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Playing by the rules – a guide to socially distant outdoor games

Girl playing hide and seek

Anyone who’s been trying to keep children entertained over the past 13 weeks will know all too well the pressures that being cooped up indoors can bring.

Sure, the internet has offered multiple forms of entertainment during lockdown – and indeed, during this time many families have also discovered new ways of learning and communicating that will forever change the way they view technology. 

But even with that in mind, the recent easing of lockdown measures have offered a welcome chance to meet outside with friends and other families in groups of up to six. 

The benefits of physically active play and fresh air are well known. Child development and health experts agree that it develops coordination and motor skills, boosts energy and immunity, reduces stress, and promotes well-being.

Another key part of play is social interaction and the lessons it offers in sharing, turn-taking and co-operation. But when physical closeness is so much a part of play, how can children reap the benefits and still maintain social – or, more accurately, physical – distancing?

Playgrounds, with the risk of transmission from surfaces, remain closed and any contact games are clearly against guidelines. So, what activities can be enjoyed without breaching the two-metre rule – and will children be able to cope with the restrictions?

Child development expert Dr Amanda Gummer says, “As long as kids can understand the rules and see there has been a gradual relaxation, I think they’ll manage. All families have rules and it’s going to have to be one of those which you discuss before you go out. Just focus on the positives, that they can go out and just be together. I think it’s brilliant.”

Here are Parent Zone’s suggestions for how to play by the rules:

Scavenger hunt

Encourage children’s appreciation of the natural world and observational skills by organising a scavenger hunt. Decide what objects they should search for, according to the location. To add a competitive, and collaborative, element, they could work in (distanced) teams. Each is responsible for specific objects, so there shouldn’t be any need to handle or pass anything to one another.

You could give them a list of things to collect, such as leaves, stones, feathers, twigs or anything in plentiful supply. Why not include things for them to look out for and capture on their phones (or just tick off on a list) – a particular type of tree, litter bins, someone wearing red shoes or a passing taxi?

A variation for younger children is to turn this into a park or street ‘safari’, in which each cat is a tiger, a bee is an eagle, a squirrel is a giraffe and a dog is a lion.

Nature art

The assembled objects from your scavenger hunt could perhaps be used to create nature art – either a picture or a sculpture. Stones, soil, grass, branches, berries and petals can either be heaped up into imaginative structures or laid out decoratively on the ground.

Young children will often find making a daisy chain an absorbing activity, requiring just the right amount of concentration and dexterity.

Sports day

Devise a mini sports day by setting up a variety of activity stations. You could include: improvised hurdles for jumping, hula hooping, skipping, squats, tuck jumps, and lunges. Make the most of your natural environment: if there are fallen branches, perhaps these can be used for a balance task.

To make this competitive, set a time challenge before moving onto the next station.

It’s also good fun to include some socially distanced races such as a sack race, silly-walks race, backward-walking race or forward rolls race. To avoid children straying into each other’s paths, mark out lanes with whatever comes to hand – whether that’s bits of clothing or a line of leaves.

Bean bag toss

Allocate each child their own coloured bean bag or soft ball and set up a series of buckets or plastic containers at varying distances, labelled with different numbers for scoring purposes.

Alternatively, you could draw a series of numbered circles or shapes on the ground with chalk.

Ball games

A normal game of football is not possible within the current guidelines, but there are still ways of having fun.

Obviously, you will need to avoid contact between the children and ensure there is no handling of the ball.

You could have a penalty shootout competition, with a feet-only rule for all – including the goalkeeper.

An alternative is ‘foot-golf’ – where children kick a ball into a target such as a hula hoop. Set a course around the playground or field and keep a tally of how many kicks it takes for each child to complete it.

Younger children can use a football or large sponge ball; challenge older children to use a tennis ball.

Pavement chalk activities

If there is a long path or playground area near to you, you could use coloured chalk to mark out a route of challenges for the children to follow individually, against the clock.

You can make the route as long and complicated as you like, using a sequence of drawings and instructions, such as: spin around, three star jumps, touch your toes, hop backwards, or miaow like a cat.

Traditional playground games

Many of the old favourites are perfectly safe, with a bit of careful thought or adaptation.

  • Tag – all children love a chase, but avoid contact by tagging each other’s shadow.
  • Hide and seek – make sure everyone hides in an open space that means they can be spotted without the seeker having to directly approach them. A variation on this game is to photograph each child in their hiding place, with only one small part of them showing. The challenge is then to identify who is in each photo.
  • Grandmother’s footsteps – to avoid the children successfully creeping up and touching ‘Grandmother’, mark out a line which they can’t cross. If they reach the line without being seen, they, of course, become the grandmother.

Party games

There are many of these that lend themselves to socially distant fun:

  • Charades – is great for groups of all ages. Children take it in turns to act out scenes or characters from books, films or TV shows.
  • Who am I? – another popular game for all ages and one that can be played sitting down. Give each child the name of a famous person, animal, film character or whatever they know well. The other players ask yes or no questions to guess their identity. You can set them a target of guessing within 10 or 20 questions.
  • Musical statues – a good way to use up the energy of small children while still being able to control their movement. Ask them to stand in their own zone.
  • Sleeping lions – the ultimate static game! As a winding-down game, spread them out across a wide enough space and watch for any signs of movement.

How to entertain teens

The main challenge in enforcing social distancing is with young children whose instinct is to be more physical in their play and who may find the no-contact rules a little strange. Older children are more likely to observe the rules, particularly since online contact is so much part of their lives.

However, they too will welcome the chance to meet up with friends and it’s important to remind them of the need to keep two metres apart – and to avoid contact with anything that’s not their own personal belonging.

Picnics are still possible – even if it seems odd sitting on separate rugs – and can be made more fun by bringing along fancy non-alcoholic cocktails and a playlist for a socially-distanced disco.

Points to remember

  • Ensure children do not share equipment
  • Spread them out in all activities
  • Mark out individual zones or activity stations
  • Insist on the two-metre rule. From 4 July that will change to "1m-plus" in England, but the advice is still to stick to 2m “where possible”
  • Remind them to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer

Images: iuricazac/stock.adobe.com (main); Sam Haddad/Unsplash (chalk); Tim Mossholder/Pexels (create)


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