Summer is finally here, which means long summer days and plenty of time to get outside to play. Allowing kids to play outdoors does all kinds of wonderful things for their minds and bodies. Getting outside is easier than you can imagine, no matter where you live. Being active outdoors doesn’t have to be complicated or require a lot of gear or planning – it can be as easy as exploring a local park or playground with your kids. Checking out a new park allows parents and kids to be adventurous, without needing to leave the city or spend a lot of time researching or packing for an exotic outing. Most of the parks near us have wooded areas, lakes or ponds, hiking trails and a playground, which is always the most attractive feature for my kids and definitely the first thing they want to check out upon arrival.
However, not all playgrounds are suited for toddlers and preschoolers. Sometimes the ladders are too steep, the slides are too high and the climbing walls give me a panic attack just looking at them. I end up hovering over my kids, watching them like a hawk and barking orders at them to be safe. That’s not fun for anyone. In addition, my kids don’t seem to be all that interested in the traditional playground equipment. They love a good slide, but after a few minutes of initial exploration and conquering, they quickly grow bored with most playgrounds.
When I’m at the park with the kids, I want to play and interact with them, but I also want to encourage them to play together on their own safely and creatively without me dictating their every move. I want to help them use their imagination to come up with new ways to see things and creative games to play with each other and other kids, all while getting that restless energy out.
I put together this list of games we play at the playground that are age-appropriate for preschoolers and allow them to run (a little) wild at the park. Each of these games allows me to play with them (without completely dictating the direction of the activity) and encourages them to explore our surroundings and be creative in their own way.
While “slide races” may sound like a contest to see who can make it down the slides the fastest, this is a slightly safer version for smaller kids where you race small objects instead. We usually keep a little bag of goodies in our backpack that can be used for slide races, like toy cars, marbles, plastic coins and action figures. This is usually the same bag of goodies and trinkets we use for trading when we go geocaching.
Have the kids each choose and object and let them go at the top of the slide at the same time. Loser gets to pick a new object out of the bag and re-race the winner. This is a great way to teach preschoolers about speed, distance and why some objects are faster than others (weight, shape, etc.).
Obstacle course / follow the leader
One of my kids’ favorite park games is when we create obstacle courses around the playground. I usually go first and come up with elaborate ways to go all over (up, over, through and around) the playground equipment. They follow behind me and do whatever it is that I do (follow the leader style). I like to mix things up by making them hop on one foot during parts, jump like a frog, pretend swim, go backwards, do cartwheels, skip, etc. Once I’ve started them off, they’re on their own to come up with the next course with a new leader.
If you really want to wear the kids out and get your workout in, create an outdoor fitness circuit obstacle course by incorporating exercise activities like pushups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, sprints and burpees into the obstacle course!
Find the shapes
This is a great game to play with toddlers learning their shapes and preschoolers that are learning their letters. Explore your park and playground while looking for objects in the basic shapes (square, triangle, circle, etc.) and/or letters. You’ll be amazed at how creative kids can be and how they’ll start to notice the shape of things after playing a few times. If you can’t find objects in the shape of letters, you can also use park or street signs.
If you want to take it up a notch, take a photo of the shape/letter with your phone and make an album with all the pictures of the shapes and alphabet. You can include the park where you found the shape and the date to create a physical memory book and also help with recognizing letters.
Mother May I
A childhood favorite of my own playground days, Mother May I is still really fun for little kids and teaches them about patience, following rule and listening. Have all the kids stand on one side and have “the mother” stand on the other and give each person a command to move forward a certain way. The person must ask “Mother May I” before moving and the first person to reach the mother wins.
This is a fun game to play with a group of kids and taking turns being the mother is great if you have multiple kids that like to be the leader. If you need a refresher on how to play the game, here’s a great post with the classic directions, plus lots of fun variations.
Some playground mothers will probably get irked at me for saying this, but there are so many fun ways to play on the swings, other than just swinging on them. While that can be fun, it’s also really fun to mix things up by swinging on them like Superman, standing on the swings (with supervision) and twisting on them. These variations help with balance and encourage creativity.
If you’re looking for some other variations, here’s a great list of swing games to play with kids.
Action verb races
Parents can make anything a competition by having kids race each other. Mix it up a notch by making the races silly with various action verbs. Instead of running, make them gallop, hop, pounce, twirl, skip, sashay, roll and totter to get to the finish line. This not only teaches them to listen carefully, but can greatly expand their vocabulary and get them thinking about how many types of actions and movements they can do.
Sidewalk chalk isn’t just for your driveway at home. Bring a box of chalk to the park where kids have a huge area to color, draw and create. Let other kids join in on the fun and have them all create a giant collaboration. Assign them all a letter to draw and have them also draw objects or animals that begin with that letter and create an alphabet storyboard. Give older kids a theme or setting (the ocean) or have them recreate scenes from their favorite book or movie. Have little kids work on colors and shapes.