Sometimes when your kids are little and you’re home with them, you can look at a day stretching out in front of you and have NO IDEA how you’re going to pass the time. I think the older they get, the easier it is to fill those days, but when they’re little kids it can be so easy to run out of ideas. We get asked all the time how we plan our activities with Hank and Mags, so we put together this list of 41 free or cheap activities to to with little kids! (Spoiler alert — not a single one of them involves a screen.)
Every single thing on this list is something that our kids love, and actually that I as a parent enjoy also. Because let’s be real – that matters, too. It’s also important to note, the things on this list are meant to encourage curiosity, creativity, independence, connectedness with community, and just joy in general! Hope this list inspires you to try something new with your kids this week! xoxo
41 Free or Cheap Activities to Do with Little Kids
CRAFTS & SENSORY
Beading. Give the kids a bowl of beads on a tray, along with some pipe cleaners or elastic string and another little bowl or two. They can make bracelets and necklaces if they’re older, or if they’re little they can just sort the beads back and forth between the bowls and string them onto the pipe cleaners. The tray helps contain any spilled beads.
Glitter glue. Our kids love to play “glitter glue.” We got a six pack of different Elmer’s glitter glue colors about a year ago and they’re still going strong. I give them paper, the glue, and pompoms/sequins/googly eyes/any little ephemera that you could glue on. It occupies them for at least 45 minutes.
Crayons/markers. Can’t go wrong with good old fashioned coloring! We have a selection of plain paper and coloring books in our art area that the kids can access themselves for a coloring session.
Giant coloring. Keep a roll of butcher paper or kraft paper on hand. Roll out a big section of it (covering the table if you can), tape it to a table, and give the kids their pens or crayons. There’s something extra fun about coloring on a canvas that’s so big.
Draw a town. Roll out a long (4-6 feet) section of the same roll of butcher or kraft paper and use masking tape to tape it to the floor. If you trust your kids with crayons and pens on the floor, let them draw a city. If not, YOU draw the city – roads, buildings, trees, etc. Get out some toy cars or figurines that fit in the city and play.
Bake. Find an easy recipe (our baked oatmeal or these cookies are ones that I make with the kids all the time) and let them help. You can measure, they can pour and stir. Set up camp in front of the oven to watch it bake.
Beans. A bag of assorted dry beans from the grocery store has given our kids literally hours of play time. Use a tray like with the beads from above, to contain any stray beans. Give them a few small plastic bowls or pieces of tupperware and let them sort, pour, organize, and grab them by the handful. They love it.
Salt dough/play-doh. Our kids will do Play-Doh for a good long time. If you don’t have Play-Doh, make salt dough! You just need salt, flour, and water. Usually we do this around Christmas and make dough ornaments, but you could do it all year round just for fun.
Painting. My kids are particularly into watercolors and this set is their fave. But we also do acrylic paints sometimes on canvas, wood, or anything we can find. Finger paint is fun too!
Stickers. If you have a sticker collection, just set them up with a stack of stickers and some blank pages! Henry also has fallen in love with these paint-by-sticker books, which will keep him occupied for quite a while.
Tattoos. If you’re up for it, temporary tattoos are a fun way to spend some time at home. We have a batch that we kind of keep around and every so often we let the kids pick a few and load up their arms. They usually last a day or two and we scrub them off in the tub.
INDOOR GAMES & ACTIVITIES
Organize and classify. If your kids have lots of collections of little toys, cars, figurines, whatever, make a game out of organizing them. We usually end up organizing Henry’s Cars toys into rainbow order or sorting them into big long lines. But it’s a fun opportunity to teach different classifications like size, shape, color, and so on.
Board games. Now that the kids are a little bigger we can actually play board games together! Sorry! is a great starter game. Other favorites are card games (Old Maid, Go Fish, Crazy Eights), Trouble, Busytown, Guess Who? (we use our version!), Chutes and Ladders, and Candyland.
Hide and seek. Perfect for a rainy day when you can’t really get outside! The kids think it’s hilarious and it’s pretty funny to see the silly places they choose to hide.
Legos/Tinker Toys/marbles. Our kids love these types of toys that have lots of smaller pieces and are focused on building or creating. I include marbles here because Henry and Maggie use them in the same way, to create pictures or designs. For the Legos and marbles, we always lay down a play mat or a blanket so that no small pieces get lost in the carpet.
Read. It sounds like a no-brainer, but with the amount of hours that we’ve spent reading in our house it has to be mentioned! We have each kid pick a stack of books, we snuggle up on the couch, and take turns choosing a book from each stack.
Build a city. Grab whatever you have — blocks, books, Legos, boxes — and build a toy-sized city. Make 3D streets and buildings and let the kids walk around in it, add their dolls and toys, and make up adventures.
Projector slides. We have a couple of these little flashlight projectors with different slides, and the kids love to turn off all the lights and project the pictures onto the walls. We even made little pretend movie tickets and sometimes we play “theatre,” with me being the patron. They take my ticket and show me the movie.
Dance party. Turn on some tunes and just dance! Let the kids take turns picking the song. My kids like to get a flashlight and turn all the lights off and have dance parties in the dark (for some weird reason!).
Family band. Everybody grab an instrument and rock out! Usually the kids hand me a ukulele or a guitar, or I’ll be on the piano playing the basic music. Then they choose from some more kid-friendly instruments (harmonica, shakers, bongos, maracas, jingle bells, anything!) and bang along to the beat.
OUTSIDE GAMES & ACTIVITIES
Bike/scooter ride. Helmet up and go for a ride.
Nature walk. Grab a tote bag and go for a walk, letting the kids stop to pick up any cool sticks, leaves, rocks, or anything else they find along the way. For bonus points, get out some glue and paper and make a collage with your findings when you get back home.
Water balloons. This one is great for summer and costs just a few bucks. Last year we discovered these water balloons where you can fill 20 at a time and not have to tie any knots. So awesome. We usually fill a kiddie pool with the balloons and just let the kids go to town. Just make sure they’re on board with helping you clean up the balloons when they’re done.
Backyard picnic. I love backyard or front yard picnics when we need a switchup at meal or snack times. Just spread out a blanket in the yard and take your meal outside. This works particularly well for snacks, or items that are grab-and-go.
Sandbox. If you have a sandbox, let them go outside and dig! If not, find a little patch of dirt or mud and a couple of shovels or buckets. It’s easy to want to try to keep them clean as much as possible, but getting dirty is sometimes just too fun. Let them get a little messy and then toss them in the tub.
Water table. Especially for younger kids (perhaps 0-3), a water table is endlessly fascinating. They should be able to stand/walk so that they can manage to use both hands to get in the water and play. We have this STEM water table, with lots of valves, pumps, water mills, and other fun pieces.
Lawn games. We have a few DIY games that we’ve made for the backyard that hold up incredibly well. We use our swings, cornhole, and ladder golf all the time. We also have an old croquet set that the kids love knocking around.
Garden. If you need to work in the yard, keep a pair of kid-sized gloves and some mini gardening tools around so that they can help you. You can even “give” them a little patch of ground that’s they’re own so they can plant pretend seeds, dig holes, and pull weeds.
Sidewalk chalk. Hours and hours and hours of our lives have been spent on sidewalk chalk! Get a little bucket of chalk and go for it.
Spray bottles. The best $1 you’ll ever spend at the dollar store. Keep a few empty spray bottles around (the kind you would use for cleaning), fill them up, and let them spray everything under the sun outside. Our kids will do this forever. It also combines well with sidewalk chalk.
AWAY FROM HOME
Parks/playgrounds. Most towns have a wealth of great parks and play areas! Ask fellow moms for recommendations of the good ones, or search your city’s website.
Library. We’re at our library at least once a week. It’s awesome for encouraging reading and being active in your community. Let the kids pick their own books to have some ownership over the experience (with your guidance toward the appropriate sections, or the sections of their particular interest). Dig deeper and ask for a schedule of story times, activities, and more. Libraries are gems of childhood.
Coffee date. Henry and I started going on coffee dates when he was about 2 and a half. I would get myself a tea and get him a steamed milk (not too hot) with foam. We bring sprinkles and he gets to sprinkle them himself. We would usually share a muffin or something similar. Sometimes I bring books to read or color in. Maggie comes with us now. It’s really special and a great way to teach kids to be comfortable taking time over a snack and a conversation.
Farmer’s market. Explore the fresh fruits and veggies (and sample them to help the kids find their favorites!), support your local vendors, dance to live music, enjoy seeing friends!
Street fair. Same idea as the farmer’s market. Keep an eye on your local community schedule to find out when street fairs might pop up.
Art crawl. Every town has interesting things to look at — murals, statues, buildings, signs. Grab your bikes, or a stroller, or get in your car, and give your kids a tour of all these cool things to look at. Take a picture of yourselves at every stop.
Photo adventure. Head to your downtown area (or anywhere that’s easily walkable with a lot to see) and walk around. Put your kids in charge of finding anything that interests them — a cool leaf, a tall building, things that are a certain color — and let them take a picture when they find them. Kind of an open-ended scavenger hunt. Stop for a snack afterward.
Non-shopping. We do this on rainy days. We head to a toy store, book store (Barnes & Noble usually has a good kids’ section), or somewhere like Target, and let the kids walk around and explore the things that they want to look at. Nobody buys anything but the kids get to finally call the shots, instead of the usual shopping trips where Mom or Dad have the agenda. Even better if you have a great local shop that the kids love.
Splash pads. In the summer, find out if your local parks have splash pads or water features! They’re so fun, free, and a great way to support your community.
Seasonal adventures. Think pumpkin patches, petting zoos, flower fields, ice skating, and more. A quick search for local events on Facebook can really tune you into these types of events. There’s always something fun to do!