Learning Through Play: 101 Ways To Keep Young Minds Occupied At Home
Parents, right off the bat, let me say that there is no right way to be feeling about the current situation. Relief, anxiety, excitement, dread are all normal. We’re all figuring this out as we go along and doing the best we can. Virtual high-five!
This is not a homeschooling post per se. This is about the importance of play as learning, and letting our kids play to restore some balance we don’t always manage in our typical over-scheduled lives.
Here’s the good news if you’re stressed about making sure your kids are still learning why they are at home: they are. I recently attended a workshop with a local homeschool coordinator. The biggest thing I took away was a reminder that all play is learning.
Why Kids Need to Play
Play is how kids learn about the world. Theoretical and Applied Playworker Bob Hughes (awesome title!) lists 16 different types of play that are central to physical, mental, emotional, and social development. By manipulating objects and trying things out (“I wonder what will happen if I give the dog a haircut?”), using their imaginations to role play different scenarios, and moving and challenging their bodies, kids play to learn:
- How their bodies work
- Laws of physics
- Laws of nature
- How to interact with other people, and the consequences of breaking social norms
- How to follow rules, and the consequences of breaking those, too
Play builds neural connections and motor skills. Through play, kids get to act out adulting (as in playing house), tap into their creativity, and discover their passions.
Importance of Play
Play is not optional. There is a reason that it’s Primal Blueprint Law #7 and Mark has written about it frequently here. (I’ll put some links at the bottom.) Yet, we all know that kids don’t play today like they used to for a variety of reasons. If this time at home offers one thing, it’s time for playing. This means getting free play, movement time, social time, music and arts time, and family time—checking a bunch of Primal boxes.
I’m not just talking about the kids, by the way. I’m talking about the adults in your house too. How much do YOU play in your normal life? I’m guessing not enough. A lot of the ideas here are fun for the whole family.
Play to Learn: Indoor and Outdoor Activities for Kids
For obvious reasons, I’m not listing things that involve going to parks or other public places. If you can still go for bike rides or kick the soccer ball around outside, great! You can do these inside or in your yard if you have one. I also didn’t list too many options that might necessitate shopping for materials. Pick the ideas that work for you given the ages of your kids, what stuff you already have at home, and how much space you have.
Before You Begin…
If you’re like us, you have a stash of art supplies, board games, boxes of legos and blocks, and sports equipment stuck on shelves and in closets. Dig it out and take inventory. What do you already have in your home that your kids can play with? Even bigger kids enjoy revisiting things like blocks and playdough, especially when they’re stuck at home.
I have a friend who, when her kids were little, would put out a craft or art project every night. When her boys woke up in the morning, it was waiting for them to explore at their leisure. It made for a lot of fun and peaceful mornings in their house. (Yes, she’s a supermom.)
I’m adapting this idea by designating a “creativity station.” Realistically, you might as well call this the “mess station.” Maybe it’s a card table in a corner of the living room, on the deck, or in the garage. I’m just giving up my kitchen table for now. Lay out a bunch of supplies and let them have at it. These stay out for several days at my house, then we clean it up and get out something else. Here are some ideas:
- Supplies: paper, coloring books, crayons, markers, paint, stamps, stickers—whatever you have!
- Ideas: Encourage kids to explore textures by using different types of objects as stamps: sponges, cookie cutters, leafs and sticks from the yard, legos, etc. Make footprints with action figures. Keep a bowl on hand that they can put dirty stuff in to wash. Also keep a pile of rags nearby for wiping dirty hands before they touch the wall.
- Supplies: Paper; old magazines, newspapers, circulars, coupon mailers; glue; safety scissors
- Ideas: Give kids a theme (e.g., food, their favorite person) or just let them make whatever they want.
- Supplies: Construction and tissue paper in different colors; glue; scissors (optional); bowls to keep colored confetti separated (optional)
- Ideas: Have kids cut or tear colored paper into small pieces like confetti, then use the pieces to create mosaic art. You can use coloring book pages as a “pattern,” or they can draw their own or make it free-form.
- Supplies: Plate or baking sheet; plastic table cloth or drop cloth (optional); containers of different sizes for mixing and pouring; water; food coloring; baking soda; pipettes, medicine droppers, etc. (raid the medicine cabinet); measuring spoons; baking soda; vinegar in a spray bottle; dish soap
- Ideas: Let kids make “potions” and practice pouring from one container to another. Sprinkle baking soda on a plate, “decorate” with drops of food coloring, then spray with vinegar.
- There are a ton of ideas for easy and fun science experiments online, too. Check out this lemon volcano and these 10 experiments you can do with water.
- Supplies: Clay, playdough, tape, toothpicks, chopsticks, straws, rubber bands, paper clips, corks, pipe cleaners, anything else you can find around
- Ideas: This is fun for free play, or you can challenge your kids to build something specific, like a bridge that will actually hold a small weight.
- Make your own playdough recipes here and here. (Yes, these are not Primal recipes!)
- Supplies: Plastic tub with moon sand, kinetic sand, or dirt; small toys (e.g., plastic animals, blocks, marbles, plastic eggs filled with “treasure”); spoons, paint brushes
- Ideas: Bury objects for your kids to “excavate.” Have them build ancient ruins.
- Make your own moon sand recipes here and here.
Family dance party
- Let older kids create a custom playlist
- Freeze dance: Let someone control the pause button; when the music stops, freeze and hold the position
- Minute to win it games (check Pinterest for ideas)
- Family book club
- Card games
- Board games
- Dice games
- Have a “campout” in your backyard. Make a campfire in a fire pit, place a bunch of candles in a circle, or have your kid make a pretend fire out of sticks and paper.
- Make a family tree (including genealogy research if you want)
- Go on a family vacation without leaving the house! There are so many ways to “travel” online. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Visit the Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa
- Watch the Northern Lights live (best viewing hours are 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. EDT.)
- Tour the Carlsbad Caverns
- Visit a museum
- See the Great Wall of China
- Tour the Vatican
- See the animals at the San Diego Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium
- Go to the opera
- Take in a Broadway play
- Go scuba diving
- Go to outer space
71 More Activities for Kids
- Color the driveway with chalk
- Use chalk (outside) or masking tape (inside) to make hopscotch or foursquare
- Make noodle or bead necklaces
- Draw a comic
- Illustrate a favorite book or story
- Listen to a song and “draw” what you hear
- Make a flexagon
- Gather up broken crayons make something new with them
- Move like an animal; take turns guessing which animal the other person is being
- Primal essential movements
- Resistance exercise with (light) hand weights and resistance bands
- Make an obstacle course
- Jump rope
- Hopping on one foot contest
- Do a handstand
- Play hacky sack (make your own filled with rice or flour)
- Put on as many clothes as you can, then try to do jumping jacks or burpees
- Learn to breakdance
- Make a drum kit with bowls and buckets
- Make “instruments” like castanets and boomwhackers with household objects
- Build a pillow fort
- Build a cardboard box fort, paint and decorate it
- Build a catapult
- Build a Rube Goldberg machine
- Make a birdhouse
- Identify birds or bugs in your backyard
- Learn about animal tracks and make your own
- Weed the garden
- Dig a hole
- Plant an indoor herb garden
- Cook together
- Learn about food preservation; make sauerkraut or yogurt
- Smell boxes: place objects with a distinctive smell—a candle, an orange cut in half—inside an empty tissue box and take turns guessing what’s in there
- Touch boxes: same as above, but you have to reach in and feel the object without looking
- Learn to tie knots
- Make a solar oven
- Learn how to build a fire (supervised, obviously)
- Make a sundial
- Learn how to use a compass
- Get a bucket of water and test what sinks or floats
- Learn to sew
- Follow a finger knitting tutorial
- Crochet a small project
- Make a t-shirt scarf out of an old shirt
- Make tissue paper flowers
- Play charades
- Make puppets and put on a show
- Play hide and seek
- Play sardines (the opposite of hide and seek – rules here)
- Make the letters of the alphabet with your body
- Play 20 questions
- Play I spy
- Make a word chain
- Dig out the old point-and-shoot camera and learn to take pictures
- Cloud watching
- Build towers and knock them down
- Yard scavenger hunt
- Find something in the house for every letter of the alphabet
- Make a yarn spider web
- Speak pig latin
- Learn a new language
- Use a magnifying glass to explore objects up close
- Freeze little plastic toys, marbles, etc. in bowls of water, then test ways to free the toys most quickly. Try different techniques like rubbing, spraying with warm water, or sprinkling with salt.
- Blow bubbles; make your own bubble solution and bubble makers
- Bring some flashlights in a dark room or closet and make shadow puppets
- Balloon “hockey” with balloons and brooms
- In the snow: fill spray bottles with water and food coloring and “paint” the snow
Give the Kids — AND YOURSELF — A Break
The idea isn’t to keep your kids occupied every minute of the day. It’s ok if they complain about being bored every once in a while. If they are like most modern kids, they aren’t used to having a ton of time on their hands. Present them with options, but let them figure it out on their own if they are old enough.
Your house might be messy and chaotic right now. Your kids might be too. They are certainly not immune to the stress and anxiety in the world, especially your older kids. It’s ok if you don’t have a schedule with neat blocks of school time, movement time, snack time, and chore time, and if your kids haven’t gotten out of their pajamas in a week. Your kids are going to be fine no matter what.
This is not nearly an all-inclusive list. What else has your family been doing to have fun while #stayinghome?
More play activities and lots of homeschooling resources from Unschool.school
100 Ways to Play from the Boston Children’s Museum
More play activities and homeschool ideas from Beyond the Chalkboard
Related posts from Mark’s Daily Apple
The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition
Why You Absolutely Must Play, Every Day! (plus 10 Pointers for Successful Playtime)
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