Here are some things that my kids and I do when it's just too cold or rainy to brave Mother Nature:
Bean game and variations (button game, rhinestone game, jingle bell game, etc.): Provide a big plastic bin and a variety of scoops and containers (metal is great for plinking sounds!), and pour in an assortment of dried beans.
This can occupy my kids for an hour or more when they're in the right mood—they love the textures, the colors, the sounds, the fill-and-dump joy of it all. Little dump trucks, cardboard tubes, and funnels can all add to the fun.
Big cardboard box: The perennial favorite—find a box big enough for your kid to crawl in, cut a few holes for windows and doors, and you've got a playhouse, or a pretend boat, or a fire truck, or whatever your kid decides. Kids can also decorate the box with stickers, markers, or crayons.
Pillow maze/cushion gym: Arrange all of the cushions and pillows you have on the floor for a tumbling extravaganza.
Bug in a rug: A sensory integration technique I swear by when my kids are cranky: Roll 'em up in a soft rug, perhaps while singing a silly song. It's amazingly effective at cheering them up.
Bed tent: Climb under the sheet; giggle. Stuffed animals make excellent cave-mates.
Bathtub paints: Mix roughly equal amounts of Dr. Bronner's or similar soap and cornstarch. Pour into muffin tins and dye with food coloring. Can be used for fingerpainting or painting with a brush—the bonus is that when you rinse the artwork off, you've cleaned your bathtub. Shaving cream and a paintbrush works well too!
Playing instruments while listening to music: A mixing bowl or a pot and chopsticks or a wooden spoon are excellent noisemakers.
Face paints: Order some face paints and let kids go to town decorating each other's faces. Make this happen in the bathtub for supremely easy clean-up!
Everyone has socks that don't match: Find a few and make some puppets with those buttons you have lying around!
Have you and your child exercise together: Jumping jacks, yoga stretches, airplane, etc. There are lots of YouTube videos you can harness.
Work together to organize your child's books by color.
Create an indoor treasure hunt or scavenger hunt with neighbors if you live in an apartment building.
Watch an old movie that you loved as a kid: We have a list of Ideas for Movie Night HERE.
Cook together: A big pot of soup on a cold day warms the cockles! (You might also go through all of your recipes and create a family recipe book.) For younger kids, you can have them "play cook" by putting things in a pan on the stove that's NOT turned on.
Draw together: Take turns, with each person adding a new part of the picture.
Do a puzzle together: There are different levels of difficulty for all ages. (Turn the puzzle over and do it without the picture for the max difficulty). Or just print a picture and cut out your own puzzle.
Hold a fancy Tea Party: Don't forget to cut the crusts off the sandwiches!
Tell your children stories about what things were like when you were growing up: Whether it's walking uphill both ways in the snow to school, TP-ing the neighbor's house (which you really feel badly about now) or summer vacations, help them understand more about what life was like when you were their age.
Karaoke with your family: YouTube has karaoke videos, as do some of your on-demand services. Download an app (e.g., Video Star, TikTok) and make it into a video.
Play dress up: Mix and match genders and let your kids explore new ways of being. You can also do a fashion show.
Craft and create. Make your own playdough (recipe here), string Froot Loop or pasta necklaces out of yarn, or buy a bunch of stickers and let kids "decorate" a carboard box.
Mani-Pedi: All are welcome. Fingernail polish isn't just for girls!
Look through old photos of your kids when they were little or you when you were little.
Build a tent with couch pillows and sheets and have a picnic/tea party inside with porridge like the three bears. Make sure there's plenty of coffee for mom.
Bake cookies. It helps to always have frozen cookie dough on hand so you don't have to go out and buy!
Papier-mâché: Two parts water to one part flour and newsprint. You can pretty much cover anything—egg carton, toilet paper tube, etc—and paint it later.
Laundry is fun! Play the laundry game...help parents sort and measure the soap!
Shower-bath. Put in the stopper, close the shower curtain, turn on the shower really low, and let them take a “shower/bath."
Dress-up dance party. Pull out the scarves, boots, and dresses and go to town.
More awesome ideas from our Park Slope Parents members...
Variations on the "stick this thing to yourself" game: "Give them a stack of Post-It notes and list body parts they needs to stick them to ('Put this one on your knee! Now one on your tummy!') Have them do the same on your body, if you can stand it. Use those tiny color-coding dots from the office supply store and have them color-code themself ('Put the yellow dots on your fingers!') Post-Its can also be used on furniture ('Put the yellow square on the place where we eat dinner!') If they're old enough to recognize letters or numbers, you can label the Post-Its and give them more complex instructions (Put the letter B on the bookcase!)."
Variations on the parent-child switcheroo: "Pick up a doctor costume and/or pretend medical supplies and let them examine you and make you all better. Call it a vet's costume and have them do the same for their stuffed animals. Make the couch an ambulance and have them drive you to the hospital. Have them be the parent and you're the cranky baby who needs to be soothed and tucked in."
Sneaky Chip: "Get a set of poker chips. Hide about 5–10 around the room (in okay-to-explore places) and have them look for them. You can play "hot and cold" while you do this. (Tip: keep track of how many chips you've hidden, or else you'll lose them.)"
Watercolor body art: "Use watercolors to make body art (you'll notice a lot of my suggestions involve doing ridiculous things to your own body—for some reason, this novelty factor is immensely appealing to little ones.) Watercolors rinse off easily, so there's very little mess, but it's almost as fun as face-painting, and they can do it themself."
Baby Jail: Try a variation on the "baby jail" systems you used when they were small (ah, those blessed days of sticking the kid in the Exersaucer so you could enjoy a cup of coffee!). Get an enormous cardboard box or two, plus some markers, stickers, cardboard tubes, masking tape, etc. They will come up with plenty of things to do with them.
Audiobooks: As an alternative to watching TV and videos, try listening to audiobooks. You can buy a number of book-and-CD sets at bookstores, or download many favorites on MP3. Some versions even have digital copies of the picture books for viewing on a tablet.
Home Olympics: Make up your own Olympic events and "judge" them. Events can include jumping, wiggling, balancing, etc. (Try making a medal from some tinfoil or a frozen juice container lid on a ribbon.) Other challenges can include such non-athletic pursuits as making a stack of five blocks, finding three red things in the room, etc.
Baby Errands. For the times when you have to get stuff done, try to give them some toy versions of the stuff you use while you're making dinner and doing errands—play food and cooking supplies, a small vacuum, etc. That way, they can "help" you without adding to your work (because, as we all know, having a toddler "help" you make dinner is not exactly "helpful.").
"My 20 month old LOVES helping around the house. We got him a mini vacuum that he follows us around with while we clean. He loves taking the trash and recycling down with us, going to pick up packages, putting things away. This may sound super boring, ha - but it can occupy a whole morning for us and he loves it and I can get so much done!"
"I've also found that a toddler's favorite activity is to 'help,' be it laundry, or sweeping, or putting away dishes. If you can get in the mindset that this is play time with the bonus of getting stuff done rather than chores take 432x as long as normal that is also fun."
Cars double as playspaces—so if you have one, hop inside and explore. "One hack is we have a car. We go to the car and she just climbs around inside the parked car. Put down the center arm rest thing in the back seat and poof! It’s a tunnel to climb into the trunk (hatchback). The car is inherently padded, which is helpful. And we get to learn more about what all those dials on the center console do. Now it automatically changes daylight savings time. Who knew!? We discovered some great radio channels while also discovering that the radio works without the key in the ignition...And a few other things. If you have a car, it’s a good option."
Explore your apartment building. Race up and down the stairs, or, if you have an elevator, take it to different floors. One member suggests reading the numbers / letters on mailboxes in the lobby.
Explore public spaces. Parents have shared: "When my kids were little I sometimes took them to the mall (Atlantic Mall and City Point both work well early in the morning) and Grand Central (plenty of out of the way places far from the trains and crowds)."
"The atrium area in the Brooklyn mMseum is a large space for crawlers and new walkers to move around. Not sure it’s as good for older toddlers since there aren’t as many activities or toys, but i’ve seen kids of all ages enjoying it there. i also find it to be a peaceful a peaceful place for us adults on a rainy/cold day."
Create an activity table. "If you don’t mind a mess, you can put a plastic picnic table cloth on the floor, dump some flour or rice on it and kiddo can drive toy trucks in the “snow” or “sand”. When it was really cold this would entertain my 2 year old for a good 30 min. Covid safe activity!"
Whip up some trail mix. "When my kids were under two, I would let them “cook” their own trail mix. I’d set out different bowls of ingredients (things like Cheerios, goldfish, raisins) and then give them bowls and spoons and let them make their own mixes. My youngest kid also loved playing in the kitchen sink (with a few cups and spoons and unbreakable kitchen tools) and would sometimes do it for 30 minutes+ (!!)."
Kitchen staples like dried beans and spices can be amazing toys. "[My son] spends hours playing with dried beans (we use cannellini beans) that we keep in a container and let him take out whenever he wants. Our rule is he has to keep it in a pile and play with it on the rug rather than the wood floor so it’s easier to cleanup. We give him yogurt containers, funnels, teaspoons and cups and he goes to town filling up containers, dumping them out, etc. Sometimes he pours them into baking sheets, muffin pans and muffin liners. He also fills up his trucks with beans. I think he’s been really into beans since he was about 20 mo."
"Also any old spice jars and any old spices…. They can mix and pour and play with the different spices in the little jars and they like the jars cause their small and their little hands can grab them."
Sensory play. "Anything sensory….. I would put oil and water or oil paint and water in a ziplock bag and let them go to town…. Sometimes I would tape the ziploc to the wall with paint tape and they love to squish them on the wall….. shaving cream is also something they love."
Storytime with stuffies. "We had some luck today with pretend reading to stuffies ("what do you think harry's favorite book would be? do you want to read it to him?")."
Further reading around the web:
What parents are saying: "The Busy Toddler had a ton of good ideas! I follow her on Instagram, and as a result have let my kids leave sticky post-it notes all over the apartment, eat popsicles in the bath, go to town with dot stickers, paint pumpkins, etc."
What parents are saying: "We have also done a lot of sensory play - items inside a ziploc bag helps to reduce the mess and can be a lot of fun. We also sometimes set her up in the bathtub if sensory play will be messy. I get lots of fun sensory ideas (and other activity ideas) from Hands on As We Grow. They provide ideas by age range."