girls in tunnel

Most little ones hit the playground like NASCAR racers: Vroom vroom— and they’re off! And who can blame them for not taking it slow in a place where they can run, jump, climb, and yes, screech? But when the slides and swings get old and your tot’s not sure what to do next or he clamors to have you play along too, you can boost his imagination and other budding skills with these fun playground games for kids.

Dig for Treasure

girl in sandbox

Pliable and pourable, moldable and diggable, sand seems like the perfect substance for little ones. Second-year toddlers will enjoy simply digging up a few partially buried playthings, but you can up the ante for a preschooler with more sophisticated playground games. Tell your two- or three-year-old to close his eyes while you bury the booty. Then see how quickly he can find the loot — you can use “hot” or “cold” to guide him. Tickle your older preschooler’s imagination by handing him a paintbrush so he can uncover and clean buried “dinosaur bones” (smooth, blunt sticks and stones work well). He can even set up a museum display of his artifacts.

Ride 'Em, Cowboy!

girl on bouncy animal

Bouncing up and down on a spring-bottomed critter, your cutie’s primed for some pretend play. But because your little one is a newbie at using his imagination, he’ll need you to supply the action — at least at first. As he rides, narrate a story: “We’re riding our dolphins to the shore. We’re almost there. Can you get over these waves?” To add some excitement to your playground game, pretend you’re racing another band of surfers — the dolphin needs to swim quickly to beat them! When your tot tires of the action, encourage him to feed his steed. (Be ready to tell a new tale the next day.)

Swing High, Swing Low

toddler on swing

Kids don’t get the hang of pumping their legs and swinging on their own until they’re about five, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin to lay the groundwork now. Offer leg challenges that boost your munchkin’s motor skills, like “Tap your feet together” or “Kick your legs.” Later he can play Superman, lying on his tummy on the swing with his arms outstretched and gently pushing off with his feet. It’s a great outdoor game for toddlers that helps them feel in control of their bodies — and a bit more like superheroes.

Zip on Over

girl carrying teddy bear

If the local zip line in the park lacks a swing to sit on, your little one probably won’t have the upper-body strength or ability to grip tightly for the duration of the ride. That’s why it’s better to give a stuffed pal a ride — tuck your cutie’s favorite stuffed critter into the handle and then lift him up so he can get his lovey moving. Pretty soon he’ll catch on that the harder he pushes, the farther his favorite toy goes. The best part of this playground game is when Mom pushes the zip line so hard that his critter goes flying. Just be prepared to do it again and again since your tot will find this hilarious.

Follow Me

toddler on slide

Your budding student perfects his sense of observation and his ability to follow directions when he plays Follow the Leader — all good skills to get ready for preschool. But you can tweak this classic so that it turns into a playground game and boosts his large-motor development too. With your tot following behind you, march around the playground — step up on the first rung of the ladder, then down again; execute a circle around the monkey bars; and sail down the slide — all while your shadow tries to mimic your actions. When you’re done, make him the leader.

Back to Nature

mom and toddler in park

The playground is the center of attention, but chances are good that ringing the park is at least a little swath of nature — even in the biggest city. Need a playground game for kids that doubles as a mini science experiment? Help your preschooler gather samples — leaves, flowers (just stay away from acorns or pebbles for kids under three since they’re choking hazards) — then try a nature race, testing whether a leaf or a flower gets to the bottom of the slide quicker. Or take a leaf and a dandelion to the water table to see which floats best. Other playground-perimeter activities to try: looking for bugs or birds or walking around the greenery and asking your tot to tell you what he hears.