Planning a playdate? Check out these low-cost games and activities inspired by creative parents. They'll keep kids entertained for hours!

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girls drawing with chalk
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

For kids, nothing beats the joy of playdates. But parents might struggle to brainstorm cool ways to keep littles ones entertained. To help inspire you, we rounded up creative ideas from real moms and dads, including backyard activities, playground games, edible crafts, and more. The best part: None cost much or require a lot of wrangling!

Make the Outdoors Their Playroom

Draw a Raceway
Wild turns, pit stops, stop signs: Chalk them all on the driveway, then bust out ride-on toys for the kids to drive around. Ages 3 to 10 —Justin Cahill, a physical education teacher in Atlanta

"Cook" Up Nature
Bring bowls, cups, and forks outside to serve grass spaghetti, mud pies, and leaf salads. Ages 2 to 8 —Alison Schumpp, a former preschool teacher who posts ideas on Instagram @TheChildhoodGlen

Be Bug Scientists
Shovels, magnifying glasses, and a keen eye are all kids need to search for worms and insects. Don't forget to dig, look under stones, and closely examine tree trunks. Ages 5+ —Megan Calnan, a mom of seven in Albany, New York

Play Noodle Hockey
Let the kids loose with pool noodles and a ball and encourage them to hit the ball into a net or a tipped-over laundry basket. Ages 4+ —Cahill

Invite the Whole Car Pool

Consider a Toy Potluck
Ask each child to bring an activity they're into, like magnetic tiles, a bin of Star Wars figurines, or a craft. They'll love sharing their favorites and trying out the different options. All ages —Schumpp

Set Up Your Own Art Museum
Tape a big piece of butcher paper to the wall, a table, or the floor, then draw circles and squares of different sizes to look like frames. Hand out crayons or markers and let the kids transform the shapes into different scenes. All ages —Schumpp

Play Charades
This game is a classic for a whole lotta reasons: It's interactive, it involves everyone—there's even physical comedy! Have kids write simple prompts on note cards (swimming, dog, airplane), then take turns acting out the words. Ages 6+ —Shanicia Boswell, founder of BlackMomsBlog.com and author of Oh Sis, You're Pregnant!

Perk Up the Park

Pack Toy Vehicles
The kids will get a kick out of racing cars and trucks off the equipment and building roads for them in the dirt or sand. Ages 3 to 8 —Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Growing Friendships

Rig a Simple Pulley
Bring a rope and tie one end to the handle of a bucket. Loop the other end over a low branch, then let the kids pull things up and down. This simple machine totally fascinates kids, and it's a super STEM learning tool too. Ages 4+ —Jackie Currie, a home day-care provider who shares ideas at HappyHooligans.ca

Switch Up Hide-and-Seek
Take turns stashing a doll, an action figure, or a rock in the park, then call a search party. Kids can give clues and tell friends they're getting warmer or colder. Ages 2+ —Melissa Laracuenta-Hernandez, Psy.D., a psychologist in White Plains, New York

boy with curly hair and a backpack
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Go Big on Creativity

Build an Epic Blanket Fort
Let them raid the linen closet for blankets and sheets, then work together to construct an indoor hideaway. Binder clips and bungee cords aren't required but can help stabilize their igloo, cave, or palace. All ages —Jamie Gremillion, a mom of three in Lake Charles, Louisiana

Put on a Performance
Ask for a show, and get ready for a kid tour de force. Whether it's a dance recital, a puppet skit, or a magic act, the planning and practicing will keep your child and their friend engaged. (If you notice one calling all the shots, ask them to take turns being director.) Ages 6+ —Becca Kucera, a mom of two in Charlotte, North Carolina

Turn Squiggles Into Art
Have each child draw a simple, curvy one-line design on a piece of paper. Then suggest they trade and design a picture out of the other's squiggle. Will it become a snake, a spaceship, a fantastical garden…? Ages 5+ —Jennifer Tammy, founder of SugarSpiceAndGlitter.com

Craft a Mandala
Send the kids outside to collect an assortment of items, including leaves, flowers, and stones. Give them each a round piece of cardboard, and have them start from the center gluing objects in a repeating circular design. Ages 6+ —Yanique Chambers, a licensed clinical social worker in Albany, New York

Activities You Can Eat

Whip Up Caprese Skewers
These are fun and easy for kids to assemble—plus, everything tastes better on a stick. In a bowl, mix 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp. Dijon mustard, 1 tsp. honey, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Whisk in 2 Tbs. olive oil until fully blended. Thread cherry tomatoes, basil leaves, and mini mozzarella balls onto skewers in an alternating pattern. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the skewers before eating.

Make Your Own Ice Cream
In a quart-size zip-top plastic bag, combine ½ cup whole milk, ½ cup heavy cream, 2 Tbs. sugar, and ½ tsp. vanilla extract (for vanilla ice cream) or 1 Tbs. cocoa powder (for chocolate ice cream). Push out excess air and seal. Combine 3 cups ice and 1/3 cup kosher salt in a gallon-size zip-top plastic bag. Place the small bag inside the bigger bag, then place both bags in another gallon-size zip-top bag to prevent leaking. Shake the bag vigorously until the mix has turned to ice cream (about 7 to 10 minutes). Eat it right out of the bag with spoons, or scoop it into bowls and serve with toppings.

Try Animal Toasts
Spread cream cheese onto a slice of toasted bread or a rice cake. Use fresh or dried fruit, cereal, pretzels, or chocolate to create eyes, ears, and noses. Slice apples, carrots, or bananas into half-moons or triangles to create ears, mouths, and wings. Cut dried coconut flakes into thin strips with scissors to use as whiskers.

Before any cooking project, call the friend's parent to make sure food allergies aren't a concern.

Source: Jill Santopietro, founder of the Children's Food Lab, in Brooklyn, New York, which offers hands-on cooking classes.

Playdate Tips and Tricks

Before you schedule something on the calendar, read these playdate pointers from Dr. Melissa Laracuenta-Hernandez.

Start in a neutral place: If you don't know the child's family, you may want to meet at a park, activity center, or another location outside your home. You and the other parent can get to know each other while the kids play.

Know when the other parent should stay or go: For kids under age 4, it's usually best to invite the parent to stick around. For older kids, if you're comfortable, you can offer the parent the option to drop them off for a set amount of time.

Don't forget manners: It's great if you can prep your child beforehand to say "Thank you for coming" at the end of the playdate. But if they're being shy, don't stress too much. Just make sure you share your own appreciation, along with a few specifics about what the kids did and how much fun they had together.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2021 issue as "Bring Back the Joy of Playdates" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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