Ideas for Keeping Kids Active During Social Distancing

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The mental, physical and other benefits of getting outside are many, and a boost of nature and fresh air can be essential for kids, not to mention the adults in their lives, during times when schools are closed and regular recreational opportunities are limited.

Children and adolescents need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You don’t need fancy equipment to get moving or stay physically active, whether you choose to do it inside or outside. It can be as simple as doing jumping jacks or sit-ups in your living room, skipping rope in the apartment hallway (sorry downstairs neighbors), or just moving more and sitting less.

And while it’s tempting to get together with others to enjoy active time, especially for kids, experts are recommending we seek alternatives.

“Playtime outside is great with family, but it’s best if no others are there. If families have their own yard to play in, that is ideal. However, if a family’s only option is to play out and around their neighborhood, it’s best to keep their distance from others and not to touch objects that others have touched,” Dr. Lisa Frenkel, co-director of Seattle Children's Center for Global Infectious Disease Research, wrote in an email.

With that in mind, we put together several suggestions for ways to keep your kids active—both outside and inside—during this time of social distancing. (Our tips cover a variety of age ranges; so be sure to use your own judgment about what’s appropriate for your child.)

Ideas to Keep Kids Active Outdoors

Include Outdoor Breaks in a Daily Routine

If possible, make a point to get your kids and yourself outside several times a day, even if it’s only for 20-30 minutes at a time. Consider these “recess” or “lunch breaks” that you schedule every day.

Fortunately, you can do this while still following CDC-recommended practices to protect yourself and others, such as putting distance between yourself and other people, washing your hands with soap and water and staying home if you’re sick.

“Outdoor gatherings are less risky than indoors ones since COVID-19 spreads more easily when people are close together in confined spaces,” according to guidelines from Public Health – Seattle & King County, the health department for the metropolitan Seattle area.

“Plus, it’s important for kids to get active outside time every day. Research shows that daily time for kids outdoors also boosts the health and well-being of the adults in their lives.”

Here are some ways to take quick breaks outside:

  • Try motivating younger kids with simple challenges such as “Can you find …?” or “How far can you …?”
  • Play hide and seek.
  • Bust out soccer balls, sidewalk chalk, buckets and other toys like flying discs.
  • Walk around the block or to your local park or green space. Ask older teens to walk with younger siblings.
  • Jog, scooter, bike, skateboard, pogo stick, hula hoop or roller skate around the block.
  • Play hopscotch on the sidewalk.
  • Walk, run or play fetch with your dog.
  • Challenge your kid to a race down the block.
  • Have kids make up a jump rope routine to their favorite music.
  • Set up an obstacle course in the backyard (or even in the house).

Read more tips on how to up your child’s daily dose of the outdoors.

Go on a Scavenger Hunt or Nature Adventure

Try a fun activity such as a low-tech scavenger hunt that gets you outside. Have your kids search for and identify natural objects in your backyard, on your block or at a nearby park (depending on their ages and level of independence). Or encourage them to look around their natural surroundings and write down what they observe in our printable DIY adventure notebook. Print out free activity cards online, such as this free Nature Bingo card or REI Bug Bingo. (Don’t forget to practice one of the important Seven Principles of Leave No Trace, which is to leave what you find.)

Try Geocaching

For a more high-tech option, try geocaching. You and your kids use a smartphone app to locate hidden caches (usually small containers) in your neighborhood parks, out on trails and in many other locations where others in the geocaching community have hidden them.

These days, instead of handling a cache, make a game out of seeing who can spot the cache first. When you get home, log your find online and make a note so you can go back when it’s safe again to sign the logbook and see what kind of interesting schwag the cache has inside.

Geocaching.com has details on where to get the app, how to use it and where you can find caches near you. You can also learn more about geocaching in our article How to Get Started Geocaching with Kids.

Go on a Family Bike Ride

Taking a bike ride with your children can be a good way to get fresh air, get exercise and still keep a proper distance from others. Read more for tips on how to enjoy family biking in our Cycling with Kids article. If your kids haven’t learned how yet, it’s also a great time to teach your kid to ride a bike.

Plant a Garden

Gardening can help kids learn to develop motor and sensory skills. It engages their senses, encourages an appreciation for the environment and gives them a sense of accomplishment. Depending on where you live, you may be able start some seeds in indoor pots or prepare your garden plot. Browse books and online resources to begin planning your spring garden. The University of Illinois provides this handy guide to gardening for kids; check with your local university extension program for tips and other resources to help you get started. Follow our tips for planting your own kitchen herb garden; many grocery stores have seed packets available in the spring.

Go Backyard ‘Camping’

Kids love hanging out in their own cozy, private spaces. If you have room in the backyard, teach them how to set up a tent and then let them hang out in there reading books, drawing, etc. For a special treat, maybe cook up some s’mores for them on the backyard grill.

Take a Hike

While it can sometimes take some cajoling, and maybe even a little bribery, a hike can do wonders for your child’s mood and well-being. And for you, getting outside and surrounding yourself in nature can help relieve stress, allow you to unplug from news overload, and enjoy the time with your children. You don’t have to go far: If you’re able to get to a nearby city park, forest, beach, botanical garden or waterfront, wander along a trail and observe nature and trees. Or if you have the time to go a little farther afield, check out the REI Hiking Project for easy trails near you. Read more on ways to make hiking fun with kids. And read 7 Tips on How to Rekindle Your Sense of Awe Outside.

Ideas to Keep Kids Active Indoors

 Bring Outdoor Games Inside

If you’re not able to go outside, here are some ideas for bringing activity indoors:

  • Blow up balloons and try to keep them up in the air. Maybe hang a blanket as a net and play “volleyball.”
  • Use painter’s tape and create a hopscotch board on your living room floor or rug.
  • Set up a mini golf course around the house, using cups for the holes and ping pong or other softer (i.e. less destructive) balls.
  • Play “marching band”: Children young and old may enjoy marching throughout the house; everyone gets a different instrument (pots and pans included).
  • Build an obstacle course indoors for smaller children using sofa cushions and cardboard boxes.
  • Adapt these three DIY outdoor games for the indoors using recycled objects.

Dance

Put on your favorite music or cue up a video and dance along.  Check out Hip Hop Public Health, which uses the power of hip hop to foster health behavior changes. Or try a popular classroom favorite, Go Noodle, to get the wiggles out. Another perennial favorite, Just Dance, is available online even if you don’t have a video game console.

Try an At-Home Fitness Workout

With many gyms and recreational facilities closed, try one of many online workouts that keep you and your children fit and healthy. Try yoga with your kids; many local yoga and fitness studios are starting to offer virtual classes, so check in with your favorite local spots to see if they’re participating. Look for workout videos on geared toward kids such as Fitness Blender for Kids.

Have Them Track Their Steps

Use a smartphone app to motivate your kids to move more during the day. Let them borrow your fitness tracker or download a free app on your phone. Challenge your kids to hit a goal for each day, like a certain number of steps. If you have stairs in your home, set a goal for them to climb a certain number of stairs by the end of the day. Check in with them at the end of the day and celebrate their accomplishment. Challenge them to do a little more the following day.

Give Them Chores

This won’t be their favorite activity, but you surely need the help and they need to contribute to the family’s well-being. Put your kids to work doing an easy project around the house. Assign them jobs such as dusting, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, wiping the counters, or folding laundry. Assign older kids dinner duty. Or get them to help you with a simple home improvement project you’ve been meaning to get to.

Give Them Unstructured Play

Rather than trying to re-create the schedule they have in school, consider giving kids time and opportunity to explore and get creative on their own. This can be especially welcome for tweens and teens who want more freedom and don’t want to be told what to do. Give them some broad structure—e.g. no screens during certain hours—but let your kids choose what they want to do whether it’s listening to music, drawing, reading or making a batch of cookies. If they don’t know what to do, offer some suggestions. Leave piles of books, board games, card games or art supplies where they have access.

Opt to Act

Now  might be a great time to introduce your kids to the REI Opt to Act Plan: 52 weekly challenges to reduce your impact, get active and leave the world better than you found it. Read up on 5 simple ways to act on climate change. And browse our list of 52 actions that can help your kids incorporate eco-friendly behaviors into their daily lives. Here are just a few actions:

  • Make cleaning up a part of your daily habits.
  • Donate old toys and items instead of throwing them out.
  • Read a book about an environmental issue.
  • Become water wise in your home through mindful showering and dishwashing.
  • Repair an item instead of purchasing a new one.

Help Them Stay Connected

When you’re homebound, it can become easy to feel socially isolated. Make sure to connect with friends and family members—whether through a phone call, texting or online video chat. Have your child connect with extended family members including grandparents, cousins or school friends. Since teens’ social lives often revolve around their peers, allow time for them to connect with friends online.

How are you keeping your kids active? Join the conversation and share ideas with fellow community members.

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