Anyone who has ever played capture the flag knows the thrill of grabbing the opposing team’s pennant and running like crazy. All you need are a couple of bandanas, some open space, and a few friends. But if this and other classic outdoor games—red rover, kick the can, red light green light— are so easy and exhilarating, why don’t kids play them more?
The answer might lie in how often kids go outside and play, period. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes that the area outside the home in which “digital natives” (a.k.a. “kids these days”) are allowed to play unsupervised has shrunk by 90 percent since the 1970s.
As the parks and rec director for a small New Hampshire town, I talk to a lot of parents about getting their kids outside to play. For many families, that means signing up for soccer, baseball, or tennis lessons. Those are great options with great rewards. But they’re also highly structured activities organized by adults that require hours of planning, specialized fields and equipment, scheduled times, and lots of players. The activities need so much infrastructure, it’s almost impossible for kids to play on their own.
Therein lies the beauty of classic outdoor games. Go ahead and show your kids how to play. You can even play along for a while. But then back off. The trick is not to let the adults ruin it. Don’t keep score, get referees, make play dates, or start a town-wide tournament. Just let the kids play.
CAPTURE THE FLAG
The classic and still the best. Two opposing teams play in a set area divided into two territories. Each team hides a bandana, or “flag,” in its territory. The object is to find the other team’s flag, retrieve it, and get it back to your home territory without being caught, all while protecting your own team’s flag. Anyone tagged goes to jail (a designated spot within opponent territory), and anyone in jail can be freed by a tag from her own team. The game ends when one team gets its opponent’s flag back to home turf or when all members of a team have been sent to jail.
Old-school but still as fun as ever. Using chalk, one player draws a square on a concrete or blacktop surface, divides it into four quarters, and labels those quarters 1 to 4. The size of the court will vary by locale. Each of four players claims a square. The player who goes first bounces a rubber playground ball into another player’s square. If that player fails to move the ball along to another square, or if the ball bounces more than once, the player is out. When someone is out, players in all lower-numbered squares advance a square, and a new player steps into the number 4 spot. The player who stays in the longest eventually advances to number 1. There’s no official end to this game. Kids can keep playing until they get tired or it gets dark, whichever comes first.
My family’s all-time favorite. Simple and elegant, this game can be played for hours on end, indoors or out. The idea here is basically hide and seek in reverse. One player hides while all other players close their eyes. After one minute, the other players look for the hider. When a seeker finds the hider, she hides alongside him. As more players find the hiders, they all squeeze into the same hiding spot. Eventually one person will be left, wondering where everyone has gone, while everyone else crams together. The first person to find the hider gets to hide next.