Organized sports are great, but they’ve got some strikes against them. Notably, byzantine rules, league fees, car wash fundraisers, equipment, horrific injuries, innumerable orange slices, Gatorade flavors named after colors, and did we mention rules? Well, it’s time to tuck those whistles away, forget bylaws and playoff scenarios, and leave the minivan mud- and blood-free. The best outdoor games for kids are low on regulations and uniforms and high on imagination and movement. Think: classic games like four square, steal the bacon, and h-o-r-s-e. They all require little equipment or supervision while still generating long-lasting memories of summer days gone by. And isn’t this low-fi philosophy of the non-school months what these breaks are all about? If you’ve been scouring the internet for warm-weather leagues for your kids to join while they’re out of school, well, allow us to retort.
The best classic outdoor games have to be simple enough that they could be explained to a 5-year-old in the space of two minutes, yet have a sophisticated enough structure that winners and losers can be clearly delineated. (Translation: no participation trophies.) Do the rules change on the fly? Sure. Are there several iterations? Absolutely. We haven’t even begun to crack the rich tradition of regional games you may be familiar with. Does any of that matter? Absolutely not, because these outdoor games for kids are simple, fun, and easy to understand.
So, the 31 unorganized outdoor games for kids have been refined over the years from one skinned-knee generation to the next, getting better with age. From Kick the Can to Duck Duck Goose to plain old Tag, all of these activities are easy to get started and a lot of fun. (Obviously, when it comes to social distancing, use your own judgement. But most of these games can be kept in the family.) Let the games begin.
How to Play It: The first person does anything they want, from spinning around to closing their eyes, before shooting a basketball into the hoop. If they miss, it’s the next person’s turn to make up a crazy shot. If he or she is successful, everyone else has to replicate the shot. Fail and you earn a letter, beginning with H and progressing to HORSE. The last person standing without making it to horse wins.
What Makes it Great: It’s horse! It takes a classic activity like shooting hoops or playing catch and leaves tons of room for creativity, which might be why you’ll see pros playing it whenever human-interest stories are produced. It can be played with virtually any number of players and can be adjusted for myriad age groups based on the height of the hoop.
30. Marco Polo
How to Play It: Everyone in the pool! One person closes his or her eyes and counts to 10. That person then says, “Marco.” Everyone then yells “Polo!” The Marco child pursues the fleeing Polos with his or her eyes closed periodically calling out, with the other participants responding. Whomever he or she catches becomes the next Marco, and the game starts anew. No getting out of the pool, you dirty cheaters.
What Makes It Great: Exceedingly simple to organize — and, as it’s all about stealth, kids tend to stay pretty quiet.
29. Johnny on the Pony
How to Play It: One team crouches in a line, with their arms locked around each other’s waists. Essentially forming a wall. The other team jumps on top of the line with the intent of staying on. If everyone makes it to the top, they win if they can shout “Johnny on a pony!” three times before the bottom team can shake them off.
What Makes It Great: This game is pure madness in the best way possible. Also, good practice for future rugby players.
28. Freeze Tag
How to Play It: For children already familiar with tag, this variant involves freezing if the “it” person tags you. The only way to thaw? A non-“it” player must tag you, to his or her peril. If everyone becomes frozen, the “it” person wins.
What Makes It Great: It’s tag, but with teamwork and social skills baked in.
27. Steal the Bacon
How to Play It: Teams are divided evenly and each person is designated a number. Each team stands on opposite sides with a shoe sitting in the middle (doesn’t have to be a shoe, just something easy to hold). When a number is called, the designated players from each team run for the coveted item and try to get it back to their side. If you succeed, you get a point.
What Makes It Great: Direct competition; plus, the designated caller can set up quality rivalries.
26. Arm Wrestling
How to Play It: Two participants put their elbows on a steady surface and grip each other’s hands. Whoever can get the other person’s hand to touch the surface wins. No use of second hand and no lifting elbow off the surface.
What Makes It Great: The ultimate one-on-one battle of strength and endurance. There’s no way to gracefully lose an arm wrestling match. You can also tie in that Sylvester Stallone movie.
25. Kick the Can
How to Play It: One person is charged with protecting a can (or whatever) while other participants attempt to run up and knock it over. The catch? The kickers hide and join the protectors’ team if tagged. The rules can lead to an impasse, but when they don’t it’s a blast.
What Makes It Great: You get to briefly live the life of a hobo during the great depression.
How to Play It: Sardines is the opposite of hide-and-seek. One person is designated to hide while the others count. If you find the hidden person, you join them. Last person to find them loses.
What Makes It Great: One of the few reverse games that actually works.
How to Play It: Two people stand directly in front of each other. They hold out their hands, and try to push each other over while keeping their own feet planted. Whoever moves their feet first loses. In some cases, players can’t push anything other than their opponent’s hands, but that’s optional.
What Makes It Great: You get to push other people over.
22. Duck, Duck, Goose
How to Play It: Everyone sits in a circle. One person is the tagger. They walk around the circle, touching each person’s head and either saying “duck” or “goose.” If they say “duck,” things continue as is. If they say “goose” the person tagged must try to catch the tagger before they can get back to their spot. If the tagger gets caught, they have to sit in the mushpot (the middle of the circle).
What Makes It Great: It’s one of the original “in class” games from pre-pandemic days, which means most kids probably know how to play it. Plus, everyone thinks of ducks and geese, which is pretty fun.
21. Monkey in the Middle
How to Play It: You try to keep the ball away from one person while throwing it back and forth with your partner. If the person snags the ball, whoever threw it last is now the monkey. There are no points, and therefore no “winning,” in the traditional sense.
What Makes It Great: It almost always begins spontaneously and one person naturally ends up ostracized. Some may see it as bullying, but we believe it builds character.
20. Silent Ball
How to Play It: A group tosses a ball around. If you drop it, you’re out. If you make a bad pass, you’re out. If you make a noise, you’re out. Last person in wins.
What Makes It Great: Simple, but entertaining. Also gets kids to learn how to shut the hell up for a few minutes.
How to Play It: Players stand at the edge of a pool with their backs turned to the water. One player places a whiffle ball, frisbee, popsicle stick, or some other buoyant objects at the bottom of the pool and then exits the pool. As soon as that player exits the pool, the other players try to spot and capture the ball. Whoever does, wins.
What Makes It Great: The thrill of the hunt. The surprisingly long waiting period. The slight risk of injury.
18. Three Flies Up
How to Play It: There is one thrower; everyone else is a catcher. The thrower stands about 50 feet away from the catchers and then tosses the ball up in the air towards the catchers. If you catch the ball, you get a point. First person to three points becomes the thrower.
What Makes It Great: It’s catch with higher stakes. Plus it’s fun to make a smug catcher miss throws when they have two points.
How to Play It: One person is chosen to be “it.” They get out of the pool. Everyone else secretly decides their color. Once everyone has decided, the “it” person turns his or her back to the water and starts naming colors. If your color is called, you have to get to the other side of the pool without being tagged. If the “it” person turns around and no one is swimming, he or she has to take a step away from the pool. Whoever is tagged is now the “it” person.
What Makes It Great: Unorganized pool games that don’t rhyme with like Flarco Folo are hard to find. This one not only does that, but is normally good for a few hours of in-water play before kids get bored.
16. Butts Up
How to Play It: All you need is a ball and a wall. Every time the ball bounces off the wall, someone has to grab it and make a clean throw back to the wall. Then the cycle continues. Anytime someone misses a catch, they have to run and tag the wall. If someone can throw the ball at the wall before the wall-touch happens, the person who didn’t make it to the wall gets an out. First to three outs has to stand against the wall and the other players get one chance to try and hit them with the tennis ball (softly). Then you start again.
What Makes It Great: It’s a perfect mix of chaos and competition. Plus, no other game matches the impending threat of pain.
How to Play It: Form two lines of people. There is one ball. Each line of people kicks the ball back and forth.
What Makes It Great: There are no real rules or any sense of scoring or competition. Just a fun way to pass the time.
14. Hot Hands
How to Play It: One person lays out their hands with their palms facing up. The other player places their hands on that person’s hands but with the palms facing down. The bottom person tries to slap the top person’s hands before they can remove them. If the bottom person successfully slaps their opponent’s hands, they stay on bottom. If they miss, they switch spots.
What Makes It Great: You get to slap another person’s hands.
13. Double Dutch
How to Play It: Two people turn two long jump ropes in opposite directions as one person stands in the jump ropes and tries to jump without messing it up. Players add in different jumps and rhymes and everything else they see fit.
What Makes It Great: Builds coordination and stamina. Plus, it’s endlessly upgradable.
How to Play It: The court is a giant square that has four equal-size squares inside (sidewalk chalk is an easy method, and it washes clean). One person occupies each of the smaller squares. One square is the designated to top square. Then a second place square, third place square, and a fourth place square. The person in the top square hits the ball into another square. If it is hit to your square, you must hit it into another square before it bounces twice. If you hit it out or let the ball bounce twice, you are out.
What Makes It Great: It establishes a hierarchy that is often lacking in games. And kids somehow have an endless amount of ways to skyline a ball with their hands.
11. Four Corners
How to Play It: Same court as Four-square, except this time, runners stand on each of the four big corners while one person stands in the middle. People on corners try to swap before the person in the middle can get to either corner. If the person in the middle reaches a corner, the person they stole it from becomes the person in the middle.
What Makes It Great: The unsteady alliances. The mad dash to an open corner. It’s a nonstop thrill ride unless you’re in the middle.
10. Kill the Carrier
How to Play It: Someone has the ball. They are the carrier until they are tackled. Then they have to give up the ball. Whoever gets it next is now the carrier. And so on and so forth until boredom sets in or someone gets hurt.
What Makes It Great: People get tackled a lot. It no longer has a name that rhymes and is very offensive.
9. Throwing Rocks
How to Play it: There’s no way to play it wrong, so long as things aren’t breaking and people aren’t getting hurt. Pick an inanimate thing a reasonable distance away and see how can be the first to hit thing with rock.
What Makes It Great: You’re throwing rocks at things. Fun! Just make sure participants don’t turn on each other.
8. Shark & Minnows
How to Play It: One player is chosen to be “the shark.” The rest are “minnows.” The minnows try to get from the designated starting point to the designated finishing point without getting tagged by the shark. If you are tagged, you are a shark. Last minnow wins.
What Makes It Great: Brings a fun hunting aspect to the typical schoolyard antics. Plus at some point, people start betraying each other to survive the shark attacks, fostering a healthy dose of subterfuge that your child will use someday on Survivor.
7. Red Rover
How to Play It: Two groups stand in parallel lines facing each other. Each line must hold hands. One line declares one person they would like sent over, yelling “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Ethan over.” The designated person — in this case Ethan — makes a furious run at the line. If he can’t break the line and get two people to stop holding hands, the team that held strong calls a person from the opposing line to their chain. If they can’t, they now join that line. Whichever line is down to one person first loses.
What Makes It Great: Top notch game for flirting (and you know your son or daughter). Also, you get to switch teams a lot, which is underrated. Wrist injuries are minimal.
How to Play It: It’s essentially Three Flies Up, except the thrower can decide a catch is worth a certain amount. The winner is the person who exceeds a previously decided jackpot number (i.e. “Game is to 1,000”). More fun can be added by the thrower yelling one of the following terms: Jackpot (automatic win); Bomb (receiver who touches ball loses a designed number of points); Bankrupt (lose all points); IceBall (stay frozen for one throw); FireBall (steal one point from opponent).
What Makes It Great: It’s catch, but on performance enhancers. So simple, but so satisfying, with plenty of strategy built in.
How to Play It: Designate two bases (could be real bases, shoes, or pretty much anything you have around) and choose two throwers. Everyone else is a runner. Throwers toss the ball back and forth and the runners try to get safely from base to base without getting tagged. If you’re the last one alive, you win. Winging balls at each other is optional.
What Makes It Great: It’s fun, and everyone gets to play. Plus, beating out a throw with your crafty base running never gets old.
4. Red Light, Green Light
How to Play It: One person is the traffic cop. All remaining players stand on the starting line and the traffic cop has their back to them. When the traffic cop says “green light,” players try to run to the finish line. When the traffic cop says “red light,” they turn around and the other players have to stop. First to pass the finish line wins and becomes the traffic cop.
What Makes It Great: Everyone knows how to play. Plus, one lucky person wields all the power, mercilessly deciding the fate of everyone else, which is a good microcosm of life.
3. Hide & Seek
How to Play It: The “it” person has to count to a predetermined number (usually 20) and then goes looking for the others. If you are tagged, you are “it,” and it starts over. Alternative version: If you are tagged, you are out. Keeps going until everyone is tagged. There can also be multiple people who are “it.” Normally if you’re playing with more than 10 people, two taggers should be involved. No climbing trees. Want an edge? Here’s some hide-and-seek advice from a Navy SEAL?
What Makes It Great: It taps into our innate survival instincts; it’s the thrill of the hunt and the thrill of well-executed evasion.
How to Play It: If you are it, tag people. If you are not it, don’t get tagged. Need we say more?
What Makes It Great: It’s tag.
1. The Floor Is Lava
How to Play It: Do whatever you can to not touch the floor, which is now lava. Hop on chairs, couches, benches, logs, or whatever. Try to get from Point A to Point B. Don’t touch the floor/ground, which is lava.
What Makes It Great: The palpable sense of danger around every corner, the complete lack of required equipment, and an indoor activity when it’s raining outside. Plus, you know, lava. Its ubiquity has even spun off a TV show, which can be a useful example for children who don’t at first grasp the concept.