Screen-Free Activities for Little Ones

My personal silver lining these days consists of savoring the sweetness of a new, natural daily rhythm we’ve found as a family—and enjoying hours of playtime with my kids every single day. 

Between the cleaning, the laundry, connecting with friends over the phone, and snagging a few hours of work here and there, the house is an absolute wreck but the love is more potent than ever before. It takes my breath away to see how well my little ones are thriving right now, both individually and as a little team. I honestly envy them and how grounded, creative, and joyful they seem to be in simply stirring the batter, painting a picture, or organizing rocks during a time when we’re all craving a lot more of these feelings. 

Traditionally an advocate of a screen-free childhood (and limited technology in my personal life because I already work in the digital space), I have to admit my sheer amazement at what humanity is able to accomplish with the help of technology lately: almost overnight we’ve shifted education so that children can attend school via tablet or computer, we’re able to see our doctors in real time over our phones, and we can produce food and engage in commerce in new ways. So much is possible and it’s clear that our children are being introduced to technology sooner and more intensely than at any time in history. 

That said, massive amounts of screen time are no good for any of us—especially when it comes to developing minds and bodies. Our family has been intentionally stepping away from phones and tablets for a good portion of each day to just hang out and be together. Turns out, absolute presence is the greatest gift we can give our children (as well as ourselves).

If you’re looking for meaningful screen-free activities to keep your family connected at home (and make some incredible memories while you’re at it), here are some ideas that are sure to bring smiles.

Get Lost in the Garden 

gardeningThere is nothing quite like spending hours designing and tending to an outdoor garden, be it big or small. Our family garden has become our happy place: we are able to fully disconnect, be completely immersed in the now, and feel a sense of much needed control and predictability as we plant and nurture new life that will feed and sustain us. My little ones are so invigorated by it that their eating habits have even improved. They understand the food they are eating and they are involved at every step in the process. 

If you can’t safely travel to a garden center right now, there’s a huge variety of seeds and seedlings available online to help make your garden a success. Beginners should do well with easy-to-grow veggies like tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, and squash (zucchini squash is especially fun for kids because its flowers are edible). And even if you don’t have space for a backyard garden, container pot gardens or microgreens grown on a windowsill make the perfect mini-gardens! It’s a beautiful learning experience and they seem to feel so empowered by nourishing their seedlings and watching them bloom. 

As if the gardening journey isn’t enough on its own, the additional prize of growing our own produce and being able to prepare and eat the delicious food that came into being through our loving efforts is deeply rewarding for us all. (And that part of the cycle of nature brings us all back to...the kitchen!).

Kitchen Capers

The kitchen is definitely the heart of my home, and including little ones in kitchen activities makes that warm heart beat even more strongly. Kids love to be a part of food preparation—and when they’re involved with planning and cooking healthy meals, they’re more likely to want to eat all that good food. My oldest can chop and saute, and my youngest can stir, measure (roughly), and pour. Cooking is such a sensory experience too, with all those colors and textures and smells! Which means that letting kids help out in the kitchen is a great developmental experience as well as something that’s purely enjoyable…and gives them such a sense of purpose and contribution.

Just yesterday, my oldest said to me, “we should make a book of our delicious recipes so we can share it with others!” And so, we spent the next hour doing just that. The pride was palpable.

We’ve noticed that when we make it a family affair, the kitchen begins to represent a time of closeness and connection for us all.

Artistic and Scientific Endeavors

From collecting and tracing leaves to making homemade playdough or slime, building your own solar system or erupting volcano, or creating an inspired watercolor painting, collage, or mosaic...many kids naturally gravitate toward projects, and everything you need to get them started is probably already in your house or yard. We’ve been painting designs and faces on sticks and rocks—and even making rock people to play with later. I especially love these three Waldorf-inspired projects, which ignite kids’ creativity and connection with nature:

  • Wet-on-wet watercolor painting: Saturate watercolor paper with water and lay it on a cutting board, smoothing it out with a wet sponge to flatten any bumps or bubbles. Then paint with watercolor paints and watch the colors spread out and blend in all kinds of exciting ways.
  • Embroidery on burlap: Cut a square of burlap (or any natural loose weave fabric) and stretch it over an embroidery hoop if you have one. Cut a piece of colorful yarn or embroidery thread about 30 inches long, and thread it through a yarn needle, tying both ends together in a knot. Then, your little ones can either draw their design on the burlap first with a marker, or sew freestyle. Once the embroidery is complete, you can glue the burlap onto a piece of cardboard and frame it—we particularly love to spell out our names.
  • Magic nature wands: Let them choose a wooden stick and some small, lightweight natural items like leaves, flowers, berries, or grass. Glue the objects onto the stick, and when the wand dries it will be ready for magical witch and wizard games. If you can’t safely go outdoors right now, it’s fine to use a pencil and glue on buttons, glitter, and colored paper scraps.

Song and Rhythm

Music has an almost primal way of connecting us to our inner wild child, and there’s no special skills or training required to bring kids into that joy. From a Spotify family dance session to a sing-a-long or a do-it-yourself marching band, the power of music can be profound for all of us. 

Big and small kids alike can also easily master rhythm instruments like blocks, sticks, and bells and they feel such a creative energy when they do it! We had an impromptu drum circle a few days ago with rocks and cans and sticks and balls and I saw a confidence and rhythm in my oldest that I have never seen brought out an aspect of him that truly took my breath away. We’ve had quite the cacophony around here and I am loving every minute of it. 

Fantasy Lands

Pretending is child’s play at its best—and once little ones get lost in a fantasy, the hours just seem to disappear. You can also learn a lot from the pretend games that your child chooses to play; it’s absolutely fascinating. A lot of times our children work out their inner struggles through play, and there is a lot they can communicate to us about who they are and where their little minds are if we can really tune in. Play is indeed the language of childhood...and with the unexpected gift of more time on my hands, I am able to join in on the wondrous party more than ever before—the places they take me!

Here are some of our favorite ways to expand our imaginations together:

  • Build a fort or castle outdoors from natural objects (or indoors with large blocks and blankets!) and act out pretend adventures in it.
  • Tape a long sheet of butcher paper to the wall, line the floor with a drop cloth or old sheet, get the finger paints ready, and pretend to be prehistoric people painting the walls of a cave.
  • Lay outside on a blanket and describe the shapes you see in the clouds.
  • Go on a real bear hunt...we often encounter sharks and lava and tigers along the way!
  • Books, books, and more books. Read books with the kids and act out all the stories. If you’ve got dress up stuff on hand, that makes this even more fun! 

Honestly, when we give ourselves the space and let go of our productive agenda and simply follow their lead, a whole new (and deeply fulfilling) world opens up where we are able to connect with our children on their terms and in their language and create intimacy and memories that we’ll carry with us throughout our lives.

Just Add Water 

playing in the waterI’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love water play. In fact, one of my favorite expressions is “Just add water” because it soothes and invigorates them every. single. time. If you’ve got a pool or a creek on your property, that’s absolute heaven, but there are plenty of simpler water games kids enjoy too. A water hose and a bucket can lead to hours of fun; a pot of water on the kitchen table can become a swimming pool for dolls, action figures, and animals—and pot handles do double duty as diving boards. Take that bowl of water, freeze it for a few hours, and’ve got a tabletop skating rink for the toys!

For more immersive water play, the bathtub has endless possibilities. It might become a vast ocean, or a dolphin-filled lagoon. And even a stall shower places toys under an imaginary waterfall or rain shower. Oh, water, what a miracle you are! 

Old Time Games

Before the Internet (or even television) became a reality, kids made their own fun with all kinds of active and quiet games. We’ve been revisiting the games Grandma and Grandpa loved as kids over these past weeks—and now we know why they loved them. Our kids really got a kick out of:

  • Hide and seek
  • 20 questions
  • Grandmother’s trunk
  • Checkers
  • Jacks
  • Simon Says
  • Freeze dance
  • Telephone
  • Red light-green light
  • Hopscotch
  • Marbles
  • Jump rope
  • Hula hoop

Exploration and Discovery

We love long family hikes. They allow us to walk away from the screens (literally)—but not everyone has access to the great outdoors these days with social distancing restrictions. And even for those of us who are lucky enough to get outside pretty often, sometimes the weather is too wet or cold to make hiking practical. 

Thankfully there are kid-friendly indoor alternatives to ignite that exploration and discovery mode. An indoor scavenger hunt is perfect for a rainy afternoon, and there’s nothing like hiding a “treasure” somewhere at home, drawing an old fashioned map, and sending your kids around the house for a pirate’s treasure hunt.

You’d be surprised at how a child can become enraptured in play with a pair of scissors and a magazine or staring at the moss growing on rocks outside. Discovery is everything and you can join them as they study their world and begin to connect the dots. 

Reach Out

This all said, even with so many fun things to do at home, we miss our friends and family and playing together. It’s so important for friends to stay connected, and we’ve been allowing regular screen time for video chats and virtual parties where the younger set can catch up and get silly together.

But there are plenty of screen-free ways to stay in touch with the outside world too. Handwriting letters and drawing pictures to mail to friends and family gets the warm fuzzies going—and it also feels good to hang uplifting signs and pictures in the windows to bring good vibes to anyone who walks or drives by.

For more truly exceptional ideas, check out The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play, by Laura Brand. It is everything my mama-heart dreams of.

Just remember that with a little imagination, intention, and preparation, keeping kids learning, growing, and engaged at home without screens can be pretty simple and oh-so-satisfying.

PS: We’ve designed a little something special for you. With these fun paper dolls, you simply print, color, and cut, and play dress up ’til your heart’s content.

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