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Our Best Play Ideas for When Kids Are Stuck at Home

2020-03-13 by Dr. Jenny
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Many of us are adjusting to a “new normal” of more time at home with our kids. At Melissa & Doug, we’re putting our creative brains to work to give you activity ideas to keep your children busy and help you reduce your stress. Below are ideas designed to encourage kids’ independent play so you can get some work done. Try those that might be a good fit for your family, and let us know what is working by posting your experiences with this hashtag: #PowerOfPlay.

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Bring Out the Books

Here are some fresh ideas to encourage quality time with books:

Reading Zones: If you have a toddler or preschool-aged child who isn’t reading independently yet, then set up a little “reading zone” in your home where they can sit and turn pages, looking at the pictures on their own. Make it special by adding a few pillows or stuffed animals, and encourage kids to pretend to run their own library or school.

If you have an independent reader, now is a good time to set up a reading area with their favorite chapter books, graphic novels, or comic books. Try reading some of their comic books or graphic novels yourself, after the kids are in bed. Not only could it be fun for you — but it also could prompt interesting conversations with your child!

For inspiration on raising a child who loves to read, check out this post.

Girl Reading in Library

Audiobooks: If you have a reluctant reader, try getting some audiobooks that your child can listen to quietly. (My kids love the “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Harry Potter” series, but there are so many good ones!) Podcasts for children also have some great storytelling (such as “Circle Round” by WBUR, which shares folk stories in really creative ways).

Story Sequels: Provide kids with paper, markers, and crayons. After they read a story (or even “read” a story by paging through the pictures), have them draw a “sequel” to the story. What do they think happens next?

Give Kids a Mission

Kids love a mission: Challenge your children to invent their own little world! Have them create a bookstore, veterinarian office, beauty salon, or space station in their bedroom. Make guidelines for what materials can be used, of course, and encourage creative uses of blankets, stuffed animals, or construction paper. Then have them give you a tour of the world they built!

This task is best for children who are preschool-aged and older, who can plan and carry out an idea for 30 minutes or more. It can give parents a fascinating peek inside their child’s preferences, creative thinking, aspirations and worries. Getting a look inside what’s on your child’s mind can make it easier to help them calm down, manage frustration, or teach them to do things without a grownup’s help.

kid in chef costume

Provide Play Prompters

One of the appealing things about simple apps and digital games is that they often tell the child what to do next (so parents don’t have to!). This keeps the child’s attention, but doesn’t challenge them to figure out their own play plan. Controlling a child during play can get kids used to always being prompted, and not take the initiative to figure things out on their own!

To create “just enough” structure to give your child freedom to do what they want, try this. Set up your child’s room so there are different baskets, buckets, or areas featuring different play themes: a dress-up box, a building zone, a creativity corner with art supplies, and so on. Explain to your child that they are in charge or deciding when, what, and how they want to play — without needing a parent (or app) to prompt them every time!

Hide Toys Around the House

Find a group of toys your child loves — mini dinosaurs, animal figurines, action figures — and hide them in funny places around the house (not the toilet, please!). Put them in places and heights you think your child will be able to find with a little effort, and aim for a few surprising settings to elicit laughs. (I love hiding fake bugs in my kids’ shoes, or posing an action figure reading a book!) Give your child a container to collect them and have them bring you the loot when they think they’ve found them all.

kid finding toys

Nurture a Love of Nature

Thankfully, spring is on its way. Take a walk in a nearby park, around the block, or stare out the window. Notice the smallest things — which trees have buds? What color are they? Which ones seem to be coming out first? Did any patches of grass or weeds survive the winter? What are the birds doing? What are the clouds doing? Wonder aloud with your children about how this all happens: How do the birds and insects know it’s time to come back? Resist the urge to look it all up on your phone — have your children make up their own explanations! Spending time in nature can be restorative for the whole family!

Use Play as a Way to Process Big Feelings

Our kids pick up on our emotions, tense conversations, and nonverbal signs of stress — which can increase their stress too. Think of ways your child could safely channel some of those feelings into rough-and-tumble play (chasing you or wrestling with you); imaginative play (my son just went around the yard pretending he was fighting a dragon); or role playing (pretending to be a teacher or doctor) to help them feel in charge. Stress can make us feel powerless, so use play to give back some of that feeling of power to your kids.

kid in doctor costume

Get Silly and Embrace the Nonsense

We’ve been sharing lots of ideas that involve setting kids up for independent play, but sometimes creating ideas out of nothing — even when the ideas seem like nonsense — is the best way to cope! For example, my family took a walk in a city park last weekend, and as my husband and I talked about how we will plan if schools are closed, my kids were running ahead. Suddenly a game of throwing someone’s balled-up jacket started. It was amazing how letting go of control, using our bodies, and laughing instantly relieved the tension in my head!

Make Chores Fun

Working from home, you probably will still need to do some household chores like cooking or laundry. Many children will resist helping out if we use “demand language” (“It’s time do this . . .” “You have to do that…”), and are more receptive if you make it playful. For example, pretend to be on your favorite cooking show, talking about your ingredients or your family’s heritage while you cook. Write out the recipe (even for something basic like PB+J sandwiches), and have your child get the ingredients and decide what’s next — after washing their hands! A little mess is OK in exchange for the pride your child feels for making something.

For housework, play upon their competitive spirit (“Let’s see how many socks you can match in 2 minutes!” “I bet you can’t sweep that whole hallway!”) Young children often love to be “helpers,” so act like you’re training them (“I’m going to teach you the secret of making beds!”) and accept their imperfect, messy help.

Older kids might like the challenge of being in charge of making lunch for the whole family, writing out a menu of options, and taking orders. Just be accepting if the end product is a little sloppy 🙂

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Build on What Absorbs Your Child’s Attention

Some children love pretending to sweep, some love taking apart old electronics, some will draw and scribble for an hour. Try to identify what types of hands-on activities keep your child’s attention for 20 minutes or more, and give them opportunities to do those things near you while you work. For my younger son, we made him a fake “laptop” out of a manila folder, so he can “work” next to me sometimes.

Set Realistic Tech Time Limits

Of course it’s not necessary to ban technology altogether during these times at home, but it can help to schedule when TV or video games will take place, for how long, and what they’re allowed to watch. Prioritize any school assignments or programs that help teach about emotions (e.g., Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). When tech time is over, schedule something interesting right after so they have an easier time transitioning. If they can turn off the TV or tablet themselves without whining, praise them for amazing tech self-control!

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The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.

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Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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