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For many of us, this summer feels like what the Wall Street Journal called “the Great American Reunion”—a season filled with chances to reunite with the people and community spaces we love and missed during the pandemic. Summer weekends, especially long ones like Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day, get filled with the kind of group get-togethers we could only have dreamed of in 2020. Though this all feels so good, we may be a bit out of practice with one aspect of group shindigs—how to entertain groups of kids that are at different ages and stages.
Though kids can find a way to have fun anywhere, if you’re hosting or helping to plan a get together, it can help to have some activities in your back pocket—especially activities that are versatile and open-ended enough to engage and appeal to a wide range of ages. Mixed age play and learning is what we do at Tinkergarten. So, to help, here are a few of our favorite games or activities to offer at your next mixed-age soiree.
Please note that, though we include age ranges as a guide, each child is unique and there is so much variation within one age. Don’t be afraid to try one of these and let kids take it in whatever direction works for them—even if that means that they move on to other things!
Water and Ice Play
- Babies: If your soiree includes wee ones, create a space for babies to play together! And, if it’s hot, water and ice play can keep babies engaged, happy and cool. If babies are on their bellies, set out cookie sheets filled with baby-safe objects that have great colors, textures, and scents. Freeze some small towels or pieces of cloth so they can feel them and teethe on them.
- Toddlers: For wee ones who can sit up or move around, fill low bins with water and ice and place them within reach. Add in slices of cucumber or citrus to add color, smell and even taste! Freeze water in cups or muffin tins to make larger chunks that last a bit longer in the heat, or use donut pans to freeze rings of ice for toddlers to pick up. Throw in some scoops for kids to scoop and dump water, too!
- Preschoolers: Water play never gets old, so don’t be surprised if older kids want in, too! If you can offer a few kitchen tools like muffin tins, bowls and measuring spoons to spark imaginative cooking play.
- School-aged Kids: Add a sponge and a bucket of water to duck-duck-goose, and you increase the fun and cool everyone down. The person who is "it" fully soaks the sponge, then walks around. Instead of "duck," they let the sponge pass over heads and say "drip." When it's time for "goose!" they squeeze out the sponge and yell, "Drop!" Then, it's off to run and try to get back into the open seat without being tagged.
- Babies and toddlers: Put out a basket of colorful ribbons for babies and toddlers to pick up and explore. Pure joy. (Pro tip: avoid ribbons with wires or sharp edges.)
- Preschoolers and School-Aged Kids: Squiggle Play! Got ribbon? Got string? Cut big pieces of it and sprinkle it all over the yard. Who knows what they will become? Add in sticks, too, and the possibilities grow. You may see kites, snakes, dragons, tails, fishing lines, magic wands...or just some fun movement play with ribbon and string. Only the kids know for sure what their imaginations will invent!
Have a Ball (or LOTS of balls!)
You can never go wrong with round things! Gather up all of the balls you’ve got—include balls of different sizes and colors. Round things spark joy and naturally invite exploration. Somehow simply having a whole lot of them in a bin, on a blanket or just around in the yard provides an invitation for group play. If you don’t have a lot of balls, ask guests to bring their favorite ball or even ask to borrow neighbors’ balls.
Want to suggest some ways to play with the balls? Here’s a few favorites:
Babies and Toddlers:
- Peek-a-Boo for Babies: Offer containers with varying sized holes and invite babies to try to put balls of different sizes inside and out again. Have a cardboard box? Cut out round holes to make ball-shaped places to put balls in and take balls out!
- Ramp Play for Toddlers: Set up a ramp by propping an object with a flat surface (e.g. cookie sheet, cutting board or piece of cardboard) against a sturdy object in your play space (i.e couch cushion, tree stump). You can also make blocks or books available for stacking. Place balls at the top and let go, showing delight as the ball rolls down. Invite toddlers to try, too!
Preschoolers and School-Aged Kids
- Parachute Pop: Get an old blanket or bed sheet out, fill it with the balls, then get everyone to grab hold of the sheet and send the balls flying! Repeat. It is wildly joyful!
- Target Practice: Set out a large basket, bin or box and welcome kids to toss the balls into it. Wee ones will find this alone exciting. Older kids can challenge themselves to see how far they can stand and still get it in or add moves like spinning to their throw.
- Messy Backyard: Split up in teams and put half of the players and half of the balls on one side of the yard. Then put the other halves on the other side. As soon as someone yells, “go!”, friends can toss the balls back and forth, trying to get all of the “mess” (i.e. the balls) onto the opposite team’s side.
- Get Silly! (ages 0-100)
The Olympics might not be happening yet, but it’s never a bad time to get silly! Try some of our favorite ways to get silly in our Silly Olympics DIY activity. You can even turn them into events around the yard or park where you’re gathering. Welcome kids and adults to try them together, guide just the kids through the events or just let families or kids wander around and try the events that appeal to them.
- Hide and Seek (ages 0-100)
There are so many reasons that hide and seek has been around for thousands of years—and it scales so beautifully with age. We’ve gathered up our favorite variations on the game and organized them by age: 0-2 years; 3-5 years; and 6 years +.
- Never Ending Tag (ages 4+)
As long as kids can run and can understand what it means to be tagged and to sit down, this game can work for a really large group! Basically everyone is it—all the time. As you all run around, everyone tries to tag other people. Once someone tags someone else, the tagged person sits down. That tagged person stays sitting down until the person who tagged them gets tagged. Then, they are back in the game trying to tag people again, and on and on. There’s also a great way to manage disputes. If two people think they tagged each other at the same time, a quick round of rock-paper-scissors breaks the tie.
Why is this activity great for kids?
With the right objects and open-ended invitations to play, kids of all different ages can play happily alongside or even collaboratively in the same space. For centuries, kids have played, learned and grown up in mixed age groupings. And, research tells us that younger children learn a wide range of skills from older children and older children benefit from the chance to learn to care for others and be leaders when younger kids are around. Read more about the benefits of mixed age play.
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