So Netflix has played babysitter more times than you can count already this year? No shame. We asked experts for the holy grail: screen-free playtime ideas that hold kids’ attention long enough for you to clear out your inbox.

By Michelle Crouch
February 05, 2021
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It's the deepest form of play—when kids are so into something that they get lost in it. Think about a toddler pouring water in the bathtub. "You get in 'the zone.' And that feels wonderful at any age," says Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Playing Smart. Research shows spending time "in flow" helps kids build big life skills like resilience, creative thinking, and impulse control. 

But after kids have been cooped up for months with the same toys and people, those magical moments—when your child gets completely absorbed in play—may seem few and far between just like the moments you can actually reply to an email. Enter these activities and play ideas for kids that fall into the "flow" category.

"Children are naturally really curious," says David Shernoff, Ph.D., an educational psychologist at Rutgers University. "They readily become engrossed in an activity. As a parent, you need to set up the conditions to make that most likely."

Start by choosing ideas that target your child's personal interests, get supplies together, then let them be. To really find flow, your kid needs chunks of time and permission to make a mess. "If they feel judged or heavily watched by a parent, they are not going to get into a flow," says Jennifer Miller, author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids. Look for ways to control chaos without limiting creativity, like painting on the patio. Then don't disturb them—not even with a "Good job!" comment. Kids learn best through trial and error. 

Credit: Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Kimia-Lou, Victor, Evan Frimmouse; Raissa Cute; Andréa Vosges & son

Crafty Play Ideas

After a quick tutorial from you, your kid will be ready to make a masterpiece.

1. Construct cute animals. Dig up a cardboard egg carton and a piece of cardboard. Cut a pointy section from the carton to be the creature's face, and glue it to the cardboard. Paint facial features (unicorn! piglet!) on the carton, and ears and body on the cardboard (for visuals, check out @nylah.khan). —Nylah Khan, a Los Angeles–based art teacher

2. Sketch a life-size self-portrait. Unfurl a few feet of butcher paper on the floor, have your child lie down on it, and then outline their body. Prop up a mirror nearby so they can fill in the details. —Miller 

3. Get sculpting. Try no-mess papier-mâché to build 3-D objects by using plaster cloth. Start off by making a bowl: Wet strips and wrap them around the bottom half of a balloon. Wait 30 minutes for the strips to harden, then pop the balloon. Add flair with paint or markers. For a next-level project, wrap strips around cardboard or Styrofoam to make dolls or masks. —Khan

4. Watercolor to the extreme. Have your kid draw a design on thick white paper using a black permanent marker. (We advise supervising this part!) On a piece of aluminum foil, have them use washable markers to create an abstract pattern—the more colors, the better. Spritz the paper with water and place it facedown on top of the foil; rub the two together gently to transfer the colors. Then it's all about the reveal: Ceremoniously peel back the paper to uncover the vibrant artwork your kid has created. Make sure to let it dry. —Khan 

5. Build a dream playground. Let your child raid the recycling bin, then grab a roll of tape and some ice-pop sticks, corks, and string to create an ultimate park of loop-the-loop slides, swings, and monkey bars for their tiny toys. —Lyndsey Wheeler, cofounder of Camp Supernow, a virtual after-school program 

6. Uncover a secret message. So this is what white crayons are for! Have your child use one to draw patterns or write words, then paint over their work with watercolors. Watch as the wax pushes the water away in a process called resist art. —Khan

7. No Paintbush No Prob? Add texture to paintings by swapping in sponges, scrubbers, a comb, leaves, flowers, bath poufs, toy cars, LEGO bricks, blocks, cookie cutters, marbles (let kids roll them around with paper in a box), and, of course, fingers.

Credit: Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Kimia-Lou, Victor, Evan Frimmouse; Raissa Cute; Andréa Vosges & son

Sensory Play Ideas

Let those little hands clutch, splosh, and pick their way through hands-on good times.

8. Go bananas with shaving cream. Have your kids hop into a dry bathtub with their swimsuit on. Add a bowl of warm water, a giant pile of shaving foam, and some toys. (Kids under 5 will, obvi, need supervision.) Afterward, turn on the faucet and rinse it all away. —Lizzie Assa, founder of the Instagram account @theworkspaceforchildren

9. Free the bears. Keep a preschool-age child engaged while refining their (kid-safe) scissor skills: Drop a small plastic bear (or LEGO figure or Shopkins character) into each cup of a muffin tin, trap them with painter's tape, then tell your kid, "The bears were captured and need your help to escape!" —Beth Rosenbleeth, founder of DaysWithGrey.com

10. Sort stuff. Give your 4- or 5-year-old buttons or pom-poms and then encourage them to divide the items into a muffin tin by size, shape, or color. Kids love to organize and put things into piles, and working with very small objects helps them drop into a flow state. —Dana Anderson, a Montessori teacher in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida

11. Assemble a sensory bin. Fill a shallow storage container with a few pounds of dried black beans, then toss in some toys (plastic bugs, construction vehicles, action figures) for a tactile experience. Add cups, serving utensils, and funnels for scooping. When your child is done, snap on the lid and store the container for another day. —Renu Blankinship, founder of the Instagram crafting account @makermint

Expert Tip: These materials make great fillers too: rice, split peas, cotton balls, Easter grass, seashells, dried pasta, popcorn kernels, leaves, pom-poms, beads, or scraps of fabric. (If your little one is still mouthing objects, choose larger items to minimize the risk of choking.) 

Pretend Play Ides

Suggest these make-believe scenarios to get your kid's dream world going.

12. Set up an airport. 

13. Hold a ceremony (like a wedding or a coronation). 

14. Play restaurant. 

15. Open a vet clinic or a hospital. 

16. Take a trip into space. 

17. Re-create a scene from a movie.

Play-Doh Play Ideas

Whether homemade or store-bought, the squishy stuff is one of the best mediums for open-ended, imaginative fun. Pair a few colors with a rolling pin, a butter knife, and cookie cutters, and watch as your child becomes calmly industrious as they smash away, or introduce an exciting challenge:

18. Make monsters by adding googly eyes, feathers, and pipe cleaners. 

19. Hide pennies in a chunk of dough and ask your child to dig them out. 

20. See who can make the funniest face. 

21. Press in plastic bugs or dinosaurs to create "fossils." 

22. Use alphabet cookie cutters to practice spelling words, or roll out the dough and shape letters by hand. 

23. Try to build a tall tower using toothpicks.

Imaginary Play Ideas

A prop or two can kick-start their mind.

24. Open a store. All you need is a toy cash register. Kids can come up with anything from pretend pizza parlors to make-believe malls. —Lauren Tingley, a first-grade teacher in Red Bluff, California, who blogs at Simply-Well-Balanced.com 

25. Create a giant race-car track. Tack down painter's tape to construct a road system that spans a few rooms, runs up the walls, and goes under and over furniture. Upgrade your routes by decorating shoeboxes as buildings. —Miller 

26. Enlist a cardboard box. With markers and tape, it can turn into a spaceship, a castle, a truck, or even a time machine. Need some inspo? Read Not a Box, by Antoinette Portis, a picture book about a bunny who uses his imagination to make his own cubed creation. —Brooke Wetzel, a kindergarten teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina 

27. Go "camping." Pitch a tent in the living room, and fill it with cozy blankets and sleeping bags for the ultimate hideout. At night, bring a flashlight in to tell stories. —Donnya Negera, CEO of YUUMA Collection diaper bags 

28. Hire an intern. If you're working from home, set up an office for your child next to your desk with all the fixings: pencils, paper, calculator, play laptop. Ask them to do their work (whether it's actual homework or filing pretend invoices) while you do yours. —Anderson 

29. Make a toy-washing station. Fill one plastic tub with soapy water and another with clean rinse water. Hand your child a sponge, a washcloth, an old toothbrush, a few small cups, and a small almost-empty bottle of dish soap to get their dolls, cars, and other plastic toys squeaky-clean. —Assa

Credit: Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Kimia-Lou, Victor, Evan Frimmouse; Raissa Cute; Andréa Vosges & son

Science Play Ideas

Foster the little Bill Nye in your curious kid with these surprising experiments.

30. Engineer a pasta skyscraper. See who can build the tallest or wackiest structure out of marshmallows and dried spaghetti (this pasta is perfect for breaking into just-right sizes). Before kids start, ask them what makes some structures stronger than others. —Allison Wilson, senior director of curriculum and innovation at Stratford School in Santa Clara, California 

31. Build an animal habitat. Have your child research their stuffed animal's "home" in the wild as inspiration for creating a mini one out of household items like LEGO bricks, blocks, and scraps of fabric. A shoebox can morph into a bear's cave. A plastic bin filled with blue paper and rocks can turn into a cove for a crab. Make sure it includes the four elements all animals need to survive: water, shelter, food, and space. —Wilson

32. Arrange an exploration area. Collect tape, string, scissors, cardboard, a magnifying glass, pipe cleaners, rubber bands, and other odd items your child can use for whipping up an "invention." For school-age kids, include a screwdriver and broken or cast-off items such as an old computer keyboard or phone, videotapes, or busted toys that they can open up and investigate. —Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Playing Smart 

33. Mix up some oobleck. This mysterious substance is sometimes a solid, sometimes a liquid, and always a hit. Combine two parts cornstarch with one part water. Show your newbie scientist how to make it into a ball, drive play cars through it, and pour it through a colander. (For a stretchy, slimy twist, substitute liquid dish soap for the water.) —Wilson

Tried-and-True Play Ideas

Break out these boredom busters from your own childhood.

34. Make paper-bag puppets. 

35. Build a house of cards. 

36. Play marbles. 

37. String a cat's cradle. 

38. "One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war." 

39. Do a blindfolded taste test. 

40. Have a staring contest. 

41. Race paper airplanes.

Credit: Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Kimia-Lou, Victor, Evan Frimmouse; Raissa Cute; Andréa Vosges & son

Learning Play Ideas

Check out a how-to book from the library and nudge your kid to learn...

42. A magic trick 

43. A few words in sign language 

44. Yoga poses 

45. Juggling 

46. Origami 

47. Crocheting 

48. How to make a friendship bracelet 

49. Hand-clapping games 

50. New jump-rope moves

Physical Play Ideas

Burn off those afternoon Zoomies with a game that gets kids up and moving.

51. Bring out their ninja skills. Let your kid build an obstacle course where (almost) anything is game—couch pillows to hurdle, stuffed animals to run around, and a blanket tunnel to crawl under. —Jennifer Munch, a school counselor in the Philadelphia area 

52. Jazz up a dance party. Play freeze dance, do the limbo, teach the Macarena, or move like animals (think lion, bird, or elephant). —Wheeler 

53. Make a move cube. Cover a square tissue box with paper. Write or draw actions on each side of the cube: "Jump," "Squat," "Find something green." Have your child throw the die, aka move cube, along with a regular-size die. The goal: Complete the task on the move cube the number of times shown on the regular die. —Rosenbleeth 

54. DIY a parachute. Easily re-create this gym-class hero with a bedsheet. Hold the edges and run in circles like a carousel, or make "popcorn" by bouncing cotton balls on top. And don't forget this favorite: Crouch down low, lift up the sheet to catch air, and quickly sneak underneath for a moment of wonder together. —Anderson 

55. Rethink sports. Play volleyball with a balloon, bowl a tennis ball into half-filled water bottles, kick a rolled-up sock into "soccer net" laundry baskets, or use brooms, a tennis ball, and tape-marked goals for hockey. —Marlene Heuer, a preschool teacher in Rochester, New York 

56. Hit the rink. Tape wax paper to your kid's shoes, put on some classical music, and let them "skate" on the carpet. (Careful, kids, it's just as slippery as ice!) To skate on hardwood floors, try paper plates. —Heuer

Food Play Ideas

Juice up meal prep with a sous-chef by your side.

57. Grab the skewers. Snacks are better on a stick! Set out colorful foods: bananas, cubes of cheese, cucumber slices, and berries. Show how to slide them onto a skewer, then let your kid practice making rainbows and different patterns. —Heather Staller, founder of HappyKidsKitchen.com 

58. Prep veggies. Let your kid go nuts tearing "trees" off a head of broccoli or cauliflower. Have them dump the florets in a bowl, drizzle on olive oil, and mix with their hands. Sprinkle on salt and roast in the oven for a tasty side. —Amy Palanjian, creator of YummyToddlerFood.com and author of Busy Little Hands: Food Play! 

59. Chop to it. Even toddlers can press a plastic knife or a crinkle cutter through a banana. Older kids can slice other soft foods like strawberries, pears, or hard-boiled eggs. Guide them through the first few cuts; explain how to use a "bear claw" grip to hold the food as they cut. —Palanjian 

Credit: Stephanie Rausser

Toy Play Ideas

Rev their flow state into high gear with some open-ended fun.

60. Assembling Haba's Go-Go Dominoes can take your kid a good long time for an elaborate track—or they might delight in setting up short runs so there's more opportunity for knocking the pieces down. The set comes with a bell, six staircases, a couple of bridges, and 24 adorable animal dominoes. Ages 3+ 

61. An oldie but goodie, Lite-Brite by Basic Fun continues to thrill. Kids can "draw" using colored pegs that illuminate when you switch on the screen. You get six templates and a dozen more to download and print, or your child can freestyle with the 200 pegs. Ages 4+

62. Like paint-by-numbers minus the mess: Sticker by Letter by Brain Games enlists letters to help your kid match shapes and form mini masterpieces. The stickers are fairly forgiving—kids can peel and restick if they miss. Ages 7+

63. Tad's Fridge Phonics from LeapFrog can live on the fridge so it's always ready to go. Kids love pressing the 26 letter tiles one at a time into the base and listening as Tad the frog calls out the letter's name, its sound, and words that use it, all with catchy songs. Ages 2+

64. For the first phase of Crayola's Marker Maker, your kid follows instructions to make 16 markers, using the included ink to invent colors and give each a name with customizable labels. After that, they have a fresh batch of shades for drawing. Ages 8+

65. Spare your furniture by building a hideout with the poles in Fun Forts Glow in the Dark from Power Your Fun. The box includes 52 connectable rods plus ideas to take your creation to the next level. When you turn out the lights, the structure glows. Ages 4+

66. Give kids permission to go crazy on a stack of paper with the 30 stamps from the vehicle-themed Deluxe Wooden Stamp Set by Melissa & Doug. Trains, helicopters, and motorcycles can be added using the two-color ink pads, then shaded in with the six markers. Ages 4+

—Jessica Hartshorn (Ideas 60-66)

DIY Game Play Ideas

68. Have a sword fight with pool noodles. 

69. Keep a balloon (or two or three) in the air. 

70. Read Pete's a Pizza, by William Steig, and then do it yourself, making your kid into a "pizza" by kneading and tossing the "dough."

71. Make up your own Olympic game ("... and the biggest bubble blower medal goes to ...").

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2021 issue as "All the Ways to Keep 'Em Busy." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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