Kids’ entertainment doesn’t have to be limited to screens indoors. Outdoor play is enriching and fun for kids of all ages. By playing together, kids can form stronger social and familial bonds. This prepares younger kids for going into public school and helps older kids hone and develop their social skills, which can serve them through adulthood.
Below are some fun outdoor activities for kids of all ages that will help them build skills and create bonds.
Benefits of Outdoor Play
Outdoor play has several benefits to mental and overall health for both children and their parents. Getting out in nature has proven mental health benefits, while spending quality time together can strengthen family bonds and create feelings of emotional security. For kids of all ages, outdoor play has physical, developmental, and social benefits.
Physical activity is a key part of staying healthy. To this end, outdoor play is a great way to get your kids moving. Spending time outside can also help your children soak up some vitamin D, which has several health benefits, such as fighting depression, helping to absorb calcium, and even boosting their ability to fight disease.
Outdoor activities can also improve your child’s developmental progress. Sports and other games can help children tune fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination, improve muscle strength, and hone reaction and comprehension skills. Getting outdoors encourages kids to be more aware of their surroundings, which can help improve their critical thinking and spatial awareness.
Outdoor play is a great way to expose your child to new social experiences. Many groups engage in outdoor play, such as sports teams and scouts. These activities help children learn how to work with others and communicate. Even something as informal as a neighborhood playgroup can be of benefit to your child’s social skills and be a big part of learning to make friends.
Toddlers (Age 1-3)
The CDC recommends that children under the age of six stay active throughout the day. They should get at least an hour of active playtime. Some ways that you can keep your toddler active and engaged include:
- Playing in the sand: A sandbox is a great way to introduce your toddler to new sensory experiences. It can also help with spatial awareness through building and digging.
- Taking a walk: Taking short walks with your toddler is a fun way to explore your neighborhood and work on their walking skills.
- Walking with wheeled toys: Wheeled toys can be great for toddlers who may not be independently walking yet. This allows you to still get out into your neighborhood and get active while working on their balance and mobility.
- Building a sensory box: A sensory box is designed to stimulate your toddler’s senses — sight, touch, smell, and hearing; some even incorporate taste. This can help your toddler distinguish between each sense, and interact with new things. You can create a sensory box with things around your home or even things found in your backyard.
- Playing with balls: Another fun way to get active outside with your toddlers is playing with balls. You can use different sizes and textures of balls to create different sensory experiences.
- Playing in water: Sprinklers and toddler pools are another fun way to play outside. This could be a new sensory activity for your toddler, and it will help keep them cool in the summer months.
- Making crafts: This is a great enrichment activity for toddlers, and outdoor crafts are no different. Your toddler will love making things like bird feeders or painting garden pots. Together, you’ll create great keepsakes. This is a good way for your toddler to see their work interacting with the world.
- Chasing bubbles: Blowing and chasing bubbles is a fun outdoor activity for toddlers. There are all kinds of different bubble toys out there that can turn this simple activity into hours of fun.
Preschoolers (Age 3-5)
This is around that age that attending preschool or daycare will help inject outdoor play into your child’s life. You can continue the outdoor play at home by:
- Playing outdoor games: Games like tag, red-light-green-light, and hide and seek are fun and engaging ways to encourage outdoor play. These games help kids build social bonds and can help cement social mores such as how to take turns and play by rules.
- Running an obstacle course: Creating an obstacle course for your preschooler is a fun way to get them active outside. You can create an obstacle course with outdoor furniture, toys, and other household items.
- Going to a nature center: Many local communities have nature centers that are low- or no-cost to explore; these can be enriching experiences for parents and kids.
- Climbing on play equipment: Play equipment is accessible to preschoolers, as by this age they’re typically fully able to walk and run. Encourage your preschooler to get active at local parks or even on a backyard playset.
- Playing low-impact sports: Low-impact sports, like t-ball, can be a great introduction to the social side of play. Not only can these sports get kids active, but they can also help them make friends.
- Playing with pets: Preschoolers can also get more involved with playing and caring for family pets. Playing with pets can help kids get active, and also help teach responsibility and empathy.
Elementary Age (Age 6-8)
At the elementary age, your kids will be more involved in school. This opens up more opportunities for team sports and playtimes at recess. Kids at this age may start developing an interest in outdoor hobbies and activities. These could include:
- Team sports: Elementary age is when a wider variety of recreational or school sports start to become more accessible. Team sports are a great option for getting active, making friends, and building teamwork and communication skills.
- Swimming: This is also an age range where you may consider swimming lessons more seriously. Swimming is a great skill to have and is a great form of exercise.
- Biking: Learning to ride a bike is another new activity that elementary-aged kids may be interested in. Biking helps improve balance, is a great outlet for exercise, and can help kids feel more independent.
- Scouts: Group activities like scouts are a great way to get kids involved in the outdoors and with their local communities. Scouts offer a balance of outdoor fun and valuable skill training that kids can engage in for years.
- Camping: Family camping trips are fun opportunities to get into nature and create family memories. You can go camping in your local area, travel to a new destination, or even set up in your backyard.
- Assisting with yard work: At this age, your kids can start helping more around the yard. Gardening gets kids active outdoors, and nurturing plants can be a memorable experience.
Middle School Age (Age 9-12)
Some parents may find it difficult to engage their middle schoolers in outdoor activities regularly. This is where extracurriculars and out-of-the-box thinking will make a huge difference in getting your tween outside. Some fun activities for your middle schooler can include:
- School sports: Middle school is when schools start to offer sports teams. These teams are a great outlet for exercise and can help your child build social bonds.
- Competitive sports: Competitive sports outside of school also become available at this age. Healthy competition helps build ambition and teamwork skills and gives kids a sense of accomplishment.
- Nature experiments: Nature science is an engaging way for parents to get their middle schoolers to go outside. Some nature experiments include composting food scraps in a clear bottle, making a soda geyser, or building a simple microscope.
- Bike obstacle course: Setting up a biking obstacle course for your tween is an excellent way to hone spatial awareness and create a fun outdoor activity.
- Car wash: Setting up a neighborhood car wash can be fun during hot summer months, and it will even help your kids make some extra money.
- Build a model rocket: Building a model rocket, either together or independently, can help your child hone their problem-solving skills. Seeing something through from start to finish will be a rewarding experience for your middle schooler.
Teens (Age 13-18)
High school sports are usually a huge part of teenagers' outdoor play. If your child isn’t involved in school sports, or you’re looking for some at-home outdoor activities, here are some engaging options:
- Water balloon fights: Water balloon fights are a fun summer activity for high schoolers, either with their family or with their friends.
- Capture the flag: Capture the flag is a great strategy game for older kids. It encourages teamwork and your kids can play in summer, spring, fall, and even winter.
- Dodgeball: Dodgeball is a fun activity for older kids. It helps sharpen reaction time and reflexes while getting your teens active. If you’re looking to curb some of the intensity that this game is often associated with, use soft foam balls.
- Skateboarding: Skateboarding is a fun alternative to bikes for teens. There’s an element of challenge with skateboarding, and a host of tricks teens can master to keep them occupied and active.
- Roller skating: Roller skating is another alternative to biking that may present more of a challenge to your teens. Roller skating has become more popular over the last year, for its ability to be done independently or in a group.
- Hiking: Hiking is a fun way for teens to engage with nature and get moving. This is an activity that’s also suited for mixed ages, as you can choose easier or harder hikes depending on your group.
- Winter sports: Skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and hockey are great active outlets for teens in colder months. These sports help teens improve balance and coordination, as well as foster teamwork.
- Timed scavenger hunt: Scavenger hunts are a great outdoor play option for people in a wide variety of age ranges. However, adding a time challenge can be particularly engaging for teens, because of the element of competition and challenge.
Mixed Age Group Activities
Blended play between kids of different age groups is beneficial for youth, as it teaches them how to interact with people who are different from them. For older kids, it can teach patience, and for younger kids, it can encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. Here are some blended play options:
- Have a scavenger hunt: Scavenger hunts are particularly suited for blended play because you can scale the difficulty for each participant. This way, each child is getting something that engages them.
- Put on a play or talent show: This is a great option for building sibling bonds, as it encourages children to work together.
- Paint nature scenes: Painting is a great option for blended play because it is slightly more independent, and therefore it appeals to each child’s skills or wants. Once you’re done painting, you could even host an art show to continue the fun.
- Outdoor yoga: Outdoor yoga is a good way to get mixed-age kids outside and active. Yoga poses can range from simple to complex and can be scalable depending on each child’s needs.
- Play in the mud: Playing in the mud provides entertainment for children of all ages. For toddlers, it’s a new sensory experience, and for older kids, it can be an outlet for building and creating, or simply reconnecting with their inner child.
Tips for Play Outdoors Safely
Outdoor safety is important for children of all ages, as well as adults. It’s important to understand the different risks of different outdoor experiences. For example, camping in a national forest poses more danger, and requires more awareness, than playing in your backyard. Having an understanding of how to stay safe outdoors not only protects your child but keeps outdoor play a fun experience.
Hydration is incredibly important for kids engaging in outdoor play, especially in hot weather. Dehydration in children can cause:
- Dry mouth;
- Sunken eyes;
- Fewer wet diapers or bathroom breaks;
- No tears when crying.
Kids aged one to three need at least four cups of water a day, while teenagers need up to eight to stay hydrated. This number can also increase depending on how much activity they’re participating in.
Planning for the Weather
Whenever you plan any sort of outdoor activity, the weather should always be a consideration. For hot weather, you’ll want to make sure you have sunscreen and water. For parents of young children, it may be worthwhile to get leakproof water bottles for extended summer excursions.
For cold weather, you’ll want to make sure you pack enough clothing layers, as well as vacuum bottles for hot liquids. Even though it’s cold, you’ll still want to pack sunscreen if you’re spending a lot of time on the snow, as reflections from the snow can cause sunburns.
Bring the Right Gear
What you need to bring for a successful outdoor adventure will largely depend on what you’re doing, and how far from home you’ll be. Some of the essentials that you should always have include:
- Water jug;
- First aid kit;
By having these on hand, you can be ready for weather changes and minor accidents or injuries. If you’re bringing young children, your diaper bag and a stroller should be a part of your essential gear.
Being Mindful of Your Surroundings
Being mindful and respectful of your surroundings is an important part of playing outdoors. Not only is this a matter of respect for nature, but it can also increase your child’s safety in an unfamiliar environment. You can teach your children the "leave no trace” principles as an easily understandable exercise in being mindful of their environmental footprint.
Outdoor play is an essential part of a healthy, happy lifestyle. The physical and developmental benefits that come from playing outside will stay with children for years, fostering a lifelong love of the outdoors.