81+ Outdoor Games for Recess & Sensory Activities for Kids

Outdoor Brain Breaks for Kids, Recess Activities

Find skill building outdoor games for recess that help kids in the classroom.  Support skills needed for learning, fine motor skills, and attending.  Kids need routine time outside for gross motor movement and active play.  These 48 outdoor fun games for recess build motor skills needed for daily fine motor activities.  Additionally, outdoor playground equipment offers important opportunities for 33 sensory based activities that are great for the brain and nervous system so that kids can improve focus and attention. 

So many kids that I work with as an occupational therapist are sensory seekers.  They need movement and extra physical input. As much as they can get. EVERY day!

Typically, their favorite subjects in school are physical education and recess!  (With lunch being the third favorite!)

If these kids don’t get the physical input they need, the have trouble focusing.  Moreover, they sometimes get in trouble and end up being labeled as having behavior problems. 

And sadly, the consequence of their negative behavior is no recess.  Which is counterproductive because they need the gross motor input and movement that recess provides.

Several other kids I work with have difficulty with visual motor tasks in the classroom.  They need additional gross motor activities that help coordinate more muscles groups.

With either of these two groups of kids, recess is a great opportunity to address their needs.

During recess, I can help kids get extra energy out so that they can attend and behave better.  Or, I can find outdoor games to work on skills needed for classroom tasks!

The Importance of Outdoor Games for Kids at School

If you’re reading my other posts on the blog, you’re very aware of my love for whole brain and multi-sensory learning. 

You may have read the Pyramid of Learning post. So you’ve seen how the sensory systems are the foundation for learning.

When working with school staff, I often share one of my biggest requests: “Please don’t ever use missing recess as a consequence for kids!”

I share this with administrators and teachers.  And I let them know why…

Typically, the kids who are misbehaving in the classroom… are the ones that NEED recess.  

[Click the previous link for tips on how to address behavior problems in the classroom.]

The kids who are misbehaving the most, rely on the outdoor physical activity.  It gives their brains and nervous systems sensory input that helps them behave and attend better!

Taking this time away from them can actually backfire.  It can increase the challenging behaviors.

Additionally, recess can help kids that need more practice with gross motor coordination skills.  

Outdoor recess time is a great brain break for kids.  It offers fresh air and natural light. It’s also an opportunity to find outdoor games and activities that are beneficial for development.

Recess Games and Activities for Kids

Skill Building Fun Outdoor Games for Kids While at School

My favorite outdoor games for recess are divided into three different categories in this post.  The first is a low cost DIY category.  It requires minimal, inexpensive supplies and helps kids be creative in their outdoor play. 

The second category shares outdoor games and activities that involve movement and heavy work.  All kids’ brains need movement for learning.  But as noted previously, some kids require movement in order to behave and attend!  The heavy work activities are calming and organizing to the nervous system.  They improve focus and attention when the kids return to the classroom.

[Additionally, balance and movement activities also help improve visual skills. Visual skills are needed all day for learning, too!]

The third category of outdoor activities shares motor coordination and visual motor integration games.  Kids can expend energy while playing these games, but they can also work on improving coordination skills.  Improving visual motor coordination skills with larger muscles during recess is helpful for school fine motor tasks such as writing and cutting and managing their belongings.

Following my three categories, I’ve listed examples of playground equipment that provide calming and organizing movement, ones that offer heavy work, and ones that alert the nervous system.

Low Cost DIY Fun Outdoor Games for Recess

The following games are all low cost and simple to create.  The game ideas are listed under each supply or combination of simple supplies.

You could also create a challenge for kids to come up with their own game based on what you provide to them.  This is a great way to foster social skills and creativity.  Choose one or two props or objects (such as sidewalk chalk, tennis balls, gym rubber ball, jump rope etc.)  Or have them find their own prop or tool to use for their created game!

Games Using Sidewalk Chalk During Outdoor Recess

There are several quick games that you can have kids of all ages play just with sidewalk chalk. These are a great way to work on balance and eye skills.

  • Use sidewalk chalk to draw a hopscotch design for jumping – one of many traditional games for kids that builds many skills 
  • Draw “stepping stones” with sidewalk chalk for a simple game to work on balance
  • Make a series of letters or numbers for jumping and hopping on
  • Draw lines to use as a balance beam for younger children 
  • For older children, play red light green light as they balance on the lines
  • Create an entire obstacle course with sidewalk chalk (balance beam, stones, right feet, left feet, etc)

Outdoor Games for Recess with a Ball

Here are some simple games using a ball. These are great for improving visual focusing and visual tracking.

  • Bounce and catch a tennis ball off a brick wall (wall ball) – this is a great game for hand-eye coordination
  • Kick a ball along a path or to a target and back to work on motor control and balance
  • Use a gym ball to kick off a wall (or throw it off a wall to catch)
  • Target toss into a hula hoop, can, bin, box or a basketball hoop 
  • Four square with a gym ball- use sidewalk chalk to draw the square court  [click the link for videos and directions]
  • Use a large play parachute with a beach ball or gym ball

Games for Recess Using a Jump Rope

The following are simple jump rope activities that work on coordination and provide movement and proprioceptive input:

  • Jumping rope singles (kids beat their personal bests)
  • Double jump rope
  • Place the jump rope or a long rope on the ground for a tight rope balance beam
  • Lay it on the ground, jump side to side over it
  • Play limbo with a larger group of children

Outdoor Games for Recess in a Large Open Area

For movement activities in a large open area, try the following games:

  • A relay race with a simple object such as cone, ball, stick, or large Lego with a starting line and finish line
  • Red rover, red rover, send ____ over 
  • Wheelbarrow races
  • Soccer ball kicking paths with cones
  • Wiffle ball is a classic game to use with older kids
  • Game of tag or freeze tag in an open space or open field (for a tag variation, kids unfreeze each other by frog jumping over them)
  • Racing nature scavenger hunt – create team members or individual players to gather a list of nature items in your outdoor play space
  • Simon says – take advantage of the large open space and have them run, skip, hop, jump, etc

Outdoor Games for a Hot Day or During Summer Camp

If you need fun activities on a hot day or during summer camp, try some of these outdoor water games:

  • Relay races with a bucket of colder water and plastic cups
  • Water balloon toss competition
  • Throw water balloons at the opposing team’s feet
  • Squirt bottle stations during races
  • Relay races with a large, cold, soaking wet sponge

[Amazon affiliate links are used in this post.  See below for more information.]

Outdoor Movement and Heavy Work Games for Kids During Recess

The following list of games and outdoor activities include activities that provide kids with calming and organizing proprioceptive input to the muscles and joints.  This input for the nervous system helps improve attention and focus when children return to the classroom.  It also gives sensory input that helps kids feel better and behave better. 

  • Hippity hop ball with handles (this Amazon link shows sizes for each age range)
  • Potato Sack Races are a classic game for a large or small group of kids
  • Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course Kit allows you to create your own coordination course
  • Tug of War is a great game for heavy work and of course for a little competition
  • Zoom Ball works on shoulder stability, bilateral coordination, and visual tracking
  • Bucket Stilts or Monster Feet are great for balance, bilateral coordination and coordination of the upper and lower body
  • Stomp Rocket provides heavy work and deep pressure input with the leg and it also encourages visual tracking 
  • Hopscotch Ring Game offers a portable version that can be placed on any surface and it can be used indoors
  • Numbered Spot Markers are great for obstacle courses or to use alone for jumping and hopping 

recess activities, outdoor brain breaks for kids
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Outdoor Games and Toys for Recess that Work on Motor Coordination and Visual Motor Skills

Why not improve hand-eye coordination during recess?!  Visual motor coordination is needed for cutting, forming letters and numbers properly, and writing on a line or within a space.  It’s also needed for managing classroom materials.

  • Lawn Darts are great for motor coordination and visual tracking
  • Bocce or Crazy Bocce also offers motor coordination practice but also adds heavy work input for the arm
  • Bean Bag Toss / Washer Toss are great for hand-eye coordination and visual focus; the bean bags offer sensory input for the hands
  • Wooden Ring Toss requires a different arm and wrist positioning
  • Kan Jam is a nice challenge for older children and can also be used indoors in a hallway or large open area
  • Football toss / frisbee toss encourages a mock game of football while working on eye-hand coordination 
  • Toss and catch ball set (velcro) works well with a pair of younger children to work on increasing comfort with catching and throwing at a target
  • Scoop Ball Set are perfect for kids of all ages to work on tracking and coordination
  • Skip Ball Ankle Toy is a fabulous coordination and timing game that also provides deep pressure input through the legs and requires great visual attention

Ways to Use the Outdoor Games and Activities for Gross Motor Indoor Play on Rainy Days

The three categories listed share games and activities that you can have available for kids during outdoor recess.  Where I live in Western PA, we have many rainy days or winter days that are too cold to be outdoors.

Many of the games listed above can also be used indoor in a hallway, large space, gym, or empty cafeteria for indoor recess when your weather does not cooperate.  

You could also offer two or three very simple objects to small groups of students and have them come up with a game.  For example, you could give them chalk and a tennis ball or a jump rope and tape and have them create their own game.  Or they can find their own prop or props to use as a game.  I often see kids that lack creativity so this would allow some time for that in a large open space!

Additionally, recess is the best time for unstructured play opportunities.  Rotate through your games and activities but also allow for personal exploration and play while outdoors.

Make sure kids have time to use the playground equipment.  There are so many sensory opportunities that your high energy kids need from your playground structures.  

Outdoor Recess Activities on Your Playground Equipment

I miss seeing playground equipment that I grew up with in the 80’s!  

Our slide was so high (and a little rickety, but you knew to be careful on it or you’d end up like that one kid every year with a cast.)  

The swings were suspended from super high bars; which made it super fun jumping off when you reached the max peak.  

We had a merry-go-round that our sixth grade teacher would whip us around on.  And the object of the teeter totter was to see if you could get your partner to pop off!  

Does this sound familiar?  Probably if you also grew up in the 80’s.  But that’s a thing of the past now.  

Schools across the country had to remove equipment that all of a sudden became unsafe.  Unsafe in the eyes of the courtroom after parents decided to start suing.  It’s a shame because now kids cannot get the foundational sensory input that they needed during recess.

Luckily, so many elementary schools once again have fantastic play area spaces with improving playground equipment.  They’re very pricey, but they at least offer opportunities for movement, balance, and heavy work play.   

In this next section, I’m going to share examples of playground structures that are calming and organizing and ones that are alerting for the brain.

Linear movement input and heavy work activities are calming and organizing for the nervous system. Orbital movement input, rotary movement input, and inverted positions are alerting for the brain and nervous system.  

*Calming and Organizing Movement Activities on the Playground 

  • Swinging in a straight path on a swing
  • Going down a straight slide
  • Stationary see-saws
  • Gliders
  • Mini zip lines
  • Balance beams
  • Tube bridges
  • Lilly pad bridges
  • Pebble bridges
  • Large rockers
  • Pole slides
  • Jumping off safe heights

*Heavy Work Activities on Outdoor Playground Equipment That Increase Focus and Attention

  • Monkey bars 
  • Climbing bars 
  • Rock walls
  • Net climbers
  • Arch ladders
  • Trapezoid loop ladders
  • Swing ladders
  • Climbing walls
  • Pushing a peer on a swing (giving an under-duck)
  • Swinging on parallel bars
  • Crawling through a tunnel
  • Climbing up a slide backwards (if it’s not against your rules!)

*Alerting Movement Activities on Playground Equipment that Provide Extra Input

  • Merry-go-rounds that offer fast orbital input (encourage kids to change the direction of the movement)
  • Swing spins (sitting on a swing and twisting around as tight as the chains will go, let go and unwind) 
  • Hang upside down from monkey bars or parallel bars
  • Curved slide
  • Tire swing
  • Orbital spinners
  • Standing spinners
  • Challenge, balance or tilted bridges
  • Spiral tube slide

*With the fast spinning activities, if you notice dizziness in a child, have him or her stop the spinning and participate in a linear movement activity to help reset and calm the movement system.  

Have them swing back and forth calmly and rhythmically on a swing or glider.  And don’t discourage them from trying to spin the next time they’re out.  The nervous system can adjust to input with more careful practice (use it or lose it) if there’s no underlying sensory processing disorder.  

Check with the parents and consult with your local school-based occupational therapist for support.

This list of activities makes me want to be a kid again!  The best part of play is that kids don’t realize they are building skills for learning.

Leave a comment below to share your favorite classic recess game for your kids, your favorite group games, or a cool feature on your school’s playground. 

Related Posts with OT Tips and Additional Recess Activities

Outdoor play is a great way to let kids move, explore and get energy out.  But in some parts of the world, the weather does not always cooperate!  If kids can’t be outside because of the weather, it is so important to provide them with opportunities to move and use the bigger muscles in their body.

Using the body supports whole brain learning and helps kids improve attention and behavior.

10 Tips: How to Address Behavior Problems at School 

As I previously stated, the kids who are fidgety, restless and tend to misbehave the most are the ones that NEED recess and daily movement.  This post offers suggestions on how to help students with behavior difficulties in school.  The tips can carry over to the home and community as well.  

61 Fun Gross Motor Activities for Elementary Indoor Recess

If the weather does not cooperate, provide movement input indoors during recess.  Especially for the kids that need it every day.  This post shares a variety of indoor recess activities in a variety of categories.  Some of the activities do not require input while others may use simple items already found in schools. 

Best Educational Games and Toys for Kids (Ages 5-10) 

These can be used for indoor recess activities for your students who have already had their movement input during the day.  Several of the games focus on visual perceptual skills which are needed for many learning activities.

Related Posts for Motor Coordination and Strength

The following are additional posts that share motor coordination activities and core strength activities. Add these quick activities to your play and learning routines.  

43 Occupational Therapy Motor Coordination Activities

When a child can practice coordinating the larger muscles of the body, it helps with coordination of the smaller muscles.  Children need visual motor and fine motor coordination skills for school tasks such as cutting and writing.  These motor coordination activities are great for kids and so much fun!

Important Bilateral Coordination Activities for Kids

Outdoor recess and gross motor coordination tasks help kids use both sides of the brain together which is needed in the classroom for learning.  This post has bilateral coordination activity ideas and shares how important it is for kids to use both sides of their bodies efficiently for many daily tasks.

40 Fun Core Strength Exercises for Kids 

There are so many kids that have weak cores and decreased postural strength right now.  Baby equipment, changes in play and excessive screen use have negatively interfered with development of a strong core.  A strong core is needed for fine motor skill development, sitting, and attention. This poster offers a free printable.  

Related Posts with Sensory Activities (Proprioceptive, Balance, and Movement Activities)

25 Proprioceptive Brain Breaks for Kids That Improve Focus

This post shares sensory breaks that focus on using the muscles and joints in the proprioceptive system.  This input is one of my favorites to use as an occupational therapist.  It’s so powerful for improving attention and focus.  This post offers a free printable listing the 25 exercises.

30 Fun Movement Activities and Ideas for Elementary Kids to Enhance Learning 

This post offers movement brain breaks that can be plugged into learning and play routines.  They’re easy to add to what you already do.  Make movement a natural and routine part of your day with your kids.

17 Balance and Movement Activities to Improve Visual Skills

This post shares specific balance and movement activities for the vestibular system that support eye muscle control for reading.  Movement is so important for the brain and the visual system.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated from its original content.

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School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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