Looking after grandchildren and keeping them amused doesn’t have to involve expensive days out – with a little imagination, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the natural environment and there are plenty of fun outdoor activities for kids.
If you have happy memories of a childhood spent climbing trees and riding bikes, why not take the opportunity to relive them with your grandchild? Exploring outside together will help you to bond and build a strong relationship.
Why are outdoor activities important for children?
Making the most of outdoor space is free, and it has the added bonus of having a great effect on your mood, too. Research by mental health charity Mind shows that regular contact with nature not only reduces stress, but also brings families together, creating lasting memories.
When advice website The Grandparent Hub asked grandparents what they most enjoy doing with their grandchildren, they found that for 88% it was playing games and for some 80%, it was outside play – always a great excuse for you to rediscover your inner child. ‘My granddaughter Molly often tells me, “You’re really silly, Grandad, but I like it!’” says veteran playworker and creator of Playday Mick Conway.
The great outdoors – it really is great
With more technical gadgets, fewer green spaces and fears about safety, it’s easy to believe that today’s children spend less time playing outdoors as their parents did – less than half the time, according to the National Trust. And yet, the same study revealed that 84% of parents believe that playing outdoors makes children more imaginative and creative.
Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of the Good Play Guide, agrees that there are many positives to getting outside. “Outdoor adventures are great for getting physically active, and have been shown to reduce mental fatigue and stress. You get a good dose of fresh air and vitamin D too, so it’s an all-round health boost,” she says. “Spending time outside with your grandchild makes them feel loved and gives them a brilliant role model.”
Find out about the best short walks for children
Ideas for playing with children outside
Need some fun outdoor activity ideas to get you started? Follow these basic rules:
Play to your grandchild’s interests
If your grandchild likes arts and crafts, collect some natural materials to make a collage. If they would rather play games on a device, try finding apps that get them outside, such as Geocaching or Pokemon Go, to make it more interactive.
Play to your own interests
If you enjoy a certain activity, such as fishing, gardening or camping, it’s likely that your enthusiasm will show and rub off on your grandchild! Get them involved by asking them where they’d like to go fishing or camping, or what they would like to grow.
Find out how grandparents can encourage a love of gardening
Explore something new together
Both write down five ideas of things you’d like to do and then each pick one idea from the other’s list to try out.
Do your research
There are lots of exciting ideas online to help get you into the mood for an outdoor adventure – and they don’t have to be complicated or cost money. The National Trusts’ 50 Things To Do Before 11 3/4 includes skimming stones, building a den, damming a stream and star gazing and encourages children to tick off each of the 50 things as they do them. If you enjoy the woods, try leaf rubbing, fairy tea parties and minibeast hunts, there’s something to appeal to everyone.
Think back to your own childhood and the hours spent making fun out of the natural resources around you; now encourage this kind of free thinking in your grandchildren. For example, how many uses can you find together for a stick (a sword, a bat, a flag mast) or a stone (use it to skim, paint on, make jewellery)?
Find out about the best UK beaches for children
Outdoor activities in the garden
Start by making the most of being at home – your garden is a natural playground with endless possibilities to keep children busy and entertained. Think about what the children are interested in and then let them take the lead – you’ll be amazed at how inventive they can be.
‘Give them an old sheet or a cardboard box and they will soon create their own den or imaginary world,’ says Sophie Bolt of campaign group Play England.
If your garden is big enough, why not have your own Garden Olympics? Set up an obstacle course and have races round the lawn; and get a tape measure out of the toolbox for the long jump. Make medals to give out to everyone who has taken part.
Think back to your childhood enterprises and introduce children to the pleasures of making potions and ‘perfumes’ by filling a jam jar with edible or fragrant things from the garden – herbs, lavender, rose petals – then adding water. Getting them to design labels for their concoctions adds an artistic element to the project.
Creating bug habitats or hedgehog houses will appeal to younger children, especially if they can monitor the creatures that turn up at different times over a period of days.
Of course, helping with the gardening is a brilliant way to get outside. Children can get involved with watering and weeding – though be prepared for a few mistakes along the way – and most importantly, picking! Ask them to help you make a pretty bouquet of flowers from the garden, or to pick fruit or vegetables that you can then cook together.
How to build a camp
If you really want to spend time outdoors, camping is ideal. But you don’t have to book into a campsite – you can set up your own instead, writes Dawn Isaac in 101 Things for Kids to Do Outside, published by Kyle books.
You will need
- Six bamboo canes (1.5 or 1.8m long)
- Twine or string
- Old sheets or blankets
- Clothes pegs
- Cushions or sleeping bags
How to assemble the camp
First, you’re going to need to build your tent frame. This will be more stable if you can push the canes into the ground. If it’s very hard and dry, try watering it well and leaving it for an hour – it will be much softer after this.
Push in two bamboo canes, leaning towards each other, and then use some twine or string to tie them together in the centre. Take the twine round and round as well as through and between the canes to make sure it’s strongly bound. Do the same for the other end of the tent.
Place another cane across the top of the two triangles and again use twine to bind this together.
Finally, push a cane in from behind the tent, leaning into the top of the back triangle and tie this in – this final cane will make the structure more stable.
Throw old blankets over the top ridge of the tent and then peg them on to the canes to make the sides. Try to stretch them around the back to cover this area too, or add another blanket pegged on top to close up this gap.
Lay an old blanket on the floor inside and add cushions or bring out sleeping bags to make your tent super cosy. You could also use a solar oven (see book) to cook snacks, set up a washing station using old bricks, planks and a plastic bowl and even see if you can stay out late to try some stargazing or moth spotting.
Tip: The tent will shelter you from the odd light shower, but if you want to make it more waterproof use a tarpaulin to cover the frame.
What to do at the beach and in woodlands
Plan a visit to a wood, a beach, the park. Think about what you can do there. Each setting has its own unique way of igniting children’s imaginations.
Anne Read, 67, from Devon, who has two granddaughters aged six and ten, agrees. ‘Outdoor adventures are all about using the imagination. We often weave in little games or stories, such as looking for a Stick Man, like the one in Julia Donaldson’s book, when we’re collecting sticks to build a fire and cook sausages for lunch,’ she says. ‘Doing this teaches the children how to make a fire safely and cook on it. Best of all, the kids enjoy it – food really does taste better outdoors!’
Take the same approach at the beach by seeing what ‘treasure’ you can find. If there are larger, flat stones around, it’s fun to make faces by putting shells, stones and seaweed on them for their eyes, nose and hair, etc.
In the city, there’s lots to do in the park beyond slides and swings. ‘Go on expeditions to examine flowers and insects – or to identify birds and their songs,’ says Sophie Bolt. Go on a leaf hunt, looking for different shapes and sizes to take home and do leaf rubbings. Or take paper and crayons with you and do it on the spot.
Make walks fun for children
As adults, we often enjoy the simple pleasure of a walk through the countryside or along the coast, but this is usually something we’ve grown to love. If the younger members of your family are reluctant to join you for walks, it’s time to rebrand the concept!
The Wild Network, a not-for-profit organisation with a mission to ‘re-wild childhood’, has plenty of ideas to disguise a boring old walk. Instead, tell the children you’re going on a ‘blindfold tour’ and take it in turns to be blindfolded and discover more through your other senses – what can you feel, touch and smell? Its ‘journey stick’ game involves finding a stick and tying to it all the items that you find during a stroll – feathers, leaves, moss and the like.
‘On walks, we liven things up by leaving little arrows made out of twigs on the ground for those lagging behind to follow,’ says Anne Read. ‘It’s fun to lead them to a place where we’re hiding and then jump out and surprise them!’
It might take different measures to get more ‘mature’ kids, such as grandchildren 12 and above, outside. ‘Try encouraging them to help with garden jobs with the incentive of extra pocket money,’ advises play specialist Dr Amanda Gummer.
‘If they’re interested in design and colour, get them to help plan a garden border. If it’s machines that appeal, show them how to use garden or DIY tools.’ If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could build a treehouse or garden den together. Amanda continues: ‘They’ll be more inclined to get involved if they feel they’re being treated as grown-ups.’
For children who have outgrown playgrounds, outdoor gyms can be a great alternative. Many enlightened local authorities have installed gym equipment such as cross-trainers, arm-and-pedal bikes and rowing machines in parks, giving you the chance to exercise in the open air. And it’s free – no membership required!
Rainy day ideas
Looking after children when it's raining or cold outside is an opportunity to bring the outdoors in with some activities.
These days, they are so much more than purveyors of plants and lawn seed. Many have pet corners with reptiles, rabbits and exotic birds. ‘Garden centres are places of wonder to a small child. If you ask my three-year-old grandson where he wants to go, he usually asks to go to a local garden centre where he can feed the huge koi carp – 50p well spent,’ says retired civil servant Jan Titcombe, 67, from Bromley in Kent.
Arts and crafts
When it’s tipping down outside, that’s the time to put all your naturally foraged items to good use. Buy a cheap scrapbook and glue in all the things you’ve found. Do leaf rubbings or get the paints out and decorate stones you’ve picked up. Websites such as Pinterest can be a great source of creative ideas and projects. In autumn there are lots of activities you can do with fallen leaves or Halloween crafts, and in spring and summer you can collect flowers for flower pressing. In winter you can use decorative sticks, pine cones and gold and silver paint and glitter to make decorations, or use paper to make snowflakes, trees and chains or use foraged materials to make a Christmas fairy ornament or dried orange garland.
Try taking a step back in time
Children are fascinated by stories about when you were the same age as them. Go through old photo albums or, if you’ve kept some of your old toys in the loft for nostalgia’s sake, get the boxes down and unpack them. Traditional games and rhymes can be good fun. ‘Think about how differently we played in our childhood – and teach them games you played,’ suggests Mick Conway.
Try these other ideas for entertaining grandchildren indoors.
“Children enjoy a bit of risk – they find it thrilling and exciting, and it also allows them to explore what they can do and learn to assess risks themselves,” says Anna Taylor of Fundamentally Children. “This usually results in a few bumps along the way, but remember that this is an important part of childhood.”
However, you will need to balance the risks with the benefits, so your grandchild doesn’t get seriously hurt. Anna advises the following strategies to approach risky play with a positive attitude (Sandseter, 2009b):
- Allow risky play but keep it constrained. For example, let them climb a tree but ask them to stay at a safe height.
- Keep a close eye on the child so that you can assist if needed, while giving them the opportunity to freely explore.
- Where possible, take part in the activity and encourage the child to challenge themselves, e.g. going higher on a swing.
- Be careful in hot weather and find out how to protect your grandchildren from the sun.
Visit our grandparenting section for more great ideas for activities for entertaining grandchildren