As a kid, playing outside is the best. Between water games when it’s warm to sledding when it’s cold, outside has almost unlimited opportunities for fun and play. Need something new and exciting? Playing outside in the dark adds a new element of fun that your kids probably haven’t had a ton of experience with.
You don’t have to limit dark play to outside, though! Sometimes it’s way too late in the evening to play in the dark outside for young kids. They don’t have to be left out! Many of these games can be played in a dark room, too. Playing inside will add a level of safety for young kids who maybe don’t understand boundaries, yet.
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Playing Outside in the Dark
If letting your kids play outside in the dark sounds overwhelming, I get it! A few things can make it feel more manageable, though.
Take into account the age of your children. Once your kids are old enough to understand boundaries and remember them, follow simple safety instructions, and not wander off, they are probably ready. Three-year-olds probably aren’t ready to be outside in the dark, but they can play in a dark room.
Your area to play is also important. A fenced yard is a lot safer than woods that have a water source, obviously. Make sure you have your area prepped, too! Have your kids clean up toys and put them away prior to playing in the dark so they won’t trip over things.
Set boundaries and keep an eye on them! Having them stay in your yard is usually helpful. If you don’t have a fenced-in yard, giving specific visual boundaries such as trees, bushes, or house lines. These set boundaries will give them the freedom to move, but keep them safe. Keeping the boundaries simple will help your kids follow them.
Having more than one kid to play outside helps, too! So whether you have siblings that are old enough or your kids have friends over, safety in numbers applies in the dark, too.
Leave a light on! If your kids are a little on the young side, leave an outside light on so they can see enough to not run into each other or trees and swingsets. This will also help you be able to keep an eye on them as well.
Prep the kids and make sure they understand that intentionally scaring the other kids is not allowed (unless you’re okay with this). But, for my family, when playing in the dark with younger kids, I want to make sure the younger children feel safe in each other’s company and don’t have a negative experience.
Games to Play in the Dark Outside
The first few times your kids play outside, they may not need any ideas for things to do. Sometimes, the thrill of being outside in the dark is enough to keep them going. They will find their own games, explore with flashlights, or just run around, all which can be really fun.
Hide and Seek
For more structure, encourage them to organize a game of hide and seek. I am a firm believer in letting kids be in charge of their own play, so try not to feel like you need micromanage. It will be more fun for them if they are putting their own creative spin on the game.
Tips for Playing Hide and Seek in the Dark
Some kids may need a little more guidance when it comes to Hide and Seek, especially if you’re adding the new dimension of darkness. Here are a few tips for playing hide and seek in the dark.
Before it gets dark, have the kids scout out potential hiding spots. This will make it easier to find places to hide once the game begins. Finding a really good spot that works in the dark can be tough on a time limit.
Remind them that the boundaries still apply. Whatever nighttime boundaries you already put in place should be reiterated and enforced.
If playing in an un-lit larger space, make sure they all have flashlights! This will help you keep track of them and will help them to know where they are within the boundaries.
Depending on their age, decide if it’s ok if they have their flashlights but maybe only use them in an emergency situation, not to find the hiders. Otherwise, have them leave their flashlights on at all times.
And, teaming up may help the littler ones feel safer (and some parents too).
If they don’t love hide and seek, flip the game around and play Sardines. The concept of Sardines is that one player hides and everyone else looks for them. Instead of telling everyone when the hider is found, you hide with them! If you don’t fit, figure out a way to be as close as you can so that others don’t find you too easily. The final player to find the original hider will likely find many people squeezed into a tiny spot! Whoever found the hider first gets to hide next.
Capture the Flag
Capture the Flag is usually a big hit, too. This version has glowing objects that will help define the multiple spaces, identify the teams, and a glowing orb is used as the “flag.” You can also use flashlights and glowsticks to play.
Basic Capture the Flag Rules: You’ll need enough kids for 2 teams and this game is usually for older kids or teenagers. Divide the space into three areas with a neutral area being in between the other two areas. Each team gets five minutes to hide their flag. You then try to capture the other team’s flag and return it to your side without getting tagged. If you are tagged, you go to jail and can only be released if you are tagged by a teammate.
Other Things to Do in the Dark Outside
If your kids aren’t old enough to play on their own outside, here are a few other options that will help them gain experiences and comfort in the dark, but will allow you to be with them.
Nighttime hikes are always a big hit. Whether you take a walk around the block or you’re camping and can take an easy trail that you’re all familiar with, the dark adds tons of new experiences! Be sure to have them listen for sounds that they may not be able to hear during the day and watch for animals or bugs that only come out at night. This is a great opportunity to break out the flashlights or headlamps!
Night walking tip: Choose something with a red light option to watch the ground for tripping hazards. Using a red light doesn’t hinder your night vision as much as a regular white light would.
If you keep an eye on the moon you can time your hikes for a full moon night. Or, for an even brighter nighttime walk, choose a full moon on a clear sky after a fresh snow. Beautiful!
Flashlight tip for younger kids: Believe me, if you don’t want all your flashlights lost in the backyard, have your kids attach them to a belt loop with a carabiner hook or on a lanyard. Or, better yet, just use a headlamp!
I honestly can’t tell you how many headlamps we’ve gone through camping with the kids! They love these things! They’ll wear them to explore and play around the campsite after dark. I find the kids don’t venture far and so far no one’s gotten lost – which was my biggest fear when they started getting old enough to do this on their own. And having a headlamp to call their own means they might take a bit more attention to misplacing it. Maybe.
Stargazing can be both educational and super fun. Keep in mind, this may be more of a camping activity if you live in the city. This activity can be as easy or involved as you like. Take some printouts of constellations, a star map, or download a star-finding app and help your kids find some in the night sky. Or just enjoy looking up, finding shapes, watching for falling stars or just try to count all those stars!
Glow Sticks are an incredibly fun and diverse night time toy. You can set up a ring toss game, hide glow sticks and have the kids find them, or throw on a bunch of glow sticks and have a (quiet if you’re in a public area) dance party! Glow sticks really don’t ever get old.
I admit I have reservations about the environmental impact of glowsticks and waste. I’ve discovered these ‘reusable’ glow sticks… which appear to be battery powered flashlights with a coloured glow feature. Not quite the same fun snap and shake, but maybe better for us in the long run?
Catching fireflies is a crazy fun pastime, too! If you live in an area where lightning bugs come out in droves when the sun goes down, grab a container, poke some holes in the lid, and let your kids run around, trying to catch as many fireflies as possible. Just remember to remind your kids about not harming the bugs and make sure to release them at the end of the night!
Playing outside in the dark is a really fun way to let your kids use their creative ideas! The less structure, the better. It can be as simple as breaking out the headlamps or flashlights and pushing them out the door. Although it’s likely they won’t need a push!
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