It’s not an exaggeration to say that these past few months have been unlike anything most of us have ever experienced, or ever want to experience again. The COVID-19 pandemic closed down schools, canceled summer camps, and left many of us in a great deal of uncertainty as to what the next school year will look like.
I don’t think anyone wants a repeat of last spring. To juggle working while keeping our kids from becoming complete couch potatoes, we need toys to keep kids busy and encourage independent play.
My Lock Down Experience
Like you, I have struggled. My boys’ school closed on March 17 and we didn’t reopen. I started out nervous but motivated to homeschool my kids while working remotely.
My kids are four and six, which means they cannot work independently for long, and digital learning is certainly not ideal for them. Their school did a daily Zoom class. For my kindergartner, they were able to continue to work on some of the skills they would have done in the classroom. For my preschooler, they did show and tell, scavenger hunts, and read stories.
Beyond that however, it fell to me to plan out their day. I jumped into it full force: I carefully planned thematic units that included literacy, math, art, and science. We had dinosaur week, ocean week, colors and patterns week, and more. I tried to limit screen time and make sure they got plenty of time to go outside and play.
I spent hours reading teacher/homeschooling blogs, adding activities to my new homeschool Pinterest board, and downloading worksheets. I fretted over my kids’ progress and whether they were falling behind.
Oh, and I was still trying to work full-time and keep up the household.
To manage all of this, I woke up at 5:00 every morning to get a few hours of work in before everyone else woke up. The rest of the day was a constant juggle between trying to keep the kids occupied and learning, while dashing off a quick email or trying to squeeze in a meeting for work.
Crashing back down to reality
It didn’t take long to start burning out. I was sleep deprived, stressed, and irritable. I became impatient with my kids and was pushing them too hard. Soon, we were all miserable.
I needed a new strategy. I finally realized I couldn’t work and teach full-time. Moreover, I needed to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to replace my kids’ teachers. I didn’t have the skills and knowledge on how to structure our day, what learning goals to target, and how to keep them engaged and motivated. I also had to acknowledge that they weren’t going to respond to me the same way they responded to their teachers. Things had to change.
As we started approaching summer, I ditched the units and focused on including three “learning boosts” a day. This was our time for worksheets, flashcards, workbooks, and more structured learning. We purchased a subscription to ABCMouse, which keeps them occupied and learning long enough for me to take a phone call or get some work done. I also set up a free account with Boom Learning and started downloading free decks matched to their skill sets.
Beyond that, I rely on outside play, a lot of sneaky learning activities (literacy and math skills disguised as games), and of course, toys.
Fall 2020: Into the Unknown
At this point, it looks like my first grader will be going to school in the morning and then doing some small group work in the afternoon online. Which means that means I’m going to need to figure out what to do with him for at least a few hours in the afternoon.
It will be easier with my preschooler back at his school full-time, but I am committed to having this fall be a better experience for all of us than this past spring.
I’ve taken stock of all of the toys, games, and activities we have and these are my suggestions for the best toys tokto keep busy during the day so you can get some work done.
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Board Games for Siblings
If you have siblings at home and they get along reasonably well, consider yourself lucky. At least they had someone to play with. Having games that my kids could play with each other was a huge help. They could have fun while I could get some work done. Here were some winners in our house.
I love games by Educational Insights. They’re cute and sneak in some learning. Plus the ones I have include tongs to grab the game pieces, which adds in some fine motor control. In Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel, the focus is on colors.
Here’s another one by Educational Insights. It has the same pincher tool for fine motor control but this one focuses on shape recognition.
And of course don’t forget other classics like Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Connect 4, Guess Who?, and Hi ho! Cherry-O. If it gets the kids playing together and gives you a break so you can get your work done, it deserves a spot on your game shelf!
Props for Dramatic Play
Chances are you probably don’t need to give your kids toys for them to invent their own games and act out their own stories. But a few props don’t hurt either! Sometimes kids need a little prompting to get their creative juices flowing. That’s where these toys come into play. What I love about them is that they are so open ended. Maybe they’ll build a house with their work bench one day, and play repair person the next day. They’re only limited by their imagination, and that imagination can keep them busy for quite some time. Just what a busy homeschooling working mom like you needs!
Little Adventures Chair Cover Play Sets
These are brilliant. We know dramatic play is important for kids, but having a workbench, kitchen set, playhouse, and on and on is overwhelming. And expensive. Before you know it, your house is completely overwhelmed with toys (alright, we all know it’s probably already like that). But toys for imaginative play have a tendency to be big.
Enter the chair cover play set. My kids love these and they’ve really amped up their pretend play with them. We have the bakery, vet clinic, and market, but there’s also a beauty salon and work bench. When they’re done playing they come off the chairs and get wrapped up and put away. Amazing.
Costumes, masks, and capes
Play food and pots
Last winter, my kids started playing “food truck.” I have no idea where they got it from, but it quickly became a favorite game of theirs. So we got them some plastic play food, a Melissa & Doug slice and bake cookie set, and some play pots. I also went to the dollar store to stock up on some whisks, measuring cups, and tongs. They regularly play restaurant or food truck, especially in combo with the bakery and market chair covers I talked about above! They can play with all of these for a solid hour sometimes, making them perfect toys to keep kids busy. You might even be able to squeeze in a meeting uninterrupted!
Sensory Toys to Keep Kids Busy
I’m guessing you already have at least a few containers of Play-Doh floating around the house. But if they’ve been around awhile and are getting dried out, it may be time to replenish your stock.
I didn’t realize before this homeschooling journey how many educational activities you can do with play-doh. Math skills, literacy, fine motor control….you name it, you can do it with Play-Doh. Find some of these sneaky learning activities for your child and crack open the Play-Doh. Your kids will have fun and learn at the same time…and probably give you a few minutes peace to shoot off a quick email or take a call. #Winning.
This is just fun to play with. Sometimes when my kids start getting crabby I pull this out. It’s a calming sensory experience that allows them to slow down and recharge before the crazies completely take over. Add a few cookie cutters or measuring spoons for extra fun, or splurge and get this kit with ten unique tools. My kids love it! If you’re looking for quiet toys to keep kids busy, this should be at the top of your list.
I have to admit, I didn’t understand the appeal of these at first. It’s yarn wrapped in wax. It’s super durable and super bendy. And kind of addicting to play with once you get started.
It’s great to throw in my purse when I know we’re going to be out or to take on a flight or road trip (you know, when we used to do all of those things). Kids can make shapes or designs with them, or just twist them around. It’s another one of the toys that are helpful to pull out when the kids need something to help them calm down, or when you need them to stay occupied for a bit while you try to work from home.
And guess what? There are tons of sneaky learning activities you can do with Wikki stix too.
STEM/Building Toys to Keep Kids Busy
We love STEM toys in this house. Besides building their science, technology, engineering, and math skills, I’ve found that these toys also boost their creativity. So many of these toys are open-ended, meaning kids can build whatever they want and make their own inventions. They learn about physics when building structures. They build their problem solving skills and patience. It’s the open-ended nature of these toys that keeps kids busy for so long. And they’re wonderful for kids playing together, or even getting the whole family involved after work!
Magnetic blocks inspire creativity and build engineering skills as kids create their own buildings, cars, and whatever else inspires them. We have a few sets of these and they’re toys my kids keep coming back to. My older son can play with these for nearly an hour at a time, so it definitely scores high on this list of toys to keep kids busy. Also, my boys are happy playing together or independently, which really gives us a lot of bang for our buck.
This is about as classic as it gets for kids’ toys, and with good reason. Legos develop kids’ engineering skills and their imaginations. For younger children, stick with duplo size for safety and so they don’t get frustrated too quickly.
Starting around four, we began getting my older son kits for him to build. Lego City kits are perfect for his age. They come with clear instructions, which allows him to gain a lot of confidence by building all by himself or with minimal supervision. My son likes both the kits and loose legos for free-play.
If lego kits aren’t in the budget right now (they do add up quickly!), check out these building challenges from Little Bins from Little Hands to get even more mileage out of your Legos.
Here’s another classic that will get kids building and their engineering skills growing. Now, I have no mindset for building. But once you follow a few plans that come with the kit you get the hang of how to build different structures. And kids aren’t limited to building either. My kids thought the Lincoln logs looked like hot dogs so they raided the kitchen for pots and started serving them up! I don’t really get it, but if it keeps them happy and occupied while I work, I won’t question it!
My sister got these for the boys last year and they’ve been a big hit! They’re a bunch of thin sticks and balls with holes in them. The idea is that you build forts by inserting the sticks into the balls, and then you can throw a sheet or light blanket over your structure. Pretty cool, right?
But my kids have made them so much more. They’ve become sewing needles, batons, robotic arms, and I can’t even remember what else. This is what truly sells me on a toy – getting multiple uses out of it and developing their creativity. If you need some time to work from home, this toy will keep kids busy for quite some time.
Of all the toys the boys have received over the years, we’ve probably gotten the most mileage out of these. We splurged for the larger tub to give them more building options and it was totally worth it. I love seeing my kids be creative with a toy and this one certainly allows them to be creative. If you have a builder in your life, this one will certainly be a hit.
These dominoes aren’t for playing but for building! Develop your child’s fine motor control, patience, and spacial awareness skills by setting up intricate domino tracks. This is a fun activity for the whole family, just what you need when everyone is getting cabin fever and has been on screens for too long!
These are good for your younger builders. Kids as young as three and four can work the play screwdrivers and take apart and put back together these planes, trains, and cars. My six year old likes these too, but they’re definitely not as challenging for him as they are for my younger boy. That’s what makes this a great toy for quiet time or while you’re working from home. And in those super special moments, by older boy will help his younger brother (and I swoon :)).
Pattern Toys and Puzzles
Do you remember these from your elementary school classroom? I sure do! And I remember how much I liked to play with them. You can get tubs of the blocks or you can choose sets that come with puzzle cards. I personally like the ones with the puzzle cards to help guide play. Of course, they can always ditch the cards and make their own shapes and patterns!
And there are some super creative mamas out there that came up with their own pattern block puzzles! If you’re looking for designs in a specific theme to support home learning (I used these for our forest and trees unit), you can do a google search for pattern block printables.
This can be a tough one, but the bright colors and fun patterns make it an engaging toy for kids. My four year old needs help but my six year old can play more independently with this toy. Like most of these puzzles, it’s a good choice to give out when you’re about to hop on a call or need a few minutes of quiet concentration when working at home with kids.
Did you hear about the jigsaw puzzle shortage when the stay-at-home orders started back in March and April? I guess everyone had the same idea to do puzzles while they were stuck at home.
Puzzles are a wonderful activity for kids: hand-eye coordination, patience, fine motor skills, and problem solving are all developed while doing puzzles. And they can occupy kids for awhile, which gives you a chance to work!
Toddlers should start with peg board puzzles, while slightly older children should begin with twenty-four piece jigsaw puzzles. As they develop more confidence, you can increase the number of pieces. Just don’t rush it – a puzzle that’s too hard is only going to cause frustration and likely turn your child off from doing puzzles.
This is such a creative toy! It comes with a tin of colorful wooden shapes and another tin of cards that will show you how to make pictures using the shapes. Kids can follow the cards, or get creative and make their own designs. This is a great toy for quiet time or when you need your kids to be calm so you can get your work done!
Confession time: I don’t know how to play dominoes. So of course I’ve never taught my kids to play. But we still have a set of dominoes. We rented a beach house last summer and the house had a set of dominoes. My kids loved them. They stacked them, they scattered them about, the gathered them, they invented games with them….bottom line: they had a lot of fun with them. So I got my older son a small set for his birthday. He enjoys playing with them and I enjoy the fact that I can sneak in a fun game to develop his math skills!
Art Supplies to Keep Kids Busy
I saw the writing on the wall back in March and knew we would be shutting down. At that time, I thought we would be at home with the kids for a few weeks at most. Certainly not a few months! The weekend before the boys’ school closed I bought a massive craft kit, filled with pipe cleaners, pom poms, beads, and gems. We’ve definitely made use of it over the past few months. I’ve used it for crafts and for threading beads on pipe cleaners for a fine motor activity. When the kids start getting crabby and need to be redirected, I pull it out and let them do some free art instead of a directed craft. Allowing them to make whatever they want puts them back in control and having fun. Sometimes, it’s just the reset we all need.
Growing up, I always had those little plastic multipacks of watercolors. And that’s what my kids had until this spring. They only lasted for a few uses and the colors were pale and washed out.
These liquid water colors are nothing like that. They’re punchy and bright and just fun! They work well on paper, cardboard, and even ice!
If you’ve only used those cheap plastic solid watercolors, do yourself a favor and get yourself some liquid water colors.
Kids love markers. Dry erase markers are especially fun because you can use them on a different surface and erase them. Have a reluctant writer at home? Ditch the pencil and paper and bring out the dry eraser markers and dry erase board instead. Instantly writing becomes more fun and interesting!
Found some great worksheets you want to use over and over again (like tracing practice for pre-writers and tracing the alphabet for emerging writers)? Throw them in some sheet protectors and give your kids dry erase markers to use again and again.
A dry erase board and markers are also a good choice for longer car rides. They can write and draw to their heart’s content, and then do it all over again later!
You likely already have paint in your art supply box, but after being home for months, chances are you might need to replenish. Since the kids are likely to be home at some point during the fall (if they’re not starting remote) do yourself a favor and get the larger bottles rather than the small bottles. They cost less per ounce and you’ll have a lot less frustration by not running out so quickly.
Remember these from your childhood? Your kids will enjoy them as much as you did. Let your kids free draw, or incorporate some learning by having your kids practice their letters, shapes, or numbers. They’re handy to keep in the car too to keep kids occupied (and quiet!) on longer trips.
Why you Need These Toys to Keep Kids Busy
I chose these toys because they encourage independent play. We know from last spring how hard it is to juggle kids, remote learning, and working from home. These toys will engage children, get them off screens, and give you some time to get your work done. As busy working moms juggling way too much we need all of the toys and resources we can get to help keep our family lives running as smoothly as possible. Grab one or a few of these toys to keep kids busy and give yourself a few minutes of peace. Good luck, mom!