Kids running is something that always gets me so excited. They start off with so MUCH ENERGY. And when it’s all about play like running games that energy stays high. However, on race day I’ve seen a few spectacular mid-way meltdowns and generally thought “I feel ya kid“.
So what can we do as running coaches and parents to cultivate the love of running without pushing too far?
A few times each year, I get questions from parents who have a child that just loves to run. They want to do a 5K, a 10K, even a half marathon and they aren’t sure if it’s ok or what’s right.
In fact, there is actually no scientific data to say that even running a marathon is harmful.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says “if children enjoy the activity and are asymptomatic, there is no reason to preclude them from training for and participating in such events.”
Assuming they are following some of the golden rules like increasing mileage slowly, doing a dynamic warm up and fueling well, kids with a drive can be allowed to embrace it.
But there are plenty of other kids who might not have the drive to do that kind of mileage.
And that’s absolutely fine! Instead, we’re looking for things that might spark their interest or simply get them moving to have some fund.
Let’s look at some specific tips and running games for kids to help everyone get out and maybe your little one will start to enjoy the sport that you love too!
17 Running Games for Kids
We’ll start off with some specific fun running ideas and then go in to more tips around kids running. If we can’t get them out the door, none of those other tips matter!
Here are a few of the things that worked for getting Katie’s kids excited about running without pushing them.
1. Spot Something (Scavenger Hunt)
This is a super fun one for little kids who might not always look at running as fun. Head to a local Park to run/walk on the trails. You’ll assign points to different items they might spot along the way.
- spotting a squirrel might be worth 20 points
- seeing a deer was worth 50
- catching a leaf as it was falling was worth 100
- tally up who has the most points at the end
Kids won’t even realize they’ve somehow covered 3 miles and you’ll hear so much less whining than where are we going. This could also be done as an “eye spy” game by heading out to a local trail or even around the neighborhood!
2. Last to First Run
Another way to make it fun, if you have three or more kids, would be a “leap frog” type of running game.
- kids line up single file for a run (a track works well for this)
- the person at the end of the line has to pass the others and make his/her way to the front of the line
- the new person in the rear has to do the same… and so on.
That’s actually a great way to do some speed work for all runners, because of the short sprint to get to the front of the line! Yet, never once have you talked about repeats or getting faster and yet you’ve managed to incorporate a running drill for kids!
3. Red Light Green Light
Another schoolyard game that can turn in to getting kids running for ages! This works best when you have a larger group of kids.
Define a specific area for a starting and ending point, then a caller (hey you’re the adult you do it!).
The caller will continually shout out red light, yellow light and green light. Runners must react accordingly or be out of the game.
- Red light means everyone must stop, those who keep running are out
- Yellow light means switch to a walk
- Green light means everyone can run
Whoever reaches the finish line first, while following the rules, wins. Selecting a large area like a football field means more chances for them to get in big bursts of running and you can plan their rest with plenty of red lights.
4. Wacky Laps
MarathonKids has a great article about making PE fun. I wish my gym teacher had read this, maybe I wouldn’t have dreaded doing the mile so much!
In Wacky Laps, each time around the track or perhaps even each side of the track has a different way of running. What might this look like?
- Skipping for one length
- Running zig zag
- Backwards running
- Holding hands with a partner
- Power walking
Let the kids pick some ideas too and watch the giggles ensue as it becomes about moving in funny ways. Suddenly the track isn’t so scary and they’ve done a mile without any pressure.
This is one of the fun running games for track that can be adapted to a lot of levels depending on how the length they run and how you structure the types of running.
5. Playing For Par
If you have a kids running team that is actually focused on some goals, you can try this game around hitting times. This comes from Coach Mastin, who likes doing it with cross country runners.
Pick a large area where you can set out cones to act as your golf course. In golf, each hole has a recommended par or number of strokes to get the ball in the hole.
Here, you’re using time.
- Pick out a specific cone
- Set a goal time to run from your spot to that cone
- Give a handicap to younger runners (they get a few more seconds head start)
- Yell go and everyone sprints to see who can make it
This game can obviously be made easier or harder based on the times you set, thus making it more of a team workout or more inclusive.
6. Capture the Flag
Even as a kid who didn’t love running, I LOVED this game. It was my all time favorite at recess or gym.
Probably because it’s another variation on tag.
- Each team will have a flag (usually a bright orange cone), set on their side of the area.
- Kids are then divided in to two groups on each end of the space.
- When you yell go, kids start running to capture the flag (cone) of the opposite team.
- If tagged, they are put in jail or a time out, until someone from their team can run to tag them.
- Capturing the flag wins the team a point.
7. The Amazing Race
This could be seen as another scavenger hunt type game, but why not give it a fun name and have a prize at the end for completing the whole game (everyone wins). Can be a great outdoor running game or inside when needed.
Pick a large area with a lot different things visually available and use scraps of paper to write down different locations (i.e. under the bleachers, double door with poster, field goal post).
- Give the group the first slip of paper and they’ll run to that area
- In that area will be a second piece of paper with the next location (try hiding it in different areas, this gives them a second to breathe and makes it more interesting)
- The goal isn’t to beat each other, but to find the clue and head to the next spot
- Your final spot can be where snacks are!
8. Relay Races
Before you start thinking about sprinting around the track and passing off a baton, let’s mix this up a little bit. There are a lot of ways to take this idea and mix it up for fun.
8. Three-Legged Race: No one will be going fast, but they will be going! You tie the right and left leg together of two runners, then on your mark the teams race from one end to the other. Tagging teammates who will go next.
9. Balloon Pop: On go a runner dashes to a pile of balloons and must pop one before returning to tag a teammate. The team that can get through all their runners first wins.
10. Fill The Bucket Relay Races: On one end is an empty container, on the other is a large bucket filled with water. Each team will get a cup, fill it with water and race to their container one at a time. The team to fill their container first wins.
11. Suitcase Relay: Have a suitcase full of funny costumes. On your go, each team sends a runner who must pull on an outfit and race back to their team to tag the next runner. Once they’ve all pulled on an outfit first their team wins.
Have you ever played HORSE in basketball? Well this is a fun variation for runners, especially when you have a smaller group.
- One person is the leader, who chooses a specific run and running style from spot to spot (i.e. maybe they run backwards from tree to tree)
- Each person must complete that task or get a letter
- Kids will shock you with their creativity when this gets going, especially if you provide things like hula hoops or jump ropes to add to the fun
13. Run Like an Animal
As kids are progressing and you want them to run a bit longer, this game is an up level of Red Light, Green Light.
Here, you’re going to pick out 5-7 animals and assign each a pace. When you yell out the animal, that’s what they should do.
Here’s an example breakdown:
- Cheetah = Run as hard as you can
- Dog = Still fast, but not winded
- Gazelle = Run with ease, think about gliding
- Turtle = Slow Walk
- Sloth = Barely moving
You can also change this up as well to make each animal something like skipping or hopping, whatever works for your age group.
100% this is a running game! Whether you want to play it with a traditional ball or have some summer fun with water balloons, kids must run if they want to stay in the game.
- Divide the group in to two teams, each time has a side and cannot cross the center line
- Each team gets a set of balls or balloons
- Once hit by a ball or balloon a player is out
- The team that has 1 player remaining in the end wins
15. Set up a Mini Race
Wait isn’t this about games? Of course, what kid hasn’t ever looked at you and said “race you to____”? Racing can be fun when we keep it that way!
Don’t think about this as being some traditional race, no registration needed, or even needing a track or field. The next time you’re at the park, throw out the challenge and let them pick up on it.
After you’ve recovered from that first run, let them pick the spot for the next “I’ll race you”.
16. Chain Builder Tag
This is a totally new to me style of tag, but one I wish we’d done. It requires a little more coordination and gets you working together.
- One player is assigned as it
- When they tag someone they then link hands and continue running after the others
- Each person tagged joins the chain, until all the kids are finally part of the chain
17. Last Runner Out
This is another running game that comes from track and field and is similar to musical chairs!
Using a track or other specified circle, the group will run only on your “go”.
- Runners will continue running that circle, until you yell “Last runner out”
- Then upon completing the circle, the last to cross the line will be out.
- All the runners will continue going in the circle, until the next time you tell and a runner is out
- Until you are left with 1 runner
You can also have the runners who are out, continue running in the opposite direction. Particularly useful if it is a game for older kids.
Again, kids often surprise us with how excited they get to push. And for middle and high school athletes, it can be a fun way to mix up practice.
4 Running Tips for Kids
While there is a lot to say about training kids to run, today we’re really focusing on the mental side of things. How do you keep things fun as they’re progressing and ensure that running stays something they enjoy.
Big thanks to Katie for providing these additional tips based on the experiences she’s had with her kids!
1. Remove the Pace Pressure
As adults, we know that running is much more enjoyable at a slow, relaxed pace; kids, on the other hand, only know one speed: sprint.
Kids really have no idea what “pacing themselves” means, so when you tell them to run, they’ll run top speed for a short distance and then burn out.
- try running with them at a slow pace
- teach them that the majority of their runs should be at a pace where they can have a conversation
- If it’s too hard to talk, then they’re running too fast
Useful if they’ve decided they want to run your next 5k or 10k with you! Most kids can indeed handle these distances without injury, so the main issue is helping them get to the end because of that often insane out of the gate energy burst.
2. Dangle Running Only Goodies
For example, when Eli saw that I bought Gu and Shot Bloks, he really wanted some. I told him no, that they were just for when I run; but if he wanted to run, then he could use them, too.
Not even 10 seconds later, he had his shoes on and was ready to run out the door!
When Noah joined cross country this year, I let him wear my Garmin Forerunner to one of his invitationals. He thought he was the coolest kid there, sporting a fancy GPS watch!
Something that really surprised me was how much my kids wanted to use my treadmill.
Lots of us call the treadmill a “dreadmill”; but to a child, it’s a big toy. My kids thought it was SO fun to be able to run on the treadmill. Things like the Garmin, Gu, and treadmill seem like silly incentives to us, but if they motivate kids to go for a run, great!Don’t forget to pick races that allow for even more fun. Like costumes or color runs!
3. Set Fun Goals
Getting kids to try running is the easy part, but getting them to stick to it is much harder. I think the best way to do that is to sign them up for a race (beginners can start with a short fun-run, then work their way up to a 5K).
Even if they end up walking a lot of it, they will get to experience the competition and the excitement of race day. Kids are naturally very competitive, and it will light a fire under them to get better for the next race!
Noah is in fifth grade, and the only sport available to that grade in his school is cross country. I told him I was going to sign him up, because it was only six weeks long, and if he didn’t like it, he’d never have to do it again. (But he did have to complete the full six weeks.)
He was really nervous to go to practice that first day, but he did it—and he really enjoyed it. He was the slowest one on the team, starting at a 14:00/mile pace, but he didn’t let that phase him.
Just eight weeks after starting cross country, we did a 5K, and he ran the entire race at a 9:50 pace! Eli also ran the 5K, with a goal to run the entire distance, and he did it—finishing in 36:24.
4. Praise the Effort
When kids do run, make sure you praise them up for it, regardless of their speed, or whether they took walk breaks, etc. All it takes is one discouraging comment from a parent to make them not want to run anymore.
I was just as proud of Noah for his 14:00 mile as I was for his fastest, a 9:13 mile, and I made sure he felt it.
I also told Noah that if he tried his best during cross country, I would take him to the running store to buy a special pair of shoes that are just for running. That reward worked really well for him! Eli, on the other hand, just wanted to get an ice cream after his 5K ;)
Hopefully all of these ideas will give you some ways to sneak in a little more physical activity with the kids, while keeping it all fun and light-hearted.
Katie Foster is a stay-at-home mom and blogger, who lost over 100 pounds through diet and exercise. She runs to eat her favorite foods, particularly dessert, and still maintain the weight loss. She blogs at Runs for Cookies about weight, running, family, her cats, and just about anything else going on in her life.
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