Good Old-Fashioned Playtime
How To: Ride a Bike
A bicycle (duh) and a helmet
- Instead of buying a bike your child can grow into, it’s better to have her learn on one that’s just the right size or even a little small, according to John Kennedy, head of the U.S. Bicycle Polo Association. On a smaller bike, a child’s center of gravity is lower and pushed forward. It’s also easier for her to put her feet down when she needs to. A bicycle-store professional should be able to determine an appropriate-size bike frame using your child’s inseam as a guide.
- The slower your child rides, the less stable she is. (Think of a top: The slower it spins, the more it wobbles―until it finally falls over.) To help your child get the power she needs to pick up speed, make sure she has the balls of her feet, not the arches, on the pedals. “She’ll get better drive and have better balance,” says Kennedy. Keep in mind, it’s important that your child wears a bicycle helmet rather than a skateboard helmet. They’re engineered to absorb shock in different places.
How To: Play Three Versions of Tag
At least three people, although the more, the better
- "Manhunt:" Each time the player who is “it” tags a person, that person must link arms with the “it” kid (or another kid in the chain) and run with him. This continues until the last tagged child is added to the mob.
- "Tornado Tag:" The “it” player can tag others only while he is spinning around with outstretched arms.
- "Shadow Tag:" The “it” player tags other kids by stepping on their shadows. (Note: There is some degree of trust involved in this version. It might be wise to have someone stand in as the referee.)
How To: Find a Good Climbing Tree
A sturdy tree
- “Look for an angled trunk and strong, ladderlike branches that are low enough for a child to perch and relax on. If possible, the branches should be within arms’ reach of a parent,” says Jennifer Ward, author of "I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature" (Trumpeter, $11).
- Avoid trees with dead limbs. (They will have a lack of leaves on some branches.)
- Instruct your child to remain close to the trunk, where the branches are strongest, and enforce a three-on-the-tree rule: At least three of his four limbs should be in solid contact with the tree at all times.
How To: Play Hopscotch
Chalk, pebbles, and two or more players
- Draw the court. (See photo shown, or click on the above icon for a diagram.)
- The first player tosses a pebble into the number-one square, then hops over that square on one foot and through the rest of the court, hopping on one foot for single squares and with two feet when two squares are side-by-side.
- At the final square, the player turns around and repeats the pattern on the way back, pausing on one foot in the second-to-last square to pick up the marker, then hopping on the first square and off the court.
- In round two, the player tosses the marker into the number-two square and hops through the sequence, this time avoiding the number-two spot. A player is out if her marker doesn’t land in the right square, if her foot lands in a square with a marker, or if she puts two feet down in any one box. The first player to complete the entire cycle (moving the marker from the first square to the last and hopping through each configuration) wins.
How To: Track a Planet Across the Sky
A clear sky
“You can see Jupiter with the naked eye and track where it is each week,” says Brian Abbott, manager of the Digital Universe at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, in New York City. “With binoculars, you can even see Jupiter’s four brightest moons ― the same ones Galileo saw 400 years ago.”
- To spot Jupiter in August, look south and scan the night sky for a bright yellow object that doesn’t twinkle; that’s something only stars do.
- If you’re in the northern United States, look about 25 degrees above the horizon; if you live farther south, you’ll need to look a bit higher. (Here’s a tip for gauging degrees: Put both arms out in front of you, make a fist with both hands, and put one on top of the other. The distance of two fist widths is about 20 degrees.)
- As the year progresses, watch the planet move southwest across the sky until, eventually, it disappears behind the sunset.
How To: Make Soap Bubbles
Soap-bubble solution and, ideally, a humid day with an overcast sky
“Humidity helps keep the bubbles from popping, and bubbles are more colorful in less direct light,” says Keith Michael Johnson, a bubble artist in Warwick, Rhode Island, who can create bubbles that are larger than a small car.
- Start with a bowl of bubble solution: 1 cup water, 2 tablespoons liquid detergent, 1 tablespoon glycerin (available at drugstores), and 1/2 teaspoon sugar.
- Make an OK sign with your fingers and dip them into the bubble solution, fully submerging the O. (Moms, don’t wince. Have you ever known kids not to get bubble juice all over their hands, even with a wand?)
- Blow gently on the soap-film spread across the O.
- Want an even bigger bubble? “Use both hands, connecting thumb to thumb and pointer finger to pointer finger, and hold that position until you’ve created and released a bubble,” Johnson says.
How To: Make a Balloon Animal
A balloon and a hand pump
- Start with high-quality twisting balloons (like Qualatex) that are less likely to pop, and always inflate them with a hand pump, says Ernie Shown, co-owner of the San Antonio–based balloon-art company Balloonamations.
- Pump the balloon until it is nearly full, but not completely: The more complicated a shape is, the more uninflated space you need to leave at the tip.
- Once the balloon is inflated, “burp” it by releasing a little bit of air. “The balloon will stay the same length but will become softer and easier to twist without popping,” says Ernie.
- The fastest and easiest balloon shape to make is probably a sword (or a magic wand, if you will). Leave about three inches of uninflated balloon at the tip, then, working from the knotted end, pinch the balloon about a hand’s length out from the end with your left hand and twist the rest of the balloon several times with your right hand. Hold the newly segmented balloon in place, grab the balloon about six inches down from the first twist, and fold it back to that twist, pinching it and twisting it into that same spot. Repeat this motion once more and you’ll have a handle with a loop on each side and a “blade” or a “wand” at the opposite end.
How to: Jump Rope
A jump rope, plus three or more people
“The key is to have good rope-turners,” says Chris Holmes, a former world-champion jumper and the founder of
- “Pretend you have a piece of chalk in your hand and are drawing a circle on a chalkboard,” Holmes says. For two ropes, pretend you’re drawing with both hands.
- “Make sure that you never pull the ‘chalk’ away from the ‘chalkboard,’ which can cause the rope to pop and trip the jumper,” Holmes says.
- Keep a consistent rhythm; watch the jumper’s feet to set the pace.
- A beginner should start between the turners, jumping in place with her feet together before the rope has started moving.
- When you’re ready to try jumping in while the rope is turning, stand close to one turner’s shoulder and watch the arm that’s swinging the rope. As it swings down, run to the center and jump over the rope on your way there.
How To: Skip a Rock
A stone and a tranquil lake
- Look for a stone with one smooth, flat side and a notch or a corner against which you can place the tip of your index finger, says Russ Byars, the current Guinness World Record holder for most stone skips (51).
- Hold your arm parallel to the water’s edge and aim.
- Keeping the stone smooth-side down, hurl it at the water with a “sidearm” pitch, swinging the arm parallel to the ground. As you release the stone, let it roll out of your hand and off the tip of the index finger planted on the notch. “If you get a hard angle coming off the water (like a high bounce), you need to either throw it farther out or back up a little,” Byars says. If the stone bounces to the right (and you’re right-handed), try releasing it a bit later in your swing. If it’s a windy day or the water is choppy, experiment with heavier stones.
How To: Play Four Square
Chalk and a ball, plus four or more players
- Draw a square at least four feet long per side and bisect it horizontally and vertically to make four identical squares (shown ).
- Have one player stand in each square and give a playground ball (a volleyball will do) to the player in square four. He must serve the ball by bouncing it into another player’s square, and that player must hit the ball into another square in order to stay in the game.
- If a player cannot bounce the ball into another square (or against another player’s hands), he or she is out, and all the players but the server must rotate squares. If the server is the player who erred, he’ll have to move along, too. The goal is to remain in the server’s position for as long as possible.
How To: Play Snail
Chalk, plus two or more players
- Draw a spiral shape that looks like, yep, a snail’s shell, and mark off 17 segments leading from the outside to the inside, with a circular “free space” in the center.
- The first player must hop once on each square, on one foot, all the way to the center, without hopping on any lines. In the center, the player can rest on both feet, then hop back out the way she came. If she succeeds, she can choose a square to mark as her own, and no other player can hop on that spot. She, however, can use it as a rest space from then on.
- The next player does the same, and the game continues until no one can reach the center. The player with the most claimed segments wins.
How To: Sculpt a Sand Castle
Wet sand and a bucket or a cup
“Most people don’t realize how much water it takes to make a good castle,” says Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga, a competitive sand-castle builder from South Padre Island, Texas, who has written three books on the subject.
- To avoid dragging buckets of water from the surf to the castle site, dig a hole deep enough to hit wet sand, and use that to build your structure, Wierenga says.
- To get sturdy walls, “take really wet sand in your hands and jiggle it into bricklike layers,” Wierenga says. You’ll get great compression, which is important for stability. Keep adding layers until the walls are as high as you’d like.
- If you want to create rounded, symmetrical towers, have an adult cut the bottom out of a plastic bucket or a large cup, place it fat-side down, and fill it with wet sand. Then tap the sides to release the sand before lifting off the cup.
How To: Build a Snowman
“A corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal…” No, really. You just need fresh snow and a few natural (read: found in the yard) accessories.
- Try to “strike when the snow is fresh and still loaded with moisture,” says Jason Currier, an Alaskan elementary-school teacher based near the Bering Strait. The newer the snow, the stickier it will be.
- Form a tight snowball in your hands, then add and pack the snow until it’s too big to hold.
- Place it on the ground and roll it across the snow to add more layers. “Try working out away from the final standing site, and in the final push for the large base, roll the bottom into the desired position,” Currier says.
- Repeat the process to make the midsize “torso,” and carve a flat surface on top of the base before lifting the ball onto it. Repeat for the head.
- Decorate. “We use regional fare, like beach rocks for eyes and willow branches for limbs, and mix food coloring with tap water to spray on a few details at the end,” Currier adds.