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.

Creativity Stations

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:

Art labs

Coloring/painting

  • 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.

Collage

  • 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.

Mosaic

  • 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.

Science lab

  • 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.

3-D creations

  • 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!)

Archeological dig

  • 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 Time

  • 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
  • Sing-alongs
  • 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:

71 More Activities for Kids

  1. Color the driveway with chalk
  2. Use chalk (outside) or masking tape (inside) to make hopscotch or foursquare
  3. Make noodle or bead necklaces
  4. Draw a comic
  5. Illustrate a favorite book or story
  6. Listen to a song and “draw” what you hear
  7. Origami
  8. Make a flexagon
  9. Gather up broken crayons make something new with them
  10. Move like an animal; take turns guessing which animal the other person is being
  11. Primal essential movements
  12. Resistance exercise with (light) hand weights and resistance bands
  13. Make an obstacle course
  14. Jump rope
  15. Hopping on one foot contest
  16. Do a handstand
  17. Play hacky sack (make your own filled with rice or flour)
  18. Put on as many clothes as you can, then try to do jumping jacks or burpees
  19. Learn to breakdance
  20. Yoga
  21. Meditate
  22. Make a drum kit with bowls and buckets
  23. Make “instruments” like castanets and boomwhackers with household objects
  24. Build a pillow fort
  25. Build a cardboard box fort, paint and decorate it
  26. Build a catapult
  27. Build a Rube Goldberg machine
  28. Make a birdhouse
  29. Identify birds or bugs in your backyard
  30. Learn about animal tracks and make your own
  31. Weed the garden
  32. Dig a hole
  33. Plant an indoor herb garden
  34. Cook together
  35. Learn about food preservation; make sauerkraut or yogurt
  36. 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
  37. Touch boxes: same as above, but you have to reach in and feel the object without looking
  38. Learn to tie knots
  39. Make a solar oven
  40. Learn how to build a fire (supervised, obviously)
  41. Make a sundial
  42. Learn how to use a compass
  43. Get a bucket of water and test what sinks or floats
  44. Learn to sew
  45. Follow a finger knitting tutorial
  46. Crochet a small project
  47. Make a t-shirt scarf out of an old shirt
  48. Make tissue paper flowers
  49. Play charades
  50. Make puppets and put on a show
  51. Play hide and seek
  52. Play sardines (the opposite of hide and seek – rules here)
  53. Make the letters of the alphabet with your body
  54. Play 20 questions
  55. Play I spy
  56. Make a word chain
  57. Dig out the old point-and-shoot camera and learn to take pictures
  58. Cloud watching
  59. Build towers and knock them down
  60. Yard scavenger hunt
  61. Find something in the house for every letter of the alphabet
  62. Make a yarn spider web
  63. Juggle
  64. Speak pig latin
  65. Learn a new language
  66. Use a magnifying glass to explore objects up close
  67. 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.
  68. Blow bubbles; make your own bubble solution and bubble makers
  69. Bring some flashlights in a dark room or closet and make shadow puppets
  70. Balloon “hockey” with balloons and brooms
  71. 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?

Resources

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 Definitive Guide to Play

The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition

15 Concrete Ways to Play

Why You Absolutely Must Play, Every Day! (plus 10 Pointers for Successful Playtime)

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