After months stuck at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, minimal in-person school, few playdates and lots of extra energy, Dan DeJager’s two young sons were getting restless.
Sure, DeJager and his wife took the 8- and 3-year-old boys hiking every now and again, but the kids were hungry for more of a challenge. That’s when DeJager, a physical education teacher at Meraki High School in Fair Oaks, California, improvised.
In the spirit of CrossFit and the television show “American Ninja Warrior,” the 43-year-old father spent the better part of a morning using bales of hay to build the kids an obstacle course in his front yard. In the end, DeJager created for his sons a gauntlet that included climbing, running, bicycling and lifting a medicine ball. Then he ran it with them.
“It’s safe to say we have managed during this (pandemic) with our own friendly family competitions,” said DeJager, one of six teachers nationwide to win the 2019 High School Physical Education Teacher of the Year award from the Society of Health and Physical Educators, or SHAPE. “The kids have gotten really into it.”
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The DeJagers aren’t the only family bonding through physical activity; across the country, many families of all shapes and sizes are learning that outdoor games are a great way to pass time as a group.
The trend evokes a modern spin on an age-old phrase: The family that plays together, stays together.
Benefits of family games
There are many benefits to playing games as a family. For starters, the practice forces everyone to tune out distractions and focus on the present tense — and on each other. Second, it leads to bonding, both between siblings and adults.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to outdoor family games is that it helps increase physical fitness, said Cathrine Himberg, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico.
Increasing physical activity and moving your body also helps manage stress, Himberg noted.
“On its own physical activity can help with stress, anxiety and depression — most of us are experiencing one of those three at the moment,” she said. “When we play together with other people, when we make our activity complex, vigorous and social, it can help improve our cognitive ability and actually help our brains function better.”
When muscles move, they create a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that accelerates the production of more brain cells, said Himberg, citing a 2013 book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” by Dr. John Ratey.
Ratey likened these proteins to “Miracle-Gro” for the brain, and said the proteins also facilitate more connections between existing cells.
“Anything that gets you moving with loved ones is going to help,” Himberg said.
Games to play
Obstacle courses are just one type of outdoor game that families can play together; in reality, there are dozens. Some are more popular than others. Here, then, in alphabetical order, are 10 of the best:
Bocce. This Italian game is perfect for a family of four split into two teams of two. Each team has four balls; the goal is to get yours closer to a little ball — called the pallina—than your opponents do. Hard-core enthusiasts play on an official court, but you also can just play in a grassy yard.
Cornhole. The ultimate tailgating game also is great for driveway or sidewalk fun at home. The game involves two wooden boards with holes near the top; participants toss bean bags toward one board and score points depending on how close they come to the holes. The first team to 21 wins.
Driveway Tennis. While this isn’t an “official” game, it’s certainly one many families enjoy. Setup is easy: All you need is a badminton or pickleball net stretched across the middle of your driveway. Once that’s in place, grab a racket and ball (badminton, pickleball or tennis equipment works) and volley away.
Geocaching. This sport mixes treasure hunting with map reading, enabling participants to find “treasures” hidden in the wild and to leave treasures for other players to track and find. Interested families can add a Web component and check in on different apps as they visit each cache.
Kan Jam. This eminently portable game blends target-toss contests such as cornhole and disc golf into a rollicking showdown of skill and reflexes. You need four people to play; the goal is to toss a disc and have your teammate deflect it to go into the can. The first team to 21 wins.
Kubb. This Viking/Swedish lawn game is a cross between candlepin bowling and horseshoes (see top photo). It’s played on a narrow rectangular field. The objective is to knock over a stack of wooden blocks by throwing wooden batons at them, then knock over another wooden block in the center of the pitch.
Ladder golf. To play this game you need two mini ladders (with three rungs each) and two bolas, which are balls connected by a nylon rope. The goal: To toss the bolas in such a way that they wrap around the steps of the ladder.
Scavenger hunts. These classic contests involve players hunting for specific items in a specific area during a set amount of time. The games can involve clues or a general list of items to secure. Rules can differ widely, but most hunts end when all items have been found.
Spikeball. This game plays like volleyball, but with a catch. Instead of hitting the ball over a net, players hit it onto a circular trampoline-like apparatus that sits just above the ground. Teams have up to three alternating touches to return the ball to the net for the other team. The first group to 21 wins.
Yardzee. This popular game is like Yahtzee, only bigger. The dice — there are five here, too — are made from large wood blocks, and participants roll one at a time in the yard as they try for a full house, small straight, large straight or four of a kind. Scoring plays out as it would in the smaller tabletop game.
Caveats for competition
Before you run off to get rolling, remember that playing games with family members is not without challenges.
For starters, it’s important to make certain the game is fair for everyone. This doesn’t only mean you’ve got to snuff out cheating; it means you must ensure that no family members have an advantage due to skill, size or ability. More low-key games like scavenger hunts and tag might be more appropriate for families with younger kids. Faster-paced games like Kan-Jam and Kubb would be great for high-energy 10- to 17-year-olds.
Second, don’t let cold weather deter outdoor family fun. Activities such as geocaching and cornhole can still be played outdoors in the winter if everyone dresses in warm layers. What’s more, obstacle courses like the one in DeJager’s front yard take on additional difficulty in the snow.
It’s also a good idea to let kids have a say in which games you play. Seth Martin, an elementary physical education specialist at Bijou Community School in South Lake Tahoe, California, said that in his family, everybody gets to pick a different game each month — including the grown-ups. Sometimes Martin even lets his two sons, ages 11 and 8, make up new games with rules they create.
As one final warning, some physical fitness experts suggest avoiding games that could become too violent.
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Donn Tobin, another 2019 SHAPE Teacher of the Year winner and physical education teacher at Lakeview Elementary School in Mahopac, New York, said he is “against” games with human targets where participants must try to hit opponents, and only embraces games such as tag if players are encouraged to be gentle and aren’t eliminated when they’re tagged.
“Whatever can get families together, moving and playing is what is most important,” Tobin said.
Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Northern California. He and his daughters have had regular cornhole tournaments since the start of the pandemic, and the girls have improved their skills.