Finding joy in solo play: outdoor activities for the only child

Playing outside is a great way for kids to have fun and get exercise. And, while most kids love to play outside, let’s be honest, playing alone can be a bit boring for some kids.  

The problem is that kids don’t always have a sibling or play buddy nearby, and sometimes kids are just at a loss of what they should do out there once you’ve pushed them out the door.

Luckily there are plenty of outdoor activities that kids can do on their own without the company of an adult or another kid. Kids can spend hours outside in a variety of activities like exploring and investigating the natural world, biking, making sidewalk chalk art, or challenging their strength and skills on climbing structures.

a girl gardening and a tarp fort made my a kid in the backyard

(This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you make a purchase through my link I receive a small commission at no added cost to you. See my policy page for more information)

Safety and Solitary Outdoor Play

Sending kids outside alone doesn’t mean you need to play chaperone every moment. Let them work things out for themselves, let them make noise (after all it’s just the backyard), and let them be independent.

If you are worried about their safety, spend some time adjusting your outdoor space so you’ll be more comfortable letting them play alone:

Some considerations:

  • Is the yard fenced?
  • Are there dangerous features like open water, steep drop offs, busy roads, wild creatures?
  • Do you children understand the expectation they stay in the yard? And are they mature enough to follow those instructions?
  • Can you hear your kids if you’re inside the house?

And some tips to help encourage outdoor independent play while keeping ‘an eye’ on things:

  • If you’re into video and tech surveillance, you could consider using a baby monitor or video feed to keep an eye on their play
  • Arrange yourself or your indoor activity so you are nearby a window to listen and peek out easily.
  • Consider setting yourself up with an activity outdoors as well. If kids are hesitant about being outdoors alone, your presence in the garden or reading on the patio might help them over that.

1. Trampoline

Trampolines, while a pricy investment, can provide hours of outdoor alone play. Kids of all ages will love to bounce and challenge themselves on a backyard trampoline. If you are concerned about safety, make sure to get one with side mesh and even consider spring-less varieties.

A black bear cup standing up investigating a trampoline in a backyard
A curious young black bear investigating our well-loved backyard trampoline, Jasper Alberta Canada

2. Climbing structures

There is a wide variety of climbing toys on the market these days.

Many climbing structures can be installed on the side of a house/garage or free-standing your backyard. You can find wooden ones, plastic ones, and pre-made kits. Check out these ninja courses which attach from tree to tree and encourage kids to hand and climb various hooks and ropes.

Kids will love to challenge themselves and test their skills as they climb, balance, and play with these structures.

If you don’t have space for a structure, you can help your kids find local playgrounds and structures that they can get to safely on their own.

3. Sidewalk chalk art

Give your little Picasso a bucket of sidewalk chalk and a challenge to fancy up the sidewalk or driveway.

Kids can write messages, make hop scotch games, create jump-and-follow obstacle courses, or just be creative.

smile written with chalk on the sidewalk

4. Bikes & scooters

Most kids love bikes and scooters, whether they are taking them out for a lap around the block or just scooting around the driveway over ramps or dodging obstacles.

If you (or a friend who owes you a favor) are good with tools, you could try making a few ramps and jumps that the kids can use around your yard.

You can find used bikes and scooters at yard sales and online. Or treat them to a fancy new scooter or bike for the next holiday.

5. Scavenger hunts

Send your kids outside with a scavenger hunt list in hand – grab this one, print it free from online, make a hunt yourself, or have them create a challenging scavenger hunt for themselves.

They’ll hunt around the yard for all kinds of treasures, like leaves, rocks, flowers, and bugs.

The rules are simple – they get a list of items to find, then head outdoors to hunt and either collect their findings or photograph them.

You could even make it a bit more exciting for them by taking a few minutes to hide items in the yard for them to go and find.

6. Books & crafts

While the list above focuses on active things kids can do in the backyard, there are also many simple slower-paced activities kids can occupy themselves with outside.

Reading, listening to audio books, coloring, painting, and handiwork are all easy activities to bring outside. Encourage these activities be brought outside by having an outdoor table or a few comfortable chairs the kids can curl up in with their books…. or a tree house! Isn’t it every kid’s (or mom’s) dream to have a treehouse retreat?

7. Gardening

If you like to garden or have a yard that gets regular sun, consider letting your kids get their hands dirty with the planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. You may even consider giving them access to the adult gardening tools and their own gardening space – this might encourage more participation if your child knows a growing spot is their own to do with as they like.

one child doing gardening in the backyard

If you’re curious which plants make great plants for kids to grow, check out this list.

READ MORE: Tips to get kids excited about gardening

8. Playing with pets

Dog is man’s best friend – or so the saying goes… but, it is true that kids and dogs are usually great companions for each other.

You can encourage more outdoor time by having your kids take on the responsibility of a daily walk or game of fetch in the yard.

In fact, just the other day I about a recent study that found young girls spent more time outside if they had a dog over young girls who didn’t have a pet dog. I would share that source with you, but I can’t find any mention of it on Google.

If your family doesn’t have an outdoor pet or animals in the yard, perhaps you live nearby someone who does and someone who would be more than happy to have your child visit for a play now and then?

  • an elderly neighbour with a dog that would enjoy some outside play time?
  • a local hobby farm?
  • someone keeping chickens in their backyard?
  • older kids could even start a dog-walking service

9. Nature study

If encouraged gently, many kids enjoy watching and learning about nature.

There are a number of pre-made nature journals available for kids these days with prompts for drawings and exploration activities. Or, you can just send them out with a blank notebook to write down their observations.  

Not only will nature journaling inspire their creative abilities, but it also introduces kids to environmental awareness and can help them appreciate more the nature that lives in their own yard.

Or, maybe your little would be interested in receiving a monthly subscription box that would have nature study / learning and activities for them to do each month.

The Think Outside Box has good reviews and is a full year’s worth of activities that correlate to the seasons.

a night sky activity pamphlet, headlamp, items inside the outside box

10. Bird watching

No matter where you live, whether you have a huge backyard or a tiny patio, you probably have birds in the area. They might not always be around, but if birds are something that you or your child is interested in, there are simple steps you can take to encourage birds to hang out more frequently in your yard or visit your balcony.

If you’d like to encourage younger kids to get excited about bird watching, you might want to first take some time to walk around outdoors with your child and point out different types of birds they can see or hear from your yard.

Much like nature journaling, your child might want to write down descriptions, draw sketches, or take photographs. They might even enjoy trying to find the bird in a local field guide.

And, to make birdwatching even more exciting, let them use the binoculars or a bird call identification and tracking app like BirdNET.

Kid’s Binoculars

We have these exact GeoSafari kid’s binoculars and not only are they actually pretty decent binoculars, they’re also super durable and have lived for much of their life in the toy box being thrown around and jostled with all the other toys! These have travelled far, and have had many falls and bumps, and they still work!

READ MORE: Get more tips and strategies for encouraging your kids to get excited about bird watching here.

11. Kite flying

Kites are fun for kids of all ages, but it’s easy to forget about them because they require an open area away from trees or buildings where the wind is strong enough that the kite can stay aloft. However, if you have an area in your yard that is large and clear enough, encourage your kids to play with kites or bring out a kite for them to fly in a nearby park or field.

Perhaps showing your child some videos on professional kite flying might help them get excited about the potential beauty and challenges of kites.

And if you don’t have a kite, you can encourage your child to make their own by using things they can find around the house. For example, they can shape some thin dowels, wire, or straws into a triangular frame, then tie them together with string. They can then cover that frame with paper or tissue paper, all a tail and a super long string and head outside to experiment with their creations.

12. Imaginative Play (Loose Parts Play)

Saving the best for last! Kids, if given encouragement and the freedom of time and permission to get creative, kids are usually quite skilled at escaping into imaginary games and adventures. If your kid is not used to spending time alone, this might take some gentle coaching and will need to build up how much time they can keep themselves in this imaginative play mode.

You might want to provide some loose parts to help start the play. Think bowls, cups, muffin tins, spoons, and shovels and a pile of dirt, sand, or even snow in the winter! You could also add small toy cars or peg people. Even a bucket of rocks and pinecones can turn into an involved game.

If your children are still having a hard time playing independently you can start by asking them to make you a strawberry Sundae or mud pizza. Or, maybe challenge them to turn the dirt pile into a mini-city or dinosaur park.

a fort made my an only child using tarps and random backyard pieces
Super fun fort made from backyard randomness and a few tarps

Older kids might not enjoy the imaginative play of toddlers and preschoolers, but, they can still get into involved play in other ways. Think fort building and giant backyard obstacle courses!

With a bit of encouragement (or not) kids can spend hours playing in or exploring and investigating the natural world… with or without toys – even if they are an only child!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *