Paint with old socks. Or the chopsticks from last night’s takeout. Or any offbeat things besides brushes, says Erica Young, an early-childhood educator, a mother of two, and a coeditor of motherburg.com. “I roll some butcher paper over a table, squirt a bunch of blobs of paint on it, and let them use their hands, of course, but other weird items, too. Let them drive toy cars through the colors,” says Young.
Decorate old or inexpensive furniture. “This summer I plan to let my kids, ages four and six, each paint the wooden chair they sit in at the dinner table. I got them at a garage sale years ago. Why not let the kids personalize them?” says Young.
Make marbleized paper. “This uses shaving cream, and kids love it because it’s so kinesthetic and messy,” says Karen Kimmel, a cofounder of Crafting Community, a series of family design workshops in the Los Angeles area. How to: Spread shaving cream onto a flat surface (a cutting board works), dot it with a few different colors of liquid watercolor (sold at craft stores—and usually washable), then swirl with a stick. Press a piece of card stock onto the marbleized design, then lift. Scrape off the excess shaving cream with a shower squeegee or a piece of stiff cardboard. Let dry. Go bananas with the remaining shaving cream.
Create felt worlds. Cover a foam board with felt (a hot-glue gun works best, says Kimmel), then cut out shapes, animals, miscellaneous blobs, letters, trees.… “Young kids love making compositions and scenes, and the possibilities are really endless,” says Kimmel.
Construct fairy houses. They’re popular, and they cost nothing. “Start by finding the right spot—nestled against a tree usually works great—then use pinecones, pebbles, twigs, bark, and leaves to build a tiny house,” says Marcie Cuff, the author of This Book Was a Tree. “There really are no rules. Just think small. ”
Go hunting with an empty egg carton. Send kids out to find a dozen interesting objects, one for each divot. Even better: Give each child a magnifying glass, a bag of trail mix, and a water bottle, explorer-style, says Cuff.
Set aside a dirt patch. If you have an underused spot in your yard, let it be a free-to-dig plot for the kids. “We have a small spot outside the kitchen window where the kids have full rein to get their hands dirty,” says Cuff. Leave shovels nearby. Bury “gems” (craft-store beads or other shiny items) for them to uncover.
Fill sensory bins. This is ideal for toddlers. Fill a plastic bin with beans or rice, and throw in scoopers and small bowls. Or use cotton balls and plastic tongs. “Many little kids will pour and scoop for ages,” says Young. A water bin with ducks and boats also works on a hot day.
Big Group Ideas
Play fly-swatter volleyball. This works well if you have a mixed-age crew, says Bobbi Conner, author of The Giant Book of Creativity for Kids: “Buy a bunch of plastic fly swatters, and blow up a bunch of balloons. Little ones might just swat. Big kids can hit back and forth or tap, tap, tap to see how many times they can do it before the balloon hits the ground. I promise you—this is a winner every single time.”
Trade off for outings. “I coordinate with two other moms—seven boys total!—and we take turns hosting the kids,” says Leigh Oshirak, a coauthor of Balance Is a Crock, Sleep Is for the Weak. “Nerf wars are very popular, or we take hikes. Everyone tends to complain at the thought of it, and then you see a hawk, a deer, or something cool, or you climb a rock. By the time the two-hour hike is over, the kids are exhilarated.” (Plus, they’re exhausted.) You can host field-day type activities with old-school games—capture the flag, sharks and minnows—or hand out walkie-talkies and send them on a scavenger hunt.
Draw a city. Roll butcher paper down a hallway and allow kids to design a metropolis—with roads, buildings, lakes, and amusement parks. Toy cars and trucks can follow the paths.
Set up a secret hideout, whether it’s an elaborate fort or a sheet draped over the dining-room chairs. “We created an under-the-basement-stairs hideaway, complete with a mail slot for sending messages—perfection on rainy days,” says Cuff. Or try a bubble tent with a duvet cover. Place an empty duvet cover on the floor and button or close up the open end, leaving space to put a small fan that blows in, to puff up the cover into a domelike tent.
Buy grown-up coloring books. Toddlers will be happy with the dollar-store variety, but older kids can get into intricate coloring books aimed at adults, like Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden or Enchanted Forest (sold at bookstores).
Take things apart. “Kids love figuring out how things tick. We’re big fans of broken alarm clocks, discarded doorknobs, old wind-up toys, disabled rotary phones,” says Cuff. “We disassemble them and investigate.” Take notes on what each part might do, try to reassemble the thing, or create something new out of the spare parts. Bonus: Searching the attic for stuff to dismantle might take hours.