Along with the rest of the world, we have spent most of the last twelve months at home. Every family has had to get creative to find ways to keep themselves entertained and it’s been heartwarming to see people pulling together to support one another and sharing their favourite activities to help us get through. Key criteria for a successful home activity for me are:
- Cheap or free
- Sustainable – preferably uses items we already have
- Provides a longer play time than set up time
We’ve tried a whole host of different play ideas for all seasons: indoor and outdoor; messy and tidy; independent play and supported play; educational and just for fun. Here’s my top 10 for what we most enjoyed!
*IMPORTANT NOTE* It can be disheartening to see beautiful activities all over social media and worry that you’re not doing enough with your children. In sharing these basic activities, I am trying to create a resource for parents looking for a way to keep the kids busy on another boring day. I was on maternity leave for the first six months of the Covid-19 restrictions, so had more time on my hands to experiment with different things to do. Parenting is in no way a competition and most of these ideas are just simple ways to use what you might already have at home. Please enjoy without pressure, guilt, judgment or comparison.
1. “Cooking” with pots and pans etc.
- Mixing bowls, pans, wooden / plastic spoons, sieves etc.
- Optional – Dried lentils, pasta, soy beans, that packet of dry stuff in the cupboard you bought for a Deliciously Ella recipe then never used again…
Set up / tidy up: Low – although if you add in lentils etc. then you will probably need to sweep those from every corner for a while!
Messy factor: Low – zero mess, unless you’re adding dried food in which case you’ll need a good dustpan and brush.
Overall review: Anything that my children will play together without my intervention for more than 5 minutes is the Holy Grail of activities. Carys will narrate a whole story of what she’s ‘cooking’, whilst Alastair happily bashes things with a wooden spoon and puts bowls inside other bowls repeatedly. Low mess, low effort, high entertainment. This is my go-to activity when I’m all out of ideas and need a few moments to do chores.
2. Sand Pit tuff tray
- Tuff Tray – I bought a builder’s tray for about £16 and we use it so much, was definitely worth it
- Sand – £5 for 15kg from Argos
- Sand toys – we had a bag of old sand toys from a previous beach holiday and used some bath toys, but you can use any cups, spoons and toys you already have in the house
Set up / tidy up: Low – as we don’t have a dedicated sand pit, we do pack the sand away after each play but this takes 2 minutes.
Messy factor: Medium – your child will be covered in sand and probably eat some. But it brushes off and won’t cause any lasting damage.
Overall review: Carys loves the sand pit. She will quite happily play independently for an hour just filling cups, digging holes, burying her feet. The set up to play time ratio is incredibly high. But, this is an outdoor activity and needs a dry day so not something you can do all the time. It is inevitable sand will end up everywhere and after the millionth time of asking “Please keep the sand inside the sand pit”, you will learn to live with it. Worth it.
3. Salt dough
- Flour (2 parts)
- Table Salt (1 part)
- Water (1 part)
- Optional – rolling pin, cookie cutters
Set up / tidy up: Low – just mix all the above ingredients together and you’re done. Once you’re done, it can be boxed up or chucked in the food waste bin if it’s getting soggy, fluffy or otherwise a bit yuck.
Messy factor: Medium – mixing it can get a bit messy but once it’s done, it’s fairly low mess. Though, you will end up with slightly salty, crusty hands!
Overall review: This is very open-ended play, so will last as long as your kid’s imagination does. It’s great for a wet day. Carys particularly enjoys making ‘worms’ and using the rolling pin. You can store it in a box to use a couple of times, although it doesn’t keep that long – maybe a week or so before it goes soggy. You can also bake anything you make, then paint it and give it to unsuspecting relatives to keep until they feel it’s okay to surreptitiously bin.
4. Cereal tuff tray
- Tuff tray – as above (we use ours loads, a good investment)
- Dry cereal – cheerios, rice crispies and corn flakes work well
- Toys – diggers, cups, spoons, cars, anything really!
Set up / tidy up: Medium – set up is easy – put cereal in tuff tray. Done. But tidy up can be a pain if you’re doing this inside. You’ll be finding cheerios for weeks.
Messy factor: Medium – somehow children manage to make even dry things soggy, so they may get a bit sticky depending on the cereal you use. Although they do tend to scatter. If you’re outside then it’s food for the birds but inside will require some clean up.
Overall review: This activity was born out of Carys telling me Cheerios were her favourite food then deciding they were disgusting after the second bowl. The play can be anything you want: making patterns, pouring into cups, making pretend food, a construction site and so on. It’s another great open-ended activity and just about the a tolerable mess level for indoors. Even if cereal does get everywhere, it’s at least dry. Until the baby comes and dribbles in it and creates a hideous, soggy Cheerios clump.
5. Shop play
- A shopping bag / bag for life
- Something to buy – shoes, food and toys all work well, but anything you have lying about
- “Money” – can be pretend or real depending on the age of your child and what you have lying around
- Optional – table or something to act as a shop counter
Set up / tidy up: Low – you can literally just walk around your house with a bag, ‘buying’ things. A kid’s table can be make a good shop counter. Or, if you have itchy fingers and miss DIY you can turn an old shoe rack into a pop-up bar and have your child sell you drinks (see below)
Messy factor: Low – you’ll need to put anything you ‘buy’ back where it belongs at the end, but that’s minimal and the kind of tidying up a child can be coerced into doing as an activity all of its own.
Overall review: This is hugely popular in our house as Carys does love role playing, especially when we join in. Take turns being the shopkeeper and the customer to extend the play time. It’s absolutely not an independent game, so if you need ten minutes to empty the dishwasher / scream into a pillow, don’t pick this. But if you want to marvel at your child’s crazy thought process and imagination, this is an absolute delight.
6. Walk / den in the woods
- A forest: I appreciate this is not something everyone has access to, but you may have woods closer than you think – The Woodland Trust has a online tool to find a woods near you which you’ll find here
Set up / tidy up: Low – other than the effort of leaving the house (which is an activity in itself these days), this is pretty simple. You don’t even need to make a den, you’ll often find one someone else has already built!
Messy factor: Medium – depends on the weather. If it’s dry and warm, then it’s very low mess. But it can get pretty muddy in winter, just remember wellies and waterproofs (Golden rule: waterproof trousers go outside wellies – you only make that mistake once)
Overall review: This is a winner for the whole family. And a chance to explore somewhere new. A den can be anything from a fern perched on a tree branch, or a full-on den with doors, shelter and seating. Getting out in the fresh air never fails to perk us all up and there is SO much to spot in the woods – different trees, leaves, mushrooms, acorns, mud, moss and it’s all fascinating to a three-year old.
7. Water play
- Washing up bowl, plastic box or water table
- Bath toys or any plastic dolls / animals
Set up / tidy up: Low – fill a bowl with water. Done. No tidying required either as kids are mostly waterproof.
Messy factor: Low – this doesn’t make any mess at all, it’s just wet. I would only ever do this outside, but you could probably do washing dolls / animals with older, less splashy children indoors.
Overall review: This won me over as it kept both my kids entertained, which is quite rare. You can direct the play by setting a scenario like giving dolls / animals a bath. Or just let them splash about and pour water everywhere. I opted for the latter and they loved it – both my kids love a bath so it was just like that but in the daytime. Super simple, super effective, super thumbs up from me.
8. Bird watching
- Two toilet rolls
- Pens, stickers, anything to decorate with
Set up / tidy up: Low – take two toilet rolls, sellotape them together, add colour and stickers to decorate. Voila! Fine binoculars any ornithologist would be proud of. Then just go into the garden / the window and look for birds. Or put pictures of birds on the TV or tablet. You could also look for things in your house, pretend to be explorers, search for aliens, whatever you feel like in the moment.
Messy factor: Low – zero mess. Unless you child uses the pens or stickers to redecorate your walls instead of the binoculars.
Overall review: This can go one of two ways. You could spend twenty minutes making binoculars and your kid doesn’t give two hoots about looking for birds. Bummer. Or you will spend the next few months trying to throw out tatty toilet rolls only to be spotted every time you reach the recycling. Carys LOVED this activity and still regularly uses her binoculars to go ‘exploring’, despite my efforts to bin them.
9. Building a forest or river
- Building blocks – any will do: wood, Lego, Duplo, whatever you have.
- Any animal / people toys you have to put in your forest / river
Set up / tidy up: Medium – there’s not much set up other than finding things to use, because the building is the activity itself. But tidying up can be a pain if the creation gets too imaginative! However, it’s the type of tidying up that a child can get involved in.
Messy factor: Low – other than tidying, there’s no ‘cleaning’ involved with this.
Overall review: This is something Carys asks to do a lot. Basically you arrange some blocks into a rudimentary forest or river and then use animals or people toys to tell stories and have adventures. For older children, this could be totally independent play, but Carys still needs our involvement to get the most of out of this one.
10. Throw a party
(This is less ‘requires’ and more ideas for what you could do)
- Paper and stickers to make party hats
- Party food i.e. normal food just cut into fancier shapes
- Pass the parcel – you can just wrap up small toys you already have
- Party games – pick games appropriate to your kid’s ages but musical statues, races and the hokey cokey went down well here (Carys was still too young to appreciate most good party games)
- Any balloons and party decorations you have kicking about the house
Set up / tidy up: High – this does require a bit of prep but it can all be last-minute and using things you already have. Choose an ‘occasion’ – we picked Alastair’s half birthday, but it could be a pet or teddy’s birthday, an xx days of lockdown party etc – and just do some party-esque activities. Make some party hats with coloured paper. Have lunch on a picnic mat, even if you’re indoors. Make a pass the parcel from small toys and blast some Disney classics.
Messy factor: Medium – this could get messy depending on the games you play and how far you take it. But it could also be zero mess if you keep it minimal. Choose your own adventure.
Overall review: Alastair’s half birthday came at a time when we were thoroughly sick of lockdown and craving some excitement. Having a ‘party’ got us all excited for a few hours and even though it was a totally bogus event with really limited effort, it felt fun and special. Even just saying it was a party and wearing a party hat somehow made the day more fanciful.
BONUS! Painting a sheet
- An old sheet – this will not be salvageable so use one on the way out or look in your local charity shop (if it’s open 😦 )
- Kid safe paints
- The self-control to stand back and let things get totally chaotic
Set up / tidy up: Medium – now, this may seem crazy as it’s the messiest activity on here. But really, the sheet goes in the bin and you can hose your child down. It’s actually not as much effort as you’d think.
Messy factor: High – this is as messy as it gets. But as a reluctant messy player, this is a way I’ve found to let messy play happen with relatively little effort / destruction.
Overall review: We found in the first lockdown that Carys would get really mischievous if we didn’t let her do something destructive every few days to get her crazies out. I started out thinking we would paint a lovely rainbow for the NHS. After getting very stressed that Carys was not good at painting rainbows, I gave up and just let her go for it. She revelled in the chaos for about an hour while I sat in a garden chair eating a Solero. Win / win.
So there we have it. My top 10 lockdown activities for toddlers. We’ve had nearly 10 months of varying levels of restrictions and not every day was a fun-filled activity! I hope you enjoy trying some of these and please tag me (@themanyfacesofmum) if you do – I’d love to see them. And if you have any other activities you’ve been loving this lockdown, I’m always looking for ideas – looks like we’ll have a few more days to fill yet.
Sending love and strength to all of you, whatever your situation. And try to remember that everyone is under unique and varying pressures, so do not assume anything and be kind to yourself and to others. If you ever need some support, a rant or a friendly ear, I’m always ready to listen so drop me a message on email or Instagram.