When I was little, we didn’t have smartphones, computers or cable TV. So we found our escape outside, playing with classic toys and elaborating on simple old-time summer fun games to beat the boredom.
Today, kids have seemingly endless options when it comes to media, leaving little need to play with marbles, hoops or bits of string. Still, old-fashioned fun has its benefits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses unstructured play is crucial to healthy development. AAP advocates “true toys,” like blocks and dolls, that require children to use their imagination, instead of passive toys like video games designed by adults.
True toys in the great outdoors? That’s even better, says to Jon Trennepohl, owner of Kites & Fun Things in Plymouth, which specializes in products that get kids moving.
“Put those phones down and enjoy the good weather, that’s the No. 1 thing,” he says.
Here, in the spirit of old-time summer fun games, we share 10 suggestions for low-tech fun.
The rules are simple. When it’s your turn, toss the rock into square one. If it lands without touching a line or bouncing out, hop the grid (skipping the square your marker is on), turn around at the top and hop back, balancing on one foot to pick up your rock. If you make it through without stepping on a line, you get to throw the rock on the next number when it’s your turn again. The first kid to get through all 10 squares wins.
Hopscotch, a classic among sidewalk games, teaches balance, teamwork, counting, rhythm and aim, but half the fun is drawing the board. Kids can use their imagination to create a sidewalk chalk masterpiece, with lots of colors and designs. Although their feet have to stay within the lines, their drawings don’t. And when your art washes away in the rain, you get to do it all over again!
“Go fly a kite” is meant as an insult, but it’s actually quite pleasant to loft one into the sky and watch it dance in the wind. Trennepohl says it’s never too early for families to take up this peaceful pastime, and children as young as 4 or 5 can hold their own spools and learn how to fly kite. “The sooner the better,” he says.
Wait for a day with a gentle breeze that ruffles leaves and extends lightweight flags (3 on the Beaufort wind scale). Find an area clear of obstructions and stand with your back to the wind. It’s easier if someone holds the kite aloft. Then, unwind about 60 feet of string and have your partner walk backward until it’s almost taut. When you feel the wind gently tugging, signal your partner to let go.
“A lot of kids think they need to run around a lot, and that’s not true at all,” Trennepohl says. “If there’s a wind, you can just launch it from your hand and it will fly.”
Kiting teaches children to pay attention to weather and wind, and it’s great family bonding.
Delta kites and traditional diamond-shaped Eddy kites are easiest to fly, and as kids get older they’ll find challenge in two-line sport kites. But Trennepohl says you can start by making your own from plastic bags or paper.
“You can build a kite for so little, and once you have a kite, you don’t have to pay to play,” he says. “All you need is a little wind.”
Even the smallest of kids love a good game of hide-and-seek, especially since they fit in tiny spaces big kids can’t. Start by setting boundaries. Then, determine who’s “it” with a round or two of “rock-paper-scissors.”
That person stays at home base closes her eyes and counts out loud, giving everyone ample time to find a spot. No peeking! If you’re hiding, “ready or not here I come” is your cue to stay silent and still, but be prepared to switch places to evade detection (yes, that’s allowed under traditional rules).
When you’re found, run! The goal is to make it to home base without getting tagged, or you’re out. There are endless variations of this classic among old-time summer fun games, including kick the can and ghosts in the graveyard. Play until dusk for maximum effect.
What kid doesn’t dream of climbing a tree? They beckon with low-hanging branches and promises of panoramic views. It’s one of the classic fantastic “risky activities” for kids, and we say go for it – with caution. Look for the right tree, with sturdy branches reaching close enough to grab, and lots of gnarls and knots to cling to.
Avoid trees with fallen branches around the base, peeling bark or that are close to power lines. Wear grippy tennis shoes and play clothes and give it a whirl. You don’t have to go high. One or two branches up is enough to change perspective. Now just sit. Watch for animals in the leaves and cloud shapes floating by. Dare to see if there’s one more safe step upward. If not, no worries. You’re already there.
It seems so simple, but bouncing a stone across a body of water involves a delicate blend of velocity, angle and surface tension. It starts with the perfect rock – flat and round, about the size of your palm, preferably with a flake or feature for gripping. Set your stance, bend back your wrist, flick it forward quickly like you’re cracking a whip sideways and follow through.
You may never reach the world record 88 skips, but you’ll have lots of fun trying.
The Great Lakes, with their calm bays and ample supply of smooth stones, are so perfect for the pursuit there’s actually a Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Tournament every Independence Day. Even toddlers are invited to participate in the “gerplunking” portion. All it requires is dropping a rock into water with the resulting sound – “gerplunk.”
Nothing says summer like the fairy lights of fireflies twinkling at dusk and, according to Gary Parsons of Michigan State University’s entomology department, catching them and keeping them in a jar for a day or two won’t do them any harm.
“And for kids, anything that gets them outside, running around, enjoying nature and wondering how things work is cool,” he says.
Use a dollar store net to scoop them up and have a jar ready with holes punched in the lid for ventilation and blades of grass inside for moisture (they won’t eat it, as they prefer slugs and snails).
But be mindful: You can’t observe normal flashing in captivity. “In a jar they go into their defensive flash, in a random pattern,” Parsons says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m annoyed.'”
Nobody really knows how many different types of fireflies might be in your very own backyard, each with its own unique flash and hue.
“We may have dozens of different species here in Michigan,” Parsons says. “We just haven’t learned how to tell them apart.”
Kids have been playing with hoops for thousands of years, but the modern, plastic version became an instant fad when it was introduced in the late 1950s. Grace Alexander, a hula-hooping enthusiast who previously ran a group called Michigan Hoop Girls, boasts the ability to spin six hula-hoops at once and has performed and taught around the region.
For her, it all started in childhood. Her advice? Most hoops sold at stores kink, are too lightweight or are filled with water that throws them off balance – so Alexander suggests getting a high-quality hoop. The bigger and heavier, the easier to spin. Start with it at your waist and move your hips side to side or back and forth.
“It’s a two-point push, not really a circle like people think it is,” she says.
Once you’ve mastered the basic move, you can try turning around inside your hoop or experimenting with different body parts, like your ankles, the four fingers of your outstretched hand or even your forehead.
“It’s a form of dance and it’s a great way to express yourself. There’s always more you can do,” Alexander says. “It’s really good exercise, and it’s really fun.”
Did you know you can burn more than 100 calories jumping rope for just 10 minutes, while strengthening your body, heart and lungs? It’s great exercise for adults, but for kids, it’s just plain fun.
This age-old old-time summer fun games choice used to be a staple on school playgrounds, but if you can’t find it at recess, why not do it at home?
Kaileigh Hermann, a varsity member of the local Jumpin’ All-Stars Jump Rope Team, started jumping rope at age 8. “I love how you can be really creative with it,” she says. “You can learn new tricks and make up tricks, and you can do it with friends and alone.”
Plastic beaded jump ropes work best, she says, and size matters. Step on the rope and pull the handles up taut. For beginners, the tops of the handles should reach close to the shoulder.
Once you’ve got the basic rhythm, you can work on crossing your feet, jumping on one foot, double unders or crossing the rope.
It’s even more fun with two twirlers and a long rope. Try running in and out, add chants or songs and choreograph routines. If you’re really good, you can move on to double dutch with two ropes.
The Jumpin’ All-Stars, based in Livingston County, hosts a fall workshop to get kids started in competitive jumping, or just keep it simple.
“There’s no wrong way to jump rope,” Hermann says.
Making mud pies
There’s such a thing as an edible mud pie – the traditional Mississippi dessert made with layers of brownie, coffee ice cream and whipped cream. But we’re not talking about something you can actually eat here. No. If you want to know how to make a real mud pie, ask a kid.
“You just pile up mud,” explains my daughter, Violet. The art is in the ultra-messy shaping of the ooze into round, palm-sized pies (or burgers, cupcakes, cookies or even sandwiches, if you’ve got some leaves to stuff between).
Decorate with twigs, stones and a stray feather or two, serve on Frisbee plates and voila! The perfect summer picnic, bathing suits preferred.
If you’ve got a knack as a mud chef, you’ll naturally graduate to multi-layer bucket mold cakes with elaborate drip icing. Mmm, mmm good.
There’s a wide variety of old-time summer fun games you can play anywhere, anytime with little equipment needed. A favorite example is cat’s cradle (also called cat’s whiskers or Jacob’s ladder), played with a loop of string that’s laced through the fingers and traded between players to form a series of figures and shapes. If you don’t remember this game from your own youth, a good place to start is the Klutz Cat’s Cradle Book Kit.
Hand clapping is another simple pursuit that blends singing with rhythmic slaps, snaps and sound effects. Long popular with children around the world, the activity found a resurgence in 2013 with “Cups (When I’m Gone)” from the movie Pitch Perfect. Check Fun Clapping for songs and videos to get started.
Marbles are also worth revisiting. There are lots of variations, but the classic “ringer” version consists of 13 marbles arranged in an X inside a large circle. Children take turns “knuckling in” and using their shooter to try to knock marbles out of the ring.
Involving strategy and skill, part of the game is collecting your set by shopping at educational toy stores like the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum gift shop or winning marbles from your opponents along the way.
This post was original published in July 2015 and is updated regularly.