I’m always looking for things for Jess to do and lots of her favourite activities don’t involve any expenditure – always a bonus! I thought I’d collate some of them here. You probably do most of them anyway, but hopefully some of them might give you a few ideas. I’ll update this as I remember more so keep checking back for more ideas.
Jess will play for ages with my clothes pegs and I love it because afterwards she can just scoop them into a bag and there’s no mess. Jess finds they make excellent sunflowers and loves just using the pegs to make designs on the floor or clipping them together to make structures. You can always dip them in paint to use as stamps too, but I like to keep them as a non-messy game!
We stand pegs up on end or use empty plastic bottles. Then I make a ball out of newspaper and wrap a bit of sticky tape around it so it doesn’t unroll. If it’s for older kids or you want to use a more powerful ball such as a foam one, you can add some rice or water to the bottles to make them heavier.
Paper ball games
We use the newspaper ball (above) to play loads of indoor games as it’s light enough not to cause any damage. Catch, rolling the ball to each other, target throwing (try to bounce it off a soft toy’s nose!), seeing if we can touch the ceiling with it, batting it back and forth with our hands like volleyball, indoor tennis using books as racquets, football and so on. The possibilities are endless.
Potato stamping is fun and cheap. You don’t have to be particularly artistic. We’ve made Christmas cards with one cut into a Christmas tree shape, and experimented with simple shapes like squares or triangles. Sprinkle a bit of glitter on while the paint is still wet for added interest.
Try stamping using everyday items like bottle tops and jar lids, small plastic containers, or paperclips.
Painting with something other than a brush can also be fun. As well as the obvious finger-painting, try using scrunched up paper or kitchen foil, pieces of pasta, or experiment with dragging an old comb, ruler, fork or toothbrush across the paper. If you don’t mind the mess, you could also experiment with using different things for ‘paint’, such as baked bean juice or soy sauce! Try chalk pictures too.
Collages too of course; set older kids free with an old catalogue, a pair of scissors, and a scrapbook. For younger kids, just have everything cut up ready – bits of paper, wool off-cuts, bits of material, rice, lentils, anything they can stick down. If you want to combine a day trip with a craft activity, try collecting shells, sand, seaweed and driftwood on the beach, or sticks, leaves and flowers from the park or the woods. Then use them to make a collage. You could also make an outdoor collage without glue – arrange them on the ground to make a picture. Try a mermaid with seaweed hair and shells for a tail.
Most kids seem to have a fascination with magnets. If you have fridge magnets, they will often play for hours with them, seeing what they stick to and what they don’t. There a few games we play with our magnets such as fishing and races. I cut out lots of paper fish shapes and Jess decorates them, then I stick a metal washer on each one. I tie a string to a stick, attach a magnet on the end, and Jess tries to catch the fish. For races, Jess and I make two paper characters or animals (you could use cut up photos) and stick a washer to each one. Then we put them on top of a sheet or large piece of paper, and use magnets underneath to ‘race’ the characters. A lot of our magnets are round and different colours – Jess uses these to make designs on the fridge. She also likes to see how many magnets she can stack on top of one another. You can often pick up packs of cheap magnets at poundstores; even if you aren’t a fridge-magnet sort of person it’s worth getting some for the kids to play with.
Jess and I often make and play colour dominos. I cut out lots of paper rectangles and draw a line down the middle of each piece. Jess paints a coloured blob on each side. We leave them to dry and then play like normal dominos, matching the colours rather than numbers.
I spent a bit of time finding pictures on the net – two or three different pictures for each letter. I tried to find ones that start with the sound of the letter (so ‘cat’ rather than ‘chair’ for example). I printed them out along with the letters themselves, both small letters and capitals, and then laminated them.
Although it took a bit of time to do the cards, it was well worth it as we use them all the time. We use about 10 of the letters and 10 of the pictures to play pairs with, matching the picture to the letter. We do a snap game, matching capital and small letters or letters and pictures. We use the letters to do an I-spy type game (can you see anything that begins with this letter?) and the pictures to practise letter sounds (what is this picture? What letter does it start with?) and what they look like (can you see the letter that this starts with?). Jess also likes just playing with the cards, putting the pictures into sets (animals in one pile, people in another, vehicles in another and so on). Really, the only limit is your (or their) imagination. And it’s educational too; Jess’s recognition of letters and sounds has improved no end.
This one is for younger children (babies and young toddlers) but I thought it was worth including. There are companies willing to sell you treasure baskets if that’s the route you want to take, but you can put one together yourself in minutes. Get a basket or box and put in about a dozen household items that are different textures and shapes. It’s as simple as that. Ours contained: measuring spoons, a sponge, a scouring pad, a metal spoon, a wooden spoon, ribbon, a small rubber duck, a walnut in its shell, cotton wool, a wooden curtain ring, scrunched up tin foil, a shell, a sweet wrapper, a piece of plastic sheet, a peg and a bit of furry fabric. Plonk your child in front of it and let them explore. Just ensure there’s nothing they can choke on; if you are putting in small items then supervise them carefully.
You will already know that most young kids seem to prefer the boxes to the toys that come in them. If you have a large box, they’ll love it. You can always pick one up at the local supermarket, they are usually glad to get rid of them. We’ve used boxes to make cars, a space rocket, a train, an aeroplane, a bus for Jess’s soft toys, a tent, a den, a doll’s cot, a doll’s house, all sorts of things. They can decorate the box and add smaller boxes or cushions etc. or just play with it as it is. When we stayed with some friends and their children, the kids made a big box into a tank, tied thick string to it, and took it in turns to ride in it while the others pulled them along.
When they’ve finished / the box has fallen apart, we use the card for other things. We cut out wobbly shapes and play ‘Peppa Pig and Muddy Puddles’ which is a version of musical chairs; they have to jump in a ‘puddle’ when the music stops. I cut out circles or shapes and we make masks. Or you could tear it up into small bits and use for papier mache.
Chalk pictures outside can be a great way to spend a bit of time without too much clearing up, especially if you plan it for a day when rain is forecast later! Get the kids chalking pictures on the pathway or flagstones, then just wash away when finished. Or draw a hopscotch grid and teach them how to play.
One of Jess’s favourite activities is water play and water painting outside. I give her a big bowl of water, an assortment of kitchen bits (funnel, spoon, small plastic pots, jug etc) and a paintbrush. She will spend ages just pouring water from one pot to another, ‘painting’ pictures on the floor with water, and washing her dolls and toy cars. Sometimes she’ll ask for a bit of washing up liquid in the water and use it to clean the garden furniture or the front door - bonus!
One for the beach, the sandpit, or if you have a bit of garden the kids can dig in: Jess and I take it in turns to bury an item and the other one has to dig to find it. If you’ve got older kids and can be bothered with the effort, you could do a ‘treasure map’ for them.
(Suggested by a friend) This one is great for car journeys. I find pictures on the net of various things we might see on our journey (traffic signs, post-boxes, vehicles etc), put them all on one sheet, print it out and laminate it. Then Jess has to spot each item and either tick it off or put a sticker over it.
This is a good game for parties or a group of kids. You need a fairly large space (enough to run around in) and a bit of preparation. Plan your quiz questions. For youngsters, television programmes, nursery rhymes, books and toys are a good starting place; such as what is Peppa’s brother’s name? What colour is Thomas the Tank Engine? What was Little Miss Muffet scared of? As well as the questions, you also need three or four possible answers for each one.
You then need three or four corners or areas (you can mark circles out on the floor if you want). Label each area with either numbers, letters or colours.
Call out a question and the possible answers. Allocate each answer to an area. The kids have to run to the area that they think represents the right answer. So it might be something like this:
“What is the eldest Tweenie called? If you think it’s Jake, run to number one. If you think it’s Fizz, run to number two. If you think it’s Simon, run to number three. If you think it’s Bella, run to number four. Ready, steady, go!”
If you want a ‘winner’, make sure the questions get progressively harder. For older kids, trick questions can be good – they often rout out the ones who are just copying their friends! If they still aren’t being picked out, you can disqualify the last child to get to each corner. Stick to two or three area / question answers for younger kids.
It sounds harder to organise than it is, especially with older kids. They usually have so much fun just squealing and running around, the questions barely matter anyway!
Jess loves making tents under the kitchen table. She takes a few cushions and a range of toys and plays there quite happily, which is especially handy when I’m cooking. Sometimes I’ll put a sheet over the table so the sides are covered but she’s perfectly satisfied without it. On sunny days, I put a blanket on the ground outside and then take two chairs and put them back to back with a space in between them. I drape an old sheet over them weighed down with a few books on the chair seats, and Jess sets up camp underneath. She loves playing in there, and I can either play with her, do some gardening, or (my preferred option) put my feet up and read a book in the sun!
I’ve put these under ‘anywhere’ as I guess they could be done inside but it’s much less messy outside. If you do try it inside, use smaller bowls or trays, and put them in the kitchen or bathroom – somewhere with a washable hard floor! Take a large bowl or a small paddling pool. Fill with any one of the following: Rice Krispies (super-cheap value ones because you’ll want a lot of them), cornflakes, shaving foam, play foam, shredded paper, pasta or rice (particularly good if you cook them lightly with a bit of green food colouring in the water), water mixed with bubble bath and / or food colouring (just a drop or two!), polystyrene balls (the ones you get in bean bags), plastic packing ‘quavers’, or anything else you can think of. Put the kids in OLD clothes or strip them off altogether if the weather is warm enough, and let them get on with it. If food colouring is used anywhere, the old clothes are an absolute must as it will stain. Older kids love the green pasta or rice – put in some plastic animals and they can play jungles. Bubbles or shaving foam are good with toy cars (car washes). For very young children steer clear of the polystyrene balls and stick to cereal, then it doesn’t matter if they stuff it in their mouths. If you do use cereal, it makes cleaning up easier as the birds will do most of the work. You could also combine this with the buried treasure game and hide things in the mess for the kids to find.
Great for car journeys and queues! Take it in turns to describe an animal, the other person has to guess what animal it is. You can vary the descriptions depending on the age of the child: “The animal I’m thinking of goes oink” for younger kids, “This animal is what we get bacon from” for older ones. The kids love describing the animals too; be prepared for some interesting descriptions!
Another one for queues and car trips, this is a version of I-Spy for younger children who can’t spell yet. I-Spy with my little eye, something… yellow / red / whatever. Once they have a rough knowledge of their letters you can combine the two: for example I-Spy with my little eye, something red beginning with T.
How about a picture list to Father Christmas for the ones who can’t write yet? Much like collages, give the kids a few catalogues and ask them to find pictures of what they’d like for Christmas. The slightly older ones can cut them out, the younger ones can tear them out, or you could cut out a pile of pictures yourself for them to sort through. They can then stick them onto a ‘letter for Santa’ and either burn it in the fire if you have an open one (obviously I mean you can burn it, they can watch!), post it to one of the charities that replies for a small charge, or leave it somewhere outside for the elves to collect. (Don’t forget to remove it when they are in bed and sprinkle a bit of glitter [fairy dust] around.)
If you want to encourage giving rather than asking, try the catalogue pictures and a pile of (unwanted) family photos. They can stick a picture of a family member on a piece of paper and add pictures of things they think they would like for Christmas. You never know, they might even give you some ideas!
Homemade decorations are fun to make, the kids can always use their creations to decorate their bedrooms if you don’t fancy glue-streaked paper chains everywhere! Try salt dough decorations (see my article on ‘A Homemade Christmas’ or just google salt dough); ours came out nice enough to give as presents. You can always get the older kids involved with stringing cranberries, and even very young children can help make cards or wrapping paper. Older kids can make tags from old cards or scraps of paper.
More ideas will follow as I remember what else we do!