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The Best Old-School Backyard Activities

Whittling, stargazing, and knot-tying FTW.

After weeks of being cooped up, we’re all desperate to bust out of our home offices and home schools and be outside again. But even as the country starts to reopen — cautiously, unevenly — the reality is it’s going to be a different kind of summer. Camps are canceled, parks are closed, and strategizing a simple road trip feels like planning a special-ops mission.

This summer we’re all going to have to go back in time, to the glory days of the 1980s, when kids were marooned in the neighborhood with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Back when we squandered entire weeks lazily patrolling the block on our dirt bikes, hunting for sticks to whittle, and stretching out under the stars to look for fireflies or Orion… when uttering the words “I’m bored” was as forbidden as chugging pop rocks with Coke.

Those endless summer days spent in an era of benign parental neglect did not make us weak: They made us resourceful and strong. We learned how to carve slingshots, find constellations, weave rope bracelets, identify migrating birds, make piñatas, tie a fisherman’s knot, pitch a tent, and toast s’mores over a campfire. In the summer of coronavirus and social caution, a new generation of kids can experience the edifying boredom of pre-digital times. It’s going to be a throwback summer. Whether you have access to 10 acres, a backyard, or a city park, these are the best old-school activities that you and your kids can do outside.

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Whittling & Knot-Tying

Kids love learning survival skills and imitating the resourcefulness of their heroes — how are they going to cross the Arctic on homemade skis if they don’t even know how to carve a simple wooden spoon? Learning how to use a small carving knife responsibly is high on the list of things future explorers want to master. Whittling also boosts creativity and dexterity, as kids learn they can transform backyard twigs into marshmallow spears, flowers, and dragons. There are carving sets geared toward kids and beginners that come with everything you need — an array of carving tools and basswood blocks — but you can start simply, with a kid-safe knife and whatever small branches you find lying around the yard. And if your kids aren’t up to handling knives quite yet, there’s always knot-tying, which they’ll need before sailing solo around the world.

A trio of basic carving tools designed for beginners that you can bundle up and take with you anywhere. Comes with a whittling knife, a roughing knife (for getting your basic shape carved out of the wood) and a chip carving knife for finer details. The included leather strop and polishing compound keeps the blades bright.

Century-old Swedish toolmaker Morakniv has been making fine carving knives since 1891. For the advanced carver, they have all kinds of specialized tools. Their 'safe knife' is a perfect first knife for kids — the protected hilt keeps hands away from the blade, and a fixed-blade knife is generally safer than a folding knife, which can close accidentally on small fingers.

There’s no reason to whittle with ambition — it’s just a great way to de-stress and spend time with kids in the backyard. That said, this book, compiled by Woodcarving Illustrated magazine, offers 24 easy whittling projects, with photographs, patterns and tips. Some are quick (like the “the 5-minute owl”) and some are more advanced — think chain links.

Learning to tie knots is a major rite of passage for kids, even if you never go beyond shoelaces. But there are thousands of knots, each with its own fascinating history — did you know the still-indispensable bowline knot was a staple in the golden age of piracy and has been found on the unearthed ships of Egyptian pharaohs? Knots are also pure ancient STEM toys, requiring logic, spatial reasoning, and problem-solving. Originally compiled in 1944 by American artist and sailor Clifford Ashley, the Ashley Book of Knots is the definitive encyclopedia of every practical knot. With 3,854 numbered entries and 7,000 illustrations, this book will be guiding and confounding you for the rest of your life.

Stargazing

There’s nothing on the internet to compete with standing in your own backyard and using a telescope to find distant stars or to wander the surface of the moon… edging ever closer to the dark side. You can start stargazing with a simple star chart or beginner’s guide to astronomy and a pair of binoculars (or your own eyeballs), but you’ll need a good telescope to visit neighboring galaxies or to get close to the rings of Saturn. Most beginner telescopes are either refractors (gathers light using mirrors) or reflectors (magnifies light using lenses). Galileo invented the refractor, and Newton the reflector, so you really can’t go wrong.

A refractor telescope that won’t break the bank but has great optics, with a 70mm aperture and 400mm focal length, so other planets come in nice and sharp. Not too tricky to assemble and eminently portable, this is great first telescope for the aspiring astronomer.

Powerful but kind to the beginner, this scope comes with two eyepieces (20mm and 10mm) that give 45x magnification and 90x magnification, respectively. Set it on its adjustable tripod and wheel around the night sky, where you can capture bright, crisp images of Saturn and Jupiter, including deep-space objects and distant bright galaxies.

Even without a telescope, there’s plenty to marvel at in the night sky. This guide to the Northern Hemisphere, written by an astronomer and endorsed by none other than Bill Nye the Science Guy, lets kids explore the firmament with their own eyes, a pair of binoculars or a simple telescope.

A thorough but light-hearted tour of the cosmos geared to middle-schoolers — illustrated and written to speak to kids directly, it includes everything you need to search the night sky, as well as profiles of astronomical heroes, cool technologies, mythology, and the science behind it all.

Backyard Arts & Crafts

For a long period in the ’70s and ’80s, it seemed every kid’s party was held either at a questionable carnival set up in a parking lot or in the backyard of a crafty lady whose enthusiasm for papier mache was truly inexhaustible. And she was right — there’s nothing better than working on art projects outside. Build a volcano, make sun prints, chalk an Olympic-size hopscotch down the driveway, paint murals, or press flowers — whatever you tackle, we’ve gathered together all the basic supplies you’ll need. And whether you set yourselves up in the backyard like 19th-century landscape painters on the banks of the Rhone or attack a giant sheet of craft paper like a wild pack of abstract expressionists, you can head into fall with a museum’s worth of fine art.

A great 48-color crayon rainbow of art potential — cover the cement with drawings, notes, and games. Just spray with the hose to erase.

Because flour is for baking right now.

A classic French easel for the smaller set — works as a handy, portable sketchbox that stores everything the young artist needs and then converts into a painting easel wherever they encounter a scene worth capturing.

You can easily make your own flower press with some newspaper, tissue, cardboard and a few bricks (or heavy books). Or you can order this beautiful wood flower press straight from Paris.

Backyard Camping Adventures

After months of being trapped at home together in apartments and houses, we’re all ready to be out in the big wide-open spaces. Camping in the backyard in summer is a rite of passage for kids — it’s the ideal experiment in self-sufficiency, tucked inside the ultimate comfort zone of home. With travel options limited and many national and state parks temporarily closed to camping, your own backyard may be the best place to pitch a tent for now. You can turn the backyard into a true wilderness just by tuning in to the natural world that’s all around us all the time. Make s’mores over a campfire, tell ghost stories in the glow of an upturned flashlight, play checkers by lantern, zip up the tent, listen to the thrum of insects, and wait for the dawn.

Sure, you could get a cheap tent that might make it through a summer or two, but since backyard camping is ideally a prelude to nights out in the great outdoors far from home, you might as well invest in a high-quality tent that keep your family warm, safe and dry for many summers to come. The North Face has been making top-notch professional outdoor gear since 1966. This roomy, waterproof four-person tent is easy to set up, has stand-up ceilings, and front and rear vestibules.

Rated to zero degrees, this bag will keep kids comfortable and warm from spring through fall. A great old-school rectangular sleeping bag lined with soft, red-plaid flannel, you can zip it out into a soft layer for games or movies out on the lawn. Made with heavy-duty cotton-canvas shell and water-repellent finish.

Salt Lake City–based Barebones produces durable, simple, and beautiful retro designs and strives to do good. The lantern runs on a rechargeable battery — and glows up to 200 hours on low, three hours at max illumination. The built-in carabiner lets you hang it anywhere, meaning kids can keep its low, reassuring glow going all night in the tent.

Don't have a fire pit or safe space to build a bonfire? You can tell ghost stories and roast campfire s'mores around this campfire in a can — made with renewable, reusable, nontoxic materials (mostly soy wax). Once lit, gives off three to five hours of authentic campfire glow.

These 14 genuinely spooky tales (appropriate for kids 12 to 18) were handpicked by the master of literary surprise, British novelist Roald Dahl. He pored over some 750 terrifying classic tales to find the spookiest. As he writes in the introduction, a good ghost story 'should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.'

Bird-Watching

Whether there’s an actual resurgence of bird life in your town or you’ve just grown more appreciative and aware of their backyard hustle this spring, this is a great time to take note of all the visitors to your yard. Some species may be year-round neighbors, while others are stopping through on their way to exotic destinations — for instance, you could travel vicariously with the tiny Arctic Tern, as they migrate from Antarctica to the Arctic (an annual pole-to-pole journey of almost 60,000 miles). It’s a simple but powerful way for kids to appreciate the hugeness of the globe and all the complex interdependencies of the natural world — without leaving their own back porch. If they’re into it, you can arm them with a few affordable tools — a bird feeder to attract visitors, a pair of basic binoculars, and a birding guide or bird-call app (recommended by the Audubon Society).

These compact, lightweight binoculars have moderate magnification that's optimal for bird watching. They're broadly adjustable so they work for adults and kids alike. The wide 60° apparent angle of view means you get an immersive experience, and 429 feet of field of view at 1000 yards.

These binos are weather-sealed with optics designed for close to mid-range observations — as in bird watching. They're great on the trail in all conditions, including heavy rain. They have a generous 59° apparent viewing angle and but can also focus on close objects, down to 6.5 feet away.

Bring the birds to the backyard without attracting squirrels or big-winged predators. A sturdy metal bird feeder that just might last till your kids are ready to nostalgically introduce their own kids to bird watching. Fill it with sunflower hearts or any seed mix, and it'll dispense dry, fresh seeds to birds when they land. Feeds all song birds as well as Woodpeckers and Cardinals.

Kids can sit in the shade, binoculars at the ready, and study up on the birds of North America. Bill Thompson's kid-friendly classic includes 300 of the most common birds in the U.S. and Canada. Lots of great photos, illustrations, checklists and maps to keep kids engaged. Perfect for middle-schoolers on up.

This is the definitive guide to birds in North America — if you and your kids get serious about bird watching (and you should!), this book will end up on your shelf. Almost 7,000 crisp, rich illustrations, clear, detailed descriptions about each species and helpful hints for finding them out in the world. More than 700 maps, showing where species migrate (everywhere you can imagine).

Backyard Movie Night

Enough with the Netflix parties. There’s nothing more old-school decadent than stretching out under the stars on a blanket in the backyard and watching a home movie or favorite film projected on to a sheet stretched between two trees. It’s also a good way to gather with a couple of friends, where families get together outside without fear of collapsing the social distance. You’ll need a projector, a blanket to throw over the grass, and — ideally — a couple of beanbags and some campfire popcorn.

Popular for a reason — affordable and reliable, this 4500-Lumens LCD projector works great for outdoor movies (and even comes with a 100-inch screen to hang outside). Projects full HD 1080P and is compatible with other smart devices, TV sticks, games, and HDMI.

This portable LED projector supports 170-inch display, has two built-in speakers, more brightness than your average projector, and is easily connected to smartphones, laptops, PS4, Nintendo Switch, you name it. vivid clarity of 1920x1080 resolution supported, 2000:1 contrast ratio The upshot? This will project crisp, bright images onto a big screen in your backyard.

Don't have the right yard for a DIY screen? This inflatable 12-foot screen can pop anywhere (that's not currently experiencing gale-force winds). It's self-inflating, plugs into a standard home outlet, and comes with yard stakes and tethers to keep it in your yard, and is a cinch to get up and running.