Whether you’re hosting a birthday party or just looking to enhance your kids' early childhood social emotional learning by getting them away from screens for an afternoon, outdoor games should be part of every caregiver’s toolkit. Playing an outdoor game is fun and supports your child’s health and development. It helps them get exercise, build social skills, and even strengthen emotional well-being.1
And there’s no need for a fancy playground or mini golf course—all you need is a list of classic, tried-and-true games to play with kids outside.
That’s why we’ve compiled some of the best outdoor games for kids, guaranteed to get them up and moving. So, lace up your sneakers, and let’s jump into our list of games to play outside with kids of all ages.
Classic Types of Outdoor Play
There’s a reason some games have been handed down through the years: They’re just plain outdoor fun. These classics are challenging enough to keep older kids on their toes, and most can be modified to let the little ones join in.
#1 Four Square
Four Square is excellent for developing hand-eye coordination, and the rules are simple enough to let younger kids have a fair chance against older kids.
- What you need – Any bouncy ball (larger makes it easier, smaller is more challenging), chalk, or some other way to mark boundaries, and at least four players.
- Set up – Draw a large square on the ground, then divide it into four smaller squares numbered 1 to 4. Each player stands in or near one square (you can leave your square while playing).
- How to play2 – The player in square 1 starts the game by bouncing the ball once in their square, then hitting it into square 4. The player in square 4 lets the ball bounce once, then hits it into any other square. Keep playing until a player makes a mistake (hitting the ball out of bounds, missing, holding the ball, or bouncing on a line). The player who makes a mistake is eliminated, and a waiting player moves in. The aim is to stay in square 1 as long as possible.
A single player or a group can play hopscotch, and resourceful kids know you don’t even need sidewalk chalk. In a pinch, you only need a stick and dirt to scratch out your hopscotch lines. Hopscotch is also excellent for developing balance and agility.
- You need – Chalk, any small object for tossing, and a flat surface.
- Set up – Draw a hopscotch pattern on the ground using the chalk. You can follow the traditional pattern or make up one of your own.
- How to play3 – The first player tosses a small object, like a stone or beanbag, onto the first square. They hop through the pattern with one foot in single squares and both feet on side-by-side squares. Players always skip the square with the object. At the last square, the player turns and hops back, picking up the object without putting their foot down. The marker is then passed to the next player. You lose your turn if you make a mistake (stepping on a line, losing balance, or hopping on the wrong square). The first player to finish the whole pattern wins.
#3 Red Light, Green Light
This fun activity is good for a large group that includes kids of different ages and abilities. Younger kids and kids with less stamina can still keep up since the skill is in listening closely and reacting quickly when “green light” is called.
- What you need – A large open space and at least three players.
- Set up – Choose one player to be the “traffic light.” They stand at the far end of the playing area with their back to the other players. The other players line up at the opposite end.
- How to play4 – To start, the traffic light calls out “green light.” Players then run toward the traffic light. The traffic light then turns around and yells, “red light.” Players must immediately stop—anyone who moves after “red light” is called is out. This continues until the first player tags the traffic light. That person becomes the new traffic light, and play continues.
#4 Red Rover
Red Rover is a classic game for encouraging teamwork and strategic play. It’s also excellent for building agility and endurance.
- What you need – A large open area and at least six players.
- Set up – Divide your players into two teams. Teams stand in a line holding hands, facing each other across the play area. Flip a coin to pick which team goes first.
- How to play5 – One team starts the game by shouting, “Red rover, red rover, send (player name) right over.” Whoever is the named player runs toward the other team and does their best to attempt to break through their linked hands. If they do, they choose one player from that team to join their team. If they can’t, they enter that team. This pattern continues until one team has all the players, causing the game to end.
It requires a bit more equipment, but Cornhole is a great game for developing hand-eye coordination and exercising arms and shoulders.
- What you need – Two boards with holes, eight beanbags, and two to four players.
- Set up – According to official cornhole rules, boards should be placed 12 to 15 feet apart for kids. If you don’t have that much space, just use the space you have. Form two teams of two people, or play a single match with two players. Flip a coin to decide who goes first.
- How to play6 – Each team or player stands next to their board. Players take turns pitching their four bean bags at the opposite board. The aim is to get your beanbags through the hole or at least on the board. Each beanbag that lands on the board is worth one point, and a beanbag through the hole scores 3 points. The first team or player to reach 21 points wins.
It’s one of the simplest games, but that’s also what gives Tag its enduring appeal. Kids of any age can start a fun game of Tag anytime they need to burn off some energy. Best of all, it’s ideal for building stamina and coordination.
- What you need – A large open space and at least three players.
- Set up – Choose one player as “It.”
- How to play – The player chosen as “It” chases the others and tries to tag them. When they tag another player, that player becomes “It.” The game continues until everyone gets tired or bored. Once your group is done with regular Tag, it’s time for variations like Freeze Tag, Shadow Tag, or Octopus Tag.
#7 Duck Duck Goose
A simple game that kids of all ages can play, Duck Duck Goose is good for developing listening skills, gross motor skills, and creativity (it doesn’t take long for kids to think of different strategies to take other players by surprise).
- What you need – Space to sit in a circle and run around, and at least four players.
- Set up – Have players sit in a circle facing each other. Choose one player to be “It.”
- How to play – The “It” player walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each seated player on the head and saying “duck.” At any point, they have the option to tap someone and say “goose.” In response, that person must then quickly stand up and attempt to tag the first player before they run around the circle. If the first player reaches the empty spot and sits down before being tagged, the “goose” becomes “It”.
What Skills/Traits Do These Types of Play Help Develop?
All types of play are part of healthy child development, but the importance of active play is sometimes overlooked. Experts recommend at least 60 minutes of physical play for kids ages 1 to 3 and up to several hours of active time for kids over 3.7
It’s not only about physical health. Researchers also believe that movement helps with cognitive skills by building new connections between brain cells.8
Some of the many benefits of active play include:
- Motor skills – Active games are one of the best ways for kids to strengthen their gross and fine motor skills. Kids need to practice various movements like running, jumping, skipping, throwing, catching, and climbing while their brains, bones, and muscles are developing.
- Social skills – Fun outdoor games like these help children develop a range of social and emotional skills, like patience, turn-taking, communication, cooperation, and conflict resolution.
- Cognitive skills and brain development – Research has found that active play helps build emotional regulation, boosts memory, increases attention span, builds understanding of cause and effect, and develops language skills.
Importance of Outdoor Play
We’ve seen that active play is vital for health and brain development. However, it’s not only physical activity that’s important. It’s also crucial for kids to spend time playing outdoors.
Recent research has discovered numerous health benefits linked to time spent outside:
- A study of 3,568 kids between ages 9 to 15 found that daily exposure to woodlands and greenspace led to “higher scores for cognitive development and a lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems”.9
- A 2019 study found that children who grow up with more exposure to greenspace have a lower risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood.10
- A 2015 study found that a nature walk resulted in lower anxiety, less negative thinking and negative behavior, and better working memory.11
Keep the Fun Going With Slumberkins
The science is in: Playing outdoors is not only fun, but it’s also essential for mental health and emotional well-being. Encouraging outdoor play with engaging activities can help your child develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
For more ways to support your child’s emotional and physical health, think Slumberkins. Our Caregiver Resources collection includes free videos, downloadable activities, coloring pages, and more, all designed with children in mind. We also have a major collection of social emotional learning books and our Otter plush to help you teach kids about making connections and being kind to others.
- Ward, Jonathan S et al. “The impact of children's exposure to greenspace on physical activity, cognitive development, emotional wellbeing, and ability to appraise risk.” Health & place vol. 40 (2016): 44-50. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2016.04.015
- "Official rules of Four Square." Squarefour.org. https://squarefour.org/rules
- O'Neil Bellomo, Rheanna. "How to play hopscotch with your kids." Parents. Updated 6 May, 2023. https://www.parents.com/fun/activities/hopscotch
- "How to play red light green light." Genius of Play. https://thegeniusofplay.org/genius/play-ideas-tips/play-ideas/red-light-green-light.aspx#.ZG0EOHbMIdU
- "How to play red rover." Genius of Play. https://thegeniusofplay.org/genius/play-ideas-tips/play-ideas/red-rover.aspx#.ZG0EgnbMIdU
- "Official Cornhole rules." American Cornhole Association. https://www.playcornhole.org/pages/rules
- Clark, Jane et al. "Active Start: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children birth to five years." Society of Health and Physical Educators. January 2002. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234635652
- "Physical play and motor development of young children: A review of literature and implications for practice." Eastern Connecticut State University Center for Early Childhood Education. https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/benefits-of-play-lit-review.pdf
- Maes, MIkael et al. "Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health." Nature Sustainability. Published 21 July, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00751-1
- Engemann, Kristine et al. “Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 116,11 (2019): 5188-5193. doi:10.1073/pnas.1807504116
- Bratman, Gregory et al. "The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition." Landscape and Urban Planning. 1 February, 2015. https://innerlijkefocus.nl/wp-content/uploads/Benefits-of-nature-experience-improved-affect-and-cognition.pdf