Play On!

Outdoor games for kids and families

Play is sacred.

Kids need more experiences and space for play to take place. Play isn’t work but it does have many functions.

By design, play takes you to the edge. When kids roughhouse, they learn about what they can and cannot do to others. As well as, what feels safe and unsafe. They learn to read signals and know their own boundaries.

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Pursuit games can have a child feel an element of alarm in a safe bubble. Where it’s not for real, and attuned adults are close by.

Can we interrupt play less this summer and take part ourselves in games and activities? Here are a few games to try:

Wolf Ball

Audience age: 5+

Time needed: 10–15 minutes

Materials: Ball (soft) or 10–15 handkerchiefs/bandanas. When using bandanas, use 5 to create the “ball” in a knot and 10 to mark your boundary.

Where to play: a field or grassy area is best.

How to play: One player is “it,” (the wolf) and tries to hit the other players which are deer with the ball. The goal is to not get hit. The wolf throws the ball each time standing from the place where the ball last landed. Once the wolf hits a deer, they are out. Out deer go to the nursery, lining up outside the boundary. If the wolf throws the ball and it’s caught by a deer in the nursery, the first out deer can rejoin the game. The game ends when the wolf gets all the players out.

How many can play? 5–15 players (a large boundary for many players)

Fun fact: great “trickle in game” or warm-up game

Cougar Stalks Deer

Audience age: 4+

Time needed: approx. 10 minutes/round

Materials: None.

Where to play: A field, lawn or pathway

How to play: One player is the deer and all other players are cougars. The deer starts with their back to the cougars. The game starts when the cougars begin to stalk the deer. The deer’s goal is to turn around and spot a moving cougar! The cougars must freeze before the deer spots them moving. If the deer sees any cougars moving, they call out their name, and the cougar must go back to the starting point. The game ends when the first cougar reaches the deer and tags them.

How many can play: 4–20+ players


Run Rabbit Run

Audience age: 4+

Time needed: 15–20 minutes

Materials: a handful of bandanas can mark the boundary lines on each side.

Where to play: Field or grassy meadow

How to play: One player starts as “it,” (the wolf), everyone else are rabbits. The wolves start in the middle, and the rabbit’s line up on one side of the play area. When the wolves say, “run, rabbit, run,” the players try to run to the other side. If the wolves tag them before they get to the other side, the player must sit down where they were tagged. They become a tree and can use their arms to tag other runners. The game ends when all but one player has been tagged.

How many can play: 6+ players

Variation: Play with two wolves


If a child needs a break from pursuit games, try:

Hungry Birds

Audience age: 4+

Time needed: 15–20 minutes

Materials: 2–3 balls of yarn, each in a different colour

Where to play: A forest or garden

How to play: Cut 20 strips of yarn (15 cm long) for each colour. An adult hides all yarn pieces, keeping in mind the height of players. Explain the game on the edge or away from the play area. Players are birds and need to find worms (yarn) because they are hungry! But you can only pick up worms that are your team’s colour. The other colours are poisonous. Depending on player age, you can set a time limit or play until they’re all found. Collect worms into a pail or tie them to a stick. Ask kids to reflect on how they found them? What colours of yarn were easiest to find? Count the worms!

How many can play? 4–20+ players

Fun fact: This game encourages observation skills (developing a search image), kids learn about camouflage (nature’s adaptation), test fine motor skills and practice counting. Kids love to take turns hiding the worms for their playmates or parents.

Scent Scavenger Hunt

Audience age: 3+

Time needed: 15–20 minutes

Materials: 1 egg carton/child

Where to play: A forest, field or garden

How to play: On the top cover of an egg carton write these six scents—piney, earthy, mossy, fruity, flowery. Send teams to find 1–2 items for each scent. Embrace respectful harvesting practices, like only taking one blossom or fruit.

How many can play? 4 or more players.

Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter is a writer, educator, facilitator, naturalist, creator of culture, soul activist, and mother of two. She’s the co-founder of EPIC Learning Community a forest and nature school in Victoria, B.C., Program Coordinator at Victoria Nature School and in the process of attaining her certification in Equine Facilitated Wellness.