How is it 2022 already? Here we are, finishing up January. You might be feeling cooped up inside depending on weather. Hopefully you've recently had visits from friends and family, with groups of children running amuck. I bet you've also been busy trying to keep your children entertained for an hour or two while you cook, clean, or let’s be honest, have a few minutes of alone time.
As a parent, I know that screen time only lasts for so long. I would like to share some ideas about keeping kids engaged in play using items that you already have from your kitchen or your backyard. I love a good craft just as much as the next teacher/mom, but usually I just don’t feel like digging out the beads and the glue and the paint and whatever else is hidden in my garage. I have an easier solution! Sensory play for the win!
Before I list out the activities, here are some basic instructions.
Make a plan
Think about what you’re going to need and use and get everything out or within reach. (towels and clean up items especially)
Think briefly about a goal
Is it just to keep your child engaged for a bit? Are you wanting to teach them something? Do you want to set up a game or play provocation? Depending on your goal, think back to step 1. Check again that you have everything you need. For older kids, you might want to have them use a pen and a paper to take notes, write a plan, make a menu, draw a picture of what they’ve made, etc. You can think about words or concepts you want to teach them. Sift, knead, beat, recipe, measuring, fractions for baking, etc. *This step isn’t required, but an added bonus if you’re up for it*
Set rules and expectations for your kiddos.
Write it down if need be, that way you can point and refer back to rules if things get out of hand. If you’re feeling adventurous, have them help you come up with the rules. This will make them feel like they have responsibility and ownership in the task.
Make sure your child knows how to help with clean up, and does so! Back to step 1, have a plan for clean up with supplies ready to go. My daughter has her own spray bottle filled with water and a splash of vinegar.
Literally anything in your kitchen! Cooking and baking with really little kids is hard and kind of stressful if I’m being honest. This is such a great opportunity to let them be in charge, feel helpful, and practice cooking and baking!
Here’s one of my favorites: Put flour, lots of cinnamon, oil, water, vanilla, salt, etc. in measuring cups. Let your child dump them all into a bowl and mix it up. Experiment with the water and oil, but it should turn into a nice doughy paste that they can take out and roll, knead, and use cookie cutters with. We just found a giant container of cinnamon for under $4 at costco, what a score! As a bonus, it will make your kitchen smell amazing.
Hello spice cupboard! Spice mixing, tasting, smelling, and painting. You can do a lot with the spices in your cupboard. Set up a sensory center for your kids complete with a graph of the spices for them to mark what they like or don’t like. Have them quiz each other. Add water and brushes to make colors or paint with them.
Holiday soup! I just found a bag of cranberries at Orange Street Food Farm for $.99. They are an amazing sensory experience. I put them in a big container of water and gave my daughter a spoon and another smaller bowl. She absolutely went to town, going as far as taking off all her clothes and sitting in them. When she lost interest, I added new elements, using what I had in my kitchen. Lemons and candy canes. This mixture smelled so good and she had so much fun feeding me soup. Bonus time, the candy canes colored the water pink!
Save your sensory concoctions and use them again! I took our cranberry mixture and turned it into a simmer pot on the stove to make our home smell lovely, and then froze some of it in a silicone dish to use again! I put tiny animals into the mold so we can play “rescue the kitties”. You and your children can be scientists and find out what will happen if you add this, do this, change this.
Vinegar and baking soda. The possibilities are endless here. Experiment with different containers and utensils for transferring the materials. A baster works great if you have it, or even eye droppers or the tiny syringes that come with kids’ medicine. Add some food coloring for even more fun. Again, challenge your kids to be scientists or bakers and see what they can come up with.
Cleaning Party! Yes, this is a real thing that I do with my daughter who is 2 ½. Like I mentioned above, she has a tiny spray bottle filled with water and vinegar. Vinegar is amazing and shouldn’t hurt anything in your house. We walk around the house and I clean for real and she sprays things and wipes it off with a towel. Just remember to set some expectations and teach them how to use the materials, “don’t spray the cat, remember to wipe it off after you spray it”
Tea Party. This one is great depending on what you are comfortable with. I like to make a cup of tea and let my daughter dump and pour and taste and serve to her heart's content. Do it in the bathtub if that feels better to you. Basically anything liquid that involves pouring is a guaranteed hit for kids.
Homemade play dough. So fun and easy as long as you have cream of tartar, which I never did until I started making play dough. You can do so much with play dough. Add cinnamon, colors, tea water to color it, spices, glitter, etc. Use any kind of kitchen tool imaginable to let your kid’s creativity soar.
Toy Wash. So easy. Soap, water, and waterproof toys. You can even make taste safe mud to get the toys dirty first using baking cocoa, corn starch, coconut oil, etc. Just google a recipe! Add toys to any of the recipes above for an added element of fun.
Bring the Outside In!
Snow Soup. If we ever get enough snow, I like to bring a pile of snow into the house. I’ll put it on a cookie sheet or in the biggest bowl I have. It’s not a great idea to go crazy in the snow without gloves, but in the comfort of your warm home, it’s not so bad! Add water, spices, and flavors! You can have a snow cone party or even add it to your teacups or winter soup as mentioned above.
Rocks, branches, leaves, oh my! Bring in rocks to make “Stone Soup” have a rock bath or cleaning station. Add different kinds of pine trees to water and make another experimental soup. See what kind of smells or colors you can make. It’s the same idea with leaves. I saw someone using dried leaves as a canvas for watercolor paints, though I’ve never tried that myself.
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a