If cabin fever has hit an all-time high, it's time to turn up the fun by constructing an indoor obstacle course that even a Ninja Warrior would envy.

By Janelle Randazza
May 13, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

As the saying goes: "Necessity is the mother of invention." With schoolyards closed for the foreseeable future and playgrounds requiring distancing of six feet or more, it's time to get creative if we're going to win this war against cabin fever. But not everyone has outdoor space to take to their yard and not every day brings weather that allows you to run off the wiggles.

"When kids don't have appropriate channels to release their energy and emotions, it can manifests as irritable, aggressive, or attention-seeking behavior," says Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in children's play and play therapy, and the author of Playful Parenting. Indoor obstacle courses are a great way to use both the brain and the body and burn off the negative behaviors parents might be experiencing. And they aren't as difficult to construct as you may think.

Here are a few basic rules of indoor obstacle course making to get you started, plus our favorite ideas to make your course as fun as possible, no matter what the size of your space.

Make Construction Part of the Fun

If you've heard "I'm bored" for the hundredth time, tell your kids it's time to peel themselves off the couch for the Quarantine Cup. Leah Dwin, a certified Pilates instructor and mother of two in Carlsbad, California, has her two daughters plan out the obstacle course with her. "We like to watch Ninja Warrior to get some inspiration," she says, and also recommends hunting through Instagram for ideas. Come up with a list of challenges beforehand and build the course based on that.

The whole point is to get the kids engaged and to wear them out, so involve them in as much building of the course as possible, with you supervising for safety. Even the littlest competitors can get involved in the building stage by stacking pillows, lining up baskets, or sorting balls. Involving the kids in constructing the course gives them a sense of accomplishment and builds a storyline in their head—adding an element of imaginative play to the activity.

Keep Safety the Top Priority

To stay safe, make good use of cushions, yoga mats, and blankets as much as you can. And be sure to move sharp corners and breakable items out of the way. "This is the time for kids to get wild, so we like to incorporate padding where we can," says Dwin. She says that safety really is about using your own judgement and knowing your kids, too. She recommends you start off conservative, listen to your gut, and allow your children to build on things after they've show what they are capable of. It's harder to pull back on rules than to loosen them later on.

Choose Your Obstacles!

Balance beam. A basic 2 x 4 on the floor makes for a perfect balance beam, as does a rolled up area rug. But if you're short on space, even just a strip of painter's tape can give kids the challenge of maintaining their balance.

Tunnels. Tunnels are a major stop on any respectable obstacle course. If you don't have a kids' tunnel, fear not! They can easily be made by lining up a row of chairs for your child to crawl through, or by rolling up a play mat and taping it in place with duct tape.

Crepe paper laser maze. To make a fun maze, randomly criss-cross crepe paper, toilet paper, or even lengths of yarn through a hallway. Crank up the Mission Impossible music and let the games begin! Check out this easy DIY.

Sack races. If your kids are bouncing off the walls, give them a pillow case or a sleeping bag and make a game of it. It doesn't take a lot of distance to tire a kid out when they have to make cumbersome hops across a room or down a hallway.

Ball pits. Sneak some hand-eye coordination skills into your obstacle course by adding a tossing stop. We like to put a timer on this one: Line up laundry baskets and give a point system for balls that make it into the pit in under 30 seconds.

The floor is hot lava! Line up cushions, yoga blocks, or even pieces of construction paper and have kids hop from one to the next—avoiding the "lava" AKA carpet. Adding a storyline to obstacle courses increases the fun, and every kid loves the idea of out-smarting a lava flow.

Crazy feet. Sort of like hot lava, but using you can use foot-shaped decals or simple feet cut out from construction paper for kids to hop along. Paste the toes of the feet pointing in different directions and have kids hop to each one, facing the right way. It adds an element of difficulty when they are trying to keep their balance after hopping from one point tot he next.

Army crawls. We know they'll be running and hopping, but be sure to get them crawling, too! You can even tape strips of streamers for them to crawl through to make this obstacle station more fun.

Tape trails. Painter's or masking tape is the single-most important product for making a good indoor obstacle course. It can be used to make paths, dotted lines, or arrows to kids on course. Arrows can lead kids in all sorts of silly directions and can take courses over cushions, under tables, and in dizzying circles.

Book mazes. Have kids gather up all of their books and use them as low walls to mazes. You can have kids run through the mazes holding balls between their knees, or push cars or trucks through them.

Tiny tunnels. Create tiny tunnels for kids to roll balls or cars through. All it takes is card stock and some masking tape and kids have a challenge that keeps balls low enough to keep your pictures on the wall, but that demands enough attention and skill to get kids excited about the task at hand.

Weight stations. Get them doing some not-so-heavy lifting. Tiny hand weights or tin cans are perfect for doing a few reps and making them feel like they are building some muscle mass to get them strong enough to beat you at the obstacle course in due time.

Add Some Mental Challenges

Obstacle courses are not merely physical. They are based on rules and challenges that are the perfect foil for boredom-induced brain-drain. Try having kids come up with a list of rules, like when they crawl through a tunnel they need to sing their ABCs or when they walk the balance beam they need to clap their hands every third step. Adding rules and being open to adjusting and changing them adds a mental challenge to the physical activity.

Get the Timers Ticking

Kids will rapidly grow bored of the obstacle course if there isn't an incentive to keep it going. Time the first round and then challenge them to beat their last time. Or add time restrictions to certain stations. There is nothing worse than taking more time to build an activity than your kid does using it. Adding a timer to the challenges will increase your kids' focus and will give more mileage to the course you've created.

Another added bonus to adding a timer is an obstacle course can be a covert lesson in self-regulation. Have them go through a challenge as fast as they can, but have them freeze at unexpected intervals.

"Having kids freeze at intervals helps them rev up, cool down, and helps them regulate," says Dr. Cohen. It may feel like a fun and silly element to the course to kids, but it's really a sneaky way to help kids regroup, emotionally recalibrate, and refocus.

Add a Storyline

If they are already tiring of the course, change things up with a storyline! Give your course a theme or turn it into a narrated adventure. Maybe they are ninjas in training. Maybe they are superheroes trying out for the ultimate bad guy-beating adventure. Maybe they are secret agents on a mission. Or maybe they are pirates on a treasure hunt. Younger kids will especially enjoy flexing their imaginative play muscles and embarking on the course in character.

Keep the Kids Around for Cleanup

Dwin says every obstacle course moment should be one that they are expending energy on. She likes to make cleanup a game and a component in the challenge. Add a timer to clean up and set it to some upbeat music, or have kids clean up certain areas before the timer goes off. "If you can get creative with cleanup then you can really let the kids tear up the house when they want to turn it into an obstacle course," she says.

In the end it's all about creating a course that is right for your kid. Follow their lead in building the course and follow their laughs as they go through it. If something isn't fun, take it out. No matter how much space you have, or how many toys or tools you have at your disposal, kids will love having something that is build just for them, by them—and you'll love seeing them embark on a unique game that they created.

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