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13 Ways to Keep Your Kids Busy at Home

Photo: Nickelodeon

Working from home without getting distracted by social media, coronavirus news updates, or that neighbor who blares EDM on loop is hard enough for anyone. Add a curious toddler or an energetic 5-year-old into the mix, and you might find writing a single coherent email to be nearly impossible. Teachers, child-development experts, and homeschool parents agree that creating some kind of daily routine will help children (and thus, their parents) feel less stressed and give everyone a sense of comfort in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty. But if all of the aspirational daily schedules floating around on social media make you feel worse about your own plan — or about the fact that you have no plan at all, other than giving your 2-year-old a pile of socks and hoping she’ll continue to delight in moving them for the next eight hours — don’t worry. There are plenty of small things you can do to keep your kids occupied while you log on to your fourth Zoom meeting of the day. We talked to experts to find the best ways to keep kids busy without resorting to yet another round of Frozen 2.

Former teacher and anti-bias educator Liz Kleinrock says that adding a bit of structure to your days, while important, doesn’t mean you have to transform your home into a kindergarten classroom. Many simple and fun activities, like counting out 100 paper clips or pennies (something Kleinrock used to do with her first-graders), can help kids practice academic skills, but in a more creative and free-flowing way. (Just don’t play that game with kids young enough to try to eat the counting pieces.) Educator and homeschool mom Britt Hawthorne advises parents who are new to spend all day with their kids to take some time to observe what works for them. “Follow your family instead of making a schedule based off of somebody else’s hopes, dreams, and resources,” she says.

How to keep toddlers busy

Quiet books

Harnessing a toddler’s attention for more than a few minutes is no easy task, but according to Marie Masterson, director of quality assessment at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership and author of Let’s Talk Toddlers, activities that help develop fine motor skills will inspire concentration and extended play. Hawthorne recommends giving your child an aptly named “quiet book” and letting them explore the soft pages. “Quiet books are like gold for toddlers,” says Hawthorne, who told us she used to take them with her family to restaurants when her kids were small. Typically made of felt or quilted material, every page of a quiet book has something for a toddler’s little hands to do. They have Velcro, zippers, and buttons that help toddlers practice fine motor skills and keep them busy for a surprising amount of time. Hawthorne says you can make your own with things you have around the house, but if you’re not that crafty, we found this chef-themed quiet book from Melissa & Doug that you can add to an order of batteries and granola.

Rice-bag sensory toy

Julie O’Rourke, owner of Rudy Jude, an eco-friendly clothing label for kids and adults, has two sons, ages 4 and 18 months, and posts video tutorials of the simple and nice-enough-to-display-in-your-home crafts that she makes with them on her Instagram Stories. She has even posted videos of a Joshua Tree–themed quiet book she made out of felt. O’Rourke says she gets a lot of DMs from parents of small children looking for advice on activities to do with their kids at home. She told us about a sensory toy she made for Rui, her younger son, inspired by a toy both boys love to play with in the waiting room of their doctor’s office. O’Rourke says Rui is mesmerized by the DIY version of the toy and won’t put it down. All you need to make one of your own is a large Ziploc freezer bag, some packing tape, rice, millet, or dried beans, and a handful of tiny toys that you have been hiding from your toddler lest they try to eat them. Fill the Ziploc with rice, millet, or bean, add tiny toys, and then close your bag and tape it shut. This allows kids to discover the toys as they grab and play with the contents of the bag. “I think that’s kind of the appeal of this toy,” says O’Rourke. “It houses all of the little things that Rui is very aware of, and really wants to play with, but we always take away.” Make sure your bag is fully taped shut and that the bag itself isn’t so thin a kid could rip it or bite through it.

Pretend-play office

Masterson says you can include little kids in your new WFH schedule by giving them their own briefcase full of office supplies and asking them to “work” quietly nearby. “This is fun for children of all ages,” says Masterson. Though she notes that the items in their briefcase should match their age and safety needs. Masterson recommends markers, pads of paper, child-friendly scissors, stickers, and any other grown-up things like pencil cases, a measuring tape, or an old-school calculator.