Like many parents across the country, I have spent most of the last year taking care of my kids (a toddler and a preschooler) while working from home. Keeping kids entertained is a never-ending challenge: New toys lose their luster and cooking projects require time and materials you might not have.
When you're feeling less than inspired, having some new (or new-to-you) play ideas can make all the difference during these stressful times. Here are some parent-tested, budget-friendly ideas for entertaining kids at home.
FOR TODDLERS AND PRESCHOOLERS
Rocks and Crafts. If you want to make your outdoor walks more fun or give kids something to do in the backyard, hunt for rocks, then paint them to make garden decorations, says New Jersey–based Ingrid Read, founder of online community Working Momkind and mom of a 3-year-old. It's a craft that’s low stakes for mess if you’re painting outside — do it in a cardboard box to contain any spills.
Water Play. When getting outside isn’t an option, turn your kitchen sink into a water play zone, says writer Debi Lewis from Evanston, Illinois.
“Put a huge pile of plastic toy food and plastic toy dishes on the counter, pull a chair up to the sink, and have your child wash everything,” she says. “My daughters would do this for 45 minutes at a time. Playing in water calmed them, and I could sit at the kitchen table and work within grabbing distance of them. Even if they make a huge mess, it’s just soapy water. Easy to clean up!”
You can turn bath time into a learning activity as well, says New York City–based author and mom of two Lesley Téllez. “My 5-year-old loves simple science experiments, like putting things in the bathtub to see what floats.”
Hide-and-Seek Variations. For a new spin on an old game, incorporate toys into the fun, says Montana–based author Keema Waterfield.
“We play Hide-and-Go Truck, where the kids hide their trucks in one room for me to find,” says the mom of a 2- and 4-year-old. This game keeps the action in one zone and gives kids a chance to stump their parents, which is always a hit.
For those moments when you’re on a Zoom call but your kids need some attention, you can reverse the game and hide items for them to find — anything from their stuffed animals to snacks.
FOR SCHOOL-AGE KIDS
DIY Toys. A great challenge for kids is to ask them to make a toy out of items they can find around the house, says Maryland mom of two Shannon Brescher Shea, author of “Growing Sustainable Together.”
“Using recycled materials, they can make a marble run, or a puppet or robot out of cardboard tubes and boxes,” she says.
Fun With Food. For an easy, silly activity, grab a potato and get creative, suggests Boston–based writer and editor Johannah Haney.
“We used to make Potato Monsters when my kiddo was around 5 or 6,” she says. “Take a potato and stick in toothpicks so it can stand on its toothy legs. Some call for toothpick wings and some googly eyes, too. When you’re done the potato has plenty of holes for baking, and it might get your kid to eat a baked potato.”
Play Dress-Up. “Purge your closets and drawers and make a dress-up bin out of what you find,” says Butte, Montana–based journalist Kate Wehr, who has five children ranging from 4 months to 9 years. “My kids now have a rotary phone that came with the house, several of our old flip phones, keys that go to nothing, some of my costume jewelry, a vintage coat that doesn’t fit me, all the old Halloween costumes, a bathrobe I never use and several bags and purses that I no longer need.” Their dress-up bin, Wehr says, keeps them entertained for hours.
FOR TWEENS AND TEENS
Watch Oldies. Turn screen time into family fun time. St. Louis-based writer Kristina Weis Brune and her husband convinced their kids (ages 10 and 13) to watch their favorite childhood classics, including “Back to the Future” and “The Mighty Ducks” during quarantine.
“They were very resistant to our ‘old time movies’ but they ended up really enjoying it — even if they did poke fun at the terrible special effects,” she says. “We were able to find a great sampling of older movies on the streaming platforms we already pay for.”
Tackle a Household Project. Tweens and teens are at an age where they can do a major household project mostly unsupervised, so think of something around the house you’ve been wanting to tackle and get them to take the lead. For instance, “We have gone through all my kids' old toys to donate, sell or pass on to their younger cousins,” says Dawn Allcot, a Long Island, New York, mom of a 9- and 12-year-old who runs travel site Geek Travel Guide.
FOR ALL AGES
Dance Together. Allcot also has a great two-for-one activity that combines quality time and movement.
“My daughter and I look up dance videos on YouTube on the TV and dance together,” she says. “It’s like having the video game ‘Just Dance’ or ‘Dance Dance Revolution,’ but no game system is required — so much fun and terrific exercise!”
Relive Memories. Have the kids take themselves down memory lane, suggests St. Louis mom Emily Jane Chapman Hubbard, whose four kids are ages 6 to 12.
“Looking through old pictures can burn 30 minutes to an hour,” she says. Pull up your photo storage app or library and cast it to the TV if you can. Have kids take turns clicking on images and videos so they can reminisce together.