10 Clever Ways American Parents Are Keeping Their Kids Active and Entertained

We asked parents around the country for their best ideas to keep kids busy, active, having fun and learning even when stuck at home.

April 02, 2020

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Here for Each Other

“Parenting routine” is an oxymoron, plain and simple. Kids’ interests and needs are in flux all the time, and one day’s genius solution to an emotional or logistical (or emotional/logistical) challenge might end in disaster the next. That reality can make getting through the day with sons, daughters and sanity intact feel insurmountable.

I checked in with parents across the country to see how they and their kids are doing, and they shared some clever ideas for how to balance family life with working from home and other challenges.

Think of the following ideas as a cross-country chat with mom and dad friends you haven't met yet. They're struggling to learn new steps, just as you are, but one message coalesces in their chorus of thoughts: we will get through this.

Treats in the Tub

Joanna has 3-year-old and 18-month-old sons in Santa Cruz, California. "I use leftover smoothie from my boys' morning snack to make popsicles every day in our two-pop mold (sprinkles make them thrilling, but there's kale in there, so who's the real winner here?)" she says. "Before dinner they get to take a bath with popsicles — easy to clean, obviously, and healthy, but not filling before dinner. That keeps them occupied for 30 to 45 minutes and I have a glass of wine tubside while my husband makes dinner, or vice versa."

See More Photos: Beat the Heat: 10 (Healthy!) Frozen Treats for Kids

Make Your Own Paper

"I did a fun activity with my toddler this morning that other parents may enjoy doing — we made paper out of old magazines," says Amanda, mom of a 3-year-old daughter in Ridgefield, Connecticut. "I’m a publicist, so we cleaned out my closet of old magazines, tore out the pages, fed them through our paper shredder, and then went through the next steps of making paper (soaked them, used an immersion blender to make pulp, pressed the pulp into an old screen and let them dry). It was a great way to use things we already had in our house, as opposed to going out for or ordering in supplies. Anyone could do it with scraps of paper they have laying around the house — and it also offers an excuse to clean out old desk drawers and closets."

Get the How-To: How to Make Paper

Plant for Fairies

Carl and Rachel live in Takoma Park, Maryland, with their 6-year-old and 4-year-old daughters. "We've spent a bunch of time in the backyard," he says. "We built a fairy garden in a kids' wheelbarrow from various things we found around the yard: stones, sticks, leaves, flowers and a few toys." They've been getting out of the yard, too: "We live near a nature trail and have been trying to take the girls for a walk and identify trees, plants, animals and birds."

Sounds idyllic, right? Carl and Rachel have tech in their mix as well: “We have had a stack of unopened KiwiCo project boxes sitting in a corner gathering dust that we finally opened up,” he says. The girls have had a ton of fun putting those together. We built a marble timer today and got to talk about what made it a "timer" and how we could make it go faster or slower (it's kind of a Rube Goldberg set-up).”

Speaking of nature plus tech, Google's new augmented-reality feature will add moving, 3D animals to your cameraphone, and it's already a big hit with parents and little ones: just plug the name of a critter into the search field on your smartphone or tablet, then click the icon beside "View in 3D." In about 30 seconds, you'll be able to interact with the resulting beastie through your camera. (Find an ongoing list of available animals here.)

See More Photos: 27 Enchanting Fairy Gardens We Want to Live In

Celebrate With a Sleepover

Amanda in Fairview, Oregon, has 6-year-old and 4-and-a-half-year-old daughters, and "keeping them entertained has already been a struggle while I try to work from home," she says. "A few things that have helped are doing one craft a day (trying to spread them out), one board/card game a day, one walk a day and shifts of working in workbooks. If they have an awesome day with little whining or fighting, my husband and I allow them to have a sleepover in our room in sleeping bags on the floor that night. We are on day three, so I expect this to shift the longer we are at home, but so far it has been working."

Upcycle a Playhouse

Judette in San Francisco has sons who are 5 and 7. "We're not a huge crafting family," she says. But her family loves "home improvements that the kids can participate in (and get to use their dad's power drills). We recently had a remodel so we've had a bunch of leftover wood. After my husband cut the pieces down, they've been using that to build things in the backyard and with adult supervision, they've been able to use tools as well. We're also working to build a clubhouse for them ... We're mid-project, but the kids have been hanging out to oversee its construction every step of the way."

If construction sounds daunting, consider another huge hit with Judette's boys: "The simplicity of sidewalk chalk amazes me. They can stay out there for hours just drawing."

DIY the Pallet Playhouse of Your Kiddo's Dreams

Find a Rainbow Connection

Erin and her husband live in Brooklyn, New York, with their 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, and 5-week-old daughter. "A few days ago, some of our neighbors started encouraging adults and kids alike to hang rainbow drawings in the windows and now kids are playing a giant game of neighborhood 'I spy,' trying to spot as many rainbows as possible. In just a few days, hundreds of rainbows have started popping up in windows and one neighbor even shared a Google Map that families can update with their rainbow location. In our apartment, we made our rainbows double-sided so that we could spread some cheer inside and out!"

Note that while Erin’s neighborhood group originated in Brooklyn, those rainbows have been popping up all over the world; click on that Google Map link, zoom out, and look for (and add!) rainbows near you. If your kids aren't up for drawing, declare a teddy bear hunt; stuffed animals are appearing in windows, too.

Follow Their Lead

"Being home with our son is a gift," says Stacy, who lives with her husband and their 8-year-old in Austin, Texas. "He wakes up happy every day because he gets to be home with us! That said, kiddo loves the technology. He gets rewarded with it for an hour each day — games and/or chats with cousins thousands of miles away via multi-player games — if he's completed all his tasks for the day.

"While our son has been out of school, he's been the leader more often," she says. "We're just out of the gate, so we'll see if this changes. But so far we start each day with 10 minutes of whatever-he-wants-to-do time. It starts the day right. He's loved showing me what he already loves: his games, his stories, his talents, his thoughts." Crafting is a point of connection for Stacy and her son; they recently made homemade rope with fabric scraps, and "he has said he wants to make bracelets with me this week with his Rainbow Loom set," she adds.

See More Photos: 50 Creative Kids' Crafts to Banish Boredom

Plan a Scavenger Hunt (or a Tournament)

Tyler is the mother of 8-year-old and 6-year-old girls in Charlotte, North Carolina. "To combine science, art and writing, today we did a nature scavenger hunt. The girls went outside, picked ten things from nature (of course not killing off anything living), brought them in and drew what they found, then they wrote about what they noticed," she says. Since Austen, 8, has been learning about the parts of the flower, she diagrammed it and then taught Seton."

Tyler's family is interacting with their community remotely. “We’re conducting our own LEGO Masters [building challenge] with the neighborhood and friends. There will be a theme and every house that wants to [join in] builds something in that theme. Then we're hoping to do a Zoom call and the kids can share what they've built."

Sprout a Seed

Stephanie in Gates Mills, Ohio, has a 4-year-old son. "We watched Mo Willems drawing doodles and then made our own pigeon book," she says. "We've also foraged for sprouted acorns and are trying to see if we can get one to grow in a bottle of water, suspended like an avocado pit." (The acorn love is strong in Santa Cruz, as well; Joanna and her sons found the acorn above in a window box, stashed and forgotten by a local squirrel.)

"I also designated a cardboard box the 'magic box.' There was this weird kid-art show when I was growing up where a guy would pull a random thing out of a box every day and then do a project; sometimes it was pipe cleaners, sometimes it was glitter. I'm resurrecting that idea, and our box is a mix of newish art supplies, stuff I've scrounged up from the house, toys that we haven’t played with in a while, and so on. I peek in and give my son clues: something large or something small? Something shiny or something dull? Then he picks, I pull out one thing, and that's the beginning of our project for the day."

See More Photos: 14 Clever Ways to Start Seeds

Mix It Up

Emily in San Francisco has a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. "My daughter wanted to bake something, so I let her choose a recipe from a cookbook I provided and then we gathered the ingredients together and she handled most of the particulars while I supervised," she says. "In general, the most successful activities thus far have been those that the kids could own, at least in part. My daughter offered to set up the 'classroom' in which I'd teach her for the hour or so of traditional instruction I'm trying to stick to each weekday and has been excited to recreate that each day."

"It has helped me a lot, personally, to not set my expectations too high in terms of what I'd like to accomplish for that instruction — being engaged in whatever we're doing seems most important. For my husband and I at least, it has been helpful to differentiate between the weekends and the weekdays, e.g. by starting a Sunday morning pancakes-and-movie tradition. I think that will be good for the kids to look forward to each week as well."

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