The 25 Best Outdoor Games to Keep Kids Entertained All Summer
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Outdoor games provide children with valuable learning experiences, social interaction, exercise, and, oh, a ton of fun!
Kids are not meant to be stuck indoors 24/7, and they naturally thrive when they play outside, says Meghan Fitzgerald, a former school principal and the cofounder of Tinkergarten, a company that designs outdoor games for children. Even the simplest outdoor play teaches kids skills in a fun, hands-on way that nothing else can—especially not a screen. Kids just think they’re playing and having fun together, but in the process, they’re also learning scientific principles, having valuable social interactions, getting exercise, and releasing stress, Fitzgerald explains. Plus, as long as the pandemic is around, playing outdoors is safer for everyone.
The dilemma? How to peel your kids away from YouTube and video games and get them out in nature. Whether you’re looking for backyard games, lawn games, water games for kids, or games that will boost your kids’ IQ, we’ve got you covered. These outdoor games for kids are simple, frugal, easily adapted to any age, and can be done in groups of two to 100 kids.
Classic outdoor games for kids
They’re classics for a reason! These games, which have been around for decades, require little or no equipment, are easy to understand, and, as you probably remember from your own childhood, are a ton of fun. Take a trip down memory lane, and spread the good times to the next generation with these oldies but goodies.
Capture the Flag
Teamwork is the name of the game in this classic outdoor game for kids. Start with at least six players, and divide into two teams. Mark a designated playing space and establish a home base with a “flag” for each team. On “go,” each team tries to run into enemy territory, steal the flag, and make it back safely to their side. However, if you’re tagged by an opposing team member, you’re frozen and can no longer help your team. Keep the space small for younger kids, but for older children, you can add obstacles, hideouts, or play it in the dark. You can also try this glow-in-the-dark version for extra cool effects.
Ghost in the Graveyard
Gather at least five kids, and designate a home base as the safe spot. Choose one person to be the ghost. The ghost hides while the rest stay at the base and count to 30. The kids then spread out and look for the ghost. When someone finds him or her, they yell, “Ghost in the graveyard!” and everyone attempts to run back to base before the ghost tags them. If the ghost tags someone, that person becomes the new ghost. If the ghost doesn’t tag anyone, the last child back to home base is the ghost.
This easy outdoor game for kids is like reverse hide-and-seek. Start with a group of four or more children, and pick one kid to be “it.” All the kids count to 30 while the child who is “it” finds a hiding spot. The kids then spread out and look for the hidden child. When they find him or her, they quietly hide with the other kid(s) until all the children are hiding in the same spot or as close as they can without being seen. The last one to find the spot becomes “it” for the next round.
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Kick the Can
Pick an open area, preferably paved, like a driveway, and set an empty tin can in the middle. Gather at least four children, and pick one of them to be the “guard” or “it.” The guard counts to 30 while the other children hide. The hidden children’s goal is to kick the can without getting tagged by the guard. The guard’s goal is to protect the can, keeping it from getting kicked, by tagging any kid running toward it. Once tagged, that child is frozen where they stand. The child who kicks the can wins, or the guard wins if he or she tags all the other players out. Looking for more affordable activities? Check out these 22 things you should do at least once before summer’s over.
Regular tag is fun, but these tweaks to the rules can take it to the next level. Choose someone to be “it.” That child chases the other kids, trying to tag them. Once a child is tagged, they have to cover the spot where they were tagged with their hand to keep playing. The second time they are tagged they cover that spot with their other hand and keep playing. The third time they are tagged, they have to go to the “hospital,” where they are out for the rest of the game. The child who is “it” wins when all the other players are in the hospital. The first child in the hospital is the next “it.”
Divide at least 10 children into two groups. Place each group on separate ends of an open space, like a field or large yard. Each group forms a line, holding hands. One line starts the game by chanting, “Red rover, red rover, send X right over,” where X is the name of a child on the other team. That child then runs across the field and tries to break through the line at any point. If the child fails, they join that team’s line. If they succeed, they choose a player to bring back with them to their original team. Play until all the kids are in one line.
Red Light, Green Light
Gather a group of at least five children, and choose one to be the traffic light. Put the traffic light at one end of an open space and the rest of the kids at the other end. The traffic light starts with his or her back to the group. When that child yells, “Green light,” the group runs toward them. At any point, the traffic light can turn to face the group and yell, “Red light,” and everyone must stop running. If a child keeps running through a red light, they are out. The traffic light continues saying “red light” or “green light” until they are tagged by another child, who then becomes the next traffic light.
Mother, May I?
Start with a group of at least five children, and choose one to be “mother.” Line up the group of kids on one end of the open space, and place the “mother” on the other end, facing the group. Kids in the group take turns asking, “Mother, may I…?” filling in the blank with a request to move. They may ask things like “May I take three hops on one foot forward?” or “May I do one cartwheel?” or “May I run backward for two steps?” Mother then says “yes” or “no.” The first child to successfully reach mother and tag him or her is the next mother. This game is also a good way to instill some of the manners you should be teaching your kids.
Jump Rope Copycat
There are many jump rope games to play, but a popular version involves copying the other players. For this outdoor game, start with at least two children, each with their own jump rope, and space them apart in a circle. One child starts by doing a trick—say, jumping the rope once on one foot. The next child then performs the first trick and adds one of their own, like jumping in a circle. The third child must perform both tricks in order and add one of their choosing. Continue around the circle, with each child adding on a trick. When a child fails to perform the sequence in order, they are out. Continue until only one child is left. These jump ropes come in a pack of four, with cute animal handles.
Chalk is a wonderful medium for creativity, and while kids love drawing with it, there are also many ways they can use it for interactive games. One fun way is to play Story. Choose a large sidewalk or driveway, and give one child some chalk. Ask them to draw the introduction to a story while saying it. For instance, “Once upon a time there was a puppy…” and draw a puppy. The next child takes the chalk and adds onto the picture story—”…who got lost in a forest.” Each child continues, adding onto the picture and the story and creating a fantastical tale as they go.
Hopscotch is another classic game to play with chalk. Have the child or children draw a hopscotch board on a flat, paved surface. The board should be made up of connected basic shapes with numbers showing the order they should be jumped on. You may need to help kids who are younger or who have never seen a hopscotch board before. Once it’s completed, each child chooses a token (usually a small rock or wood chip). They take turns tossing it onto a space, in order. If the token lands on the space, they jump the whole board but skip the spot where their token is. The first child to complete the whole board wins.
Jacks is a great game to play when it’s hot or the kids are tired from running around. It’s best played with one to four kids, but you can add more children if you purchase more than one jacks set. Seat the children in a circle on a flat, paved surface. The first child tosses the jacks into the middle, then takes the bouncy ball, bounces it, and grabs one jack before the ball hits the ground again and catches the ball after its second bounce. The child replaces the jack and passes the ball to the next player, who repeats the action. In each round, one jack is added to the number that must be grabbed before the ball bounces, until they are scooping the whole pile of jacks at once. If a child misses, they are out. The last child wins. You can also play this one inside when the weather isn’t great, along with these strategy board games.
Sharks and Minnows
This playground classic works best with large groups of children—the more kids, the better! Identify one child to be a “shark,” and the rest are “minnows.” The shark stands in the middle of an open space, and the minnows line up at one end, facing the shark. When the shark says, “Fishy, fishy, come out and play,” the minnows walk slowly around the field. When the shark yells, “Shark attack!” all the minnows try to run to the opposite end of the field. The shark chases the minnows and tags as many as he or she can. Every tagged player is now a shark. Repeat the round until all players are sharks.
School-age kids will get a kick out of this classic outdoor game that’s like tag but played on playground equipment. Start with at least four children, and designate one to be “it.” The child who is “it” starts on the ground, counting to 10, while the rest of the kids climb up on the playground equipment. “It” then tries to tag another player. If “it” is on the ground, they can keep their eyes open, but if they climb on the equipment, then they have to close their eyes. If “it” thinks another player is on the ground, they can yell, “Groundies!” and that player becomes “it.” A child can also become “it” if they are tagged by the current kid who is “it.”
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Sporty outdoor games for kids
Children are often involved in formal sports teams or clubs from a young age, but sometimes they just want to get outdoors and throw, kick, or hit a ball around and not worry about getting a penalty or letting down their team. These sports are fun in any setting, and you can round out the theme with these sports jokes your little athletes will love.
Tennis’ newer and cooler cousin, this racquet sport is also more kid-friendly. It’s played with solid racquets and a small plastic ball that is similar to a Wiffle ball. Kids can play on teams of two or one-on-one. The first person to score 11 points with at least a two-point lead, wins. The official pickleball rules can get a little complicated for younger kids, but they’ll enjoy just hitting the ball back and forth over the net. Get the whole family playing with this parent-child pickleball starter set.
Recess is calling! Grab a rubber playground ball and head over to a baseball diamond (or set up four bases in a diamond shape in an open space). Gather at least 10 kids and divide them into two teams. The rules are similar to baseball, but the pitcher rolls the ball to the kicker, who then kicks the ball and (hopefully) rounds the bases. Set an equal number of innings, and the winning team is the one that scores the most runs by the end.
Kicking a ball into a goal is a favorite pastime of many kids, and soccer turns that childlike love into one of the world’s biggest sports. The official rules of soccer lay out all the details, but if you’re playing for fun, you can keep it simple. Divide a group of at least eight kids into two teams. Give them a soccer ball and tell them to kick it into the opponent’s goal—no hands allowed! The team with the most goals at the end wins. By the way, this is why Americans say soccer instead of football.
American football is a favorite sport among kids, but playing an official youth football game requires a lot of equipment, safety gear, and rules, as well as a specialized field. Thankfully, you don’t need all of that to play a fun backyard game with your kids. Divide a group of at least eight kids into two teams. Set up a field with a goal-line at each end, and challenge them to throw or carry the football over the line. To avoid injuries, stick to touching instead of tackling.
Hitting a ball with a bat requires a little more coordination than some other sports, but the challenge is what makes it fun for kids. The list of official little league rules is long, so if you’re just playing for fun on a summer night, it’s fine to stick to “home rules” (aka whatever you decide!). Head out to the local baseball diamond and divide at least 10 children into two teams. Take turns being “at bat” and pitching. Hit the ball, round the bases, make it home, and score a point for the team! Older kids might already have their own equipment, but you can get younger ones started with this all-in-one set that comes with a bat, ball, and glove.
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Nothing but net! The only thing kids love more than kicking a ball into a hole is throwing a ball into a hole—the premise of basketball in a nutshell! Go to a local basketball court, bring a ball, and divide at least 10 kids into two teams. Assign each one a basket, and challenge them to pass, throw, or bounce the ball to teammates, working together to score baskets. If you’ve got a kid with a summer birthday, sports equipment is an easy gift for boys or girls, and you can put it to good use right away.
Outdoor party games for kids
These outdoor lawn games are perfect for summer holiday parties, birthdays, or just a lazy Saturday afternoon. Play right alongside the kids, or kick back, relax, and watch the kiddie fun from the sidelines.
This old-school bean-bag toss is a fun outdoor game for kids and grown-ups alike, and it’s easily adjusted for different skill levels by moving the goals closer or farther apart. It can also be played solo or with others. Start by setting up two cornhole boards, spaced as far apart as you need. Children play one at a time, and when it is their turn, they can throw three bean bags at the board, aiming for the hole. Each bag in the hole earns a point. It’s fairly simple to make your own cornhole game or you can get this starter set, which comes complete with boards, bean bags, and official rules.
Keep it simple by setting up wooden poles and letting kids toss plastic rings on them, or up the ante with another creative version of this game. Use inflatable pool rings and have kids toss them onto people. You can also change the difficulty by using different items for the rings, like plastic bracelets, hula hoops, rope rings, or pool diving rings. Or go for giggles with this inflatable flamingo hat and rings.
Jenga, the classic block-stacking game, is always a hit, but it’s even more fun when you play the giant version outdoors. Take 56 rectangular blocks of the same size and stack them into a solid tower. Gather one to 10 children and have them take turns removing a block and adding it to the top. The goal is to not knock the tower over. You can make your own wooden blocks or buy them as a set with a carrying bag and rules. You should also check out these lesser-known yard games everyone will love.
Ladderball looks simple enough—you toss two golf balls tethered by a rope onto the rung of a ladder—but it’s trickier than it seems. Organize children into teams, or have them play solo. Each ladder rung is worth different points. The person or team with the most points wins. This Rally and Roar set comes with three different ways to play, making it perfect for both novices and experts.
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Create a list of items that can be found around your home or neighborhood—some easy to find and others a little more challenging. Gather two or more children and give each one a list. Whichever kid collects all the items on the list first is the winner. If you have a large group, divide children into teams with one list per team. Lists can be customized to fit a theme, like a birthday or the 4th of July, and you can even pick up some premade scavenger hunt cards to make things easier. For the summer and beyond, you’ll also want to stock up on these classic board games.
Next, check out the best kiddie pools that’ll keep the kids cool this summer.
- Meghan Fitzgerald, educator, former school principal, and cofounder of Tinkergarten