Menu

20 old-school ways to keep kids busy without screen time

Encouraging independent playtime just got a lot easier.

how to keep kids busy

If you want to cut down on screen time for your kids, but you also need to get stuff done—or just take a few minutes for yourself—it can be hard to think of fun ways to keep kids engaged and busy. This list of 20 tech-free ways to entertain your preschooler or toddler may take a bit more energy or advance planning than just handing your child your phone (which is totally okay too, mama!), but encouraging your child to do something constructive is worth the extra effort.


Here are 20 old-school and fun activities to keep kids busy:

1. Create a game box.

Fill a box with things your child can play with alone—items like coloring books, playing cards, or easy puzzles. When you need to keep your kids busy, give them the box. While your child might resist a bit at first, but the more you do it, the more they'll accept “game box time" as part of their routine.

2. Have them make their own cartoon.

Instead of watching cartoons, have your children make their own. Give them a piece of paper and some crayons, and ask them to draw you a hero and a bad guy. When they're done, let them come back and tell you their hero's story.

3. Let them help you.

If you're cooking or cleaning, let them assist you. Give them a job they can handle. For young kids, that might be stringing beans or setting the table. For older kids, that might be slicing vegetables, sweeping the house or taking out the recycling.

4. Give them an important task.

Give your child a task, and make it a really big deal. Tell them they need to draw a picture for daddy, or that they need to make a block fort for Grandma. If they think it's an important job, they won't complain about working on it independently.

5. Create an idea box.

Brainstorm ideas with your children about what they can do to overcome boredom. Write down their suggestions, and put them in an empty box. Then, the next time they're bored, have them pick out one of their own suggestions. Given that it was their idea, they'll be more willing to actually do it.

6. Offer creative toys.

Any toy that lets a child create is sure to keep them distracted for a long time. Invest in Legos, puzzles, and Play-Dough. Not only will your child be able to play with them for hours, but they'll build up their spatial reasoning, too.

From the Shop

Keep them entertained with super fun (and educational) toys they'll love for years.

7. Design a treasure hunt.

Hide something like a coin or a sticker somewhere in the house. Give your kids a clue, and let them run wild trying to find it. If you make it a bit tricky to find, you'll build up their resilience—and their ability to find things without begging for your help.

8. Encourage outdoor play.

Don't forget how your parents kept you busy. Just give your child a ball and a stick, and let them run wild. If you're worried about their safety, just keep them in sight. They'll be fine.

9. Host a play date.

Work out a deal with another parent in your neighborhood. When you need some time, send your kid over to play with their kid. To be fair, you'll have to let them send their kid over sometimes, too. When two kids play together, they keep themselves distracted.

10. Build a fort.

Give your child a few pillows and a blanket, and challenge them to turn the couch into a fort. No child will turn down the chance to make a secret base—and they'll be much more likely to play independently once they're inside.

11. Make a sculpture.

Give your child a few pipe cleaners and a piece of Styrofoam—or really any child-friendly item you have on hand—and ask them to make a sculpture. Anything will do, but favorite heroes are a winning suggestion.

12. Listen to an audiobook.

If your child's too young to read independently, pick up audio versions of their favorite books. Let them sit down and turn the pages while listening to a friendly voice read to them. Or, if you can't find a recording, use your phone to make one yourself.

13. Play with locks + bolts.

Hand your child a lock and a key or a nut and bolt and let them play with it. Young kids, especially, will be mesmerized by the act of unlocking something—and they'll develop their motor skills while they're at it. Give them a mixed bag, and see if they can figure out which lock goes with which key.

14. Have messy mixing time.

Set up a big tarp on the floor, and give your child some bowls and things from the kitchen they can mix together. Let them go wild. Your child will be so excited that they get to be messy indoors that they'll be willing to play without your constant attention.

15. Play verbal games.

Take turns naming an animal for each letter of the alphabet, or play 20 Questions. You can cook, clean, and get ready while quizzing your child.

16. Create a scavenger hunt.

You don't need to make a whole list—just say, “Find me something that starts with the letter B," and let them run around the house searching. To keep your kids motivated, you might reward them by letting them choose a dish for dinner once they've found 10 things.

17. Grow a garden.

Give your child a small plant to care for. Maybe they can grow an herb garden or a few flowers on the windowsill. Have them water their plant each day and when you need a few moments, ask them to check on it. They'll be immersed in their work.

18. Suggest a science experiment.

Let your kids discover the world. Teach or show them something about an object or their surroundings and let them explore it. That might mean giving them a magnet and telling them to see what sticks, or giving them a bowl of water and prompting them to see what will float and what will sink.

19. Give new tools to explore.

Handing a child a new tool can keep them occupied for a pretty long time. Give your kids a flashlight, a combination lock or a magnifying glass, and let them figure out how it works for themselves.

Also, try giving your child a digital camera. They'll stay distracted making selfies and videos long enough for you to get something done. Afterward, you'll get to see what the world looks like through your child's eyes.

20. Give them chores.

This isn't a popular option, but can be good for them. If you're going to clean the kitchen, have your children clean their rooms. Not only will you get time to actually do your job, but your kids will learn that they have a role in keeping the house clean, too.

Keeping little ones occupied is tough, but trying new activities for kids will get them used to playing independently.

You might also like:

    True

    In This Article

    An expectant mama's to-do list can feel endless… but here's the good news: A lot of those tasks are actually really exciting. Planning your baby registry is especially thrilling: You get a say in what gifts friends and family members will buy for your new addition!

    But it can also feel a bit overwhelming to make sense of all the gear on the market. That's why we suggest mentally dividing your registry into two categories: items you need to prepare for your baby's arrival and items that sure would be nice to have.

    Here at Motherly, our editors have dozens of kids and years of parenting experience among us, so we know our way around the essentials. We also know how mama-friendly the registry-building experience is with Target, especially thanks to their recently upgraded registry and introduction of Year of Benefits. Just by creating your baby registry with Target, you'll snag a kit with $120 in discounts and samples. The savings keep coming: You'll also get two 15% off coupons to buy unpurchased items from your registry for up to a year after your baby's expected arrival. Change your mind about anything? The Year of Benefits allows for returns or exchanges for a full year. And as of August 2020, those who also sign up for Target Circle when creating a baby registry will also get the retailer's Year of Exclusive Deals, which includes ongoing discounts on baby essentials for a full year.

    Here are 10 items we agree deserve a spot in the "need" category on your registry, mama.


    A crib to grow with your baby

    Delta Children Farmhouse 6-in-1 Convertible Crib

    First-time mamas are likely creating nursery spaces for the first time, and that can get expensive. Adding a quality crib to Target registry gives friends and family members the option to join forces to make a large purchase through group gifting.

    $269.99

    A safe + convenient car seat

    Safety 1st OnBoard 35 LT Infant Car Seat

    The list of non-negotiable baby essentials is pretty short, but it definitely includes a car seat. In fact, most hospitals will not allow you to leave after delivery until a car seat check is performed. We recommend an infant seat, which can easily snap into a base in your car.

    $99.99

    A traveling nursery station

    Baby Trend Lil Snooze Deluxe II Nursery Center

    It's hard to beat a good playard when it comes to longevity. This item can be baby's sleeping place when they're sharing a room with you for the first months. Down the line, it can function as a roving diaper change station. And when you travel, it makes a great safe space for your little one to sleep and play.

    $99.99

    A swing for some backup help

    4moms mamaRoo 4 Bluetooth Enabled High-Tech Baby Swing - Classic

    A dependable swing can be a real lifesaver for new parents when they need their hands free (or just a minute to themselves). Because many babies are opinionated about these things, we appreciate that the mamaRoo has multiple modes of motion and soothing sounds.

    $219.99

    An easy-to-clean high chair

    Ingenuity SmartClean Trio Elite 3-in-1 High Chair - Slate

    Our best registry advice? Think ahead. It really won't be long before your child is ready for those first bites of solid food, at which point you'll need a high chair. We like one that transitions to a booster seat atop an existing dining room chair.

    $99.99

    A diaper bag to share

    Eddie Bauer Backpack - Gray/Tan

    When you're a mom, you're usually toting diapers, wipes, clothing changes, bottles, snacks, toys and more. You need a great bag to stash it all, and if you're anything like us, you'll choose a backpack style for comfort and functionality. Bonus: This gender neutral option can easily be passed off to your partner.

    $64.99

    A hygienic spot for all those diaper changes

    Munchkin Secure Grip Waterproof Diaper Changing Pad 16X31"

    We can confidently predict there will be a lot of diaper changes in your future. Do yourself a favor by registering for two comfortable, wipeable changing pads: one to keep in the nursery and another to stash elsewhere in your house.

    $29.99

    A way to keep an eye on your baby at night

    Infant Optics Video Baby Monitor DXR-8

    Feeling peace of mind while your baby sleeps in another room truly is priceless.That's why we advocate for a quality video monitor that will allow you to keep tabs on your snoozing sweetheart.

    $165.99

    A comfortable carrier to free up your hands

    Petunia Pickle Bottom for Moby Wrap Baby Carrier, Strolling in Salvador

    A wrap carrier may be about as low-tech as baby items come, but trust us, this product stands the test of time. Great for use around the house or while running errands, this is one item you'll appreciate so much.

    $39.99

    A full set of bottles + cleaning supplies

    Dr. Brown's Options+ Complete Baby Bottle Gift Set

    Whether you plan to work in an office or stay at home, breastfeed or formula feed, bottles are a valuable tool. To make your life as simple as possible, it's nice to have an easy-to-clean set that is designed to work through the first year.

    $39.99

    Target's baby registry is easy to create from the comfort of your own home. Start your Target baby registry now and enjoy shopping with the Year of Benefits featuring exclusive deals available via Target Circle, two 15% off coupons, a year of hassle-free returns, a free welcome kit and more!

    This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


    Our Partners

    Sorry, you can’t meet our baby yet

    Thank you for understanding. ❤️

    In just over three weeks, we will become parents. From then on, our hearts will live outside of our bodies. We will finally understand what everyone tells you about bringing a child into the world.

    Lately, the range of emotions and hormones has left me feeling nothing short of my new favorite mom word, "hormotional." I'm sure that's normal though, and something most people start to feel as everything suddenly becomes real.

    Our bags are mostly packed, diaper bag ready, and birth plan in place. Now it's essentially a waiting game. We're finishing up our online childbirth classes which I must say are quite informational and sometimes entertaining. But in between the waiting and the classes, we've had to think about how we're going to handle life after baby's birth.

    I don't mean thinking and planning about the lack of sleep, feeding schedule, or just the overall changes a new baby is going to bring. I'm talking about how we're going to handle excited family members and friends who've waited just as long as we have to meet our child. That sentence sounds so bizarre, right? How we're going to handle family and friends? That sentence shouldn't even have to exist.

    Keep reading Show less
    Life

    Cameron Diaz on having a baby at 47: 'You really have to work hard for it'

    "The only pressure for me now is I have to live to be, like, 107, you know? No pressure!"

    This is the decade that saw the face of first-time motherhood change. The number of first-time mamas under 30 is shrinking, while more and more women are becoming moms after 40.

    Cameron Diaz is one of them. The actress and businesswoman, now 48, became a mom in January at the age of 47. In a new episode of Naomi Campbell's YouTube series, No Filter, Diaz opens up about what it's like to become a mom in your fourth decade.

    "A lot of people do it the other way around ... they get married [and] have a family in their youth," says Diaz."I'm kind of doing it in the second half of my life."

    Keep reading Show less
    News