How to foster multi age play by Erin Pennings for Hike it Baby

If you have kids, you’ve probably got some great outdoor habits with them. It’s different for every family, but maybe it’s going for a walk several days a week. Maybe it’s getting quality time in the yard or sandbox. Or maybe it’s outings that require some planning. The bottom line is that you’ve got some great routines for getting out the door and for exploring as a family. But when you have kids of varying ages, you have the additional challenge of finding activities that allow for multi-age play.

While those routines you’ve perfected running out the door with a new baby might still work, it gets much harder as that baby grows and wants to join in their older siblings’ fun. With an older child, your routines probably came together over time based on his or her growing interests and activity level. But once it’s time to shift your focus to entertaining multiple age groups, it’s a whole new world. And it’s especially true when it comes to engaging a variety of age groups on trail. With summer break in full swing (or nearly there depending on where you live), it’s more important now than ever to get your kids outdoors!

The Benefit of Multi-Age Play

It’s surprisingly easy to find activities that will speak to a variety of age groups. Don’t overthink it. Really. Moreover, there are some great benefits to multi-age play.

In fact, according to Peter Gray, Ph.D., it’s good for kids of all ages. And Gray, a research professor in the department of psychology at Boston College, has written extensively on the ideas that:

  • Younger children can learn from activities that they can’t master without assistance (think games like Catch).
  • Older children can learn how to be more creative, and by working with younger kids, they gain a better understanding of whatever they’re doing.

It’s a principle that you’ll find in a variety of education theories.

How to Put It Into Action on Trail

So now we’ve established how great it is for child development, it’s also critical for families who want to explore together. But how do we put it into action? What are some activities that can involve kids of all ages? Some basic ideas might be:

  • Park and plays – Park and plays never get old, even if there’s no equipment. Infants can sit on blankets and play while older kids run around.
  • Adventures at the zoo – While not a traditional “trail,” it’s one that kids of all ages can definitely enjoy.
  • Do a “get there” walk – Bring strollers, bikes and running shoes and let the kids drive the activity. Let older kids bike or jog, and haul the younger kids in the stroller.
  • Puddle jumping – It’s no secret kids enjoy mud, especially right after the rain, so why not let them jump and play in mud … just remember to bring some clothes, socks and shoes.

How to Foster Multi-Age Play in the Outdoors by Erin Pennings for Hike it Baby

Specific Multi-Age Play Activities

But what do you do when you’re actually on trail? Some ideas to keep everyone interested:

  • Scavenger hunts are great! Younger kids who can identify things can find more basic items, while older kids can get more detailed things on the list. For example, instead of leaves, they could find leaves of different shapes and colors. Better yet, you can group into teams and pair up older kids with younger kids (adult supervision may be a good idea!)
  • Play on-trail games with alternating leaders. Let each child who is old enough to speak have a turn as the “leader.” Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says come to mind.
  • A staged “run.” Encourage older kids to run ahead to a specific landmark – be it a sign post, a tree, a bridge, etc. – and then run back to you. Or add additional physical activities for older kids with 10 jumping jacks before returning. By letting them run in stages like this, they won’t get totally bored when their sibling stops to explore every leaf. Then again, they might start drawing with sticks in the dirt alongside the littles.
  • Focus on interests and simplicity. Design activities your older children are interested in, but simplified for younger kids to follow along with. Older child adores dinosaurs? Do a dinosaur-themed walk – whether with costumes or using T-Rex voices – and ask them what they think a dinosaur would do at various stages along the trail.

There are, of course, endless possibilities for activities here. And a lot of it depends on your kids or your group. The bottom line is that there is fun to be had outside, and there’s something in it for everyone – even kids who are most interested in eating dirt instead of playing in it.

What are some of your favorite experiences with multiple-age groups outside? Let us know in the comments below.


Photos by Ali Chandra and Jessica Human.


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