Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
Keep the Kids Occupied While You Work
You’re trying to work from home, and you need things that will keep your kids occupied for 2–3 hours at a stretch. The obvious answer would be television and video games, but you hate to have your kids while away the majority of their childhoods looking at a screen.
All those mommy-blog educational ideas aren’t much help, either, because they often take a lot of parent time to get materials ready for the activity—and you just don’t have that kind of time. The good news is that you can use the following ideas that don’t take much time on your part but should take quite a bit of time for the children to do.
Children Learn Through Play
It looks like playing, but it also helps children learn to research about something fun they want to do and use creativity and problem-solving to accomplish it. Play has always been the main way children learn. If you need a little reassurance that it’s okay to let the kids play for a while, you can read the words of an education professional writing in the New York Times: “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.”
Feel better now? Have your kids look at the following ideas to see if one of them strikes their fancy. Each suggestion has some links they can click to give them ideas to get them started.
- Create a Rube Goldberg Machine
- Make Your Own Movie
- Draw Your Own Graphic Novel
- Build a Cardboard Town
- Build a Cardboard Arcade
- Build a Cardboard Dollhouse
- Create a Journal Using a Speech-to-Text Program
- Design Your Own Board Game
- Make a Diorama
- Create a Flannelboard Set
1. Create a Rube Goldberg Machine
Here’s an activity that brings a lot of scientific principles into play. Rube Goldberg was known for developing complicated machines with a series of chain reactions. If you have seen the game Mousetrap®, you have an idea of what we are talking about. This is a project for kids with a bit of patience, as they will need to test each portion several times to see if it will work.
It’s helpful for them to start small, say with a series of dominoes that do something simple like knock a ball off a table. Then, they can expand from there. This video of the TRASH machine is my favorite for showing how you can use common household articles to make this contraption.
Kids can also search the internet for lots more examples of these machines before working on their own.
2. Make Your Own Movie
Think of all the time this could take.
- To start, there’s planning the movie and putting together the storyboard. Don’t tell the kids that this is much like doing an English assignment; they don’t have to know.
- Then, there’s getting the costumes and props together, rehearsing, filming, and editing.
Here is a link from Hello Kids that takes children through the process.
3. Draw Your Own Graphic Novel
Graphic novels have taken the world of kids’ books by storm. They have picture panels and speech bubbles like a comic strip, but the size and shape of the book is like a novel.
- Your kids may be familiar with Dav Pilkey’s work, which includes the incredibly popular Dog Man and Captain Underpants series. Here is a site with his book trailers to give kids inspiration on what they want their own graphic novels to be like.
- Raina Telgemeier is another popular illustrator/author who writes autobiographical pieces, sharing her struggles with dental surgery in the book Smile and experiences on a road trip with her family in Sisters.
Making a graphic novel develops quite a few language arts skills. Children develop characters, develop a plot, and create dialogue. They don’t need to have awesome drawing skills. Stick figures can work just fine.
Sources of Inspiration: Famous Authors and More
Dav Pilkey intentionally makes his characters easy to draw. Here is a link to some “how to draw” sheets he has posted online. And here is Telgemeier’s video tutorial on how to draw one of the characters in her books.
Children can search for “drawing tutorials” or “how to draw” on the internet, and find step-by-step instructions for all kinds of things.
And, at the risk of sending kids back to their screens, you can use online tools like Make Beliefs Comix,which is a site that lets kids make comics for free, albeit with a limited number of characters and scenes.
4. Build a Cardboard Town
Have the kids scrounge up cereal boxes, shipping boxes, shoeboxes, paper towel rolls, cans, construction paper, wrapping paper, origami paper, markers, paints, tape, string, yarn—whatever you have. They can lay out a grid of streets and make buildings: ice cream shop, library, post office, pet store, whatever they like. They can put in stop signs and railroad tracks. They can make cardboard people, cars, animals, trees, etc.
Here’s a nice site from Pin Stripey Socks that gives inspiration.
This writeup from Lemon Lime Adventures gets more into the educational aspects and includes a few questions to ask the children.
5. Build a Cardboard Arcade
This one will involve a little more engineering, trying to figure out how to get things to move like they do in an arcade. Have the kids watch the video of "Caine’s Arcade" above to see how a boy in Los Angeles engineered his arcade. (I love how he even figured out how to get the tickets to come out of the slot for the players.)
Then have them gather boxes and things around the house to see if they can get their games set up and working. This one can take even more time as they have members of their family come and try their luck at the games.
6. Build a Cardboard Dollhouse
I know, I’m on a cardboard roll here, but this one is how I spent quite a few hours as a child. I used wrapping paper for the wallpaper and used pieces of fabric, or wove yarn together, for the rugs.
I used egg cartons for the doll furniture. I made mostly chairs, and I considered myself pretty clever when I figured out how to make a bathtub, but the woman at My Cup Overflows figured out how to make a couch, a bed, and a kitchen sink and stove. (Scroll down about halfway down the article, and you’ll see pictures of her creations.)
7. Create a Journal Using a Speech-to-Text Program
This is another one that helps develop language arts skills without them knowing it. I’ve been reading how important journals from this time will be to future generations, and if your child is big on writing, by all means find them a notebook and let them go at it.
But if that feels too much like homework, see if you can get them interested in dictating their memories. Programs like Microsoft Word® have speech-to-text capability and kids are usually fascinated to have their words appear as text. Alternately, they could dictate into the notes section on the software of a phone and then cut and paste those words into a document.
These are unusual enough times that they could tell the story of what happened during their day and have good content for their journal. If they don’t know where to start, have them take a look at journal writing prompts on the internet. This list from Thoughtco is one I like especially well.
8. Design Your Own Board Game
When I was young, we didn’t have a lot of money for board games. But, my grandmother had an old Monopoly® game with half the cards missing. So, of course, I found someone with an intact games and made more cards out of cardboard we had around the house. As is the case with quite a few things, the making is almost more fun than the playing.
I think it would be fun to design a version of the Game of Life®. Kids could collect whatever kind of vehicle they like and make the hazards and rewards things from their lives.
Here are some instructions from PBS Kids on making a very simple board game.
And here are instructions from Scholastic on making the sort of board game that has players moving on a journey from one side of the board to the other.
9. Make a Diorama
Here is another project for which the kids can gather all types of material from around the house: boxes, cans, figurines, Easter grass, pipe cleaners, clay. All you need is a surface, like a piece of cardboard, to set everything on. Kids can use almost any theme they’d like--space, dinosaurs, ocean, Star Wars, fairy tales, Pokemon, jungle, Nascar—just about anything they can imagine.
Making dioramas helps them develop planning skills and problem-solving skills as they figure out how to use the materials they have to get the scene they want.
This WikiHow site provides a good basic tutorial for putting together a diorama in a box.
If you are anywhere close to Easter, it’s fun to make a diorama out of those Peeps® candies. Here is a thorough tutorial on how to prepare and dress the Peeps® and set the scene.
10. Create a Flannelboard Set
This one develops storytelling skills. Kids can make characters and sets from felt or some other kind of fabric and then tell a story by placing them on a piece of cardboard covered with flannel (you can repurpose an old pajama top.) Just stretch the flannel over the cardboard , wrap it around to the back and fasten it with a strong tape-- like duct tape.
The kids can cut out characters from folk tales and tell those stories, especially to younger children in the family. If they’d like a pattern, they search for coloring pages on the internet and print them out. They can glue felt to the picture so that it will adhere to the flannel board. Another fun twist is to do a fractured fairy tale, changing the story around. For inspiration, children can look for “fractured fairy tales” on YouTube. One of my favorites is The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka.
If you want to simplify this even more, you can have them cut out colored shapes and build things with the shapes, much like they would with blocks. A variation of this idea is to make a tangram, an ancient puzzle that uses a set number of shapes combined together to make a variety of animals and people. This tangram site has a printable template for making the puzzle pieces as well as a collection patterns for figures the children can make.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can you suggest some activities for a 2 year old?
Answer: You can make some simple shapes for the felt board and have them put them up and take them down and arrange the shapes. You can approximate a sandbox by getting a large pan and putting cornmeal in it for them to sift through and make shapes. You can also put shaving cream on a tray and have them draw in it. My daughter loved to take all the Tupperware out of the cupboard and put the lids on things. I knew a teacher who would give young children a loop of sticky tape that they could attach to different things around the room. That would buy enough time for the teacher to talk to the child's parents. Very young children do have a much shorter attention span, so it's hard to find something truly time-consuming, but I hope these ideas help.
© 2020 Adele Jeunette
Liz Westwood from UK on March 26, 2020:
This is a great set of ideas. I'm sure many parents will be glad of your suggestions in the coming weeks.