Indoor activities for families with young kids

Posted on February 20, 2019 at 6:00 am

By Abra Cole

If you’re feeling like the parent of Ralphie from the movie A Christmas Story every time you try to get yourself and your kids bundled up to go outside, know that you are not alone.

When the temperatures drop into (or below) the 20s, my family doesn’t spend as much time outdoors as we’d like. As a result, we have built up a sizable collection of indoor activities to fill the chilly days.

Here are 12 ideas for indoor play activities that are tried and true at our house—occupying little ones’ imaginations for hours!


Take a cup or so of uncooked rice and dump it into a cookie sheet. Next, take a few matchbox cars or trucks and you’ve created imagination extravaganza. Bulldozers or dump trucks are among the more successful vehicles, but regular cars and buses work too!

Recently my son has discovered the advantages of creating rice ramps up the sides of the cookie sheet so his vehicle of choice can drive up it and careen over the side of the cookie sheet onto the table top, scattering rice kernels with it.

When the rice does inevitably hit the deck, it can be quite the process to clean up white rice from a white-tiled kitchen floor. But that leads into my next indoor activity to do with your kids!


My little helper has his own toddler-sized broom and dustpan but prefers to use the adult-sized one. When he’s finished working on his construction site of uncooked rice, we get out the brooms, and sweep up.

He’s great at moving the kitchen chairs out of the way and has even almost mastered the balancing act of holding the full dustpan level while opening the cabinet door under the sink to dump it into the trash can.


Pom-poms come in all sizes from teeny tiny to gigantic and in any color, sparkle, and length. You can find large quantities of pom-poms at craft stores, most large box stores, and large online retailers.

Once you’ve made the initial purchase, these pom-poms can be used an endless number of times. Throw them into a large storage bin with a few (clean!) sand toys—buckets, shovels, pots, pans, etc.—and turn the kids loose!

Kids can experiment with scooping, transferring, dumping, and so much more. For slightly older kids, add large tweezers to create a challenge that helps increase fine motor skills. Clean up is simple and can be a fun game, too.


This one can get a little messy. But with some basic ground rules, you’ll soon have so much art you won’t know what to do with it.

First, tape butcher paper or a plastic tablecloth down to the table. Be sure to use a thicker construction paper or card stock for the actual art pieces. Inexpensive finger paints or other non-toxic paints are best. I usually pour a small amount of a chosen color into an aluminum foil bread pan, and my budding artist takes it from there.

My little artist starts with a single finger full of paint, then more fingers, and finishes with turning the pan upside down over his canvas, watching the paint ooze slowly down onto the surface. I suggest having your camera at the ready!


Also known as… anything can be a paintbrush!

We experiment a lot at our house. We enjoy seeing what works, what doesn’t, and what makes mom go a little crazy.

Cotton ball painting is one that works. Taking the same painting set up as finger painting, you can add a few things from around the house (that you don’t mind getting paint on) to use as “brushes.”

We’ve used whatever we could think of, including a paintbrush (of course), a foam brush, cotton balls, Q-tips, potatoes (ours were still too damp at the time we tried), tape, the eraser end of a pencil, and rice.

We have still yet to try some fun ideas like matchbox cars, balloons, glue, feathers, or old mittens and socks.


Whether make your own “dough” or purchase some at the store, this is a welcome activity for most kids. Kids can use tools from the kitchen and around the house to experiment with patterns, create towns, or even design unique clothing pieces.

Many of the tools we use as paintbrushes can also work as clay tools. This is also a discovery activity: What kind of pattern does a mitten make when you press it into the clay surface? How about when you stab a lump of clay with the base of a feather (or other similar item)? Who knows?!

That’s the beauty of open-ended play. Kids get to discover new things.


Tape on the floor is a great open-ended activity. The best tape for this is the blue painters tape because it pulls up easily when you’re finished playing.

Consider taping out roads for cars or boxes for sorting different objects.

At the library, we’ve even created an indoor “hike” for storytime, complete with rocks to leap from, a lake to swim through, and a fork in the path to loop us back through it all again!

This activity can also be used to work on balancing skills by taping down a simple line and taking turns “walking the beam” or creating hopscotch squares!


I like to bake. When I do, my little overlord helps out by climbing up onto his stepping stool to play with flour on the counter next to me. Usually he brings a car or truck along with him, but he also enjoys using his hands and fingers to make tracks in the flour and lifting and “sifting” it in between his fingers. He is happy playing with flour for hours.

On some weekends, the cleanup is pretty straight forward. On others, this activity results in most of the flour on the floor. And, as I mentioned before, I have a helper for cleanup (most of the time).


Are you familiar with the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?

Well, if you give my son any kind of arguably messy activity to do, he will want to clean his hands when he’s done. And when he gets to the sink, he’ll want to use bubbles… and toys… and sometimes trucks.

Whenever possible, I make sure the kitchen sink is clear of dirty dishes before we start a messy activity. This way he is able to continue his free play while simultaneously cleaning himself up. It’s a win-win!

He uses unbreakable dishware and spoons or serving utensils to play to his heart’s content in the water.

Yes, we have had the all too familiar conversation about keeping the water in the sink, but overall it is so much fun listening to the conversations he has with himself, the water, and whatever else is around.


Magnets are so much fun for any age. They are versatile and adaptable play objects, suited to any home.

At our house, we have baseboard heaters that sometimes serve as storyboards. We also use cookie sheets and the fridge.

I invite you to experiment! Go around your house with your kids, testing to see what things are magnetic and which aren’t.

It is important to use magnets large enough that they don’t present a choking hazard and to keep a close eye on your little ones while playing with magnets.

That being said, kids love magnets, and they enjoy seeing what they can and cannot do. There are several kid-safe magnets you can buy that should last for many years of play. The sets we use at the library receive all kinds of rough treatment—and they’re still going strong!


Jim Gill’s “Silly Dance Contest” on YouTube is a fun place to start, although any type of music can be used to start a dance party in the living room.

If you can obtain an inexpensive CD player that your kids can operate themselves, then they will have the ability to control the dance environment. This ability to feel in control is so important to development! Being able to switch a CD, skip ahead to a favorite song, or adjust the volume can give kids a real sense of independence and self-confidence. Give them control whenever you can.

I have it on good authority that the Library District has a respectable selection of music CDs for all such dance party occasions. 


Also known as… the loose parts bin (at my house)!

Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, authors of Loose Parts and Loose Parts 2, offer a myriad of ideas to use materials most of us already have or can easily obtain. I like to have some of these types of things around the house for my almost three year old to play with whenever the inspiration hits him.

We keep toilet paper rolls that have become everything from tunnels for cars to eyeglasses.

We have scarves that I picked up at a garage sale last summer. We have used them as headwear and rugs and for hiding places and throwing games.

Really, this is a fun game of whatever. Bits of yarn? Great. A lone sock or mitten? Perfect! Old CDs, wooden spoons, large beads, old phones? Really, everything could work here.

More thoughts & books

It can be challenging to keep little minds and hands occupied indoors when they’d rather be playing outdoors.

Wait, what am I saying? It can be challenging to keep my own mind occupied when I’d rather be playing outdoors!

These ideas have all been vetted by my own busy little one, and we both hope that you’ll be able to make use of some of them to keep the cabin fever at bay.

If you’re looking for further inspiration, here are some great resources I have been reading:

Abra Cole

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