13 unstructured playtime ideas to get the kids outside

13 unstructured playtime ideas to get the kids outside

Posted by Kristen Boye on September 29, 2015

It’s no surprise kids are overscheduled these days.

So much is expected of them academically at such a young age, it’s no wonder the number of kids on meds for stress and anxiety has skyrocketed while “alternative” schools and homeschooling have become mainstream.

I believe the words “kids”, “stress” and, “anxiety” should not exist in the same sentence.

Parents, teachers, grandparents, and even the experts agree, our children’s childhoods are disappearing.

More and more studies are confirming the detrimental effects of prolonged screen time, lack of movement, lack of outdoor activity, and—as the American Academy of Pediatrics points out—a serious lack of time and space for play.

One huge benefit of choosing a rural lifestyle is the endless outdoor space available for unstructured playtime.

What is that?

Also known as free play, it is child-directed playtime aimed at nurturing a child’s imagination, problem solving skills, socialization, brain development and overall health.

Sometimes parents are present to provide starting points, guide and supervise the children (like if an activity involves tools or fire). In other cases the children are left to their own devices.

In a nutshell, you just let them play without structure, expectation, or a goal in mind. No screens, no closed-ended activities like puzzles or pre-designed Lego games, and no games with a long list of rules.

Sound impossible?

Can you just hear the whining, “I’m bored!” “This sucks!” “When can I go inside?”

If, with the best intentions, we’ve promoted closed-ended activities for years, we will have to help our children re-learn how to “play”.

With a little planning and a touch of parental involvement, you will be surprised how quickly they re-embrace their childhood.

Sound like a lot of work for you?

I’m going to make it EASY to get started.

The following 13 ideas for outdoor free-play-dates will provide simple starting points and activities designed to ignite, reboot, and eventually reset your child’s imagination.

Once you get the hang of it, planning a free-play-date takes no planning at all.

13 Ideas for Outdoor Unstructured PlayDates

 1. Building with sticks and rocks

Kids love to build. Let them explore your property gathering sticks, rocks, mud, hay, leaves, and anything else they can find to build fairy houses, swords, a fort, scarecrows, statues and other creations.

Free play idea: Catch bugs in a mason jar 2. Send them out bug collecting with magnifying glasses and a jar.

It’s truly remarkable what kids will find when given a good magnifying glass and full permission to collect bugs, grubs, worms, etc. Aside from making sure they understand what NOT to touch, just let them go for it.

 3. Star gazing.

This is great fun for an overnight or evening play date. Set out a big blanket, bring a thermos of hot chocolate and some sleeping bags (for cold weather), and let the kids lay back and fantasize about the stars and constellations.

 4. Get them involved in homestead/farm chores.

Depending on your property, kids generally enjoy helping out with daily chores like feeding the animals, milking, landscaping, digging, watering, painting, or gardening. Even if they get bored with the chores, they’ll quickly find other activities to entertain themselves while you get your work done.

 5. Build a campsite.

If you don’t already have one, creating a campsite is a MUST for rural family living. Let the kids and their friends help out by creating a fire pit, rolling stumps over for seats, finding and whittling down sticks for hot dog roasting (age permitting, of course), clearing out space for tents, mulching a path, collecting kindling and fire wood, and even setting up tents. Finish with a hot dog roast for lunch or dinner and s’mores.

 6. Water exploration.

Build a campfire for free play

If your property has a creek, have your children’s friends bring their rubber boots and a change of clothes and let them travel the creek. Pack some snacks and water for their adventure and they’ll splash, explore, find cool rocks and bugs, get totally soaked, and be begging to go back out.

 7. Painting the barn.

An activity best suited for younger children—but even the older kids may get involved. Provide buckets of water, paint brushes and rollers (but no paint!), and tell them you need the whole barn or other structure painted. Endless entertainment.

 8. Make nature art.

Art has some close-ended qualities, but it does engage a child’s imagination and inspire creativity. Begin by walking around outside with the children to get inspired by nature. Here are some ideas:

  • Look for pretty leaves or wildflowers to preserve by pressing with an iron between wax paper.

  • Use two sticks and some yarn to create dream catchers.

  • Collect and spray paint pinecones with gold and silver paint.

  • Find rocks for painting

  • Look for the perfect rocks and pebbles to place in inexpensive votives with tea lights to use as gifts.

  • Pick and arrange their own flower bouquets.

 9. A science excavation.

Send them outside with shovels, hand rakes, and a sifter and let ‘em dig!

10. Fill buckets with weeds for a prize.

Let the kids weed your garden! Whoever gets the most weeds in their bucket gets a prize (be sure to show them what to pull and what not to pull). Yes they may get bored, but you’ve provided a starting point and they’ll quickly find other ways to occupy themselves in and around the garden.

11. Send them out on their bikes…alone.

Ride bikes for free playAge-permitting of course, but if your property is safe and remote, just set boundaries, tell them what time to be home, and let them go riding. They’ll wear themselves out and you’ll get some time to yourself. If this makes you uneasy, send them with a cell phone (preset for no texting, data turned off, and not pre-loaded with games).

12. Go picnicking.

This activity is greatfor kids of all ages. Pack up a simple picnic including a few things you can cook on a campfire or camp stove…like baked beans and foil wrapped potatoes. Hike or cycle to the picnic spot and let the kids entertain themselves (cloud-gazing, playing tag, chasing grasshoppers, etc.) while you get lunch ready. 

13. Plan NOTHING. One of the best things you can do for your kids is to kick them outside with NO plan. At first, they may not know what to do with themselves. But in no time they’ll be enjoying a more exciting and memorable playdate than you could have ever dreamed up.


As you embark on the new concept of free-play-dates, resist the urge to get too involved or to “rescue” your kids if they get bored.

Just remember, from boredom comes imagination…which is the whole point of free play.

It’s okay for them (and you) to be a little uncomfortably bored as they re-learn how to play on their own.

Plan, encourage, inspire, but resist the urge to overstep.

Start by planning a few unstructured playdates to help them socialize outdoors, join them in outdoor activities, design your property to encourage successful open-ended play, and slowly reduce their closed-ended activities…but don’t cut them off completely.

Remember the 80/20 rule and your kids will quickly re-learn to enjoy their “free time” to its fullest.

What ideas do you have for unstructured playdates? How have you designed your property to maximize imaginative play? How have your children benefited from less closed-ended playtime?

Here’s to taking back playtime!


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Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is the editor of Rethink:Rural and the owner of Holistic Writing Concepts---a copy and content writing company specializing in the natural health and green living markets. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in beautiful rural Western North Carolina. Visit her online at: www.holisticwritingconcepts.com

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