Let the kids play.
Modern children are over-scheduled and overprotected, leaving them little time for fun and games.
Yet play is essential to raising happy, self-sufficient kids.
I’m not talking about signing your kid up for some soccer team and having a coach order them around twice a week—I’m talking true, self-directed play where kids make the rules and call the shots.
A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirmed that play enhances creativity, imagination, dexterity, boldness, teamwork skills, stress-management skills, confidence, conflict resolution skills, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills and learning behavior.
With that, we’ve compiled 15 games we believe every American kid should play!
Bend the Rules
A quick breakdown of the standard rules for each game is included below, but infinite variations exist. A beauty of free play is that kids naturally adapt to any situation; changing, subtracting or adding rules based on the participants’ skill, the equipment available, the dimensions of the playing surface, etc. Kids innately understand that the ultimate objectives are A. To have fun, and B. To keep things fair enough so no one quits.
“They learn how to choose their own activity, how to take initiative, how to create their own rules, how to change rules as they go along, how to negotiate with one another,” Dr. Peter Gray, a play expert and research professor of psychology at Boston College, told STACK. “In order to play with other people (when) there’s no authority figure telling you what to do and deciding the rules and settling all the conflicts, you’ve got to do all that yourself…We’re seeing a whole generation of people growing up not learning these things.”
To help us evaluate what makes these games so great for kids, we’ve enlisted the help of Jeremy Frisch. Frisch is an expert on physical education and long-term athletic development, and at his Achieve Performance facility in Clinton, Massachusetts, the “training” sessions look more like fun and games.
“Everything I do here is so much a part of what I did growing up. I try to take those things and bring it into this place, because I feel like that’s what’s missing in a lot of kids’ lives today,” says Frisch.
Without further ado, on to the games.
1. Wall Ball
Standard Rules: Find ball. Find wall. Throw ball off wall. If throw is caught on fly off wall, thrower receives one out. If receiver mishandles ball off wall (either on fly or bounce), they must run to touch wall. Another player can then pick up ball and throw at wall. If ball reaches wall before runner, runner receives one out. Receive three outs and you’re done for the game. Last player standing wins.
Wall Ball is a ferociously fast-paced game that takes about 10 seconds to explain. A tennis ball has the ideal size and bounce-ability for the sport, but a variety of round balls can be utilized.
Many kids find baseball “boring.” No one finds Wall Ball boring.
Players are constantly challenged to field and throw a ball from all sorts of different positions, and that race to the wall is a pure shot of adrenaline (when in doubt, tie goes to the runner). Minimum number of players is two, maximum is as many as you can fit in front of a wall.
“You can involve a lot of kids in such a small space,” says Frisch, who saw a game of Wall Ball randomly break out at his facility just a few weeks ago.
“Not only is it fun, but there’s a lot going on there in terms of development for awareness and agility and reaction and spatial awareness.”
Standard Rules: Find ball. Find space. Decide point total needed to “win” (e.g., 1,000 points). Designate thrower. Thrower tosses high-arcing ball into group of other players, yelling out a point total as they do so. If a player catches it on the fly, they receive those points. Once a player reaches designated point total needed to “win,” they become thrower for next round.
Again, a game that requires nothing more than a ball and a few friends.
Jackpot gets kids comfortable catching in traffic and having someone in their personal space. It also sharpens leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.
While point-value throws are the norm, it’s the oddball offerings that make the game so great.
Snagging a “Jackpot” is a moment of sheer triumph, and who can resist the allure of a “Mystery Box” as it arcs toward your outstretched arms?
“The little kids will just go out in the hallway here and play Jackpot,” says Frisch. “They’ll set that game up wherever they can.”
3. The Floor is Lava
Standard Rules: Get from point A to point B without ever touching the floor. The floor is lava.
Like roughhousing, this is something a kid’s brain just naturally tells them to do.
Simply say “The Floor is Lava” to a child, and they’ll instantly understand a life-or-death game is now being played.
It’s been this way for as long as we can remember, yet its origins are unknown.
Perhaps the drive to avoid the ground is an instinctual holdover from the days our primate ancestors swung from branches to bypass predators below. Or maybe it’s just really fun.
In practice, “The Floor is Lava” often involves kids climbing on furniture and coming up with creative ways to avoid touching the floor. The game encourages risk-taking and creative problem-solving.
Frisch constructs obstacle courses in his facility and often dictates that the only rule is to traverse the course without touching the floor.
One kindergartner then inevitably turns to another and confirms the rules with four simple words: “The floor is lava.”
“I’ve never said it to them, but they know it. I’m not sure where it comes from,” says Frisch. “But it’s really simple rules, and kids understand simple rules. This forces them to come up with unique solutions.”
4. Red Light, Green Light
Standard Rules: Establish start and finish line. Whoever’s “it” stands at finish line with back turned. Other players begin at start line. When “it” yells out “green light!”, other players can advance towards finish. At any time, “it” can call “red light!” and turn to see advancing players. If player is seen still moving during a red light, they must return to start line. First player to reach finish wins and becomes “it” for next round.
You know a game is good when children all over the world love to play it.
What we call “Red Light, Green Light” in America is called “Grandmother’s Footsteps” in the United Kingdom, “Raz, dwa, trzy, Baba Jaga patrzy!” in Poland, and “Annemaria Koekkoek!” in the Netherlands.
Not only does the game develop keen listening skills, but it helps kids discover how to control their body in space. You can only move as fast as you can stop in Red Light, Green Light, but if you go slow as a snail, you’ll probably never win.
5 and 6. Nerf Hoop and Mini Stick
Standard Rules: Basketball, but smaller. Hockey, but smaller.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on why kids love miniaturized versions of their favorite sports—and why they’re a fantastic hobby for little athletes.
Nerf Hoop and Mini Stick might be the best of the bunch.
I call it “Nerf Hoop”, but any game where you’re using a small hoop (usually attached to a door frame) and a miniature basketball qualifies. Mini stick is a form of miniaturized hockey often played from the knees.
These games are often played indoors in confined areas, so succeeding at them tends to require superior hand-eye control and crafty, deceptive movements. Contact is also unavoidable, adding elements of rough-and-tumble play to the equation. This helps get kids comfortable “playing physical.”
In miniaturized versions of sport, kids can often execute moves they’re not capable of with full-sized equipment—such as dunking. Being able to emulate their pro athlete idols is the stuff that builds a deep love for a game.
Standard Rules: Establish boundaries—ideally square or rectangular. Establish middle boundary. Half the players start on one side of boundary, half on the other. Players throw soft balls at other team and are forbidden from crossing middle boundary. If throw is caught on fly, thrower is out. If throw hits opposing player and is not caught, player struck by ball is out. Team with last player(s) standing wins.
Kids overwhelmingly enjoy Dodgeball.
Provided it’s played with the right type of ball (basically anything soft enough to avoid significant pain when struck with), Dodgeball is an overwhelmingly safe game that exposes kids to a chaotic environment and develops both diverse athleticism and strategic thinking.
It’s also a really fun way to help kids learn how to accurately throw a ball, a skill that seems to be vanishing from American childhood.
“Coaching Little League for my kid, there are so many kids who start playing baseball who just don’t know how to throw. They haven’t been exposed to it and they haven’t done it,” says Frisch. “With young children, just throwing is probably the best way to learn how to throw. You don’t need lessons, you don’t need a coach sitting there showing you technique. I think you just need to be exposed to it. A game like Dodgeball does that.”
While no one likes to be the first one out of the game, Frisch has found some easy ways to address this.
“We play a version where if you get hit, you just go to the other team. So the game keeps going on and going until finally there’s one kid left, and if they get out, the game starts over. Or we’ve done if you get hit, you go do 20 Jumping Jacks and you’re back in the game,” says Frisch.
“And if some kids can really fire the ball, you should set up a ‘No Man’s Land’ between the two sides so you can extend how far they have to throw. Then they’re not teeing off on someone five feet in front of them. (We’ve played that), and if a kid gets hit, you go lay down in the No Man’s Land, and if you’re able to stick an arm or foot up and knock a ball away, you get to go back in.”
Certain school districts have banned Dodgeball, and while they have the right to do so, we believe everyone can enjoy the game under the right rules and conditions.
Standard Rules: Find a hoop. Players line up at free-throw line. First two players have a basketball. Player one starts by shooting a free throw. If they miss, they retrieve the ball and can then shoot however they wish. If the player in line behind them puts their ball in the hoop before they do, they’ve been “knocked out” and must step out of line. Last player standing wins.
Even if you don’t aspire to be an NBA superstar, Knockout is just loads of fun.
You may not be a great shooter, but hustle, rebounding and lay-up skills can make up for that. The mild panic you feel as you chase your ball down and attempt to convert a basket before getting knocked out is incomparable, as is the relief when you finally drain one. But after a moment of respite, you’re shooting for your life once again.
“It’s super simple rules, almost every kid can universally understand it. If they don’t understand it, throw them in the game and they’ll figure it out in two seconds,” says Frisch.
Youth basketball games are often dominated by the biggest or fastest kids on the court, but in Knockout, everyone gets to experience the thrill of getting buckets.
9. Duck, Duck, Goose
Standard Rules: Players sit in a circle. Whoever’s “it” walks around the circle, lightly tapping each player’s head in succession and dubbing them either a “duck” or “goose”. If dubbed a “goose”, player springs to their feet and chases whoever’s “it” around the circle. If “it” beats them back to their spot and sits down before being tagged, the “goose” becomes “it”. If not, “it” remains “it”.
Duck, Duck, Goose is another popular game that’s seemingly been around for as long as there’ve been kids.
It’s often first learned in preschool or kindergarten. A big reason we like it is because it never fails to draw smiles and laughs.
Being chased is always thrilling, but sprinting in a circle can also be uniquely stimulating for a child.
“That type of running when you have to run on a curve, for young children, I think it’s very stimulating to their vestibular system. They’re almost like running sideways, and it’s a different sensation than running straight ahead,” says Frisch.
“It’s highly stimulating for young kids. You’re waiting in anticipation, and (that rush of) being chased is primal.”
Standard Rules: If you get tagged, you’re “it.” Try not to be “it.”
Tag is a game children have likely been playing in one form or another for tens of thousands of years. It’s a game even many young animals will naturally engage in.
At its core, tag is about the thrill of chasing or being chased, but in an environment that’s ultimately safe.
Tag involves vigorous physical activity, acceleration, agility, body control, awareness and quick thinking. It also allows for a bunch of kids to participate in the same game, which is great.
RELATED: Why Tag-Style Games are Absolutely Amazing for Kids
“Besides play wrestling, tag is one of the oldest games ever created. Many small children play it without even knowing what it is, it’s almost innate. It requires no equipment, just open space. We play some form of tag almost every day in my facility with (small kids) up through college-aged athletes,” says Frisch.
Despite tag being in our DNA, many schools have banned the game. Some say it’s too dangerous, a problem that may ironically be linked to a lack of unstructured play. Using flags or a two-finger touch can help.
“I love the idea of going for a flag if the kids have flags on. You’re tracking the near hip since you’re always going for that flag that’s closest to you. (It’s the same thing) we’re teaching in football,” says Frisch.
Other school districts have deemed the game to be “predatory”, saying it teaches kids to prey on the less athletic. However, there are easy ways to address these concerns.
“Make it Team Tag. You put the stud kids with a couple kids who maybe aren’t as athletic. Now, the more athletic kids are protectors instead of preyers, because they don’t want anyone on their team to get out,” Frisch says. “It totally changes the dynamics of the game.”
11. Capture the Flag
Standard Rules: Establish boundaries and a mid-line. One team starts on one side, the other on the opposite. Each side has a “flag” deep within their territory. The objective is to retrieve the other team’s flag and bring it back to your side. Once you cross the mid-line, you can be tagged by an opponent and put in their “jail”. A teammate can retrieve you from jail if they reach you without being tagged.
Capture the Flag is the classic “invasion” game, and it parallels everything from soccer to football to hockey in that regard.
You don’t really need “flags” to play it—you can use just a towel, a hat, a stick, whatever.
The game naturally encourages players to adopt the roles they’re best-suited for. Are you the reckless type to charge the flag without a second thought? Or do you sit back and guard your own prize? Then there are the brave soldiers who risk their own capture to free a comrade, spurred on by the promise of “free walk-backs.”
12 and 13. Marco Polo, Sharks and Minnows
Standard Rules: Typically played in water. For Marco Polo, whoever’s “it” must keep their eyes closed. When they say “Marco”, all other players must respond “Polo”. Using sound, “it” attempts to get close enough to tag a player. Once tagged, player becomes “it”. For Sharks and Minnows, “minnows” attempt to swim from one side of pool to another while avoiding tag of “shark”. Each minnow who’s tagged becomes a shark for the next round. Last minnow standing wins.
While both these classic pool-based games are fun, they also serve a greater purpose—getting kids comfortable in water.
Frisch believes learning how to swim is a life skill akin to knowing how to ride a bike, except the former can save your life.
“I think swimming is a life skill every kid should learn, because if you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re in water, swimming can literally save your life or someone else’s life,” says Frisch. “Any activity where they can learn those skills is very important.”
Often played in shallower ends of the pool, these games get kids comfortable in water and help them learn how to navigate it quickly. And anything that gets the kids outside the basement and into the sunshine on a summer day is a good thing.
Once they get sick of Sharks and Minnows or Marco Polo, kids usually turn to another classic pool pastime—diving off the deck to catch a ball before splashing into the water.
14. Hide and Seek
Standard Rules: One player’s the seeker. The seeker closes their eyes and counts to a pre-determined number as everyone else hides. The seeker then announces, ‘Ready or not, here I come!’ and embarks to find the hiders. The player found first becomes seeker the next round. The player found last wins. A common variation has a designated “base,” and if a hider can reach it without being tagged by the seeker, they’re “safe.”
Hide and Seek might not be the most vigorous game in terms of exercise (though playing a variation where you’re required to run back to a base can get your heart pumping), but it encourages kids to be adventurous and independent. There’s a thrill to discovering an ingenious hiding nook, but also to being found.
There have been detailed articles dedicated to why children are so drawn to the game from a psychological standpoint, and the variations and potential settings for the game are truly infinite.
15. Throw the Ball Over the House
Standard Rules: Throw ball over the house. Catch ball. Repeat.
Like “The Floor is Lava,” this is another game kids tend to discover completely on their own.
If you spend hundreds of hours playing outside—as we believe every kid should—inevitably, someone’s going to try to throw a ball over their house.
Don’t ask me to explain it, but these are how the minds of kids-at-play work.
“What do baseball gurus call it now? Long toss. Long toss, like it’s this big deal,” says Frisch. “Everyone forgets we used to play long toss all the time because we’d be chucking balls over houses or down the street or seeing who could throw a rock the furthest.”
The entire point of this “game” is simply seeing if you can indeed throw the ball over the house—and if the person standing on the opposite side can catch it.
“You’re building arm strength, but I love the idea of throwing a ball over the house for the catcher, too,” says Frisch. “There’s the anticipation of the ball coming into your field of vision, then, all of the sudden, here it comes and you’ve gotta track it and catch it. Talk about being a good outfielder in baseball.”
For Best Results, Mix Ages
Playing with kids of different ages has profound benefits. They’re being lost in a time when children are made to spend their hours interacting with narrow age groups via organized sports rather than playing with whoever’s around the neighborhood.
“Same-age play became common only with the rise of age-graded schooling and, still more recently, with the proliferation of age-graded, adult-organized activities for children outside schools. Over the history of our species…children’s social play usually occurred among individuals of different ages, often widely different ages,” Gray writes in a paper on the topic. “In age-mixed play, the more sophisticated behavior of older children offers role models for younger children, who also typically receive more emotional support from older kids than from those near their own age. Age-mixed play also permits older children to learn by teaching and to practice nurturance and leadership; and they are often inspired by the imagination and creativity of their younger playmates.”
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