If left to their own devices, many kids are true adventurers. And yet, we’ve seen more kids than we’d expect be reluctant to set foot into the woods—arguably where the fun and learning go down! We mostly notice hesitation, but have even heard wee ones say that we (i.e. people) are supposed to stay on the walkways, ball fields or playgrounds of our local parks. Having spent their young lives on the beaten path, this misunderstanding is rather understandable. But words, even those carefully chosen by a teacher, don’t quite convince kids like these to take their game off-road. What does, you ask? Hide-and-seek.
It turns out, hide-and-seek works incredibly well—not only at getting reluctant kids “into” their surroundings, but at keeping all kids highly engaged. They love hide and seek. Who doesn’t? It never gets old, especially when you play outdoors. With the right twists, it can captivate kids of all ages. The more we’ve learned about it and observed how kids play it, the more we appreciate how powerful the game really is.
We’ve made our own variations on hide-and-seek and use them with kids ages 0-2. These age ranges are general guidelines. You know your kids best, so strike the balance with just enough challenge while avoiding making them frustrated. Check out our Hide-and-Seek variations for kids ages 3-5 and ages 6-8.
Before the age of 4, most kids have not matured enough to take the perspective of the person seeking them, so their ability to choose effective hiding spots is limited at best. But they can learn the fundamentals (taking turns, counting, not peeking—well, trying not to peek, hiding, and finding) and still enjoy the separation and reunion that are such emotionally satisfying aspects of the game.
Small radius hide-and-seek (minimum: 1 kid)
Pick a small area and hide in places in which you are somewhat easy to find. It really helps to have a second adult to keep a child busy while the other hides in an off-road place and, if need be, to hide with the child when it’s his/her turn. Most kids this age love to count, so “closing" eyes (they rarely stay closed) and counting to five, ten or twenty, if they are able, are perfect rituals to include.
Hide/Seek a “friend” (minimum: 1 kid)
Rather than hide ourselves, we sometimes hide a completely out-of-place object: a stuffed sock monkey, a plastic dinosaur, or an ironic natural object—perhaps something bright colored or not native to the region (like a pineapple in the snow). This works best when there are two of us, one parent to hide things and the other to distract the child. Then, it is the child’s job to find the object in its new hiding spot. Purposefully start out a bit easier to get your child hooked, then progress into finding hiding spots at various heights and under significant cover to add challenge.
Note: Hide/Seek a "friend" can be fun with older kids as well. To give both challenge and some direct experience with the concept of camouflage, hide objects that blend into the surroundings. If you can go out ahead of kids, hide an object towards the end of a trail. Finding a stuffed friend on the trail can give dragging little feet just the boost they need to finish a hike.
Why is this activity great for kids?
For many reasons, variations of hide-and-seek are played all over the world, dating back to at least 2nd century Greece. Over time, you and your child will learn to search for better and better cover, a process through which kids learn, first hand, about the trees, brush, logs and other features of the outdoors...and they get off of the paths! Little kids actually get great practice with counting to ten. I had a preschooler who couldn't make it from ten to eleven without exclaiming, "Ready or not, here I come!"
Psychologists tout the emotional benefits of Hide and Seek, saying that little kids get hooked on facing and, in the moment, conquering the fear of separation from loved ones (parents, friends). We have watched hide-and-seek build independence and self reliance—the more they play, the further kids will push themselves. Finally, our wee ones rarely remain in a hiding spot and can hardly keep from being noticed, but even the attempt gives them basic practice with focus and self control.