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Entertaining preschoolers at home all day is no small feat. And when there is a global pandemic happening, it’s even more challenging. You are trying to manage your own emotions, stress, and anxiety — on top of everyone else’s. (Read this post if you want to learn how to stop feeling overwhelmed.) It’s an impossible situation for a LOT of people right now. So start off by giving yourself a little compassion. And then read on for some amazing ways to entertain preschoolers at home.
As you know, preschoolers have teeeeeeeeny tiny attention spans. What keeps them occupied one day will bore them to death the next. You have to Keep. It. Fresh.
I’m going to share some specific ideas for how to entertain your preschoolers, but I’m going to set it up by giving you 7 core concepts of preschool-play so that you can take your own personal situation and customize just the right activity for your own little human. Because one size does not fit all when it comes to kids. (And these concepts will be helpful once we get through these tough times, too!)
1. Use their favorite show, book, or other experience as inspiration for an activity.
It’s easy to forget that young children simply haven’t been around on the planet that long. When we make activity suggestions to them, they sometimes just don’t know how to put into action what we suggest. So they refuse our offer — but not because they wouldn’t like it.
So you need to find something they can relate to or have seen in action. How can you take a TV show they like or a favorite book and make it into an activity? (i.e. a picnic they saw on Daniel Tiger or an art project done on Creative Galaxy.)
Real-Life Example: Primitive building in the yard
My 4-year-old was enthralled by the Primitive Technology YouTube channel a couple of weeks ago. This guy in the videos makes his own tools, builds shelters, and essentially survives in the wild with things he’s made from only what’s around him in nature.
So one day as I scrambled for a new activity to entertain my preschoolers at home, I remembered the channel and decided to get him going with his own primitive building. I gave him and his little brother a bucket and told them to gather materials for our primitive site, “like the guy in the videos!” He got incredibly excited, and gathering leaves, sticks, and flowers suddenly had a purpose. Then they spent the whole morning building their own “primitive site” — preschool-style.
• Be butterflies. Use colorful scarves and have your kids transform into the butterfly from The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (My 2- and 4-year-olds ran around the house endlessly, being “butterflies.”)
• Be superheroes. Use construction paper or a paper plate to make masks. (Help them cut out holes for eyes.) Use elastic or yarn to make a strap around their head, or attach the mask to a popsicle stick for them to hold up to their face. Use a scarf or towel as a cape. I don’t know where my kids first discovered the idea of “superheroes” but it has caught on like WILDFIRE.
• Play with a box. Maybe You Should Fly a Jet, Maybe You Should Be a Vet is one of my favorite books (and a favorite of my 4-year-old). The first line of the book reads: “Want to be a ticket taker?” I took this line and ran with it one day. We had a giant cardboard box available, and we decided to make a ticket booth! The boys decorated it with crayons. Then I set it up vertically, cut out a window and a “ticket slot”. Out of that extra cardboard I cut about 10 “tickets”. Nothing fancy. They spent hours taking turns being the ticket taker. Magic.
2. Ask Vs. Tell.
There are two general ways I engage and entertain my preschoolers at home. I either ask them a question that leads them to choose a play scenario, or I confidently take command with “this is what we are going to do.”
First approach: Ask, don’t tell. I ask a question to interest and engage them, and then I guide with a suggestion so that it becomes their idea.
Real-life Example: Lava bridge
My kids have somehow become obsessed with lava. (They run around shouting about it often.) So I take what they are obsessed about (because they are already excited about it) and create an activity from it. “The playroom floor has turned to lava! But the couch across the room is safe! How can you get over there to the couch? Do you think we could build a bridge?” The question approach leads them to get creative in solving the problem. In my scenario, my boys started to grab books off their shelf and laid them across the room like stepping stones to get to “safety” on the couch. It kept them busy for a long time.
Customize it for your kid:
What do your kids talk about a lot? If you want to entertain your preschoolers at home, start with something that already entertains them. (Side note: If your kid is like mine and talks about poop a lot, maybe choose something else.) Do they like fairies? Maybe you could ask them: “I wonder how we could make a fairy house in the backyard? What do you think their house would be made of — leaves, flowers, sticks?”
Second approach: Tell, don’t ask. With this approach, I tell my kids what we’re doing in a very confident way. I make it seem very important, and they jump in and follow along because I clearly seem very invested in the project.
Real-life Example: Yarn art in the backyard
I had a bag of knitting yarn in the garage for months. I read in a (very optimistic) toddler activity book this idea to decorate trees by wrapping yarn around it. So I grabbed the bag, took the boys outside, and said very decisively, “We are going to decorate this tree! I’ll show you how.” We started with the tree wrapping, and my 4-year-old went with it because of my confident yarn-art leadership. My toddler was NOT interested in following my rules, but he was intrigued by the potential of the yarn.
Now the tree-wrapping was fun, but the magic really happened when I simply let them launch the yarn balls off the back deck and wrap them endlessly around their outside toys. (This sparked another crucial lesson: When you are figuring out how to entertain your preschoolers at home, sometimes you get a good idea. And sometimes your kid takes that idea in a completely different direction. If it’s safe, be prepared to go with it!)
3. Make anything into an adventure or game.
When you take a normal, routine activity and turn it into an adventure or a game, it suddenly becomes exciting and very often much more engaging for kids. This is helpful when you need to get household stuff done and your kids seem to be stuck to you like glue.
Real-life Example: Vacuum game
When I need to vacuum, it is always, ALWAYS an adventure/game. In each room, I get the boys to help pick everything off the rug by saying, “Hurry, we have to get everything off the rug before the vacuum monster comes!” The beauty of engaging young children is that your reasoning doesn’t have to make perfect sense.
Sometimes I use, “Whoever can get the most toys picked up can help me vacuum this room.” They both like to help hold the vacuum so this is a great incentive. And then, when it comes time to vacuum, either they are helping me push it or they scramble onto the nearest couch or chair as the “vacuum monster” comes through.
• Clean up game. Whoever picks up the most toys while you clean up before bathtime gets to choose what color the bath will be. (We use these Color My Bath tablets.) Obviously, if they are actively helping, you can make sure they “win.” I love the idea that I can entertain preschoolers at home and also teach them some valuable life skills!
• Make an adventure trail in your yard. (We do little hikes on our neighborhood trail a lot, so this is something familiar to them, which we simply brought into our own space.) Get the kids to collect large branches and sticks, and then lay them in a path around the yard. It doesn’t have to be big or extravagant.
• Play “don’t wake the monster.” My kids are obsessed with monsters and dragons. We do the plain ole monster game quite often, where one person is the monster and rest run and hide. Rinse, repeat. But sometimes we switch it up so that we try to not wake the monster and therefore do everything really quietly. (I like this game MOST for this reason.) We whisper, tiptoe, and sneak around. It’s quite lovely.
4. Rotate toys and do certain activities only once a week. (Create DEMAND for the activity.)
How do you build a high demand for something good? You make it scarce. Rare. Special.
Now more than ever I am seeing the value of toy rotation and keeping certain activities put aside for certain times. Young kids tend to get bored with the same activity or toy, and I notice that when our play areas (or let’s face it, any area of the house except the play area) gets messy with toys scattered everywhere, the kids no longer SEE any of it and don’t want to play with it.
So I like to put about half of their toys away in a closet and then switch them out every couple of weeks. It keeps things fresh and makes the old toys feel new again.
I also have certain items out of reach like playdough, bubbles, art supplies, sidewalk chalk, and certain puzzles. I break out those activities about once a week for a set time (some of them specifically because they need some amount of supervision). When they are brought out, it’s special and keeps their attention.
5. Involve them in everyday activities “grownup activities” (housework, cooking, checking the mail, etc.).
Prerequisite: LET GO of expectation for perfection or actual cleanliness. If you want to entertain preschoolers at home, you will have to be willing to welcome a mess.
Kids like doing things that you do. They like to pretend. That’s why play kitchens and play tool benches are so popular. I had a chalkboard as a kid to play “teacher,” and I even pretended that I worked for my dad’s electrical supply company. He would give me copies of blank invoices to write on, and I thought it was THE BEST. Go figure.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before: Cook together. Get ready for a mess. Expect spills. Either lay down an old sheet or floor covering, or be prepared to sweep (which you can also get them to help with).
If they are toddlers, you could also get them confined (learning tower or booster seat) so they aren’t free to run through the house with chocolate hands or covered in flour. Let them stir or pour or whatever they are capable of. Maybe give them a separate bowl and spoon, and let them think they are helping as you prepare the actual thing separately. When they make the mess that you know they are going to make, engage them in helping you clean it up.
• Let them wipe things down. Hand them wet cloths and have them help you wipe cabinets or spills. I’m actually surprised at how well my boys respond when I give them a cloth and ask them to clean up their own spill. I had my 4-year-old help me clean up the bathroom floor the other day when he peed all over it. It was meant to be a consequence. (“Since you didn’t pee in the potty, you will have to help clean up the mess.”) But as we both squatted on the floor wiping it up together, he said, “I like helping you clean, mom.” I was floored. Pun definitely intended.
• Turn “getting dressed” into a playtime activity. I don’t have dress-up clothes per se. But I do have a drawer of scarves, hats, and gloves that I never wear since moving to the South. They have a blast going through the drawer to layer on the items.
• Involve them in doing laundry, any way you can. I have them go with me from room to room, adding dirty laundry to the basket. They love to push the basket down the hall to the laundry room. They help me toss things in the wash, and when the wash is done, I hand them wet clothes so they can put them in the dryer.
6. Try new toys.
Let’s face it. Sometimes you will be exhausted. Sometimes you will run out of patience and get frustrated easily. When thinking of new creative activities just feels like too much effort, you might decide that you simply want new toy ideas that will entertain your preschooler at home. And while our kids are very capable of a lot of creativity with a pile of rocks and a bowl, they can also be excited by the novelty of a new toy. So here are some of my favorite toys for preschool-aged kids. (These are toys my 2- and 4-year-olds actually use and get a lot of mileage out of.)
Superhero capes and masks (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Cardboard building blocks (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Playdough (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Sidewalk chalk (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Kinetic sand (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Water table (Buy it now on Amazon or make your own with PVC pipe.)
Lincoln logs (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Duplo Legos (Buy it now on Amazon.)
Racetrack with battery-powered cars (Buy it now on Amazon.)
7. Do a regular activity — in a new location (or with new rules).
Sometimes the same toy in a new location can feel the same to a kid as buying a brand new toy. Entertain your preschoolers at home with a little relocation!
• Take a toy outside that’s usually inside. My older son keeps his building toys in his room for solo playtime because my younger son consistently knocks down whatever is being built. Every once in awhile we take outside a set of building toys that hasn’t gotten much love recently. They suddenly seem interesting again. When we took the tinker toys to the back deck the other day, both boys were engaged in building — a rare feat!
• Make snack time into an activity in a new location. We made snack time into a boat picnic last week, with an appetizer-style spread. I filled a muffin tin with various snacks (blueberries, dried apples, cashews, raisins, turkey jerky, and goldfish) and laid out an old sheet in the grass. The sheet was our boat, and the boys actually ate some of the snacks that they don’t normally eat, which was an unexpected bonus.
• Do bathtime during the day instead of at night. If your kids like playing in the bath, why not make it a playtime activity that will keep them busy earlier in the day? Break out the bubbles and bath toys and let them splash until they wrinkle.
• Add a simple new element to a familiar toy. In addition to taking an old toy outside, you can also add another variable. Last week, I took my son’s Little People, their cars, and their house onto the driveway, brought out the sidewalk chalk and drew some roads. Suddenly, that set of toys was brand new. My son even decided to grab the chalk and add his own roads.
No matter what you do…. Relax your standards!
Sometimes none of these ideas will work. Some days you won’t have the energy to even try. We have more being asked of us than is humanly possible to give. So please give yourself some compassion and grace, mama.
If you simply can’t muster up enthusiasm for a new activity, try some virtual entertainment or find a new TV show that your little one will love. If you want to entertain preschoolers at home all day, screens can definitely be a part of the mix. Let go of perfection. Your child will be okay. You love the little squirt (or squirts) and you are doing your best to help everyone survive. That’s what matters.
What activity keeps your preschooler the most engaged? Share it in the comments below! Then spread the love by sharing this post on your social media! 🙂