Think Outside the Playground: 5 Non-Traditional Ways to Play with Your Kids


Twenty-five minutes. That’s how long it takes our little family to walk six blocks to the park. One way. We get there and wander from platform to platform. From slide to swings, and back. Then we refill the bubble mower my four-year-old son insists on parading along with us, and we go home. Twenty-five minutes.

I don’t want to take these walks for granted. We stop to watch ants scurrying. Peer inside drainage pipes. Poke peony blossoms. Collect sticks. Ask neighbors whether ladybugs bite. Every night I remind myself it is all new to them. And if the number of times I have to explain where the snow went and how there is a 73% chance it won’t blizzard tomorrow (it is Minnesota, after all) is any indication, the repetitive nature of what we do as a family is important.

But at some point, my mind and my body long for something different—reminiscent of my life before kids, a challenge to myself and to them. Because as much as I say the routine is for them, it’s also easy. Not necessarily Mom Auto-Pilot, but close. And sometimes done with a small Nalgene of rosé, if I’m being honest. As Fred Rogers said, “for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I owe it to them to make it worth all of our time.

With July looming ahead of us, I decided we could try switching things up. Here’s what we’re going to start shuffling into our evening and weekend routines. We hope they inspire you to do the same.


Even in the middle of January, I like to pull out my yoga mat and stretch next to the kids when they’re playing on the floor. They come and go from my mat, doing everything from touching their toes to something that looks a lot like Bakasana (or “Crow Pose”) without even trying. Now that the kids are a little older and have their own mats—I love the patterns on these—we take them outside and go through a short routine in the grass. Child’s Pose. Cat-Cow. Mountain Pose. Plank. Take your time. Relax your shoulders. Did the kids wander off? They’ll be back. You’ll feel better, and so will they.


I had a small crush on the guys who affixed slacklines to trees around my college campus, spending afternoons soaking up the sun while traversing the ropes, back and forth, tree to tree. A fear of heights (even short distances) kept me from joining them. So you can imagine my reaction when my son demonstrated his agility on this type of tightrope setup on his last day of outdoor pre-school a few weeks ago. Sheer terror. But I’ve gotten over it, and slacklining is now something we’re all exploring at the local park together. I was pleasantly surprised to find kits for this at Home Depot for under $60. Be sure to read up on the sport here and stay conscious of how your rig is affecting the wildlife—or better yet, make sure it’s allowed where you’re planning to set things up.


Of course, this was the next step in that fear of heights progression, right? Rock climbing isn’t something I ever saw myself advocating for until both kids charged up the climbing wall at a new park a few weeks ago. I thought they’d have to be at least twice their current ages before we’d even consider it, but as it turns out, it can be done at their ages safely. And for the willing child, it can be a great way to burn energy and tap into their imagination at the same time. Our city has a handful of indoor options for this, including REI (for kids as young as 5) and Vertical Endeavors (which claims to have no minimum age). Looking for one near you? Use this database.


Consider foraging, or the search for wild provisions, the ultimate game of I SPY for children. With tiny photos of morels on her phone, my mother-in-law introduced this idea to our family last spring and the kids have asked to do it again repeatedly ever since. In addition to getting everyone out of the house, it’s also a really great way to talk to your kids about what is and isn’t safe to pick and eat, how to identify various plants, and respect for nature as you’re tromping through it (because truly there is no other way to describe how kids walk through brush).


My nearly two-year-old daughter is very interested in playing board games, until she isn’t—and then she loves to destroy whatever we have set up with one sweep of her chubby little arm. She thinks it’s hilarious. Her brother? Not so much. That’s where huge outdoor games, like a 2-foot-tall Connect Four or Jenga set come in handy. They allow us to play outside, explore critical thinking skills, and hone sibling rivalries—without losing a single tiny piece. I also love any toy that can’t really be broken. Need more ideas for giant board games to play while waiting? I also have my eye on this Scrabble set and Checkers board.

Of course, these are just jumping-off points. Think about what brought you pleasure as a kid and go for it. Tag. Ghost in the Graveyard. LARPing. Red Rover. Orienteering. A skate park. Kayaking. A Slip’n’Slide made from dad’s tarp, a hose, and a bottle of Palm Olive. During summer, the sky is literally the limit—so if you have a new idea of suggestion, I’d love to hear about them below.

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BY Kate Smith - July 3, 2018

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July 6, 2018 8:24 pm

Hi Kate Smith, I would just like to say thank you for featuring our Checkers Board set on your “Think Outside The Playground – 5 Non Traditional Ways to Play with your Kids” blog post. I really enjoyed reading this post and think it’s a great way to promote alternative family fun games. Do you know we also make a great extra large pick up sticks game, checkers board set and an outdoor Yahtzee set, other outdoor games are also in the works such as a scrabble set and maybe outdoor battleships. If you have any other blog posts featuring… Read more »

October 19, 2018 5:04 am

really nice post

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