Social distancing can mean kids aren't getting as much physical exercise as they used to, but getting the kids outside to play or a walk is easier said than done for parents who are juggling working from home and other responsibilities. Add in the public health restrictions that may be in place where you live (something I know well as a parent currently living in Italy during the nationwide lockdown), and you've got a potent recipe for cabin fever.
For those times when your kids are climbing the walls, here are 20 ways to turn stressful moments into lightness and fun. A few tips:
The more laughter you can generate the better (without tickling—which can make children feel powerless). Laughter is a great tension release and also promotes endorphins, the body's feel-good hormone, so these games are a holistic way to make your child feel good both physically and emotionally.
Some of these games have a competitive element. The best way to play them is to let kids win! But put up a bit of resistance so they get to feel their own strength and power. Dealing with sibling struggles? Let the kids play against the adults, which helps them feel like a team again. Playing games can help build your children's confidence and let them feel a bit more control—a welcome message for kids who may still be trying to understand why so much has changed in their world.
Here are 20 tried-and-tested boredom busters for stressful moments with kids that have worked for our family during self-quarantine:
1. Pillow fights
Nothing beats a good old-fashioned pillow fight. Play on a large bed or with mattresses on the floor so everyone has a soft landing.
2. Adults-only sofa
Tell your children in a playful, inviting way that the sofa is adults only, no children allowed. Then let them fight and wrestle their way on. Act all playfully annoyed and get them off again, then repeat.
3. Push me off the sofa
Invite your children to test their strength by pushing you off the sofa.
4. Sock toss
Roll socks into balls and position two teams at opposite ends of the room. Try to throw socks into the 'goals' of each other's team. The winner is the one who gets the most socks to the other end.
5. Test your strength
One parent kneels on a bed. The child stands opposite. Both people stretch out their arms and put their hands palm to palm. Now it's a competition to see who can knock the other person over.
6. One-meter distance running
This can be a fun game to help process feelings about social distancing: Children run around a table or the couch (or in circles on the living room rug) trying to keep a 1-meter distance away from each other.
7. Stay in your house
A fun family game to play on a double bed: The pillows are the "houses" and children are playfully told they must stay "home" (on the pillows). When the children try to escape, the adult chases them and tries to bring them back home. Children love the fun of escaping and evading capture, and this game is also great for releasing any tensions or fears about self-isolation or lockdown.
8. Limit chase
If your child runs a mile when you tell them to tidy their room or lay the table, then here's a fun way to respond: Chase them, but let them escape. Keep bringing the limit in a light, playful way that lets them know it's a game. Chase them, and act playfully annoyed that they won't cooperate. You may find that after a while they are happy to end the game, and actually do the thing you've asked them to do.
9. Dogs on the sofa
Gather 5-7 plush toys for this game, in which the toys and children are the "dogs," and the adults are the "catchers." Everyone starts on the living room floor, and when the game begins the adult must catch as many of the dogs as they can and put them in "jail" (a chair). The sofa is the safe zone where they can't be caught, but the dogs must try to rescue the rest of their team from the chair.
Physical rough and tumble play not only helps to burn off excess energy, it's also great for building social skills and empathy. Children who are able to channel their aggression through positive physical play are less likely to be aggressive in real life. Follow your child's lead, or read The Art of Roughhousing by Lawrence J. Cohen and Anthony T. DeBenedet to brush up on your roughhousing moves.
11. My precious object
Take an old piece of clothing or a blanket (the sillier and more worn out the better—like a gym sock or a kitchen towel), and tell your child in a playful way that it's your most valued possession. Let them wrestle you to take it away, as you hold on tight but eventually let go.
More mellow games + ideas
12. Hide and seek
This traditional game can even provide you with a few moments of peace and alone time while counting and searching!
13. Treasure hunt
Draw pictures on small bits of paper and hide them around the house to make a trail for your child to follow. Leave something exciting at the end, like a new activity or toy to keep them entertained.
14. Animal charades
Everyone gets to act out an animal while other members of the family guess. Kids can get moving, in a fun way. This can also be played on video calls with friends or extended family members.
15. Blindfold leading
An adult puts on a blindfold and then is led around one part of your living space. When they have been led somewhere they have to guess where they are before removing the blindfold.
Our family's favorite yoga to do together is Cosmic Kids Yoga, lovely videos that incorporate yoga and stories for children. But even doing a few basic moves together, such as cat-cow stretches on hands and knees, or tree pose with hands reaching up to the sky while breathing deeply, can be surprisingly restorative.
17. Dance party
Turn on some tunes and get everybody dancing—find a silly song, a funky song, or even an opera station to encourage dramatic lip-syncing. Our family likes the app Just Dance (you can also find the videos on YouTube), where you dance along to songs and are scored on your moves.
18. Follow-my-lead roller coaster
One child or adult is the leader and everyone has to follow in a train behind with hands on waists of shoulders. Pretend to be a roller coaster with slow uphill inclines and then fast zooming downhills.
19. Step challenge
Use your smartwatch or an app like Stepz (for iPhone) or Step (for Android) to see how many steps your child can do in a day.
20. Conga line
Sometimes you just have to conga it out—come up with a funny song or chant to cha-cha to and conga in a line around the house.