Fun New Ways to Play in the Dark

By Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

The dark can be scary at any age, but for families who use their imaginations, the night is made for adventure. All our senses are heightened and a whole new world of fun and games becomes available.

It's not only a good time to talk about what animals do when the sun goes down, but also the perfect chance to introduce the night sky to young children. Shed light on the unique opportunities for nighttime fun and learning by trying out some of the following activities with your child:


  • Indoor Routines

  • Senses Save the Night

  • Let's Get Physical

  • Imagine That

  • Baby, It's Dark Outside

  • Resources

    Indoor Routines

    Goodnight Room - Personalize a nighttime routine in which your child says good-night not only to the usual suspects - stuffed animals and toys and pets - but also to the light-switch, the dust very likely lurking in the carpet, and the misplaced puzzle pieces hiding under the bed. Or go through the alphabet saying nighty-night to something that begins with each letter: What's something that begins with an "A"? Artwork?

    An older child might get a kick out of a night-themed game at bedtime: Look around the room and make a one-sentence "night connection" to every possible item. For example: See a little racecar? Here's a possible night connection sentence: "The driver of a race car has to put her lights on as soon as it's dusk." Anything goes!

    Flashlight Hunt - When it's fully dark, hide a few items around the house, or limit the search to one room, depending on your child's age and powers of observation. Give your child a flashlight and then tell him what to hunt for: a particular stuffed animal, a basket of fruit, a picture dictionary …

    Solar System - As a family, act out the rhythms of the heavenly bodies. Each of you can take turns being the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and perhaps another planet or two or a distant star. Set the "Moon" child revolving around the "Earth" child, who is, in turn, revolving around the "Sun" child. Don't strive for too much accuracy with very young children, but older school-aged ones can really try to get it right.

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    Senses Save the Night

    Hide-a-Clock - Hide a ticking clock somewhere in the house and set your kids loose to locate it.

    Things That Go Buzz in the Night - Have your child lie quietly indoors after dark with the windows open. See how many sounds she can identify. More and more subtle sounds will be recognizable the longer she lies still and listens.

    Touch and Tell - Is there a room in your house that you can make totally dark? Go there and tell your child you're going to hand him something. Can he identify it by its shape alone? Try food items, toys, something from a kitchen drawer (nothing sharp!). You can also play this with blindfolds, but real dark makes it even more fun.

    Sound Charades - Write something that makes a sound on each of 10 or more blank cards, such as horse, violin, drum, doorbell, clock, heartbeat, popcorn. Divide into two teams, even if there's only one of you on each "team." Everyone picks a card and teammates guess the sound you're acting out. If there are only two of you, you each guess the other's sound.

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    Let's Get Physical

    Flashlight Limbo - Play this to music in a nearly dark room. Two people holding flashlights stand a few feet apart. Point the lit flashlights at each other so that they form a single level beam of light for a third person to limbo under. Or show a child how to play alone by arranging two flashlights on the ends of two tables or other items of furniture in such a way that they form a beam to limbo under.

    Sardines - Play a lights-out form of hide-and-seek: "It" hides, while the seekers move around in the dark whispering "sardines" and listening for a whispered response from the hidden person. As seekers individually find "It," they join "It" in his or her hiding place. The last person is the next "It."

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    Imagine That

    Make a Mask - In this variation of the familiar paper plate craft, two plates are needed, as well as markers, a stapler, any additional crafts materials desired and a flashlight. After your child draws a dramatic face on one paper plate, an adult cuts out the features (jack-o-lantern style). Then staple two plates together, leaving a hole in the bottom large enough for a flashlight to fit through snugly. The child can then further decorate the mask with paint and glued on ears or whiskers. Finally, the child inserts the flashlight and holds the mask up in front of his or her own face.

    Shadow Play - Show your child how to make a simple animal appear on the wall using your hands. Simply sit between a lamp or a flashlight and a blank part of a wall, and wiggle both hands in such a way that animals and other shapes form on the wall. Or move swiftly around the room or yard holding flashlights, watching how your shadows change shape as you crouch or stretch tall or lean over. Be sure your shadows avoid each other's toes.

    Scary Storytelling - Gather around a campfire or just sit close to one another in the dark of the front yard (or the living room). Begin by saying "Once upon a time …" and then have your child add a sentence. Explain that each sentence that is added should be a cliffhanger, perhaps relating to the night, such as "And then suddenly, just as the candles blew out, a huge furry ..." Then the next person can fill in more detail and lead up to more surprises to come. Encourage the wildest of plot twists.

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    Baby, It's Dark Outside

    Take a Night Walk - Choose a night when there's light from at least a quarter moon. Tell your child it takes about 20 minutes for our eyes to adapt to the dark. The light from flashlights affects your adaptation to the dark, so cover their lenses with red socks or red cellophane. Ask your child to identify nighttime light sources: stars, the Moon, nearby houses, lampposts, distant stores. Can he detect light being reflected off water, metal or glass? Observe the silhouettes of trees against the sky. Does the night smell differently than the day?

    Frame a Constellation - Make it easy to sketch the patterns stars make in the sky by creating a star frame first. Stretch a wire coat hanger into a square shape (pull on the bottom part of the hanger near the middle). Straighten the handle and cover it with masking tape for safety. Hold the frame up to the night sky to set off a section of the sky, and use a paper and pencil to copy the positions of the brightest stars caught in the frame.

    Younger children can connect the star dots and make up their own fables to go with the pictures that appear. Older children might like to investigate the stories behind the constellations they've drawn.

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    Keepers of the Night: Native American Stories and Nocturnal Activities for Children, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, Fulcrum Publishing, 1994. Fresh, enriching fun for families with school-age children, especially ages 9 and up.

    Night in the Country, by Cynthia Rylant, Aladdin Library, 1991. Experience and explore how different the country is at night with this picture book for ages 4 to 8.

    A South African Night, by Rachel Isadora, Greenwillow, 1998. This simply written picture book details the transition from day to night for people in a large African city and for animals in a national park. For ages 4 to 8.

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    See more Playing Smart Games & Activities.

    Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14 (Free Spirit Publishing, 2001), from which this column is adapted. Check out her Web site at

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