Kids Stuck At Home? Here's How To Keep Them Busy And Grow Their Brains At The Same Time

Empty playground swings (Aaron Burden / Unsplash)

LA's public schools are closed, and dozens of other districts around the region have also shut their doors in response to the spread of coronavirus.

I went to the experts for some tips on activities that will keep your kids entertained and learning, and your nerves less frayed, hopefully.

First some words of encouragement.

"You don't necessarily require any sort of special tools or instruments or materials," said Dawn Kurtz, chief research officer at Child360, an L.A. non-profit related to early childhood education.

"There's a lot of things around the house and out in nature and the environment that parents can use to help build strong skills in their kids."

We asked experts to share ideas for activities for kids up to 5 years old, so younger children might need some extra help with a few of these.

"Above all, try to think about your time together as relationship-building instead of time-filling," said Eden Haywood-Bird, an assistant professor of early childhood studies at Cal Poly Pomona. "If your child isn't interested in an activity, don't force it."

Blowing bubbles. (Unsplash / Julie Laiymani @julielaiymani)

BLOW A BUBBLE MASTERPIECE

Supplies:

  • Bubble mixture (or make your own with one part dishwashing liquid to six parts water)
  • Food coloring
  • Large bowl
  • Straws
  • Paper

Pour bubble mixture and food coloring into the bowl so that it's about a quarter of the way full. Use the straw to blow air into the mixture - the way you might not want your kids to blow bubbles into milk. When the bubbles rise above the rim of the bowl, place a piece of paper on top and then lift off the paper carefully. Voila! A swirly colorful landscape appears on the page.

Haywood-Bird said you can expand the activity by asking kids to make predictions about what the bubble painting will look like or using the masterpiece as the background for another drawing you make together.

KNEAD UP SOME HOMEMADE PLAY DOUGH

Supplies:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup salt
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • ½-¾ cup of warm water
  • 4 drops of food coloring or two packets of Kool-Aid
  • Large bowl
  • Large spoon

Now to the fun part:

Pour the flour, salt and Kool-Aid or food coloring into a large bowl and mix. Add the vegetable oil and a half-cup of warm water. Stir until the color is evenly distributed and then use your hands to knead the dough. Add more water if the texture is too dry or crumbly.

Billy Truong, an adjunct instructor in child development at East and West Los Angeles Colleges, says this activity can help children learn numbers and measurement, basic chemistry and words for different colors and textures.

To help younger children practice their fine motor skills, stick some uncooked spaghetti on top of a big dough blob and encourage them to string Cheerios onto the pasta.

"Or keep it simple and get out the Play-Doh and let your child play." said Wayne State University Assistant Professor Lucy McGoron. "They will practice fine motor skills by pinching the Play-Doh."

LAUNDRY!

Colors, shapes, textures- oh my! (Mikenan1/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Supplies:

  • All those dirty socks.

"We hate to do it," said Kurtz, a developmental psychologist by training, "but if you think about it kids don't know that it's not fun."

She says showing kids how to sort clothes by type and color and counting are ways to teach basic math skills.

Even if children aren't capable of doing these tasks themselves, narrating your own actions will teach them new words and build their vocabulary.

My parents also used the promise of a "sock war" to entice me and my brother into folding socks. Once they were balled up, socks made the perfect projectile to launch across the living room.

GET DIGITAL

Several companies are offering online learning resources for free:

  • Scholastic Learn at Home - The children's publisher has activities and materials for kids pre-K to teens.
  • Mystery Science - The membership-based library of teaching resources is offering its most popular lessons for free.
  • Twinkl - Free lessons (think crafts, phonics, math science, etc.) for pre-K through 5th grade with code USATWINKLHELPS.
  • Finish this comic strip and drawing inspiration pages - Author/illustrator Jarrett Lerner gets kids started on their own masterpieces with these worksheets featuring chatty cats and crazy hats.
  • Khan Academy - The non-profit is hosting a free daily webinar for parents and created sample schedules for preschool through high school students in addition to existing educational resources in 40 languages.

You can find even more links on this Twitter thread:

DANCE PARTY

Supplies:

  • Music
  • Pep in your step

There are a bunch of reasons that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day - among the more science-y, exercise helps little bodies build strong bones and their ability to take in and use oxygen.

I fell down a kid-music rabbit hole while writing this story and did find myself jumping around the kitchen to this banger, "Hailing Taquitos." Sesame's Street Dancing Shoes Song would also be a great way to get the party started.

PUT THOSE DANCE MOVES IN A FILM

Supplies:

  • Smart phone, camera or tablet
  • Tunes
  • Hair brush microphone
  • Tripod (optional)

Maybe after the dance party warm-up it's time for a big screen premiere.

Set up a playlist of your kids' favorite jams, put your phone on a tripod and hit record. Pro tip: leaning your phone against a pile of books on the coffee table or other furniture also works!

Rocío López, who works at non-profit Common Sense Media, suggests using an app like Magisto to edit clips together in a music video. Older kids could also help out with the video editing.

"It builds kids' confidence to be artistic, and helps develop their language skills when they sing out loud," Lopez said.

Later in the day or week roll out the red carpet and stage a family movie premiere.

A SCAVENGER HUNT...FOR FEELINGS!

Supplies:

  • Children's picture books
  • Magnifying glass (optional)

Find pages in your kids' favorite books where a character is clearly showing some kind of feeling. Invite the child to use the magnifying glass, or their finger to point out the emotions they see and share their observations.

You can help frame the conversation with phrases like:

"I wonder what [the character] is feeling."

"I see some clues from her face. I wonder what you see."

"Let's look for other clues."

Jolie Delja is research coordinator for an early childhood professional development program at UCLA and recommended the activity because it helps grow a child's literacy skills and teaches them how to understand and regulate their emotions. There's an explanation of the activity in English and español here and in a fun bookmark form you can print at home.

PUTTING AWAY TOYS? TIRED. CLEANING TOYS? WIRED.

Supplies:

  • Objects that can survive a dunking
  • A bucket
  • Soapy water
  • Brushes and sponges

"Anything that involves a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush or sponges is often quite engaging," said Elizabeth Criswell, early childhood curriculum coordinator at the University of Minnesota

She says washing toys can help give kids a sense of responsibility and develop sensory and motor skills that help kids learn how their body feels and moves in space.

WHAT ABOUT THE TV?

"Research shows just watching TV with your child makes it more beneficial than if they just watch it alone," McGoron said. "Ask your child questions about the story to keep them engaged."

She recommends PBS Kids shows. LAist's own associate editor Lisa Brenner is a fan of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

In the event of a Los Angeles Unified School District shutdown, PBS SoCal, and KCET will team up with the district to provide educational programming to students, including kids in transitional kindergarten.

AMID UNCERTAINTY, CREATE A ROUTINE

This isn't so much an activity as general advice. Several experts I talked to suggested establishing a routine as much as possible.

"This will help make an 'out of the ordinary' process feel a bit more predictable and thus more manageable for young children," Criswell said.

Have a great idea? Email me and we'll consider expanding the list.

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