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Fun, Engaging Activities to Keep Children Busy at Home

With so many UC Merced parents and caregivers working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, the need to keep children engaged, entertained and, quite frankly, busy is important. ECEC Executive Director Danielle Waite is providing ideas for activities that use materials commonly found at home. 

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.

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.

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

(Added Dec. 11, 2020)

Tip: Use some of your child’s art as gift wrapping paper this season or for whenever the gift giving feeling comes along. It’s a great way to personalize gifts and to display your child’s prolific art.

Ephemeral Art with Leaves: This is a great activity for this time of year. With leaves changing colors and falling, you can get a great collection to use over and over. Ephemeral art is impermanent and often is nature-based. Your child can use leaves with their chalk art, thoughtfully laid out in the grass, floated on muddy water, or even taken indoors and laid out on a horizontal mirror. Other natural items (leaves, sticks, stones, pinecones, flowers, etc.) can be used, but this activity as described is to take advantage the colorful variety of leaves falling in our neighborhoods and backyards.

Water On Waxed Paper: This activity is more experiential in nature. Provide your child with a cookie sheet with a sheet of wax paper on it. An old towel or sponge is recommended for cleanup. Give your child a few jars or bowls of colored water, then have them put the water on the wax paper with an eyedropper or syringe. Your child can experiment with color mixing, water tension and gravity. Let them watch how the droplets interact. Encourage your child to move the drops by tilting the cookie sheet. Wipe and clean to repeat and explore.

Tree Decorating: Draw out a tree with chalk outside or use masking tape to create a pine tree on the floor. A variety of loose parts can be used over and over again to decorate the tree – buttons, rocks, crepe paper, yarn, small toys, cookie cutters, sea shells, corks, bracelets, necklaces, ribbons, corks, and bow tie pasta are all thinks you may have around the house for this activity. This activity is festive and easy for you to set up. It can be done repeatedly and can extend to other play activities.

(Added Dec. 4, 2020)

These activities continue to take inspiration from falling leaves and cooler weather.

Garden in a Jar: Have your child put rocks, leaves, sticks, flowers, berries, needles, pinecones and other natural items in a mason jar. Fill the jar with water and then use this decoration as a centerpiece for dinner. Add a floating candle to make it the center of your meal. Your child can use their imagination to make different themed jars with natural items and small toys. Add ribbons and yarn to add color and texture. This can done every few days to keep your centerpiece fresh and beautiful.

Clay Art on Trees: If your playdough is beginning to dry out, this activity is great to do outside. Have your child create a face on the bark of a tree. Take a ball of dough and make a face foundation on the tree bark and then add eyes, a nose, and mouth to your tree. Your child can also make a fairy door and window on a tree. The dough will harden and dry out. When the rain comes, it will wash away. You may have to use a hose or give the bark a light scrubbing to remove all of it after the rainy season.

Biodegradable Confetti: Three-hole punches, two-hole punches, single handheld hole punches, and the fancy shaped palm pressed hole punches are all great for this activity and work different hand/finger muscles. When using the larger hole punches or palm press type, be sure to give your child a good surface for this activity – either a tabletop or a cutting board on the floor. They will have to use their body weight, so set up is key for their success. First, you need to get a good leaf collection – different colors (not too brittle) and thicknesses. This can be from a scavenger hunt in the back yard, a neighborhood walk, or a hike. Then start punching and saving the dots, hearts, stars to make wonderful biodegradable confetti in a container. This confetti can be used in your Garden in a Jar or stuck into the Clay Art on Trees. You can also add it to your water bin or sensory bin activities. The confetti can be used to decorate a neighbor’s walkway or your own front porch. Your child can also glue the pieces on their art or stick it onto the clear contact paper.

Music: Activities can be modified by adding a little music for your child to listen too. It is a wonderful way to share the music of the world through the centuries with your child. A rousing big band tune, the melody of solo guitar, or the Nutcracker Suite can influence your child’s focus and rhythm to their work. An activity as simple as drawing is impacted by the type of music playing. Headphones are also an option if you need it quiet in the background while you work (please check to make sure that your child is not playing the music too loud, if using headphones).

(Added Nov. 24, 2020)

Pumpkin Boats: Those mini pumpkin gourds you have as decorations can be used for boats. Cut them in half, clean them out and they will float! Small toys, sticks, and small rocks can be added to the ‘boat’. Maybe your child can find the perfect leaf to be the sail for this unique boat. Add these into bath time, a dishpan or shallow swimming pool of water for some fun.

Indian Corn Kernels: The ornamental dried Indian corn ears are a great to use as a fine motor activity. Give your child a pair of tweezers and a bowl to collect the kernels. They may shoot across the room at times, but it is fun and challenging to pick out the individual kernels.

Falling Leaf Catch: If you have a tree that is dropping leaves near you, this can be a fun activity to do. Your child must be still and listen, as well as be observant, to notice the leaf is falling in time to catch it before it hits the ground. This is a challenging event, due to the unknown flight pattern of a falling leaf.

(Added Nov. 13, 2020)

Tunnel or Den of Lights: With the daylight hours shortening, it’s the perfect time to play with some strings of lights. Grab a strand or two of lights, a good-sized box and maybe some blankets and pillows. You can make a den or a tunnel that is lit up inside. Poke holes in the cardboard box and push through the lights (keeping the cord the outside the box). Your child can assist in building this, and will enjoy imaginative play in their illuminated fort.

Moon Dough Recipe: Here’s another fun texture for your child. Clays and doughs are great for hand and finger strengthening, which aids in writing skills and other dexterous activities. To make moon dough: Take 1 cup corn of starch and (optional but fun) add a little food coloring and glitter. Slowly stir in one-half cup of hair conditioner. As the dough firms up, knead it. This is a great way to use up old hair conditioner, or you can pick up a bottle at the discount store. Enjoy the dough's silky texture. Store in a Ziploc bag and be sure to remove all excess air before sealing. The dough can be used alone or with small toys or silverware.

(Added Nov. 6, 2020)

“Laser” Maze: This works well in a hallway corridor using string, yarn, crepe paper and/or masking tape. I recommend the maze not obstruct access to the bathroom. Create a zig-zag maze of material strung across your hallway walls ( see examples). Imagine lasers from your favorite action film. Your child will step high, crouch low and crawl on their bellies to get through without touching. You can have a “treasure” at the end of the hall for your child to collect.

Corn and Peas: This is an activity for your home “water table.” Add water to a large pot or small bin. Then add frozen or canned corn and/or peas. This will give your child’s waterplay an added dimension. Provide spoons, scoops, bowls and containers of various materials and sizes. Have a towel or two handy. If your child snacks while playing, that’s part of the fun!

The next time you’re out shopping, pick up some clear contact paper. It can be used for a variety of fun activities. Here's one of them:

Sticky Windows: Hang a section of clear contact paper on a window. Have a collection of items for your child to stick onto and remove from the contact paper. Examples: dried leaves from walks around the neighborhood, feathers, tissue paper, Q-Tips, small buttons, popsicle sticks, cotton balls, and toothpicks. This is an excellent fine motor activity and your child will gain an understanding of the physical properties of items based on how well they stick.

(Added Oct. 16, 2020)

Taste-Safe Slime: Take 3 tablespoons of whole husk psyllium (Metamucil), 3 cups of water, and food coloring. Boil the water, add the coloring and reduce heat to medium. Add the psyllium and stir. When the mixture thickens, remove it from the heat. When it has a gel-like consistency, remove it from the pot. Place it on a tray or cutting board to cool. Flip it when cool to the touch to allow underside to cool. When it cools completely, it’s ready for your child to play with.

Magnet Fishing: Put magnet alphabet letters or other magnets your sensory bin, a tub of water (outside) or the bathtub. You can color the water with a little food coloring to make it visually appealing. Your fishing rod is a large paperclip (or paperclips strung together) on the end of a string. The fishing pole is optional, and it changes the challenge for your child.

Popsicle Stick Photo Puzzles: This is something you can create fairly easily for many hours of fun. Print out a few color photos. They can be family photos, scenery, photos of your child’s toys all in the proper place, or anything you find in a magazine. Older children can help with gluing the photo onto popsicle sticks. It’s best to put the photo face down, apply glue and then place sticks in touching rows. When the glue has dried, you cut the photos apart carefully. Your child can then rebuild the photograph. You can increase the difficulty for older children by having a photo on each side of the stick. They have to identify the correct side and then build the image.

(Added Oct. 9, 2020)

I want to share some seasonal activities you can do with items you may find in the stores right now or even while on neighborhood walks. When going for walks, take a bag or basket along to collect falling leaves, small sticks and rocks. When at the store, some seasonal fun items include plastic insects, monster eraser tops, Halloween pencils, dried Indian corn and pumpkins of all sizes.

Here are some activities you can easily set up for your child with the seasonal items:

Plastic Insects:

  • Pour them into your Tupperware drawer and have your child “hunt” for them. You can provide tools such as small tongs, spoons or tweezers for them to use.
  • Add them to your sensory tray. Bugs are always fun. You can make the sensory tray an urban environment with small boxes, jars with lids, bowls, cups and spoons. Or you can make the sensory tray more woodland for your insects by adding leaves, rocks, pieces of wood or sticks.
  • Have your child sort them out and line them up. Draw lines on the pavement with chalk or use some masking tape indoors - your child can have a parade of insects.
  • Freeze them in ice using that old half-gallon carton or add them to individual ice cubes. Add these to a tub with some water and you have an entomologist excavation activity.
  • Stick them in a web. You can either use the synthetic webbing from the stores or you can use masking tape to create one in a doorway or between two chairs.

Monster Eraser Tops:

  • Some of the above activities will work with these eraser tops as well. Sorting, lining them up, adding them to a sensory tray and putting them on the tops of pencils (great fine motor activity) are all fun activities.

Halloween Pencils:

  • With or without eraser tops, new pretty decorated pencils are always a win.
  • The pencils can be lined up, sorted, poked into Styrofoam, and added to a sensory tray for a different texture.
  • Preschoolers can easily be taught how to use handheld pencil sharpeners. Children enjoy using fine pencils and pens that adults write with at times. Even though there isn’t as many colors to choose from, drawing with a fine tool is a different experience from a chunky marker or broad tipped marker. Pencils are fun with a supply of paper or old notebooks/calendars.

Dried Indian Corn:

  • A fantastic hand-eye coordination activity is to have your child pick out kernels using tweezers. They may shoot across the room, but it’s a fun task. Save the kernels to add to your sensory table, glue onto art or pop and eat as a snack.
  • The dried husk can be used to roll in tempura paints to make a wonderful pattern on paper or to paint itself as a keepsake or ornament.

Small Pumpkins:

  • The small gourd style mini pumpkins are great to add in your sensory tray as a touch of autumn color.
  • Sink and float experiments with whole mini pumpkins. Later cut across to make boats for your child’s small toys to sail away in.
  • Pumpkin painting: Before you cut them, use them with tempura paints to make prints. This is a messy activity that will need more adult attention, but the textures of the pumpkins when stamped or rolled is fun for your child to experiment with.

Larger Pumpkins:

  • Paint and wash. This can be done over and over again. Allow your child to paint the pumpkin and then with a little water and a sponge, you can later have your child wash it to prep to paint again. Note: do not let your pumpkin stay wet or in water too long, it will accelerate decomposition.
  • Poke and hammer. Once your child is tired of painting or your pumpkin is looking a little worn, you can provide your child with a hammer and nails. Flat head nails are fantastic for this exercise and I’ve seen some amazing “armored” pumpkins as a result.
  • Open the pumpkin. Of course exploring the inside of a pumpkin is a fun and messy multi-sensory activity for your child to experience. You can even roast and eat the seeds.

(Added Sept. 30, 2020)

These first two things require adults to prepare. Please have your child help make them in the kitchen, but this phase needs adult assistance. Once they the preparation is completed, the activities need minimal adult supervision for your child to use.

Chalk Paint: You will need 1 cup of cornstarch, 1 cup of baking soda, 2 cups of water, and food coloring. Combine the dry ingredients and mix well. Add water slowly and continue mixing. Separate the pasty liquid into smaller containers (Tupperware, jars or bento boxes work well to store leftovers). Add food coloring to each container. The more food coloring added, the darker the chalk paint color. Too much may stain the cement or other surface your child paints on. Your child can paint outside on the cement, on pieces of cardboard or on dark construction paper.

Watercolors: This recipe is to make a watercolor palette with your child. Ice cube trays are great for this activity, as you have many divided sections that keep the colors from bleeding together. You need 1 cup of baking soda, ¾ cup of vinegar (white or apple cider), 2 tbsp of corn syrup, 1 cup of cornstarch, and food coloring. Add the vinegar slowly to the baking soda, whisking as you pour. Once fully incorporated, add the other ingredients (except the coloring). Separate into the ice cube sections or other containers. Then incorporate the food coloring. Saturate the color. Once you complete this, let this air-dry for 2-3 days. You have now created your own watercolors for your child to use for painting. I know this is a process, but doing this activity with your child will change the value of the paint palette when used later. You and your child made it together!

Lemon Volcano: Provide your child with a few lemons. Roll the lemons, or show your child how to do so, to release the juice before cutting. Provide your child with a shallow tray/dishpan, a small bowl of baking soda, and a spoon. Cut the lemons in half (maybe cut a little off the end so the half sits up). Allow your child to poke the lemon with a fork or other utensil to release more juice, then add baking soda. You will have a mini volcano experience and a wonderful science reaction.

Circle Painting: Circles are difficult to draw but fun to use in art. Take the roll center from a paper towel roll or wrapping paper roll and cut it into a variety of pieces. With some tempera paint in a plate or old yogurt lid, let your child create circle art by dipping and stamping the segments of cardboard roll. Make sure you have plenty of paper available and that your child is wearing their oversized paint shirt.

Fan Fun: Provide your child with a collection (or they can go and find things themselves from around the house) to use with a desk or standing fan. The weather is supposed to remain warm for a while, but it also is changing. Winds are picking up and leaves are starting to fall from the trees. This activity is a way for your child to gain a better understanding of wind and air currents. By experimenting on what flies (paper airplanes, dried leaves, feathers, lightweight scarves, ribbons), your child will learn about the aspects of wind current and the moving of objects by the wind.

Ring Toss: This can be done with old infant stacking rings, bracelets or canning rings. Use a mop or broom handle, or another stick of wood at an angle. You can use a box or laundry basket to support the stick/handle for a ring toss.

(Added Sept. 17, 2020)

Here are some activities that use items you can pick up in your local Dollar Store or that you may already have in your house. The Dollar Store also will have seasonal items (plastic spiders, faux spider webs, snakes and other creepy crawlies) that will be fun to add to a number of activities (water play, sensory bins, block play, sensory bottles, or on their own as loose parts).

Fun with Floral Foam: Floral foam is fun to work with and has different characteristics when used dry or wet. To use wet, it is recommended to soak it overnight first. It takes time for the foam to soak up the water and it will get very heavy when saturated. These activities can be used with the foam either wet or dry – offer both options with some tools and see how your child interacts. Floral foam is great for poking, carving and smashing. Your child can poke into the block sticks, feathers, flowers, nails, or anything else they find. This is fun for all ages. Then your child can carve some blocks. A simple dinner knife can cut the foam. You can also provide your child with other tools (screwdrivers, vegetable peelers, golf tees, steel straws, sticks, dental floss, cookie cutters, forks, etc.) to experiment and create with. Both the dry and the wet foam should be on a tray to collect the pieces. Dental floss is great for cutting – show your child how to hold it taut and it will slice through the foam (this is a great technique for cutting cakes, too).  Be sure to get the small, dense, dark green floral foam that is malleable to your touch, not the lighter-colored, large-celled foam, which is for dried/silk flowers. 

Sensory Trays/Bins: The Dollar Store has many dry items you can use in your sensory tray, some of which you can cook and eat later. Try a variety of dried pasta shapes, rice, dried beans (not red kidney, which is toxic when dried), couscous, and dried corn (cornmeal). If you want to branch out, birdseed and soil are great and can be used for a variety of activities and after they are played with as a sensory bin activity. Floral water beads are fun to use in the sensory bin and can be used in sensory bottles or dried in the sun and reused later. In these bins, you can add cups, bottles, scoops, small pitchers, spoons, funnels, small boxes, and other containers to fill and empty. In addition to the tools and containers, you can add a variety of loose parts or toys. Place puzzle pieces in the sensory bin that your child needs to collect to complete a puzzle. Small toys and props allow your child to create and interact with a made-up world. Depending on what you add to your bin, you may want to provide a small dustpan/broom for your child to clean up spills. If it’s a food item you are planning on cooking and eating, you may want to let the items stay on the floor and dispose of spills later.

Dot Stickers: There are many activities you can do with dot stickers. A simple activity begins with drawing lines on paper (straight, wavy, loop-the-loop, shapes, cursive letters). Place the paper on the table or tape it to the wall for a vertical experience. Have your child peel and place stickers on the lines. This is great for fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. For younger children, dots can be fun to simply peel and stick randomly on paper. For older children, they are a great way to create bodies of spiders, faces for people, or fruit on a tree. Buttons can be lined up horizontally on paper lines as a reusable resource or glued onto paper.

Texture/Sensory Walk/Crawl: This is a great indoor or outdoor activity, and it does require parental preparation. If you do it outside, have shallow boxes and trays full of the following for your child to walk/crawl through: dirt, sand, leaves (green and dried), cardboard pieces, mud, water and a towel. If you don’t have enough trays and have different terrain, you can do this directly on the ground and use ropes or a hula hoop to designate the walking space. For indoors, here are some things you can add to your walk/crawl: a fuzzy blanket, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, sandpaper, contact paper or tape (sticky side up), pillows, blocks, and doormats (rubber or natural). Both indoors and outdoors, your child will be able to feel the different textures as they crawl or walk barefoot. 

Rubber Band Activities: These activities use rubber bands that are standard size or larger. Place rubber bands on an unopened can, water bottle or cardboard tube. This activity requires some coordination to get the rubber band around the cylinder. The can or a filled water bottle are the easiest, since they can stay on the floor or table in an upright position. A cardboard tube or an empty bottle is more challenging to keep upright while trying to place the rubber band around it. If you have cylinders of different widths, you can make it more challenging for your child. You can challenge your child even more by placing the rubber bands on a sphere or a cone. If you only have hair tie-style rubber bands, you can use the 3-D shapes from your shape-sorting baby toy or smaller containers. Check first to see if your hair tie rubber band will work with your objects. We want your child to be successful and not give up.

Another favorite with rubber bands is a nail board. Making the nail board can be something your child does themselves. Provide a board, tree stump/cookie or piece of think foam, a hammer and some nails for them to hammer in the nails securely enough to handle the tension created by the rubber band.  They will also have to keep from hammering the nail all the way down. It’s a very good exercise. For younger children, if the parent makes the nail board, the child will use it repeatedly. An extension of this is to provide thin ribbons or colorful yarn for your child to loop and twist in the nails to make interesting patterns.

Rubber Band Chains: By threading a rubber band through another and then through itself, you link them together. Repeat the process to make a chain. You can start this activity with larger rubber bands,  then transition to smaller rubber bands when your child masters the skill. This is a fantastic fine-motor activity for your child and the resulting strand of rubber bands can be used for a variety of creative ideas, from creating a slingshot launcher for paper airplanes to making a bouncy swing for a favorite toy or stuffed animal.  

Single Band Slingshot: Fold a piece of scrap paper to create a narrow, folded strip about 3 inches long. Fold it in half so you have a center crease. Then have your child hold a single rubber band between the thumb and forefinger, drape the folded paper over the rubber band, pull back and RELEASE. This can be challenging for your children and may take them a while to figure out their preferred hand for this activity and then master the technique for maximum flight. 

(Added Sept. 9, 2020)

Some of the following activities involve the use of paint or markers, so they may need a bit more attention from adults to help mitigate the mess. I will continue to add activities that take minimal engagement from you, so you can focus on your work. Some of the activities will reflect the upcoming weather and season change, using materials found from neighborhood walks or related to autumn.

Pro-Classroom Tip: Adding a little dish soap to any washable tempera paint will make it wash out of things better. Reds can be tricky, even when labeled as washable.

Color Mix Squish Bags: Using your primary tempera paint colors, add two colors (not too much, around a tablespoon or so) into a large, sealable bag. Remove all the air and seal it. I recommend taping the opening, and even taping the closed end to a tray or the floor. Present the bag (or bags) to your child and let the color mixing begin. Your child can use hands/fingers to mush the colors together or you can provide small rollers, cars, cans or corks to blend the colors. You can add a small amount of white or black to change the color tones. This activity is an introduction to color theory and your child will begin to understand how primary colors mix to make secondary and tertiary colors.  

Color Circles: Once you’ve mixed an assortment of colors in the Color Mix Squish Bags, you can use those colors for different activities. Take disposable paper/plastic cups or some old cups/glasses (your child can wash them later) for a stamping activity. Pour paint into an old yogurt lid that’s bigger than your child’s cup rim, and have them dip their cup and stamp circles on paper or old pieces of cardboard. An oversized T-shirt for your child to wear and an old towel is recommended for hand wipes between the activity area and the sink.

Some parental preparation is needed for these:

Salt Dough Sculptures: Salt dough, which can be baked into long-lasting works of art, requires three simple ingredients: 1¼ cup of salt, 5 cups of all-purpose flour and 2 cups of water. Mix until you have a workable dough consistency. Your child can make imprints of leaves, sticks, flowers and rocks. Build small sculptures. Make usable art – a dish for hair barrettes or a small feeder for their favorite stuffed animal. Once they build their sculptures, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. You can have your child add color prior to baking using watercolors or diluted food coloring. For painting after baking, acrylics work best (supervision is recommended since acrylic doesn’t wash out when dried) and you can do a second bake to set the paint when dried. This can be a fun activity to build around a theme for older children – to make furniture for a fairy house that can be placed outside or food for their favorite toy animals. Adjust baking times for the size of the sculptures.

Mason Jar Density Experiment: Combine 1 cup of salt and ¼ cup of popcorn kernels in a mason jar and close tight. Have your child roll the jar on the carpet to mix, then place it lid side down and WATCH. See what happens to the kernels and salt. For older children, you can set out the ingredients and have them put the elements together. 

Story Boxes/Baskets/Trays: Create imagination kits in a few simple steps. First, pick a favorite storybook tale and download images or draw characters on rocks. Older children can help design and create props. Classic stories are great to act out -- Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Three Billy Goats Gruff are some of the classroom favorites from the ECEC. The children can play out the story and come up with interesting versions that are different from the originals. With a shallow box, some dirt, pieces of scrap fabric, some blocks and rocks, and you can tell a variety of stories. I encourage you to hear your child’s presentation after they have some time to get creative with their stories.  

Cutting:  Scissors can be challenging for young children. Before moving to paper, here are a few cutting activities to try with your child. Cutting cooked spaghetti with clean scissors and hands – they can then be eaten as a snack or meal.  Cutting yarn – having the yarn in a skein is best because it provides the tension needed for successful cutting. Be sure to find the yarn start in the center of the skein. For younger children, you can just let them cut into the skein. Please review safety guidance for how to hold scissors when walking and that they are only for cutting the items provided to them for the activity.

Kitchenware and Tableware Sorting/Matching/Number Correspondence:  Let your child sort your tableware back into the drawer after they’ve been washed. This is a great matching activity for children. Once they master the tableware, you can include things like stirring spoons and spatulas to place in the proper location in the kitchen. To expand the activity, have your child help set the table for a meal. Give them a full handful of forks and your child can do subtraction and return the extras to the drawer. Eventually you will have an assistant to help you set the table for meals.

(Added Sept. 3, 2020)

As we move forward with activities, I will add some that may need additional parental involvement because of paint and marker usage. This will depend on the age of your child and how they like to interact with the medium. I know from first-hand experience that some children like to use paint for more than it is intended. I will ensure there are non-paint activities that require minimal supervision added to them. If you don’t have supplies, here’s a list that may be helpful: a large T-shirt (to serve as a smock), crayons, washable markers, tray of watercolors and washable tempera paints (you only need red, yellow, blue, white, and black).

Some preparation by parents are needed for these:

Ivory Soap Cloud: Take an unused new bar of Ivory soap. Unwrap and place on a thin stack of paper towels, wax paper or parchment paper. Microwave the bar of soap on high for a few minutes. Watch the soap change in your microwave. Once it’s done changing, remove and place in a shallow box or dishpan. This solid cloud of soap crumbles easily, but is fun to interact with. You can add small toys, sticks, rocks, even a hammer. Let your child play with this mass and then smash it to a fine powder. These pieces of soap can be added to bath-time fun later!

Jell-O Toy Rescue: Make a serving or two of Jell-O in a shallow cake pan or Tupperware. Add small clean toys to the Jello-O as you prepare it. Your child can then rescue the toys from their wobbly prison. You can provide a variety of kitchen utensils for this rescue mission and also a bowl for your child to place their rescued toys for cleaning. You can also do this activity with fruit pieces or edible flowers instead of toys.  Don’t forget a towel for sticky fingers.

Minimal parent assistance or prep needed:

Nail Salon: Trace or draw hands with fingernails on paper.  Have your child paint or color in the fingernails.

Rescue from the Spider Web: Take a large tub or pot and put an assortment of items in it such as empty plastic eggs, small toys, small stuffed animals, corks, Duplos, small stones, caps, etc.  Criss-cross masking tape over the opening, sticky side down, leaving spaces large enough for a large utensil and a little arm to pass through.  Your child will have to rescue the items using a large serving spoon or tongs.  You can add water to this activity.  Some items will float and others will sink.  If you add water, don’t forget to remove the stuffed animals and provide a towel or two.

Dump and Sweep: It’s amazing how much children like this activity. Provide something that your child can dump, like old potpourri, pouch lids, dried flowers, or other small 3-D items. Place items in a container with a lid (old cookie tin or Tupperware). Have your child open the container, dump out the contents and provide them with a hand broom and dustpan. Designate an area on a smooth floor surface with masking tape. Let your child sweep up and return the items to their container. Doing this with old potpourri is the best to provide a multi-sensory activity.

Milking the Cow: Many of us have latex or nitrile gloves now. Take one glove and fill it with water. Tie it tight. Suspend it securely with string or tape.  Place a dishpan, large pot or bucket below. With a little pin, prick each of the fingers. Your child will be able to practice their cow/goat milking skills. Towels are recommended for misfires.

Magnet Exploration: Raid the front of your refrigerator for your most powerful magnets. Have your child work out if items are magnetic or not. You can provide a basket or small box and have them fill it with a certain number of items from their room or around the house to test. Older children can map out their predictions on paper.

Produce Poking: Provide your child with an apple or raw potato. Have your child draw a few dots on the skin. Give them toothpicks to push into the produce at each of the dots. You can modify and let your child use a hammer, but you may have to cut the produce in half to provide a stable working surface. After your child is done, have them remove the toothpicks and peel the produce for a snack or meal later.

(Added Aug. 28, 2020)

I want to share video links from Ms. Angelica, who was working with the children at ECEC to teach them American Sign Language. In the videos, she is reading books in both Spanish and English using ASL. These videos are entirely silent. She shows the page and signs in ASL. Feel free to do these with your child and read along as she signs. They are between 10-15 minutes per video. Enjoy!

"Lupita's First Dance":

"Lucia the Luchadora":

"Dia de los Muertos":

"Too Many Tamales":

(Added Aug. 28, 2020)

It looks as though we are facing a hot spell here in the Valley, so here are some water-based activities and some indoor activities. Remember that there are some tried-and-true activities involving ice and water elsewhere on this list.

Water Transfer: This activity can be enhanced by adding small objects, flower petals, ice cubes or food/water coloring. Provide your child with some small containers – glass jars, porcelain ramekins, small dishes, sectioned trays (ice cube trays), etc. – in a shallow pan or dishpan. You can add water to the entire tray or add some on a bowl. Give your child some large pompoms, cotton balls or cut sections of sponges. Show your child how to soak their pompom to capture water and then squeeze it out in the desired location. This is good practice in controlling water and to strengthen their hands for other fine motor activities.

Will It Melt? Take a muffin tin and have your child collect items to put in each of the sections. Make sure there is the same type of item in each area. Some suggestions are broken crayons, pieces of chalk, some flower blossoms, ice, pieces of fruit, gummies, small toys, string, magnets, corks, leaves, etc. Older children can draw on paper each of the items they place in the tray and make predictions as to “will it melt” or “what may happen” to the item after sitting in the sun in a metal tray. Once you have your items and your child has completed their drawings, you can set the tray in a sunny area and let the science experiment begin!

Water Bottle Target Practice: Hang wind chimes, old water bottles and marker drawings (made by your child) outside from a tree or awning. Let them squirt these items with a water spray bottle. The wind chimes will make music, the empty water bottles will make a sound and the drawing ink will blur into a new art form. Another variation is to have your child use the power of the water spray to move an object on the ground/table. An empty water bottle, light ball or maybe even a toy car – they have to hit that “sweet spot” to see the object move on the surface.

Big Bottle Drop: This activity was a favorite in the infant playground, where we repurposed a 5-gallon water bottle for this activity. A smaller wide-mouth bottle will work as well. In the infant yard, the infants would place found items (rocks, leaves, dandelions, sticks, grass, mud) and given items (ribbons, yarn, buttons) into the jug. It turned out to be a lovely collection. The concentration required to get a long, bent stick into the opening was fun to watch. You can create your own drop bottle and provide small items (such as corks, Duplos or small toy cars) or have your child experiment to determine what will fit in the opening. You can leave the items in the bottle for a shaker instrument or have your child shake them out.

Wood and Water: Wood changes properties when left in water for a period of time. Collect any scraps of wood, craft sticks and sticks from a walk around the neighborhood for this activity. In a dishpan or tub, add the wood to the water and let your child play. Add a few small plastic animals or people to the tub for further adventures. Over time the wood may behave differently in the water (not float as well, capsize easier) and this will change how your child will play with it. Follow up with asking your child to notice the differences in the wood time. Their observation skills will impress you.

Peeling Produce: Young children are very capable and need little direction to use vegetable peelers. Show them how to use the instrument away from their body and give them some produce to peel for lunch or dinner. Start with carrots or cucumbers – they are straight and easy for your child to have success. Show how to rotate the vegetable to ensure all the skin is removed. You can also provide a plain dish knife for your child to cut the carrot (if not too thick) and cucumber into bite-sized pieces. Once your child masters the straight produce, you can introduce apples and potatoes. All that freshly peeled produce can be added to your lunch, snack or dinner. Enjoy your child’s skills in your meal making.

(Added Aug. 20, 2020)

Suitcase Fun: Children learn at a young age that suitcases lead to adventure.  Sometimes it means that a parent will be gone for a while or that they get to travel.  A simple suitcase can be used in a variety of ways.  You can prepack the suitcase with some goldfish crackers, dishes, a bottle of water, some cups, a table cloth and a stuffed animal and your child can set up a picnic.  For older children, you could put some items in the suitcase to suggest a local travel spot and have your child go into their closet to pick out the appropriate clothing for that type of location climate – a suitcase for a cold climate or for a weekend at the beach.  It will be interesting to hear why your child packed certain types of items for their adventure as you go through the suitcase with them later.

Face Paint: Face paint is easy to make for your child to play with.  With a few containers of different colored face paint and a mirror, let the fun begin!  This is just one recipe and there are many more online.  Provide your child with a few colors, a mirror, some Q-tips and a towel – and watch their creativity!  They can paint their faces or their bodies with this paint.  They can choose to decorate themselves turning themselves into a cat, clown or rainbow person.  Be sure to take a few photos to document their creativity!

Rubber Band Instruments: This activity is easy to create using a piece of cardboard, empty container or an old box with a handful of rubber bands. Take the old shoe box, piece of cardboard or tissue box and string rubber bands across it to make an instrument. Plucking rubber bands to hit the cardboard to make a smacking sound or twanging the rubber bands over the open shoebox or tissue box creates a different sound and music can happen.

Balloons: Balloons are always fun! A simple blown-up balloon can provide hours of fun. You can decorate them, keep them off the ground, chase them and experiment with static. Please be sure to pick up any latex immediately should your child’s balloon pop! We don’t want them chewing on the latex. Show your child how to rub their balloon and how the balloon then clings to curtains or their own clothing as they create static electricity.

Aluminum Foil Boats: Provide your child with a dishpan, plastic bin or large pot with some water and a piece of simple kitchen aluminum foil. Your child can then create boats to float on the water. They will be experimenting with water tension and surface area to create a vessel or fleet to float on the water.

Hole Punch Explorations: A simple single punch or three-hole punch device with some scrap paper will engage your child. Using a single hole punch helps strengthen their hands for writing and scissor use.  The three-hole punch uses larger muscles and dexterity to put the paper in properly to get actual holes versus partial holes. Save the confetti to add to dried water bottles for a sensory shake bottle or for gluing to some art. You also can use leaves to practice on rather than paper. You can make natural confetti to use or to throw outside for a celebration!    

Umbrella Day: Open all your umbrellas inside to create a low, tent-like area for your child to spend time in. Add pillows and books. You can also hang things inside the umbrella – paper hearts, little airplanes or twinkle lights – to make it more enchanting.

Bowling Alley: Collect some old, clean cans (put tape on edges), small cartons and bottles (coffee creamer bottles work great) to become pins for your bowling alley. You can add a little dirt or sand in the bottom to give them weight. Then use a soft ball an go bowling! This is an easy activity for indoors or outdoors.

Edible Sand: Here's something for infants. Put crackers in a food processor or smash them in a plastic bag (another possible activity itself) to make your sand. Put the “sand” in a small, shallow pan with some toys and let your child set up their own play finding the objects. You also can give them scoops, small measuring cups and spoons, and containers to fill and dump.

Fishing: This is great for toddlers. Provide an empty laundry basket or box. Give your child a pair of tongs, have them sit in the basket/box and go “fishing” for small stuffed animals or sock-fish. Balance and using tongs will be tested with every reach! Shaving Cream Spackle: Try this with preschoolers. Using foam blocks, shaving cream and a spatula, dinner knife or trowel, let your child use the shaving cream to help stick the foam blocks together. This activity may also work with cardboard blocks, but the moisture may damage their finish. Make sure you have a water source (a small bowl of water can do the trick) and a towel nearby for easy clean up.

Here are some activities that require a nature walk beforehand. In your own yard, around your neighborhood or at a park and collect leaves, berries, eucalyptus caps and flowers. Please remember to keep an eye on your child if they still put objects in their mouth!

Flower Sensory Soup: Provide some flowers in a small bowl or basket and water in a large stock pot. Give your child with a variety of kitchen utensils, such as slotted wooden spoons, pasta spoons, sieve spoons or spatulas, to “make soup.” This also can be done with corks, ping-pong balls or other things that float, but it looks amazing with flowers.

Nature Threading: Using the collection of natural items from your walk, allow your child to thread them with an embroidery needle (it is fairly dull or you can find plastic ones), wire or a thin, sturdy branch. Have your child string the leaves and flowers on their chosen threading tool. They then can make jewelry, fairy wands, garden mobiles or art to adorn your house.

Nature Cutting Trays: Give your child a tray filled with leaves, flowers and long-stem grasses to cut using child-size scissors. This activity uses up the natural resources, so you may want to do it after Nature Threading for any remaining leaves and flowers that weren't threaded.

Pounding Nature: With the remaining flowers, leaves, grasses, pieces of twigs and bark, you can give your child the opportunity to pound! Using a board or an old cutting board as a base, give your child the nature items, some wax paper or paper, and a hammer. Let them pound! The flattened results can be dried and used later for a variety of purposes. An extension of this is to let your child pound onto fabric – 100 percent cotton works well. Use an old shirt, handkerchief, a pillowcase or other white cotton pieces. Old produce can also be experimented with – carrot tops, wrinkled strawberries or blueberries, black beans, coffee grounds, avocado seeds, onion skins, spices, spinach, tomato, etc. After your child places a piece of produce or nature in a fold of fabric, have them pound, move the plant matter into a waste bowl to compost, and then move to the next area. This not only will provide dexterity skills, your child will create a dyed piece of art. When the dying process has concluded, ensure all plant matter has been removed, rinse in cold water and let air dry. Handwashing will ensure the coloring will last longer.

Color Sorting: Add a collection of buttons, a collection of ties or scarves, or give them a tool to manipulate the objects (tongs, tweezers, spoons or other utensils); drop containers (the old box, coffee tin, Pringles can, oatmeal container, yogurt container) that you cut into the lid – add a variety of materials to drop in the cut holes, make holes only fit a certain type of object (round for corks, a slot for playing cards, etc.).

Tape Trails: For lining up objects (large like toys, small like buttons or cotton balls) or have them “walk the line” walking in a heel-toe manner; or add a string of lights or a small lamp inside a fort.

I hope this inspires you and continues to provide long lengths of uninterrupted time for you to work while your child is engaged. These activities will benefit your child through their play for their further academic experiences. You are laying a foundation of concentration, creativity, focus, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, classification, sorting, problem solving and more.

Toy Pool Party: Provide a dish pan, large Tupperware container or large pot and let your child have a toy pool party! If you have new sponges, they can serve as pool floats. Make sure you provide your child with a towel or two to dry off their pool party participants.

Clothes Line Fun: String a child-height clothes line outside. Allow your child to hang their own laundry out to dry. This saves energy and teaches your child a life skill. It’s warm enough that their wash will be dry in no time! You can join them and hang out your clothes as well.

Water Color Droplets: Provide small containers of very diluted food coloring with water or watercolors. Using either paper towels or coffee filters, let your child squeeze colored water droplets onto the surface using an eye dropper, small syringe, Q-tip or paintbrush. Your child can witness how the colors disperse on the dry paper and blend together. They will also discover what happens when you add too many colors or you re-wet areas.

Dry Erase Letter Hunt: Write the alphabet – scrambled – on glass or mirror. You can do capitals or lower-case letters. Have your child then erase the corresponding letter in sequence while singing the song, pulling letters out of a box (use an alphabet puzzle or write them on paper scraps) or as they look at an alphabet book. For young children, allow them to erase the found letter with a washcloth or rag. Older children can use another dry erase color marker to trace your letter. For children who are writing letters, you can have them write their own letters on the mirror/glass. Remember to try to use non-block letters, but D’Nealian is shown to be the easiest for young children to learn. The letters have the minimal strokes and are close to cursive (children scribble before they draw straight lines).

Draw and Shake: Add salt, dry coffee grounds, soil, sand or corn meal to a tray or round cake pan. There should be enough to cover the bottom in a thin layer. Your child can then run their finger through the smooth surface to practice drawing letters. This is easier to accomplish versus writing with a pencil. Just give a light shake to the tray to erase the letter and try again. Besides letters, your child can work on zig-zags and wavy lines. They can do drawings, too!

Paper Clip Fun: This activity is great for fine motor control and refinement. Provide your child a variety of paper clips and some heavy-duty paper (card stock works best) to practice on. Have your child add paper clips to the edge of the paper. You can make it more difficult by cutting the paper stock into shapes like ©, ­ã, or ª that will provide your child a little extra challenge. Use a variety of sizes, shapes and types of paperclips, from plastic to metal, traditional to fun-shaped. For children interested in numbers, put a numerical symbol and the corresponding number of dots on the card (on the back) and have the child put the correct number of paperclips along the edge to match the symbol and quantity.

Shaving Activity: This is a fun sensory activity for young children. All you need is shaving cream (make sure they don’t digest it) or lotion. Apply to a limb and use a tongue depressor, popsicle stick or chopstick to “shave off” the cream/lotion. They will learn a sweeping pressure technique; challenge them not to use their tool like a pencil. For those who wish to do a facial “shave,” set them up in front of a mirror. They will then need to reorient themselves to their reflection.

Tea Bag Sensory Play: Provide your child with a variety of tea bags, some water (lukewarm), child scissors, spoons, and a variety of cups/jars/containers. Your child can cut open tea bags, make tea and smell and taste the different flavors. They can experience how the water gets darker and the taste/smell more fragrant as they experiment and play. If you have tea ball strainers and a tea pot (that you don’t prize), the play can get more involved with additional materials to explore.

Ice Skating: Here’s a simple activity that will be fun for your child indoors. Clear out a space large enough and make sure there are no corners or furniture that may injure your child if they fall. Provide your child with a couple of dryer sheets to step on and then slide on your hard floor surface. This will simulate ice skating. Add a little music and let them have some fun!

Homemade Moon Sand: This is simple to make, but you want to contain it to a dishpan or tray. It will be slippery on the floor, so a towel placed under the tray or on the floor is recommended for any spills. The recipe is simple: 2 cups of flour mixed with ¼ cup of baby oil. Mix well. The mixture will cluster, providing a great sensory activity for your child. Add some small toys and spoons/bowls and let your child have fun with this fun feeling Moon Sand. It will also soften their hands!

Junk Mail Reuse: Give your child a stack of junk mail, advertisements and catalogues that have come in the mail. For young children, allow them to open mail and rip up everything. For older children, give them a pair of child scissors and let them have fun! You can extend this activity with envelopes, cardboard, tape and glue (glue sticks are a favorite and less messy). Add crayons or markers for even more creativity. Children also enjoy putting their ripped and cut pieces of paper into envelopes, sealing them up and giving them as gifts.

Cut Sponges: This is an activity that can be done wet and dry. Take new simple sponges and cut them into pieces (rectangular – think Jenga blocks). Cut them length-wise and width-wise. They can then be used for a variety of building activities when dried and then when you add water – they behave so differently! These can be used over and over, just allow them to dry out. Extensions – use colored water (a very little food coloring goes a long way!) or dish soap.

For older preschoolers and beyond –

Take Aparts: If you have old appliances or toys, remove the power cord (cut it off) and the batteries, then provide your child with an assortment of real tools. Screwdrivers (various types and sizes), wire cutters, pliers and even a hammer can all be useful. Your child can then take apart the items. It’s amazing how much they can discover about how things work when they get to see the inside. Provide a small Tupperware or jar for them to keep all the screws they remove. You can also provide a magnet as well for your child to experiment with.

Bread Painting: This activity requires some parental involvement or, at least, you want to be close at hand. Food coloring stains, even when diluted with water. Make sure you are doing this in an easily cleaned area. Aprons, towels and trays to work on are recommended. Let your child paint on slices of bread with water-diluted food coloring and a clean brush or Q-tip. Remind your child that painting in the same spot makes the bread soggy, as when you paint on the same spot on paper you get a hole. Have your child paint the bread for your lunch sandwiches (allow for drying time) or for tomorrow’s breakfast toast. Who doesn’t like to eat their art?

Bull’s-Eye Box: Have your child decorate the interior and exterior of a box or box lid. Once they have completed that, cut a hole in the bottom of the box and put a ball inside (make sure the hole is larger than the ball). Have your child move the box to guide the ball to the hole. The larger the surface, the harder the challenge for your child.

Clothes Pin/Chip Bag Clip Pick Ups: Provide your child with a few clothes pins and/or bag clips for this activity. Using containers, have your child pick up items such as cotton balls, buttons, small toys, or even balled paper scraps to pick up using the paper clip or bag clip. This three-finger pincer grasp will help with holding writing utensils and the overall activity is great for hand-eye coordination.

Spray Bottle Target Practice: This is a great outdoor activity. Set up paper towel rolls on end and place either a light plastic ball or crumpled paper ball on top. Provide a simple hand spray bottle filled with water for target practice. Encourage them to spray the ball off the paper towel roll and then reset the activity. If they get bored with that, have them spray plants outside, the fence, the ground, the grass and even give their toys a good spray washing.

Stacking Cheerios: Using Play-Doh as a base, put a piece of dry spaghetti sticking into it, sticking straight up. If you don’t have Play-Doh, use a piece of foam, a small box (put a hole in the lid) or even your colander to hold up the pasta. Then provide Cheerios for your child to stack on the pasta. You can extend this for older children by writing a number on a Post-It note in front of each pasta strand and have your child stack the appropriate number of Cheerios.

Golf Tee Balances: This require items that not all households may have on hand – golf tees and marbles. Using a packaging foam base or a box, have your child hammer golf tees into the box or foam, but not all the way in. With the tees sticking up, have your child place marbles on each and every golf tee. They will have to be very careful and strategize how to put the marbles on the tees without knocking over other marbles.

Can Food Exploration: Let your child play with your canned foods for a variety of activities. They can roll the cans, stack the cans, play grocery store and whatever else their minds come up with. They can sort the cans by size, label color or even product type. The weight of the filled can is good for your child to experiment with. Many times we offer empty containers, so having heavy full cans to roll around and stack can be fun. If you’re worried about the cans crashing down when stacked, move the activity outside to a dirt or grass surface. You may want to write the name of the food with a sharpie on the lid of the can in case the labels come off during your child's explorations.

Clipboard Drawing: If you don't have a clipboard, use a binder clip, bag clip or clothespin to secure paper to a piece of cardboard. You can reinforce the surface of the clipboard with packaging tape. Ask your child to walk into each room and draw something that they see there (or outside). Provide a letter on each paper and have your child find an object that starts with that letter sound and draw it. Another scavenger hunt idea is to draw an item unique to a room on each paper and the child needs to draw another object next to the object you drew. Have fun with this. It can be very open-ended – let them draw using their clipboard or be very specific. Provide your child with a ballpoint pen or lead pencil.  They will draw differently and get detailed with their lines using a “grown up” writing instrument.

Tug and Pull Box: This activity is for infants and toddlers. It takes a bit of time to make, but will provide hours of enjoyment. Take a small- to medium-size box and put good-size holes all around the sides and top of the box. Then put old ties, lengths of fabric strips, rope, bandanas or scarves in through one hole and out through another, with extra length on each end. You will need to put a knot in both ends so your child will not pull the item all the way out again. Your child can then pull till they meet resistance from the knot. They can then pull back the other way. Each fabric, rope and tie makes a different sound as they are pulled through the holes.

Edible Baby Paints: This is a great activity to do if you have any leftover baby cereals and veggies from when your infant was eating baby food. Using dry baby cereal, almond milk and a jar of infant vegetables, you can make a variety of colored, edible and washable finger paints. Spinach (green), carrots/sweet potatoes (orange), butternut squash (yellow), beets (red) and blueberries (blue) are some of the natural colors you can create for your child to explore.

Stuffed Animals Go To The ...: Create a space for your child to bring their stuffed animals and imagination. Provide items from your kitchen, living room or office to set up a restaurant, school, bus, sleepover party, gym or train for your child’s collection of stuffed animals or toys. All you need is a stapler, some paper, a container of paper clips and a pen for an office. A train just needs a series of boxes in a row. A theater needs a row of chairs and a stage area. You will provide them a provocation for their play.

Q-Tip Maze: Give your child a box of Q-tips to play with and explore. They can make a maze on a table surface or on the floor and then have their small toy or car solve the maze. If you want to make this a three-dimensional experience, you can give your child playdough to attach the Q-tips together.

Bubble Making: Using a pot or dishpan with water and soap, have your child use the strawberry basket as a tool to make bubbles. You can also give your child a manual hand mixer (non-electric) and a whisk for them to make mountains of bubble foam. Don’t forget a sponge and towel to mop up messes if you do this indoors.

During your next run to a home improvement store, grab paint color sample cards and sandpaper for these next activities.

Color Sorting: There are so many shades of color and this will be a fun activity for your child. Have your child sort the paint samples into different color groups. Pick up some of the brightest to the lightest (almost white) to challenge your child. This works best with the color sample cards that are one color per piece of paper.

Color Matching: This activity works best with paint sample cards that have multiple shades on one card. Provide the sample cards with a variety of objects in a basket or box – small toys, fruits, buttons, crayons, flowers, leaves, rocks and other small, colorful objects. The child can then try to find a color-card match for each of the items.

Sticky Sandpaper: This activity is simple. Provide your child with a sheet of sandpaper and some lengths of string or yarn. The sandpaper will grip the yarn to allow your child to lay the string/yard in interesting patterns and they won’t move much. See what your child comes up with.

From the kitchen ...

Paper Plate Frisbees: If you have leftover paper plates from a party or event, here’s an activity that will use some of your stash. Paper plates make incredible Frisbees. Allow your child to first customize the Frisbee by coloring or adding stickers. Your child will be introduced to a different way of throwing. This may be an activity best for outdoors.

Puzzle activities ...

Puzzle Hunt: This can be done with infants through older children. Take a favorite puzzle and “hide” the pieces around a room or area. Your child needs to hunt for the pieces in order to complete the puzzle. For young children, the hiding places can be fairly easy to spot. For older children, let them know that inside books, under cushions or on window sills all are fair game.

Puzzle Jumble: If your child has mastered the puzzles you have at home, here’s a simple way to make them more challenging. Place all of the puzzle pieces in a box or basket. Start with just two pieces, then add more when your child has mastered that. This is for sorting and completing the puzzle.

Homemade Puzzles/Lacing Board: Print out a few photos or use your child’s art to make a puzzle or lacing board. You can use tongue depressors (old popsicle sticks), pieces of cardboard or construction paper to make a custom puzzle. Glue on the photo/art, then cut apart. For the lacing board, cardboard works best. Once your art is secure and dry, put holes in assorted areas, attach string/yarn with a tape needle and let your child lace and re-lace.

(Updated June 12, 2020)

Plastic/Paper Cup Building: Here’s the time to dig out the assorted paper or plastic cups you have stashed away for parties or outdoor picnics. Let your child use them to build structures. These can be stacked or added with other items you may have at home, such as wooden blocks, pieces of cardboard, small boxes and masking tape. It is amazing how something so simple can turn into a beautiful structure from your child’s imagination.
Target Practice: Lay a box sideways and hang a few plastic/paper cups with string or yarn across the opening. Find a safe location and challenge your child to hit the swaying targets by throwing a soft ball or small stuffed animal at the cups. This will help your child develop hand-eye coordination. You may want to mark with chalk or tape where your child should stand and throw from. If you’ve ever played catch with a child, she often needs to be reminded to keep distance between themselves and the target.

Crunchy Box: Sometimes it’s good to smash things. This activity is a great outlet. This activity also can be a precursor to a cooking project. Grab a low box or box lid or wooden bowl. You can line it with a plastic bag if you’d like. Put in graham crackers (cookies, other crackers or cereals) and give your child a mallet, hammer or hand-size rock to smash until all the crackers are crumbs. Use those crumbs to make a crust of a pie, breading for crispy skin or toppings for your yogurt or ice cream. Corn Flakes and unsweetened crackers are great for breading. Dried pasta can be used, but the remaining product may not be as useful. It’s a noisy activity, but your child will have to hunt down all the pieces to pulverize them fully.
Diaper Wipe Push and Pull Boxes: You can put a variety of items in an old diaper wipe containter that are interesting for your child to pull out and place back in. Scarves, pieces of cloth, lids, small toys, corks and stones all have fun aspects when you put them in or pull them out of the container opening. You can expand this activity by putting a variety of small items in the box and see if your child can identify what the object is without taking it out of the container.
Cotton Ball Stuffing: We’ve had a number of cotton ball activities in this series because cotton balls are easy to come by and fun to use in different ways. This one is exactly as it sounds – stuffing cotton balls into an empty water bottle. It may not sound like much, but it helps strengthen your child’s hands and fingers. It’s very satisfying to succeed in getting this object into the smaller opening.
Box or Basket of Fun: Use a basket and box to contain a collection of items. Make it fun for your child, maybe a little something they don’t typically have access to mixed with an assortment of loose parts (lids, bracelets, corks, string pieces, pine cones, etc.). Include a figurine, a bead necklace, silk tie or your jewelry box – things they normally don’t get to handle and touch. Let them play with it (gently) for this special activity. You will be amazed at how gently they will play and how differently they will treat all the items in this box/basket because there’s something special in it.

Bug Ice Cubes: This activity will be noisy and messy, so we suggest you set this up outside. Freeze small toy bugs, spiders or other toys in an ice tray. If your child still puts everything in the mouth, use raisins or dried cranberries instead of toys. Once these toys or fruit pieces are frozen in ice, remove them from the ice tray and set up a smashing station. Give your child a small hammer (a real one) or a rock that fits their hand and let them smash the ice to free the toy or fruit stuck inside. This is a great activity to promote hand-eye coordination, and smashing things can be quite fun!

Free the Toy: This is a variation on wall taping. Loop rubber bands around a toy and have your child unwind them to free them. They can then put the rubber bands back on. This is great for fine motor control. Activities like this will strengthen the hand and is considered a pre-writing activity.

Banana (Fruit) Cutting: Children love to help in the kitchen and prep snacks. Have your child start with a regular dinner knife, some soft fruit (bananas, melon, strawberries), a cutting board and two bowls (one for waste and one for cut fruit). Have your child cut the fruit into bite-sized pieces. If your child is enjoying the activity, provide more fruit and enjoy a fruit salad created by your child. A little yogurt, shredded coconut and cinnamon is all you need for a healthy snack!

Circles in a Basket/Box: Collect lids, bracelets, cookies cutters, embroidery hoops, cut paper towel tubes, centers of tape rolls, pouch lids, and anything else you can find that is a circle. Put the collection of items in a box or basket. Watch your child’s imagination and creativity come through with these found circles.

Color Sorting: Provide your child with a sectioned container, such as a muffin pan, egg carton or ice cube tray, and let your child sort a colorful cereal or snack (think Froot Loops or fruit snacks). Children have an innate sense of order and the sorting will evolve. You can also provide your child with a length of yarn with a taped end and stopper piece of cereal at the other end for stringing the sorted cereal. There are less sugary colored O’s cereal you can use as an alternative, or you can just provide Cheerios for stringing. There are also the hearts and O’s boxes of Cheerios on the shelves for a variety in the shapes.

Cotton Ball Painting: This activity requires colored construction paper, cotton balls and water. Have your child use wet cotton balls to paint on the construction paper. This is a variation of water painting on cement or fencing that we did previously. Encourage your child to squeeze out their cotton ball before painting. This strengthens their hand muscles and provides for less mess.

Lids and Jars Match: Give your child a basket or box of assorted lids and jars. Your child will enjoy matching which lid fits which jar and practice closing and opening them. For variety, you can add other boxes with their lids or items to put away in the jars and boxes. You can make this more difficult for older children by giving them an assortment of bolts and nuts to match.

Whisk Cage: Stuff cotton balls or pom-poms into a whisk until it’s full. Provide this and a bowl to place freed cotton balls in. You can challenge your child by providing tweezers or small tongs (sugar cube tongs, strawberry huller or pickle tongs). This three-finger grasp with the tongs or using their fingers are great pre-writing exercises.

Nature Collecting: We all have been on walks collecting items found outdoors. We can put items in a bag or basket. Providing your child with an egg carton or ice tray will change how our child looks at nature and how they choose what to put in their collection. The size of the space and the limited number of spaces will influence your child to take more care and thought into the items they choose.

(Updated May 10, 2020)

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 flour

1 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!