponents with the ball while dodging being hit yourself. If you catch a ball that has been thrown at you, the thrower is out. This is a fast paced game and with common sense rules agreed on (ie: no aiming at the head), it has been pretty safe for us.
The playground version of baseball is kickball. Instead of hitting the ball with a bat, the player kicks it. Unlike baseball, you can get someone out by beaming them with a ball. Otherwise the rules and the setup is very much the same as baseball.
A playground ball is bouncy, so you could play a regular game of basketball with it, but you can definitely play Horse (or Spud if you want the game to go faster). Players take turns trying to make shots. If someone makes a basket, all the other players have to make the same shot form the same spot or get a letter. Whoever gets all the letters in HORSE first, is out. This game can be played serious or silly.
44. Four Square
Four square is played with four kids and a square made out of four smaller squares. However, if you have only two players, we played “two-square” on a half-court. You can find the rules here, but this amusing video was a better refresher for me.
45. Piggy in the Middle
The object of the game is for the players to keep the player in the middle from getting the ball. They have to keep tossing it to each other while the player in the middle attempts to catch the ball. Once he catches a ball, the throwing player is in the middle. With younger kids, you could take turns and put a time limit on the time in the middle.
46. Gaga Ball
We recently learned this game when we visited Base Camp. It is meant to be played in a pit, but you can probably adapt it for a defined area. This game is like dodge ball, but played with the ball mostly on the ground. You only get out if you are hit below the knee with the ball. The official rules and directions are here.
While bowling sets are pretty inexpensive, this game can be made with a playground ball and 10 plastic bottles. Use the sidewalk as your bowling alley and the grass as your gutters.
Soccer or a scaled back version of it can be practiced with a playground ball. Maybe just work on dribbling and stealing and kicking goals.
49. Angry Birds
My kids (and I’m sure countless other kids) created this game based on the phone game. They build a tower – either of blocks or rocks and hide a toy pig behind it. The other kid has to try to knock down the tower with the ball. Learn from my kids and get out of the way after you build your tower — especially if it’s made of rocks. Of course, now you can but the game, too.
50. Don’t Drop the Ball
Remember that episode of Friends, The One With The Ball, when they kept a ball in the air for hours? Wouldn’t it be amazing if your kids did this… for hours… outside? It’s worth a try.
51. Chase Fireflies
Who doesn’t love catching or at least chasing fireflies? I know this is harder to do in the city, but look for after dark programs at your favorite nature centers and regional parks. All you really need is a jar for viewing, but you can find all sorts of bug collecting boxes online, including a Magnifier Box Bug Viewer.
52. Run through the Sprinkler
This may be one of the most childish games to play. What kid doesn’t love to run through the sprinkler (at least once) on a summer day? Don’t have a sprinkler? Make one by duct-taping a pop bottle to the hose and punching holes in it. Or, visit one of the Twin Cities fabulous splash pads for sprinkler fun without getting the yard muddy.
53. Study the Ecosystem Under A Stepping Stone
This is an easy one. Pick up a rock, a log or anything that has sat in one place long enough to kill the grass and see what is living underneath. We’ve found centipedes, millipedes, worms, slugs, roly polies (aka armadillidiidae) and spiders. Rather than making a big deal about this with my bigger kids, I simply lifted a rock while working outside and called them over to see all the cool bugs underneath, but for smaller kids you could start with the book, Under One Rock: Bugs, Slugs, and Other Ughs, then go out and look.
54. Raise Monarchs from Eggs or Caterpillars
I’m usually all about the do-it-yourself, but after a horrifying experience with a larvae parasite, I would recommend purchasing a monarch kit or harvesting the eggs instead of the caterpillars (unless you like the possibility that some one-eyed maggot will eat its way out of your cocoon).
55. Raise Pollywogs into Frogs or Toads
We once harvested tadpoles from my sister’s pond and raised them into tree frogs. They all escaped into our basement and we never saw any of them again. I recommend setting this experiment up outside. If you can’t find a local source, kits are available for purchase, but do this with caution as you don’t want to release an invasive species into our environment.
56. Climb a Tree
This is a childhood activity I took for granted. We had a great climbing tree in my front yard and my whole neighborhood was up there sometimes. My kids are in constant search of good climbing trees. Every kid needs to get up in a tree sometimes.
57. Watch Clouds
Watching clouds and making up stories should really be on everyone’s summer outdoor games checklist – kid or grown up. Add some science by keeping a cloudspotting journal.
58. Roll Down A Hill
Roll down a hill, get dizzy, run back up, and do it again. If you get bored, roll something else, like your ball down the hill or try doing somersaults.
59. Splash in Mud Puddles
I have a wonderful memory of my kids all going out and playing in the mud after a rainstorm. They looked like swamp creatures, my kitchen and bathtub were destroyed, but they had the best time.
60. Skip Rocks
If you are out near a lake or river (and no one is fishing nearby), skipping rocks is practically a law. Or if you are challenged like me, just throw them in for the big splash. If you have trouble finding your own skipping stones or you want to include your dog in the fun. You can actually buy reusable floating skipping stones. Make sure you are in a safe wading area.
Find More Like This in 45+ Fun Physical Activities for Kids of All Ages
Your turn. What were your favorite childhood outdoor games? Leave us a comment.
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