39 TV-free activities for you and your kids

Rain-splattered 2 year old art (awesome!)I’ve been wondering lately when life got so complicated.

I started noticing a couple of weeks ago that every time I took my daughter out to the playground when I got home from work, I was messing with my iPhone, checking Twitter, using the Facebook app, just doing mindless things to pass time. Why wasn’t I just playing with her? Was she not stimulating enough for my already overly-stimulated brain?

What I SHOULD have been doing was playing with her and trying to recall what it was like to be a child and play with glee on the playground.

We’ve fallen into these routines in our house that involve a lot of computers (we have at least 6 in the house, 2 are non-functional), a lot of television (3 half-hour episodes in the AM, maybe one or two in the evening, a movie in between perhaps…sometimes more, sometimes less), and just a lot of busy-ness overall. It was with a shock that I realized last week that this was a grotesque amount of tv to expose a 2-year-old to and I needed to make things right before she grows up (and is gone, sniff!). My fear is that she won’t want to be with Myk and I when she’s older because she’s so busy communicating with the outside world. Seeing that that’s likely inevitable in some form or another, I want to savor the time we have together now and hopefully show her that it’s great to unplug and have fun.

So I risked public scrutiny for letting my 2-year-old watch so much tv and put it out there on Facebook:

Anyone: how do you entertain your children for long periods of time without using a television? Wanting to stock up on ideas.

I was not expecting to receive DOZENS of responses. They were so great that I wanted to give them a permanent home here on Greener Life. This list couldn’t come at a better time since so many kids are on summer break now. Enjoy!

  1. Listening to music
  2. Playing with empty paper towel tubes (swords!)
  3. Twister
  4. Blocks/Legos
  5. Coloring
  6. Mud (!)
  7. Stickers
  8. Playing with water–moving from one receptacle to another
  9. Play-Doh
  10. Puppets
  11. Making forts/tunnels/tents out of tables and chairs covered with bedsheets
  12. Books
  13. Big, empty cardboard boxes
  14. Join a playgroup
  15. Watercolors
  16. Sidewalk chalk
  17. Bubbles
  18. Obstacle courses out of regular (safe) household items
  19. Playing outside!
  20. Swings
  21. Balls
  22. Bike/tricycle
  23. Kiddie pool/sprinkler
  24. Poker (!)
  25. Play food in a play kitchen
  26. Sand
  27. Going to the park
  28. Giving a recording device to the child to allow them to make their own news broadcasts
  29. Pots and pans to bang on
  30. Floor puzzles
  31. Keeping a garden
  32. Picnics
  33. Pretend grocery shopping with Daddy’s wallet (hehe)
  34. Kid yoga
  35. Baking bread and washing up together afterwards
  36. Finger knitting
  37. Conga line
  38. Dancing and singing
  39. Pretending/playing “office” using home office supplies

I remember loving to play by myself as a child, and later with my brother after he came along. (I remember my brother and I playing a game we called “Meteors” that involved both of us pretending we were orphans drifting through space in a lonely spacecraft (ie, his crib). It was so depressing though, I don’t know why we liked that game.  I digress.)

As you can see, there were a lot of great suggestions. I can always turn to this list now (and so can you!) for inspiration. I do have to share with you what I felt was the most poetic response from a friend, former colleague, and design mentor, Bob Reddy. Bob and his wife Kathy raised two amazing kids who are now immensely talented adults, and here’s what he shared:

We built skylines out of cardboard blocks and then swung a wrecking ball (tied to the ceiling) at them. We make people and animals out of playdoh or clay and then slammed large meteors into them and then excavated the fossilized remains. (Do you detect a bit of a testosterone-influenced agenda here?) We set up stores and then bought cookies from each other. We rolled steel marbles down long metal tape-measurer tracks. We blew large bubbles made from dish soap and glycerin and water. We climbed into boxes. We made a net across the living room and played balloon volleyball. We made up words and used then in ridiculous sentences until we were laughing too hard to continue. We made paper airplanes and flew them. We drew stories on paper as they unraveled in our mouths. We invented ways of blupping wet sand through our fingers. We accidentally affixed jello cubes to the ceiling.

Then later he shared:

Here’s another one I forgot to tell you… Go to the bathtub and fill about 30 water balloons with warm water and leave them in the tub (you may use assorted sizes and shapes for added interest). Then fill the tub with warm water for your kid’s bath. The balloons are neutral-buoyant, meaning that they sort of co-exist with the water and hang out “all casual-like.” This provides a spectacular arena for three dimensions of squishy fun. Narratives about fish, atoms, cells, planets… At the end of the bath – you get to pop them all in the empty tub. We once used the very long thin balloons and a few big 14-inchers. They are very heavy if you were to take them out of the water, but perfectly playable in the water!

How awesome is that?!

This past weekend we had a completely tv-free weekend (with the exception of a snippet of the George of the Jungle movie while at a social event…we needed Navab to simmer down for a while while a serious discussion was happening). I have to say: I was terrified of the prospect of having to entertain her or provide her with ideas for entertainment for the WHOLE WEEKEND (normally I drop her off at school and let them do that part) but you know what? I loved it and she didn’t ask to watch tv. Not once!

Now you have no excuses–get moving parents. Unplug for a while and enjoy your kids!

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  1. Carol Mansour says:

    This list a wonderful idea! What a service for parents! When Maya was a preschooler, I stocked up on fabric paint, stencils, embroidered patches, and stamps from JoAnn’s and Michael’s, and plain used tee shirts from thrift stores. We would while away the hours customizing the shirts. They made for cheap but novel it-doesn’t-matter-if-they-get-ripped-or-stained playwear, and we did some as gifts for her friends as well. To this day (she’s now in high school) she still makes the occasional “Maya Original” shirt.

  2. Kathleen Reddy says:

    Lacey, this is so wonderful. We are so proud of you for being a thoughtful and reflective parent. And now you can be a model to a lot of people who just have not thought things through.

  3. Pooneh says:

    I forgot one of my favorites that fits in here perfectly:

    playing with dry beans!
    we have a large yogurt container filled with dry beans – all kinds. Then i have another large yogurt container filled with all sorts of little bowls that the individual apple sauces come in and the scoops from formula and random other sturdy but single use snack packaging. every once in a while, I pull out the whole thing and let the kids play. I’ve recently added two pie tins and this has added about 15 minutes to the play since they like to hear the beans hit the tin and shake the tin etc.

    I also have an old drop cloth that goes with the set – the rule is the beans don’t venture far from the drop cloth.

    It’s all recycled – and it started with beans that I’d had for over 5 years and didn’t feel I’d like to cook, but didn’t want to toss either….so it’s ‘green’! :)

    One word of caution, though – if the kids are still into putting things into their mouths or other available spots, this needs close supervision!

  4. Lacey says:

    Great ideas! I think we’ve surpassed 40 now.. :)

    Here’s another idea I saw on Martha Stewart’s craft blog today: autograph books!


  5. Jeanna says:

    Even though my son is older (creeping up on 10) I am so excited to read all these cool ideas! Bob’s especially! We still build tent cities in our house and it’s great for a late Friday night of watching a movie. :)

    Glad to see that so many people came up with ideas to share with you Lacey! We went semi-tv free last year and it was such a blessing!

  6. Stephanie says:

    Have you read the book “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence Cohen? It’s a great read on the value and importance of being “present” during playtime. Your list made me think of it :)

  7. Michelle C says:

    My favorite idea is homemade pretzel animals. In a bowl mix 1 pkg yeast, 1 1/2 cups warm water, 1T sugar, and 1T salt. Stir in 4 cups flour. Knead on a table until smooth. Then let her shape them into any shapes she chooses. Animals are always fun but anything works. Good for the imagination. Then brush a beaten egg over them, sprinkle with a little salt, and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes and you have a great snack.

  8. atoosa says:

    You GO, girl!

    Remember before Navab was born and we talked about the near impossibility of a TV free childhood and the disturbing effects of media on the developing brain? As a pediatrician I glory in your efforts, as a friend and Khaleh to Navab, I am both thrilled and grateful. More proof that you guys are awesome parents.

    I feel like I’m constantlly talking about limiting media exposure with parents, and turning off the TV when I visit my family (in my own house, I watch almostt zero TV).

    I’ll be sending other parents to this blog post for ideas, and I’m going to check out Playful Parenting. That sounds like a great book.

    This post filled me with hope for the next generation!

  9. I just love it! Awesome article! I only wish you updated your blog more often, I can’t seem to get enough of your site. I keep your blog in my favorites! Would it be possible to be a guest poster at some point?

  10. I love your site – amazing article! I first found your blog a few days ago, and I subscribed to your RSS feed the very same day. I have several great ideas for some upcoming posts you could write. I’ll send you an email later on. Keep up the good work. :)

  11. kari says:

    nice new blog, lacey. sorry i didn’t know about it earlier. by the way, i’d love to start a list of activities for an at-home “art day”. the 5 and 10 year old girls in my life have asked me for one and now… i gotta deliver!

  12. Laura says:

    Thanks for this wonderful list, Lacey!! What a great blog you have here—such inspiring ideas. Thank you!

  13. Eriko says:

    Great post!

    My kid just turned 7 and here are some things we love to do together:

    1. Knit (she also goes to a knitting group at the library)
    2. Origami
    3. Cat’s cradle (you can get a book if you don’t know how like me)
    4. Sing rounds (canons) and other songs. Our favorite song books are from “Wee Sing”
    5. Help each other memorize poetry, prayers and the like (she does better than me)
    6. Make greeting cards
    7. (In spring) Start seedlings for setting out in summer and draw pictures of them as they grow

  14. Thanks for the post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool.

  15. I really liked your article.Thanks Again. Want more.

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