No matter how much you love your kid, being in close quarters with them 24 hours a day is not easy, especially if they're under 6 years old. With all the coronavirus quarantine and isolation measures in place right now, most parents of preschoolers could benefit from having some independent activities for kids under the age of 6 ready to go in their home. This preparation will come in handy when you need a moment to make a work call, catch your breath, or just go to the bathroom by yourself.
"I recommend setting a visual timer for when you work vs. when you can play with your child," Becky DelVecchio, M.Ed., tells Romper. "It’s unnerving for children when their parents are present but not fully available," she explains. Let your kid know what's coming: First I’ll work for x minutes, then I can play with you. "The important part is that your child needs to know it’s coming, and that it actually does, often and regularly," DelVecchio says.
It doesn't matter if you were a stay-at-home parent, working parent, or a combination of both before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, everyone is trying to adjust to life in quarantine. Outside of the house is a global crisis threatening the lives of thousands, and inside your home is a preschooler with all the energy and no attention span. Whether you have a deadline or a Zoom meeting or just what seems like a hundred loads of laundry to do, you're definitely going to be needing some ways to keep your kid occupied on their own on a daily basis. But with the right activities — and the right attitude — you can make it happen.
There's no question that this time will be an adjustment for you and your kid(s), but providing them with some fun activities and games they can do all by themselves will give everybody what they need. Here are 16 games, activities, and toys that are perfect (and safe) for some independent play.
1. Open-Ended Play
Unstructured playtime gives kids an opportunity to use their imaginations. To that end, "open-ended materials are great," says DelVecchio. "Things like Play-Doh and a Rubbermaid tub of rice." If you're worried about a mess, lay some plastic wrap over your tabletop to provide a surface for them to work on or put a towel down on the ground if there's carpet. Give them tools like measuring cups, spoons, and cookie cutters. You can even create sculpting challenges for them like shapes, animals, letters, and numbers.
2. Sensory Stuff
"Engaging in sensory play is one of the best ways to keep children engaged and learning at home," Allison Klein, M.S.Ed., founder and CEO of the teacher-curated e-commerce toy store and content resource Rose & Rex, tells Romper. One idea that requires minimal parental involvement: Cover a baking sheet with shaving cream and have your kid trace letters in the foam (or draw pictures, or play with small toys that can get wet, like little plastic animals). Keep this activity to a room like the kitchen without carpet or upholstered furniture and even the cleanup is easy. (Tip: Check out the list of COVID-19 Family Resources on the Rose & Rex blog.)
3. Race Cars
A few age-appropriate toy race cars will set your kiddo up for a lot of independent fun. There are so many different kinds, like pull-and-go, remote control, and classic Hot Wheels. You can also encourage your child to make a fun racetrack out of things around the house like books or paper towel tubes.
4. Fun With Pipe Cleaners
Pipe cleaners are a great tool to help develop fine motor skills. Have your child string beads or Cheerios onto them or weave them through the holes of a spaghetti strainer. Or, if all else fails, just let them make some funny shapes out of them.
5. Magna-Tiles, Legos, & Blocks
No matter the age, kids love to stack and build things so toys like Legos, Magna-Tiles, and wooden blocks are an excellent way to get them thinking creatively (and playing independently). If you don't have any building toys, get creative and let them use plastic food storage containers, JENGA blocks, or anything else that will stack.
6. Sorting & Counting
If you have some craft poms around the house, you're all set for tons of sorting and counting games. Have your little one sort them by color or size, practice their counting, or even work on some basic math.
7. Butcher Paper Coloring
If you're still able to get online orders delivered, buy a big roll of butcher's paper, otherwise this activity may be worth sacrificing some of your wrapping paper for. You can roll out the paper across your table and let the kids go to town on it and design whatever they want or you can trace their bodies and leave them to draw characters out of the silhouettes. It's basically a coloring free-for-all.
8. Paint With Water
This Buddha Board is like those no-mess, paint-with-water books... except kids can use it again and again, so it's super sustainable. All you need is a paintbrush and water, so there's literally no mess, and the ever-fading design is a lesson in letting go.
9. Virtual Story Time
There are so many ways for kids to engage in books and reading and give parents a break at the same time. You can download "story time" tales on Spotify, pull up videos of people reading some of their favorite stories on YouTube, or search the #OperationStorytime hashtag on social media to find videos of such famous children's book authors and illustrators as Jan Brett and Josh Gad reading their favorite stories.
10. Water Play
Yup, another water-based idea. Little kids love playing in water, and it will keep them occupied for quite a while. If you're not lucky enough to live somewhere warm enough to bust out the water table just yet, you can lay down some towels in the bathroom and give your little one a little tub of water to play with (a large plastic food container would work). If your child is a little older, have them give their toys a "bath" in the sink or let them put on their bathing suit and "swim" in the tub (but stay close by for safety).
11. Set Them Up With A Challenge
"Create an obstacle course around your house," suggests Klein, or a "scavenger hunt for your kids that leads them from room to room." These require a little bit of prep, but have the potential to give you a decent break once your kids get started.
12. Look & Find Books
If you like the idea of a scavenger hunt, but not the prep, look-and-find books are a great option. You can set your little one up with the preschool versions of I Spy, Where's Waldo?, or one of the many other books available.
13. Frozen Paint Popsicles
This one will take about 10 minutes of prep (plus freezing time), but then you're free to return those emails while your kid gets busy painting: "Use an ice cube tray and popsicle sticks to freeze paint (child-safe paint, of course!)," says Klein. More fun than paintbrushes, and (maybe?) less messy.
14. DIY Connect The Dots
Depending on your child's age, either you can prep a DIY connect-the-dots activity for them or let them make their own using stickers, stamps, or even markers. It's a great activity for a younger preschooler who is learning to identify shapes and letters, and it's a chance for an older preschooler to get creative with their own designs.
15. Low Maintenance Crafts
Don't worry, no one expects you to trust your preschooler alone with glitter and scissors, but that doesn't mean they can't still craft solo. Klein suggests letting them "make a collage using only recycled materials." You can also cut up some tissue paper into scraps and let them glue the pieces onto a large sheet of paper using a glue stick.
Kids can start playing with puzzles when they're pretty young (the wooden kind with big knobs for handles) and their interest only grows from there. Find some puzzles that are easy enough for your preschooler to do on their own, but not so easy that they get bored, and watch them go to work. It's a great activity to keep them busy, so you'll be able to get a decent break, and they will be beaming with pride when they finish one all by themselves.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all our Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here on this page, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.
Becky DelVecchio, M.Ed., early childhood educator
Allison Klein, M.S.Ed., founder and CEO of Rose & Rex