I think there is a way to keep kids entertained, engaged, and busy without using screens or expensive activities. Follow these 3 steps to keep it easy and get inspired with 11 different ideas for kids of all ages.
A few months ago, Marilyn, a facebook follower asked me to write a post on how to keep kids active without spending a lot of money. I admit, I was intrigued. As a parent, I doubt Marilyn knew that this is a topic that’s close to my heart. But, it does have roots in my occupational therapy background.
I have ever growing concerns about the screens that are ever present in our kid’s lives. I know how vital and even fragile their development is. And, I’m talking about much more than fine motor skills and learning to dress yourself, although that’s part of it too. I’m worried about how kids communicate with each other, with strangers, and with their parents.
I’m worried about their creativity, imagination, and ability to not have immediate gratification.
Kids Need Time When They’re Not Being Entertained!
There’s no denying the amazing advances and possibilities that technology holds for our kids, and I’m not trying to paint smart phones and tablets as all bad. But, I want to scream to the world that kids need to play. Even the 9, 10, and 12 year olds. They aren’t too old to be playing.
Since kids are so accustomed to always being entertained, when there’s free time, they often look to us to fill it. They want to go to the trampoline park or the movies, which is great. Of course, those activities have a time and place. But, there should be a lot of room in between for kids to play, create, and imagine without screens or an expensive trip to Build-a-Bear to have something to do.
I believe there’s still a way to do this. And, I think that even if your child has a hard time occupying their own attention through play that they can learn this skill. Think about what that skill would do for them in adulthood?
I can’t promise that they won’t say they’re bored (although I have a fix for that too), or whine if this is new for them. But, this my friend is a huge gift you can give to your child, and to yourself. If your child can get better at being active and engaged without needing you to take them to an expensive activity, you’ll not only save some money, but have time to fold the laundry!
How to Set Up Active and Engaging Activities
There’s a right and a wrong way to go about this, and the difference is subtle. Sometimes your child will fully embrace a free at home activity simply because of how you presented it to them. Let’s walk through some steps you can take:
- Think about what your child likes. Do they thrive on high impact activity? Or, can they manage to sit still for a while? Have you noticed a creative spark? Or, a toy at somebody else’s house that they loved?
Figuring it our precisely isn’t the goal, but having a general idea will help you pick an activity that your child may gravitate towards. If you need some ideas, this is list of my favorite sensory toys.
2. When you’re first offering these activities it’s best to have a loose plan. That means if you know your kids are off school all week, you’ll want to have an idea of the supplies you need in advance. This isn’t anything complicated like a 20 step Pinterest craft or elaborate sugar cookies. Remember, these are activities your child can do on their own, so not a lot is involved in the set up.
It’s worth your time to have some ideas in mind so when the kids are either complaining their bored or tearing the house apart, you don’t freeze out of overwhelm.
3. Don’t ask! Just get it ready and they will come, Field of Dreams style.
If you ask your child, “Do you want to play with the blocks today?” Can you guess their answer? It’s probably no.
Instead, imagine that you go grab the bin of wooden blocks that hasn’t been touched in 6 months and you lay down a blanket, dump them all out and maybe start a little house. Then you grab some matchbox cars or dolls and sit them around the blocks.
Before you can even call your kids over, they’ve come. Play is a magnet they can’t refuse.
The set up is that simple! 5 minutes, tops. You can do this!
These are the memories your kids will remember. They’re also the memories that you’ll remember as they remind you of the great job you’ve done!
11 Quick Activities to Keep Kids Active and Engaged Without Your Help
There are 10 activities listed below, each of them have endless variations. I encourage you to tweak and expand on the them for what fits for your kids and what you have easily accessible in your house. Be creative, and you shouldn’t have to spend anything. These are some of my favorite quick activities to keep kids active and engaged:
Build a Fort – Classic, right? Kids as young as 4 can create whatever version they see fit. You can just supply them with a blanket and a pillow or two. Or, get it started and let their creativity run with it. If interest starts to wane after a while, pull out a flashlight or a set of Christmas lights to re-engage them.
Get a Pile of Library Books (or Old Magazines) – Make a trip to the library and pull out your stack of finds at just the right moment. Pick a variety of books, especially ones with fascinating pictures or games inside. Your child might even like an audio book that you can play while they listen in that awesome fort.
Pull Out a Puzzle or a Pile of Wooden Puzzles for Toddlers – Puzzles get buried at the back of closets, but dumping one out and starting a few pieces can create lots of interest.
Create an Art Zone – Clear off a work space, lay down newspaper and pull out crayons, scissors, and glue. I love to not put any boundaries on what they create, but if your child is just staring at the paper, give them a prompt like, “Everybody create your idea of a super robot!”
Dump Out a Bin of Legos, Blocks, or Other Building Toys – Like I said above, get out whatever blocks you have and dump them out!
Set Up a Restaurant – Older kids will love creating menus and even food out of paper. Younger kids will be content to play with some of your pots and pans. If you have a play kitchen set, you’re golden, move it from it’s normal location to spark an interest.
Make a Stage – I’m blessed that my husband is so handy, he created this simple “stage” for puppet shows last year. Since then, it’s been a restaurant and toy shop too. But, you don’t need a stage like this one. You can pull your couch out from the wall and let the kids crawl behind it, or cut a hole out of a large piece of cardboard. The stage allows for sock puppet shows or whatever your child can imagine.
Make Cards for a Nursing Home or Children’s Hospital – Pull them in with a purpose. Again, get your supplies ready with paper and stickers.
Toy Bath – If it’s nice outside, set up a water table, or use a sink in the house to create a bubbly tub of water. Bring your kid’s toy cars, barbie dolls, or army men to the bath for a good cleaning. Give them a sponge and towel to clean those toys up right.
Set Up a Sensory Bin – Kids can get lost in sensory bins. Don’t have one set up? Grab the largest plastic container you can find and raid the pantry for rice, cornmeal, flour, noodles, etc. Or maybe you have some birdseed in the garage? Stock it with cups, bowls, and spoons, or your kid’s passion (i.e. dinosaurs, barbies, puzzle pieces).
Go Play Outside – Never underestimate just getting outside, even on a cold day. Did you know in Iceland they take your babies outside and leave them in strollers in 2 degree weather? Kids can bundle up and get some fresh air, even just for 10 minutes can make a big difference.
Free Activities to Do Together
Another thing I’m scared of is kids losing interest in simple activities. The bar seems so high, and I’m sad when I hear that an 8 year old is too bored to bother going to the pumpkin patch or a 10 year old can’t attend a family party without their phone. I think we can find contentment in the timeless ordinary activities that give us time well spent together without it costing a penny. Here are some of my favorite free activities to do with my kids:
Trip to the local library
Find a trail and walk on it, at all times of year. Bring a bag to collect found treasures
Ride bikes or roller blade in your neighborhood. Don’t live on a safe street? Head to a nearby park
Go to your local park
Visit a nursing home, and take those cards you made
Create an idea jar – When you know your kids are going to be looking for things to do, say over winter break, take some time to brainstorm fun things they can do for free at home. Write all the ideas on slips of paper or on popsicle sticks and put them in a mason jar. When they wake up in the morning have them pull one out!
Ask them if they’re up for a challenge – If you’re child is struggling to buy into the activities you set up, present it as a challenge instead. Say, “I’ve got a challenge for you! Think you can build blocks 20 high?” Or, “How many beautiful cards can you make for the nursing home in 30 minutes?”
Clean out their toys – Every single time we go through our kids toys and get rid of them, they are engaged with the toys we’re keeping. Not only does it remind them that they’re there, but they’re motivated by the more tidy environment! Read more about toy rotation here.
It’s Okay to Be Bored
It’s okay for our kids to be bored. Maybe not day after day after day, but sometimes it is. This is normal and it ultimately teaches them a way to entertain themselves.
It does make me nuts when my kids tell me, “I’m bored.” My response is always the same, “Oh, then it’s time to go through your toys because if you’re not playing with them, then we can get rid of them.” They roll their eyes, but that’s the end of it!
Now it’s your turn? What do you think? Is it hard to keep your kids entertained, engaged, and busy without any screens? What activity or trick do you want to try? Tell me in the comments below. I want to hear from you!!
More Activities for Kids
Stress-Free Cooking with Toddlers and Kids: Recipes, Tips, and Activities
100+ Awesome and Easy Sensory Diet Activities
Genius Activities for Sensory Seeking Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
I agree fully what you said. I’m a first time momg with a 16 month old so I’m still in the early stages. I have seen my younger siblings not play as much as us older kids and it’s sad to see. I remember endless fun of playing outside or with are toys. My husband and I plan for son and future kids to have very little screen time. It hard when people around you do have the same view as you.
I totally agree. It’s a tough topic these days because everyone does not have the same viewpoint.
Some of the best times my boys have had is with the contents of the recycling bin and a roll of painters tape. They have made jet packs, robots, body armor, even full-size airplanes that hold all three of them! Random shapes of cardboard and tape do wonders for the imagination!
Sometimes I take them to a store and let them each pick out their own roll of colored duct tape. They are more excited than any of the expensive toys I’ve purchased for them!
Yes, Marcie!! That’s so great, we’ve done that here too and I completely forgot to share that as an idea here, so thank you!!
Perfectly put! As a mom and OT, I completely agree that kids rely too much on screen time to solve their boredom! My boys are adults now and continue to love being outdoors, building/making things, working on cars, and hanging out at the campfire without their phones. My teenage daughter is a little different. She played quite a bit as a child with her dolls and kitchen set being favorites. She loves art and will spend time painting, coloring and drawing at age 17. She got a phone earlier than the boys did and tends to have trouble separating from it though. Play is VERY important! It’s often one of my goals for my patients and along with it – parent education on how to play! Keep your wonderful blogs and articles coming Alisha!
I love hearing what’s happened on the other side of childhood Melissa, thank you so much for sharing. And, I think something that’s drilled into us as OT’s is the importance of play – it’s the foundation for everything!
I’m curious, at what ages did you get your kids their own phones?
I think my boys were 12 – 13 when they got their own phones. My daughter was given our house cell phone to take with her when she went to neighbors/friends houses when she was 8-9. She got her own phone when she was 10, which was actually her oldest brother’s original phone. He got an upgrade!
It does seem kids these days are getting them at younger ages.
Thanks Melissa! Yes, both my son’s have had peers in first grade get them, although it’s certainly the minority.
As a former family therapist, I saw many children who could not interact with toys. I would ask them to play with me and they would look dumbfounded. However, they always had in hand a portable video game of some sort. I believe so many of today’s childhood problems, such as ADHD, lack of interpersonal skills, communication inadequacies, relationship building problems , lack of cognitive growth and poor self worth stems from lack of play starting in infancy. Your blog was spot on and I have seen this evident in my own children and their peers. My girls have been surrounded by opportunities of play since birth and have had limited interaction with screens. They can play for hours on end and beg for more time at night to do so. I homeschool them, and with such flexibility I make sure they get more time to just play. I literally have never heard the words “ I’m bored” and they are 6 and 7. They have expansive imaginations and wonderful problem solving skills. I encourage all parents to use your tips and make time for child play and not get pressured into thinking screens are ok. They are not, they change the brain and it will hinder children in the long run.
You’re perspective is so valuable Danielle! Thank you so much for sharing it. What I believe, as well, is that there’s time to go back to that play even for older kids that don’t have play and socialization skills. My kids rarely say that they’re bored, but it has popped up a couple of times.