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23 Fun Ways to Keep Kids Busy While Everyone is Home

May 10, 2020

Keeping children engaged while they and their grownups take shelter from the novel coronavirus pandemic can be a challenge, especially if the adults are working from home. Danielle Waite, Director UC Merced’s Early Childhood Education Center, compiled this list of age-appropriate activities for kids.

One of the goals of these activities is to give children an alternative to computers or phones. Screen time can be used to assist parents and caregivers during part of the day, but children need a break from these devices.

Safety reminder: If your child puts objects and materials in the mouth, please choose larger materials that are not a choking hazard.

Remember, children like repetition. These activities can be cycled every few days. Change an item or two or put them in a different location to keep them interesting and fresh.

Light Table: Line the sides of a transparent tub or container with aluminum foil, leaving the bottom uncovered. Place battery-operated or plug-in string lights under the inverted tub. You’ve created a light table! This can be a base for translucent plastics, arranging loose parts (toothpicks, flowers, leaves, corks, bottle caps, feathers, etc.) for ephemeral art designs, and tracing (for older children). It’s a great attraction in the dark corner of a room.

Table Tent: Convert any tall table (dining room or kitchen table) into a cozy tent and hiding spot. Place a large sheet or blanket over the table and add pillows, toys or books to make it an entertaining getaway. If you made a light table (above), add it to the tent. You can check in on their play by leaving the blanket six inches or so above the floor. The children still will feel they are in a secret hiding area.

Paper Airplanes: Make an abundance of paper airplanes. Talk your child through the construction or quickly fold a number of them. You can use recycled paper. Let them decorate the planes, then throw! You can limit which rooms (if indoors) or directions (if outdoors) your child can throw them. Children like to throw and retrieve them over and over. You can encourage building an airport or similar docking area from old cereal boxes. For infants, you can throw the paper airplane for the child to retrieve, encouraging movement.

Card Slot/Ball Drop: Using an oatmeal container, coffee container, Pringles can, wipes container, etc., create a simple activity that engages fine motor and auditory skills. Make a small hole or slit in the lid and let your child drop corks, playing cards, paper clips, balls, or other small toys through the lid. Let them experiment with different sizes of objects and discover the different sounds they make.

Animal Tape Rescue: Use masking tape to trap plastic animals/dinosaurs/vehicles on walls, the floor or doors. You can even tape them together. Use less tape for younger children, more for older ones. Have your child figure out how to free the toy! Provide tweezers and scissors for older children to help with their fine motor skill development.

Muffin Pan Sorting: Provide your child with assorted muffin pans for a variety of sorting projects. Small blocks, Duplos, magnetic letters, small rocks and even small toys can be put into the muffin slots. Watch how your child begins to use the sections of the pans. Sometimes this type of open-ended activity is the most inspiring for a young child.

Shredded Paper: Grab a big pot, basket or box, fill it with paper from a paper shredder (or use grass cuttings), and hide objects and toys in the container for your child to find. This may get messy, but it is easy to clean up.

Tape Parades: Place masking tapeon your carpet or floors. Make patterns or designs to inspire your child. Have your child place toys, rocks, cars, trains, Duplos, bottle caps, and natural items (flowers, leaves, small pinecones, etc.) on the tape to make their own parade. Your child may be inspired to make other play scenarios from the patterns on the floor.

Sink/Float: Fill a tall pot, dishpan, or clear large-mouth jar (mayonnaise or spaghetti jars are ideal) with water to experiment with sink/float aspects. Provide objects like small balls, pieces of sponge, toys, leaves, rocks, utensils, etc., and let the child experiment. Older children can chart their predictions and/or findings on whether an object sinks or floats. Add dish soap to see if it changes the properties. Make sure you have a towel nearby for any spills.

Pouring: This is a good activity for outside or inside a dishpan. Give your child a number of small containers (small glasses, coffee cups, vases, bowls, etc.). If you have watercolors, you can color the water. I do not recommend food coloring for this because it stains. You also can add a little oil or soap. Children love to pour from container to container. They see shape and volume. You can provide a small sponge for your child to mop up spills in the dishpans. Squeezing a sponge is great for strengthening hands and fingers for writing and other fine motor activities. You can add eye droppers, turkey basters, spoons, small scoops and syringes (use clean medication syringes). You also can do this as a dry activity – instead of water, use dirt, sand or gravel with small scoops, spoons and other utensils.

Sticky Webs: Take some tape and criss-cross it in an open doorway or between two chairs, making a web that is child height. Then provide items for your child to stick on the tape (and peel them off again). Light items such as paper scraps, feathers, Q-tips, small toys, etc. work best.

Wrapping Paper Play: If you have rolls of wrapping paper you’re willing to sacrifice, children of all ages love to play with it and can be entertained for hours. Older children can design a fort, explore how they can drape it, color the backside, or design something new. Younger children love the paper’s rustling sound and enjoy hiding under it, crawling or waking on it, and ripping it. Save the tubes for another activity and imagination play.

Mirror and Window Painting: For older children, provide dry erase markers or shaving cream for painting on a window or mirror. For children who still put things in their mouth, you can use something edible such as pudding or whipped cream. Shaving cream should not be used by children who may put it in their mouth. Make it extra challenging by using tape to make designs and create a stained-glass window look!

Flashlights: Set this up in a darker part of the house and watch the fun! For infants, you can hang the flashlights from above so your baby can explore the light on the floor. Walking infants and older will want to hold it and turn it on and off while exploring the beam of light.

Water Painting: With a small container and an old paintbrush, give your child some water to paint outside on cement and wooden fencing. The water will create a darker shade, then evaporate. If you have extra pans and rollers from a painting project, have your child use these as well, experimenting with different sizes and shapes. Spray bottles also are a big hit for water painting or watering the foliage in your yard.

Shadow Drawing: This is best for older children and can be done outdoors and indoors. For outdoors, place an object or toy on the driveway or sidewalk and have your child trace the shadow with chalk. Indoors, you can use the sunlight through a window and trace the shadows on paper with pencil, crayon or markers. Children can outline their dinosaurs, farm animals, flowers, your shadow or a pet onto the pavement or paper. Endless possibilities!

Coloring in a Box: Get a large box, put your child in it and let her color. Depending on the type of writing tools you provide, you may end up with a marked-up child as well. Colored pencils and crayons are safe against skin coloring, just watch for those who still may try to eat them. If you have small crayons or broken pieces and want to make larger ones that are difficult to put in the mouth, set an oven to 200 degrees or use a microwave to melt crayons into a larger mass. A silicone mold works best, but an old can will do. There are many videos and instructions online that show how to do this.

Loose Parts: As we’ve seen in our classrooms, sometimes simple, everyday material can become something interesting. Collections of things to put into containers, boxes from the recycling taped up to make a city, scarves to stuff and pull or dress up with or tie together, washers and nuts from a drawer to put together, cookie cutters as stencils, clothes pins or chip bag clips to clip onto edges, sticks and hand-sized stones. Small toys that may be getting old (Duplos or other manipulatives) can be added to the mix. Setting up these things in bowls, baskets or boxes and leaving them in a place to be discovered (and viewed safely from where you’re working) can be part of the fun. Mirrors can be added as well.

Water play: With a large pot or dish pan, you can set up a water activity on the kitchen floor that you can supervise. Make sure you have a towel or two handy and it’s advisable, especially with younger children, to make sure the container isn’t big enough to sit in. You don’t need to provide too much water for these, just enough to keep your child’s interest. For younger children, providing a few toys, small cups, old infant formula scoops or small measuring cups, and even rocks, will engage your child for quite a while. For older children, you can have them develop a theme with some small toys, provide some of the materials listed for younger children, as well as safe syringes or eye droppers (from old medicine dosing, cleaned), sponges trimmed for a child’s hand, small glasses or vases, and fresh flowers or leaves from outside.

Ice Play: Take an empty half-gallon milk carton, wash it well, and then add water and freeze. This block of ice can keep your child entertained for a while. You choose to add toys before freezing so child can work to get the toys out. You can provide salt, water, eye droppers, a small rock to smash, or other tools for your child to try to free the captive toys. If you prefer to just offer a block of ice, there’s still plenty to explore. You can provide toys and other loose parts. The child provides the imagination. Just remember to put the ice into a pot or dishpan to catch water as the block melts and have a towel available nearby.

Homemade Playdough : This requires a little adult preparation, but it will last for weeks. The playdough is edible and if it gets into the carpet, just let it dry, scrape it off, then wash the area with soap and water. If you don’t have corn oil, other vegetable oils will work, but they dry faster. When not in use, store in an airtight container or plastic zip-lock bag. Making it without colors is fine, too.


1¾ cups flour1 cup salt

2 cups water

4 tsp cream of tartar

2½ TBSP corn oil

Food coloring or watercolor

Mix dry ingredients, then mix in wet ingredients. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when the dough is not sticky to the touch.

The last two activities use food items for play. Not every family believes food is something for children to play with, but these are easy activities that are safe to provide at home with materials you may already have.

Colander Threading: For the younger child, an inverted colander (or other food strainers/sieve) is great to stick dried spaghetti/vermicelli through. Give your child a small handful of unbroken spaghetti in a cup and let him experiment with pushing the dried pasta through the holes. For an older child, you can use this as a threading activity. Give the child a long piece of yarn or string with a taped end “needle” and let the fun begin!

Goop: Combine cornstarch and water in a brownie-type pan or dishpan. Add enough water to give the cornstarch a wet, goopy consistency. The mixture is both a liquid and a solid. It is recommended that you do this outside or in the kitchen. It can be quite messy, but it’s fun!