We get it, sometimes you need a break or have things to do and turning on the latest episode of Paw Patrol just makes sense. However, there are other ways to keep the family busy that doesn't involve screens. For starters, we make it easy to find quality second-hand toys, games and equipment to keep kids of all ages happy. We know play time is so important for a child's growing brain, overall creativity and stretching independent thought, so we compiled a list of tips and kid gear to help parents ditch the screens.
A play gym is more for babies who aren't yet crawling and can be entertained pulling, hitting, chewing and watching the colors of toys around them. It works by laying the child on a padded mat that often has a canopy of fun surrounding it. We carry many types of play gyms, both in open box and gently-used condition, including Tiny Love Gymini Super Deluxe Activity Playmat, Skip Hop Activity Gym Treetop Friends, and Infantino Peek Twist and Fold Activity Gym. These items can usually be folded up and put away when not in use, and if your baby is already moving about, try placing the gym in a playpen or secure area so he or she can play safely while you get things done.
Baby Activity Chairs
Activity chairs may have been the best invention ever created, at least for entertaining infants. The idea behind the baby activity chair is to keep the child contained but able to play with the items attached to the seat. We get a lot of gently used and open box examples, such as the Lovevery Play Gym, Crate & Kids Busy Baby Activity Chair, Mamas & Papas Baby Snug and Activity Tray, and more Baby's View 3-Stage Activity Center. There are many different types and most baby brands have at least one option.
Never underestimate the power of a favorite toy, no matter how little your child is. Get space to cook dinner while your little one safely occupies time in a playpen with brain-building baby gear. Lovevery makes a simple stacking ring that challenges little hands and minds; and Fat Brain has created an array of busy toys that don't pollute the air with digital noise. Activity cubes are another favorite, and they come in many shapes and styles such as large wooden ones with bead coasters, turning pictures and wheels to spin, small boxes that make noise with the push of a button, and plastic polygons with nooks and crannies to explore.
Kids 3 and Up
During the pandemic my son's preschool teacher created a busy box parents could pick up that was tailored to each kid. It was a brilliant idea, so much so I made one for a friend's kid and still keep our own box going, albeit with new things added. The idea behind the busy box is to offer kids an array of things they can do on their own. Think coloring pads, small crafts, maybe a couple toy cars with road tape, felt story boards and puzzles. Make the box to match the age, level and interests appropriate for your own kid, and bring it out when everyone needs a little personal time.
Embrace the Mess
Hear me out, PlayDoh is actually amazing. My 3-year-old will spend hours making monsters, cutting hair and creating full course meals for me to "eat," all out of PlayDoh. Do I have to spend time cleaning up after? Yes, but it's worth it. Same thing can be said for Kinetic Sand and any kit where something has to be dug out of a block of plaster. As a bonus, I am slowly teaching him to clean up the mess by having him help during the process.
Younger kids love pop-up tents, and the ones made by Playhut are super easy for them to put up themselves. Plus, these fold up flat so it's simple to store away. Let the little ones set up house in one of these Playhut tents, or make snack time special by serving it in the tent, complete with little plates for all their stuffie friends. Forts too work for creating a new world, and this method of entertainment has the added bonus of letting kids' minds work out how to build it using sheets, blankets, pillows, chairs and that exercise ball that's always floating around. Activities like this are especially great during the cold days when the weather is too bad to go outside. It gives kids a sense of adventure without leaving the house.
Don't forget that kids have a strong imagination, so leaving them alone with a bunch of craft supplies and space to create can buy parents a good chunk of time to mow the lawn or finish writing all those thank you letters. Stock this space with butcher paper, scissors, glue, construction paper, markers, colored pencils, stickers and anything else that might encourage a free-flowing art project. At our house we have a whole bin of "robot parts" that my son collects on walks, and we save the tubes from toilet paper so the kids can use them to make whatever comes to mind.
While simple, blocks have the ability to entertain a child for a long time. They can build worlds out of them, from garages to house favorite cars to cages for their own personal zoo to a towering house of wonder. And there are a lot of blocks to choose from. Classic wooden blocks are cheap and easy to get gently used. Magnetic blocks are a popular option. Also there are Mega Bloks for really little kids, and Duplos, the chunky, young-kid version of LEGOS. Of course regular LEGOS are great for older kids, whether that's a new set to construct or a box of bricks to let the imagination go wild.
At just about any age kids can start to help around the house. Let your preschooler learn to wash plastic dishes and wipe counters. Have your first grader fold all the napkins and dish clothes. A 10-year-old can pull weeds, sweep floors and even vacuum. The older the kids get, the more they can do, and if you install the idea of cleaning from a young age then it's easier to have them help out down the road. Plus, if you are both doing the chores, that leaves more time to play together after.
No Mess Crafts
Coloring books and blank paper to draw is one of the easiest things a little kid can do to keep busy, without leaving a trail of mess to clean up. Melissa & Doug also make travel-friendly pads of activities such as sticker faces, reusable water coloring books, and magic pens that bring the color out of the pages. Wikki Stix are also good for this sort of activity. All of these things are also great ways to entertain kids at a restaurant rather than fishing out your phone and letting them glaze over while watching YouTube.
Search and Find
When nothing will do to keep your littles busy then it's time to break out a scavenger hunt. This can be done using pictures to show what to find and words if your kid can read. Combine some easy and some a little harder, for example: A flower, brown basket, five picture frames, 10 cats, red fruit and six silver stars. Just make sure these items are actually in your house or yard! Then give them the list and tell them to come back when it's done. Older kids could also do this around the block.
We also like treasure hunts. Most of the time this involves candy, namely chocolate coins, which get hidden with the idea that they can be eaten once all six or so are found. If you have more than one child, letting each know how many they can find will help with arguments, and tell your older kid to help their sibling once they have found their own treasures.