15 Simple, Semi-Relaxing Ideas to Entertain the Kids

When I was in what I like to call the “parenting trenches” with toddler twins and a kindergartener, it dawned on me that I was going to have to start getting creative to keep them entertained. And I don’t mean Pinterest creative; I mean the kind of creative that is slightly innovative but not exhausting.

The thing was, I was already tired by 9 a.m. every morning, so I couldn’t possibly imagine doing messy artsy-craftsy projects that would just create more mess for me to clean up! So I started coming up with low mess, low fuss activities for the kids to enjoy that would also buy me some time to just be. It was magical.

Now that my oldest is 10 and the twins are 7, things are a lot easier. But when spring or summer break hits, it’s time, once again, to get creative and find ways to entertain three young boys who don’t know what to do with their freedom.

No matter what age your kids are, if you’re starting to dread the downtime that spring or summer break inevitably brings, take heart. Here are eight simple, semi-relaxing ideas that worked for me back in the toddler days and seven ideas I use to occupy my older kids today.

Toddler and Preschooler Activities

  1. Build a Tower. One of the best toy investments I ever made was a box of cardboard, brick-like blocks. Building towers and letting the kids knock them down over and over (and over) again bought me at least 30 minutes of toddler entertainment. There was some work involved, but at least I got to kneel or sit!
  1. Play Restaurant. Toddlers and preschoolers love to pretend, and mine always particularly liked the idea of cooking and serving food. I found two used play kitchens on an online “yard sale” and bought a bunch of plastic food from a discount store.

The twins played with those kitchens for hours—asking me what I wanted, whipping up my order and laughing as I pretended to eat their gourmet dishes. If you don’t want to invest in a play kitchen, any “counter” type surface will do for this imagination game, even a big cardboard box.

  1. Finger Paint! Little kids love to get their hands dirty—but if you’re like me, you dread the cleanup. To make everyone happy, I had the kids paint in our unfinished basement where it didn’t matter if paint dripped on the floor (or a garage might work, too).

I’d dress them in some old, ripped clothes. Then I’d set up a beat-up old card table and cover it in newspaper, then put down some heavier weight paper that wouldn’t get easily saturated. I brought out these thick tubes of washable finger paints, squirted some on the paper, sat way back and let them go to town! Just make sure that the rules are clear: They can only paint messy in that designated area.

  1. Floor Art. I bought this long spool of drawing paper and would roll it out to cover the hard surface of our whole front hall. Then I’d get the crayons and books of stickers out and let the boys decorate to their hearts’ content.
  1. Buckets at the Playground. In my area, a lot of playgrounds are covered in mulch, so I always brought some buckets and shovels along. After about 30 minutes or so on the equipment, the twins would get bored, so I’d grab the beach gear out of the car.They loved shoveling the mulch into the buckets and dumping them out over and over (and it would score me at least another 30 minutes of sitting on the park bench). If you try this tip, make sure to stomp it all back into place when the kiddos are done, or the other moms won’t thank you!
  1. Sidewalk Chalk and Bubbles. Because of their short attention spans, it’s a great idea to plan a combo activity for toddlers and preschoolers, like the buckets at the playground. I’d make sure to focus on one activity with my kids before bringing out the other, or they’d want to do ALL THE THINGS at the same time.On a nice day, I’d bring the sidewalk chalk out first and let them draw all over the driveway. That was the more relaxing part of the activity, because I could sit in a lawn chair and watch. When they were bored with that, out came the bubbles. Make sure to get the big bottle of bubbles that come with the huge, mass-bubble-producing wand. All you’ll have to do is spin it around to make plenty of bubbles for everyone to pop!
  1. Have a Picnic. Dining al fresco is fun at any age, and if you pick the right picnic spot, this activity can last the whole afternoon. Spots that worked best for us were wide, open spaces near playgrounds. I always made sure to pack all the things they loved to eat, and true to the cardinal rule of combination activities, I’d bring kites to fly or big bouncy balls to kick and throw if boredom set in.
  1. Pull up “Nature Cat.” If your kiddo is sick, it’s raining outside or you just need a little quiet time, try the PBS show “Nature Cat.” It follows Fred, a house cat who dreams of exploring the outdoors and transforms into a “backyard explorer extraordinaire.” There are hands-on activities on the website, and it can really get the whole family excited to get outdoors and go on their own adventures.

Activities for Older Kids

  1. The Never-ending Monopoly Game. The game of Monopoly, as we all know, can last forever—but kids love it. At our house, we set up the Monopoly game in an unobtrusive spot and play for an hour or so each day, until everyone but the gloating winner (usually my husband) is bankrupt.
  1. Sling-shot Gliders. One year, I discovered the magic of rubber band sling shot planes and gliders at the dollar store. I can’t tell you how many hours of fun my kids have had with these, because they really can go far and high!

If I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll get out the blue painter’s tape and set up goals on the sidewalk and driveway. Each goal has a different point value. Each of the boys take turns reaching the different goals and stacking up points. To keep the peace, you may need to serve as scorekeeper and referee for this one.

  1. Check Out Nature. My boys love animals, as most kids do. We like to go to our nearby nature centers and check out creatures like lizards, turtles, fish, snakes, birds and even rabbits. It’s a perfect activity for a rainy, cold day. To find a nature center near you, go to Nature Find.
  1. Play Jenga. You can hear it in your head, can’t you? “Jenga, Jenga, Jenga!” It’s a simple game to set up, and it’s loaded with suspense. My boys love it!
  1. Skip Rocks. It sounds kind of hokey and old-fashioned, but there’s still a lot of fun (and healthy competition) in this timeless activity. We find a nice, quiet pond, stream, lake or river (where no one is fishing), and start hunting for the best, flattest rocks.Since there really is an art to skipping rocks, this could be frustrating for smaller kids. Mine happen to love just throwing the rocks and seeing who can make the biggest splash or go the farthest. The fun can last for hours!
  1. Play Wii, Xbox, or Minecraft

Screen time gets a bad rap sometimes, but video games aren’t all terrible. And most kids are pretty passionate about their favorite ones. My boys are thrilled whenever I take the time to try to navigate one of their favorites, and they get a kick out of my awkwardness.

  1. Play a Favorite Sport. Games like soccer or football are easy to set up, and sometimes we’ll have a family game (although I usually end up hurting myself somehow). Wiffle ball and kickball take a little more prep, but you can easily make bases with pieces of cardboard—and the lighter balls are a wise idea if you have neighbors! If your kids are into basketball, drive to a local school to shoot some hoops in the gym if you don’t have a goal of your own.

Entertaining your kids during spring break (or anytime at all) doesn’t have to feel like running a marathon. Kids really don’t need a whole lot of bells and whistles, and complicated activities can be frustrating for you and them. Keep it simple, stay engaged and just be.

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