Badminton: How to Play
A racket game similar to tennis, badminton is unique in that it's played with a shuttlecock (yes, your tweens will be repeating that word over ... and over ... and over) rather than a ball. The shuttlecock—or "birdie"—travels through the air differently than a ball because of its unique shape. Officially, it's played up to 21 points.
Most essential for badminton play is the shuttlecock, which you can find in a six-pack for under $3. Next come the rackets—these are rounder and smaller than tennis rackets. Badminton is played either in singles or pairs, but you may want even more than four rackets if you foresee it becoming a whole-family game. Finally, there's the net and stakes. Be careful when you buy that you're getting the poles, too—otherwise you'll have a net but nowhere to hang it (unless you can string it between trees or existing poles). You can also buy everything in a set, which is probably the cheaper way to go.
To buy: Franklin Badminton Set, $32
Bocce: How to Play
A member of the boules category, which includes games like pétanque and lawn bowling that are played with metal balls, bocce originated in Italy. It's played with two teams, each of which can have one to four members. The point of the game is to throw or roll the balls so they land as close as possible to a smaller ball, called the jack. It's generally played on a natural soil or asphalt court, but for family play, backyard grass will work just fine.
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Don't get too freaked out by the metal balls—though that's what bocce is traditionally played with, you can absolutely use plastic or resin balls. You're not alone if the thought of your 3-year-old with a metal ball in hand is a little too scary! You'll need eight bigger balls (four per team) and one smaller ball (the jack). The set we've found is good for both beginners and slightly more advanced players, but if you're solely playing with the kids, go for a cheaper plastic set.
To buy: Halex Deluxe Bocce Ball Set, $40
Cornhole: How to Play
Also known as bean bag toss or simply "bags," cornhole started out in the Midwest and is gaining popularity throughout the country. Players or teams take turns throwing bean bags at a tilted platform with a hole in the far end. The objective is to get the bag in the hole, though you also score points for getting it on the platform. Modify for littler kids by placing the two platforms closer together so they don't have to toss the bags as far.
All you need to play cornhole are two tilted platforms and about eight beanbags. If you're handy and have a few wooden planks on hand, you might be able to build the platforms on your own. Otherwise, splurge for a sturdy pair—they'll last you a long time. One of the best parts of cornhole is customizing the platforms, so buy plain ones if you can. Then give your kids some weatherproof paint and let them go to work!
To buy: Cornhole Set, $65
Croquet: How to Play
The concept of croquet is pretty simple: Wire hoops (often called "wickets") are rooted into the grass to form a course, and players use mallets to hit their ball through the course. Whoever gets through all the wickets first is the winner. There are a few different rule variations depending on what style of croquet you're practicing, but those are the basics. Just start playing, and your family will probably develop its own version of the game!
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A good croquet set comes with wickets, mallets, balls and two sticks to signify the starting and ending spots. The mallets and balls are generally color-coordinated. Kids have fun picking out a set in their favorite color. Sets come with either four or six pairs of balls and mallets. Most balls are made of highly durable plastic, but some still come in wood. Don't let the plastic thing fool you—croquet balls are always heavy, and kids should be taught to keep them on the ground. No throwing at each other!
To buy: Franklin 6-Player Advanced Croquet Set, $42
Golf Toss: How to Play
The "golf" component of golf toss is the bola—two balls connected together with a rope. The bola is thrown at a ladder, which has three different rungs. You get one point for landing the bola on the bottom rung, two points for the middle and three points for the top. The aim of the game is to get exactly 21 points—not more, not less.
Golf Toss: Gear
The game is patented as Ladder Golf, and you can find sets on the website, but there are many (cheaper) variations out there. Sets generally come with two ladders and about six bolas. If you're crafty, you can also build the ladders on your own using either wood or plastic tubing, and simply buy the bola.
To buy: Franklin Sports Golf Toss Game, $42
Horseshoes: How to Play
The simple version: Players toss horseshoes at a stake. The closer the horseshoes land to the stake, the more points. Most points wins! If you're playing with younger kids, this is probably a good place to start. If you want a little more structure, here are the general rules (gameplay does vary depending on region): Decide who will "pitch" (throw their horseshoe) first based on a coin toss. Whoever wins gets two horseshoe tosses, then the other player takes their two turns. "Ringers" (horseshoes that completely encircle the stake) get three points. "Leaners" (horseshoes that lean up against the stake) get one point. If both of your horseshoes land closer to the stake than the other player's, you get two points. Play continues until one player reaches an agreed-upon number of points.
All you really need to play horseshoes are four horseshoes to throw, and at least one stick to throw them at. (Horseshoes rules say that two stakes are placed 40 feet apart and players first throw at one stake, then the other ... but honestly, we can't think of any good reason to not just play with one stake.) Sand, clay or other non-bouncy ground is preferable, but grass should work just fine. Horseshoes are generally made of steel and therefore very heavy ... and dangerous. Go for a plastic set if you have young kids.
To buy: Official Horseshoe Game Set, $34
Kickball: How to Play
If you know how to play baseball or softball, you know how to play kickball. It's easy to modify the game depending on how many people are playing, the space you have, and the relative age and ability of your players. All you really need is one person to pitch the ball and another to kick. From there, just keep adding people to each team.
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Besides a ball, there's not much you need to play kickball. Bases are nice, but you can use pretty much anything to make them—a fancy, official set is not necessary. In terms of the ball, general playground balls are nice to use, but whatever you have around the house is fine. You have your choice in terms of size (bigger is easier for smaller kids to make contact with) and color. Thicker rubber is also available, which makes the ball sturdier but also causes a little more pain when it hits you (or your small, sensitive child).
To buy: Baden Playground Ball, $14
Shuffleboard: How to Play
In shuffleboard, players use broom-shaped devices (called "tangs") to push weighted pucks down an elongated, wooden surface. Various amounts of points are awarded (or subtracted) depending on where the puck (also called a "biscuit") lands. An outdoor deck or a concrete driveway is a good place for casual play.
The essentials for a game of shuffleboard: tangs and biscuits. The more of each you have, the more people can play. This set has four tangs and eight biscuits, in two different colors so you can tell each team's apart. The rollout court is a very nice touch, though not necessary—crafty kids can create their own make-do court using chalk and (if they're so inclined) a tape measure. Having this sort of court, though, makes it easy to transport and play anywhere.
To buy: Champion Sports Shuffleboard Set, $85
Tetherball: How to Play
You remember this classic playground game. It's a two-person game, but you can get the family or party involved by pitting winner off against the next contender, or making up a bracket. Plus, games are fun to watch and relatively quick. It involves a stationary pole and a ball hung from it by a rope. Players stand on either side of the pole, and try to hit the ball in opposite directions—clockwise or counter-clockwise. Whoever first wraps the ball entirely around the pole in their direction wins.
Thinking back to your playground days? Don't worry, you won't need one of those magical poles sticking up out of the concrete in order to play. You can buy a set that has an easily assembled pole in addition to a ball, pump and rope. If you happen to have your own freestanding pole, you can also simply get a tetherball with a rope attached.
To buy: Franklin Recreational Tetherball Set, $30
Volleyball: How to Play
Officially? Volleyball is pretty complicated. But for backyard play, it's quite simple: Teams use their arms or closed hands to hit a ball over a net. Each side gets up to three touches every time the ball comes over to their side—that is, the first person to hit the ball doesn't need to hit it over the net. They can hit it to a teammate, who can hit it to another teammate, who then must hit it over the net. Points are scored when the ball goes out of bounds or hits the ground inbounds on either side.
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The only essential equipment for volleyball is the ball. If you don't have any sort of net, you'll also need to get one of those (along with poles to hang it up, unless you have trees to string it between). Simply volleying in the backyard is fun enough for smaller kids, though.
To buy: Park & Sun Spiker Volleyball Set, $75