Therapeutic Outdoor Activities for Cookouts


Are you ready to add some new outdoor activities to your next cookout? Here are some fun, therapeutic cookout ideas to engage just about any population.

Memorial Day is an important time to remember those who lost their lives helping make our country what it is today. It also marks the start of cookout season. While the grills fire up with everyone’s favorite outdoor comfort foods, you will need some outdoor activities to stimulate your participants’ appetites.

Use this guide to help you plan your cookout and discover new products to create a therapeutic experience.

Planning Your Cookout

As any Recreation Therapist or Activity Professional could tell you, planning a cookout is no small task. It often requires a seamless coordination among different departments (dietary, maintenance, nursing, etc.) to be successful. And, of course, you have the weather. If only you could order a slightly breezy 70 degree day with a little bit of cloud cover.

image of cookout grillThings to consider for your cookout:

  • Food safety: For some, this may fall upon the dietary department, but you want to make sure you don’t serve food that has been left out for a long period of time. Take measures to keep hot food hot and cold food cold. This prevents the spread of foodborne illness. If you serve perishable food outdoors, never let it sit out for more than two hours–less than an hour if possible.
  • Food variety: While hot dogs and hamburgers make up the standard menu for many cookouts, you may want to consider some alternatives. Your participants may be on strict diets or have specific food preferences. Consider low-fat and vegetarian options as well as healthy side dishes like fresh vegetables and fruit salad.
  • Hydration: As your participants enjoy the activities you planned, you want to make sure they stay hydrated. Have a readily available source of water, sparkling water, or a low calorie sports drink. While many enjoy sodas during cookouts, they often contain caffeine and lots of sugar.
  • Sun protection: Make sure you have an area of shade for those who are more sensitive to the sun. After all, some medications–like antibiotics, allergy medications, and antidepressants–makes participants much more sensitive to the sun’s heat and light. Also, have sunscreen available. If you plan water activities, ensure the sunscreen is waterproof or have participants re-apply afterwards.
  • Social interactions: A cookout is about enjoying time with others. Too often we are caught up in the other details of a cookout that we neglect enhancing social opportunities. Think of your last cookout at home–was it an endless stream of activities or a relaxed atmosphere filled with conversation, stories, and laughter? Activities are great, and many participants thrive, but don’t overlook the social aspect.
  • Finding activities your participants enjoy: Of course, this varies based on your specific population. Be sure to include both passive and active games to engage your participants. Also, adapt your activity planning to the weather. Heat, humidity, rain, and even cool days could mean altering your well-planned activities with a moment’s notice. Try to include new and familiar activities that have therapeutic benefits. Even though cookouts are a relaxing time for participants to enjoy themselves it doesn’t mean you can’t sneak a little therapy into the event.

Planning Outdoor Activities for Your Cookoutimage of kids playing

Once you have the menu and safety measures in place, it’s time to plan the fun. How do you pick engaging outdoor activities? In short, know your participants. Do you have an active, adventurous bunch? Does your group prefer to sit in the shade and take advantage of the food offerings? Can you get them to try new versions of games they love?

Luckily, tons of outdoor activities are available for just about every activity level. And, as a Recreation Therapist, you can put a twist on them to add to their therapeutic value.

Here are some ideas I found (or used in the past) to give participants a memorable cookout both engaging and therapeutic.

Big Versions of Table Games

We all know table games have many benefits. Practicing social, fine motor, critical thinking, and academic skills are just a few. What if you can take these beloved games outdoors? Even better, what if you can allow your participants to build on games they already know to help with gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and getting out of their comfort zones.

A popular trend in outdoor activities is taking games we often enjoy in the dining or activity room and expanding them for a whole new experience. For example, a two foot tall Connect Four game or a version of “Jenga” that can get to up to five feet high can make those table game lovers reach for more than another hamburger. Have Yahtzee lovers? This large wooden dice set can add a new element of fun.

Make it Therapeutic

A “giant” game tournament can be a fun way to engage participants even during those hot, humid cookouts. It not only provides an opportunity for socialization skills, it’s a more active version of the games the participants already love.

Safer Alternatives to Old Favorites

Those of us of a certain age remember lawn darts of the past. In fact, you may even have a memory of how these metal-tipped lawn toys caused an injury to a friend or family member. In this litigation-friendly era, you can bet lawn darts are safer and more user-friendly. Of course, this makes your job as a Recreation Therapists easier and a little less scary.

The thought of horseshoes may also make any RT cringe. They are heavy and prone to bruise just about any toe of participants and nearby spectators. And, for those with limited abilities, horseshoes may be too heavy to accurately throw.  Luckily, rubber versions are available to provide a safer, more accessible experience both indoors and for outdoor activities.    

Make it Therapeutic

These activities engage participants and help with body posture, gross motor skills, decision-making, and social skills. You could even adapt these old favorites for a new experience. For example, if you have a lawn dart set and some extra hula hoops, you can create a tic-tac-toe tossing game. Did I already mention how modified table games can make great outdoor activities?  

Less Preparation Time

What’s the worst part of cookouts for Activity Professionals? Certainly the setup and takedown rank in the top three. Anyone who struggled with a typical volleyball or badminton net would surely agree. Finding level ground, pounding in posts, and even trying to figure out how to set up the net can take time and energy away from everything else you need to do to make your cookout successful. And, of course, you can’t set things up a day or two before in case the landscaping crew needs to mow the lawn.

Want to save yourself a bunch of time for your next cookout? Consider portable nets. These lightweight nets don’t require stakes and can be set up and taken down quickly without a team of experts. Who wants to struggle taking down a net when an unexpected shower pops up?

Make it Therapeutic

Of course, the saved time and hassle will be therapeutic to your busy day. Portable nets can offer a range of games based on your participants’ abilities. Lower functioning residents may enjoy a game of balloon volleyball. Even a simple game of hitting a shuttlecock or volleyball over the net into a target can prove valuable if you don’t have enough participants to form teams.

As you could see, there are plenty of products to expand your cookout activity palette. Since June and July often marks the end of some organizations’ fiscal years, now may be the best time to purchase equipment providing new opportunities throughout the summer season.

Looking for more outdoor activities? Check out one of my previous Memorial Day blog post.

All the best to your cookout season!

Note: Some links found in this TRRT article are affiliate links. This means the website gets a small percentage of a purchase you make when using the link. This helps with administrative costs like web hosting and keeping the site secure. After all, pop up ads are annoying–nobody wants to see them. Any product I link on this site is helpful and reputable either through personal experience or thorough research.  

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What are your favorite cookout activities?

Do you have an adaptation for a popular outdoor activity?

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