When you’re at home all day every day with young kids, it gets challenging to find time for yourself to work from home, cook dinner, or just take a break. A lot of the recommended activities for younger children may be fun for the kids, but end up being heavy on parent involvement—which is great most of the time, but all parents know that sometimes you just need your little one to entertain themselves for a few minutes, especially as a long summer opens up ahead with what might be limited options for travel or entertainment outside the house.
So here are some creative options for keeping young kids occupied for longer stretches of time, without needing much help from parents once they get started. Some of the suggested activities are completely hands on, while others require screens—and many can be done indoors or outdoors.
Play-based activities (without screens)
Have a ball. For the littlest ones, try creating an impromptu ball pit or stuffed animal pit! Set up a playpen, large cardboard box, or kiddie pool indoors or outdoors, and fill it with as many soft balls, stuffed animals, or other safe, age-appropriate toys as you can gather. If you do this at the right time with a well-fed, well-rested child, you should be able to buy yourself time to do a non-kid-related thing, even if you’re sitting 10 feet away the whole time.
Let them be a sensory scientist. Young kids usually love having the chance to get messy and experiment, but it doesn’t have to be so messy that you spend another 30 minutes cleaning up afterwards. Set up water play and simple sensory experiences in the bathtub, outdoors, or at the kitchen counter where clean-up is much easier. All you need are a few small cups of water (try tinting some with a drop of food coloring), plus some other random items like pieces of cardboard, tissue paper, ice cubes, cotton balls, dried beans, leaves, uncooked rice, measuring spoons, empty spice containers—basically anything they can experiment with that you don’t mind getting wet. Then let them see what happens when they combine, pour, and mix (within a designated area) and it’s like free hands-on learning for them, while you get a bit of a breather. Just be sure to keep your child’s safety in mind; if they’re still putting everything in their mouths (particularly if they’re under 4 years old) don’t give them any supplies that could be choking hazards.
Keep it clean. Another twist on the water play idea is to task your kiddo with washing all their Legos or figurines in the bathtub or sink, or in buckets outside. Alternatively, let them play with any set of plastic toys or kid-safe kitchen utensils they want, but in the water for an exciting twist! Add washcloths, brushes, soap bubbles, or other accessories as you wish. Since you need to keep an eye on young kids at all times around water, this activity is best when you can still give them your attention but just need a break from being part of the action.
Build on old favorites. If your kids are tired of their usual set of blocks, hook them up with new building supplies that you can scrounge from around the house. Think toilet paper tubes, cardboard boxes, plastic containers, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners or twist-ties, masking tape, or toothpicks (plus something soft to poke them into, like marshmallows, gumdrops, or playdough). Then challenge them to build a house, tower, bridge, playground, you name it—a great activity for older kids, too!
Screen-based activities and classes
Keep it “class”-y. Let’s face it, sometimes you do need to turn to screens to keep kids occupied, but you can make sure they’re doing more than just sitting there staring at a TV show or movie. If you’re looking for educational screen time that’s super engaging, ABC Mouse, BrainPOP, and Prodigy are just some of the great platforms that parents highly recommend.
Coloring and drawing can be great for young kids, but often just doesn’t keep them engaged long enough for parents to get anything done. That’s why families have been loving the Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems video series, where the beloved children’s illustrator gets kids of all ages excited about drawing and creating. Many public libraries and other community institutions are providing free online arts, literacy, or other educational classes and resources too—so look up the local places you miss being able to bring your kids to, and see what they’re offering!
Get moving. If you’re in the market for active screen time that keeps kids’ bodies moving, try Cosmic Kids Yoga videos on YouTube, where kids can follow along to a story while getting in exercise and stretching; or GoNoodle Games where kids have to move their bodies to complete each challenge.
Enlist some virtual help. Another screen-related activity for kids age 3+ that parents can feel good about is to schedule a video call with a grandparent or another loved one. Beyond chatting, they can read to each other or play another simple virtual game together. Try the Caribu app to make on-screen reading easier and get access to more books. If you coach both parties ahead of time, they may be able to keep it up for a long stretch without you having to constantly look over their shoulder or even be in the same room.
Once you experiment with one of these self-directed activities, whether it works for your particular child or not, it’ll probably make you think of other kid-friendly and adult-friendly setups that are worth a try. With some creativity and plenty of resourcefulness, parents are finding ways to get through the days, weeks, and months of this pandemic, while building in some variety for their children—and some much-needed free time for themselves.