Rest, relax and have some good old-fashioned family fun with games and activities you'll love
Illustration by Laura Cornell
Remember when summer meant lazy days without structure or end, where neighborhood kids gathered for a rousing game of backyard tag, dodge ball or ringalevio, and nighttime meant catching fireflies in a Mason jar? The simple pleasures of running barefoot back and forth under a cheap, oscillating sprinkler could last for hours — until Mom called you in for dinner or the Good Humor truck beckoned with its telltale jingle.
This summer, put the playdates on hold, pull the plug on the Wii and send your kids outside to use their bodies and imaginations in exuberant play. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a roster of fun retro games and activities that, while simple, have stood the test of time. It’s playtime!
Backyard and Neighborhood Games
These are age-old games — no batteries, equipment or assembly required. All that is needed is a handful of kids, a few great hiding spots (like behind bushes, trees or rocks) and a selection of firm ground rules — such as, “No going near the street” and “Stay within the confines of the backyards.”
1. Riotous Relay Races
Try incorporating some of these fun relay races into your repertoire to keep the kids (and adults) amused:
• 1 bucket of water per team
• 1 large sponge per team
• 1 empty one-gallon plastic milk jug per team
Divide players into two or more teams. Set the buckets of water on one side of the course, with the sponges in the bucket. Place the milk jugs at the opposite end of the race course. The object of the game is to be the first team to fill the milk jug with water. The first player of each team soaks the sponge with water, runs to the milk jug, squeezes the water into it then runs back to pass the sponge to the next player. This continues until the first jug is full.
To make the game more challenging, try using plastic turkey basters or water guns instead of sponges.
Tip: Squirt a few drops of food coloring into the jug to make the water level more visible to the players.
2. Old-fashioned Sack Race
Grab a few old pillowcases and pack them in your bag the next time you’re headed to the park or beach for an old-fashioned sack race.
Here’s how it works: Step into the sack with both feet. Pull the sack taut and hold the edges with two hands. Practice hopping until you get the hang of it. Mark the start and finish lines, line up players at the starting line, blow the whistle and go!
For more difficulty, add a few obstacles or cones to hop around. Or give your kids a sack and a sprinkler and let them cavort in the water without racing.
3. Three-legged Race
This race is a good activity for a family picnic or outing with friends; it is best played on lush grass or soft sand, as falling is part of the fun.
You’ll need a few old rags or stockings cut into wide, three-foot strips. Pair partners by height, if possible. Tie one person’s left leg to the other player’s right. Practice walking together until you get a rhythm going, and then try hopping or running in synch. Mark the start and finish lines and you’re off!
4. Wheelbarrow Race
Pair up with a partner. One person puts his hands on the ground while the other holds the front partner’s hind feet and steers the duo to the finish line. The first team to cross the line is the winner.
The game of tag is as simple it gets: Chase and be chased. First, players decide who is going to be “It.”
Most kids are familiar with the traditional tag where the person who is “It” must tag another player. To up the ante, why not try a variation, such as Freeze Tag? In this version, the player who is tagged must freeze on the spot. So, if a player is tagged midway up a tree or with his hands waving in midair, he must freeze in that pose. He can be freed (or unfrozen) only when another player touches, or tags, him — or, in a more difficult version, only after the other player crawls between his legs. The game ends when every player is frozen in place. The last person frozen will be “It” for the next game.
Young kids enjoy Circle Tag, in which players form a circle, standing about five feet from the player on either side. The “leader” stands outside the circle and when he says “Go!” all the children run in a circle to the right, trying to pass the player in front of him. When a player catches up with the one in front of him, that player is out. The leader may call “Reverse.” Then, players have to turn around quickly and run the other way. The last player left in the circle wins.
Splash Tag puts a refreshing spin on things and is best played on a hot summer day. You’ll need one large, oversized sponge and a bucket of water — and don’t forget the swimsuits. In this version, “It” tries to tag a running player with a wet sponge. Once tagged, that person becomes the new “It.” There’s no denying who’s been tagged … the water dribbling down the tagged player’s back is a dead giveaway.
In this longtime favorite, the person who is “It” stands at home base and counts to twenty (or more, provided everyone knows the count), while the other players scatter and hide. “It” shouts “Ready or not, here I come!” and goes in search of the hiders.
When “It” spots a hider, he calls out, “I see Abby,” and they both race toward home base. If “It” beats Abby home, he catches her by touching the base and yelling, “One, two, three, I got Abby!” But if Abby reaches home base first and yells, “One, two, three, I’m home free!” she is safe.
• A player doesn’t have to wait until he is found to race back to safety at home base.
• When all the players are found, the first player caught becomes the new “It.”
7. Sardines-backwards Hide-and-seek
The twist here is that all players eventually squeeze, or sardine, into a small hiding spot together. One player hides while all the others shut their eyes and count to 100. Then, seekers split up and search alone. If one of the seekers finds the hider, he or she slips into the hiding place as well.
Ideally, the hiding place should be somewhere that will accommodate all players, but it never is, and as other players find it, they crowd in, and the hiding spot becomes tighter and it becomes harder to keep the growing crowd silent. When the last player finds the hiding place, the “sardines” free themselves from the confines and silence of the tight quarters and the game begins anew.
8. Ringalevio or Manhunt
This game has survived generations and is better suited to older children and teens, particularly when it is played at night. Start with two equal teams: chasers and runners. A deck or a front porch is a good choice for a home base, which also serves as a “jail” for captured players. Set your boundaries and the chase is on.
Starting at home base, chasers count to twenty while runners flee. Then chasers try to catch runners, who try to avoid capture by dodging and zigzagging away. When a runner is caught, the chaser must hold on to the captive and say, “Ringalevio!” If the runner fails to struggle free, he is taken to jail. The first player to capture a runner becomes the jailer and remains near home base, guarding the prisoners. If the jailer steps foot inside the jail, all prisoners are free. Free runners may rush through the jail, tag prisoners and shout, “Ringalevio-free!” And, if prisoners grasp hands, one free runner can free all captives in one fell swoop by tagging just one prisoner. Prisoners, as well as the player who freed them, must carefully avoid being tagged by the jailer. Anyone tagged by the jailer at this point is jailed again. Chasers win after all the runners are captured. Then players switch roles and the game starts over.
9. Obstacle Course
The obstacle course is a great activity at summer parties and backyard barbeques. It can be as intricate or as simple as the materials you have on hand. Simply tailor your course to the ages of the participants in your group. Teach the kids how to set up courses of their own and to change the order and obstacles to keep things exciting. Here are a few ideas for stations:
• Walk or hop along a winding a garden hose or jump rope.
• Crawl under lawn chairs or limbo under a pool noodle slung a cross two lawn chairs.
• Hop through a rope ladder on one foot.
• Balance a golf ball on a tee (or on a spoon).
• Balance along a “beam” made out of planks placed on cinder blocks.
• Hop with a ball between one’s knees.
• Toss a water balloon in the air, spin around and then catch it.
• Navigate a row of hula hoops (eight to ten). Step into each hoop, lift it overhead and drop it
behind, as you move forward. (Reset the row before the next person’s turn.)
10. Egg or Balloon Toss
Using either a raw egg or a water balloon, partners toss the fragile item back and forth to one another. On each successive toss, they take a big step backwards, thereby increasing the difficulty. The winner is the team that can toss the egg or balloon farthest without breaking it.
The tug-of-war is the ultimate game of strength, endurance and teamwork. You’ll need a sturdy, long rope (about thirty feet), marked in the middle with a piece of colored tape or tied with colored string. Mark the center of the ground with a line of chalk or tape. Choose teams and place them on either side of the center. The last person on the rope (back) should be the biggest and strongest, in order to “anchor” the rope.
When the whistle is blown, both teams pull hard on the rope. The winning team is the one that pulls the opposing team’s leader across the centerline first.
The next time you’re headed down to Compo or Burying Hill, plan ahead with these fun beach activities.
1. Sand Castle Competition
Every year, Compo Beach is the site of “Castles in the Sand,” in which teams compete to create amazing sand sculptures. Fairfield beaches also have their own sand exhibits. In fact, as any beachcomber will tell you, building castles, big or small, is an essential beach activity.
To create your own artistic sand castle or creation, competition or not, here’s what you’ll need …
• Shovels with long handles (small to large)
• Buckets in various sizes
• Putty knife, paintbrushes and other plastic utensils
To get started …
• Draw a sketch of your fantasy castle or sculpture.
• Box off a large square of sand near the water, but not so close that waves will destroy your
castle as the tide comes up. Use a stick to draw a border around the site.
• Dig a hole down to the water table, where the sand is dark and moist, or bring up large buckets
of water from the Sound.
• Scoop piles of wet sand onto the center of the work area.
• Work fast so the sand stays wet.
• Build towers by forming and stacking sand patties about the size and shape of thick pancakes.
Place larger patties on the bottom, and gently shake the patties from side to side as you pile
them so that the sand settles. Seal with water.
• Carve the towers and the walls into shapes using tools such as a small trowel, a putty knife or
• Dig a moat around your work to protect it from breaking waves and trampling feet.
2. Dress-up Relay
This “dress-up” beach relay is a hilarious group activity — perfect for candid photos. Divide the group into two teams. Fill two beach bags with an entire beach ensemble that includes flippers, a snorkel mask, very large swim trunks, sunglasses and a beach hat. Place the beach bags at the end of the running line. At the starting line, give a beach ball to each of the first two runners. The first runner on each team has to keep the beach ball between his or her knees while running/hopping to the beach bag filled with beachwear.
When a player gets to the beach bag, he must put on the entire beach outfit. When the outfit is complete, snap a photo. The player must quickly take it off again and pass the beach ball to the next player, who continues the race, until every runner on both teams has taken a turn.
3. Scavenger Hunt
At Westport Elementary Schools’ end-of-year Beach Days, teachers set up an amusing scavenger hunt for the little ones along the shores of the Sound. Armed with a sand pail and a list of items, each child sets out in search of a variety of Compo beach treasures — seagull feathers, clam shells, seaweed, sand crabs and other items. The scavenger hunt is an engaging way to teach kids about nature.
The hunts can be set up for individual players or teams, and planners can organizing the level of difficulty by age. For instance, you can ask the little ones to point out easily visible items (a cloud, an umbrella, a kite), while you can give the older kids a more challenging list of natural items to find.
Another variation is the ABC Scavenger Hunt, in which each player must find one item that begins with each letter of the alphabet (an acorn, a bug, a crab); the player who returns with the most items in the allotted time is the winner.
One final bit of advice: Hit the books! Here are resources for filling your days with fun-filled games year-round: Let’s Play, by Camilla Grykski (Kids Can Press); The Kids Summer Games Book, by Jane Drake and Ann Love (Kids Can Press); Old-Fashioned Children’s Games, by Sharon O’Bryan (McFarland & Co.).