Seven ideas for unstructured, outdoor, family play

You’ve likely had wistful flashbacks to the days when kids played unsupervised outdoors until called in for dinner, or you’ve noticed how structured sport programs have replaced neighbourhood pick-up games. Not surprisingly, the most recent ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth shows that only 9% of Canadian kids ages 5 to 11 accumulate the recommended guideline of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day, at least six days a week.

Don’t lose heart, though. With a bit of outside-the-box thinking, your whole family can get active, says Don Zabloski, a retired physical educator and co-author of Running Room’s Book on Family Fitness with Running Room founder John Stanton. The book’s intent is to empower families to pursue an active lifestyle in an unstructured way. “Sports programs are wonderful for those who enjoy the competition,” says Zabloski, “but so too are the free play activities of walking, running, cycling, skating, and hiking that can be done as a family.” With that in mind, here are some simple and easy ideas to put your family on a more active path.

Start in your own backyard. Drag your collection of random sports equipment out of the shed, garage or basement and ask the kids to help organize it. As you’re sorting, they’re likely to get distracted (in a good way) by mismatched golf clubs, a beat-up Nerf football, or a long-forgotten Trac-Ball set.

Add a new twist to an old favourite. Adapt existing games by introducing a new element – the wackier, the better. Try “wet t-ball” (where you set up a sprinkler between two of the bases) or “bubble tennis” (where you blow the bubbles and the kids swing any type of racket to pop them).

Create a family “activity pack”. Zabloski suggests building a backpack of basic activity gear with items such as balls or other catch-and-throw objects (like a Frisbee), a jump rope, sidewalk chalk, pylons (to serve as targets or goal posts), a Dyna Band, a pedometer or any other equipment that suits your family’s interests. Throw in some hats and water bottles, too. Keep the bag readily at hand or in the car, so when you’re driving along and spot a neat-looking park or playground, you can screech to a halt and leap out to explore.

Book a monthly family “playout”. Zabloski uses this term to describe an active playdate for the family. Start with a brainstorming session where every family member shares preferred activity ideas. Create a list or map of the available play spaces (playground, schoolyard, park, sports field, nature trail, bike path, pool, splash pad, tennis court, or community centre) in your area. The playout doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, just fun and inclusive for all participants. Examine the calendar, choose a date, and post it in a high-visibility area like the refrigerator. Then, on the chosen day, make it happen!

Value active transport. Getting somewhere “under your own steam” is a practical way to fit in some activity time, says Zabloski. Walk, run, cycle, blade, scooter or skateboard to your destination – including school. Parents can take turns supervising a “walking school bus” or set up a buddy system for kids to walk together.

Include extended family. Invite aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents to join the fun. Structure holiday gatherings around an activity, instead of just sitting and visiting. Try an activity-based birthday party or a family picnic in the park with an impromptu soccer or baseball game afterwards.

Align with like-minded people. Seek out friends and neighbours with children of similar ages and interests, and put your heads together to create an awesome event. Note that while these do take a little more organizing, they are still meant to be casual and non-competitive.

Examples include:

  • An active block party where families walk, run, or roll (by bike, rollerblades, stroller, wheelchair, etc.)
  • An activity-based “day camp” hosted by older kids for younger siblings
  • A group yoga or exergaming session using a DVD, online video, or Wii-type game
  • A neighbourhood “road hockey fest”

As always, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to set a good example. Zabloski says, “One of the benefits of positive parent role models is that eventually children will become active learners on their own. Children will consciously and naturally choose active play as they begin to internalize the benefits of daily physical activity.”

By making a commitment to get the whole family out to play, you’ll enjoy health benefits, quality time, great memories, and the endless potential for fun and laughs.