5 Activities This Preschool Teacher Swears By (To Actually Keep Kids Entertained)


I received a really well-timed text from Mike’s cousin, Amanda Patton. Amanda is a preschool teacher at the Children’s Museum in Manhattan (she does the Science Explorers and Preschool Prep programs) and I always love hearing what she’s been up to. Amanda is one of those fabulous, Mary Poppins types (and is wicked smart — don’t be fooled by her sweet voice), and she texted to see if we’d be interested in an article about her “easiest, non-messy, fun activities we do when we run out of things to to with the kids in class”.


Creative & Educational: Fun Activities For Kids To Do At Home

Listen closely — can you hear the sounds of young voices whining that they have “nothing to do?” Are your kids stuck indoors, sick of their favorite activities, and bursting with energy? Here’s a secret your local preschool teachers may not have told you:

We’ve been there too.

Kids are unpredictable and sometimes they finish a 30-minute-art-project in 15 minutes, leaving their preschool teacher stuck with a bunch of energetic children and no more planned activities. That’s why preschool teachers have a top secret “nothing-to-do-list” of activities that are easy to throw together with stuff you already have, won’t make a mess, and are always fun for antsy kids. Best of all? They’re actually educational.

5 Ways To Keep Kids Entertained When They Suddenly Have ‘Nothing To Do’

We’re really not supposed to give up the secrets, but these are unusual times. So, if you’re getting desperate and those whines are getting louder, take a peek at five activities from my own declassified list:

1. Train Map Explorer

What you need​: Masking tape, a floor

What you do​: Spread out over as much empty floor space as you can make, and let the kids design their own train map with tape on the floor. NYC kids love making subway maps for this activity, but your kids can get creative and make any kind of train lines they want. Use the tape to designate train stations, and let the kids be imaginative (we’ve had express lines from Ice Cream Unicorn Land to Grandpa’s House). If you can, try using different colors of tape for different train lines. Then, once your train map is complete, have the kids take turns walking each line, heel to toe. Challenge them to find the quickest route between two given stations, or add a curveball and tell them that one station is out of service.

Why I love it​: I love letting kids lead their own activities, and this is a “pretend play” setup that tends to inspire them to really take the reins. It’s fun to let imaginations run wild and see what kind of train route adventures they can come up with. Plus, it’s a gross motor activity that feels big and active while actually remaining pretty contained.

What they learn​: If your kids are with siblings or other peers, this is a great activity to practice teamwork and accomplish something together. But on their own or in a group, the act of exploring a map can help them build spatial understanding, and finding routes from one “station” to another is a great way for them to use problem solving skills.

2. Categories Ball

What you need​: Any kind of ball or (in a pinch) anything that rolls

What you do​: First, pick a category. For players 2-4, try “colors” or “foods.” For players five and up, try things like, “Book characters” or “Countries.” (If you have a big age range, “animals” is usually a fun category for everybody.) Take turns rolling the ball to each player in the circle. When you get the ball, you have to name an item in the category, then roll the ball to somebody else. See how long you can keep a category going before somebody misses the ball or fails to think of an item in the category!

Why I love it​: This is a ball game that you can play inside without breaking anything or hurting anybody, and it’s so easy to add little changes that keep the game from getting boring. Honestly, it’s the simplest game ever, and you may have already played it before. But this old standard is so fun for kids, and perfect for sustained group play!

What they learn​: For really little ones, this is a great game to practice playing as a group and make “taking turns” into something fun. As they get older, “categories ball” can help them review times tables, geography, the periodic table of the elements…almost anything you can think of!

3. Shaving Cream Hunt

What you need​:​ ​Shaving cream, popsicle sticks or straws, magnet letters or other small toys, a large bowl

What you do​: Fill a large bowl with shaving cream and hide magnet letters (or any small toys) inside. Then, give each child a popsicle stick or straw for digging, and see if they can find all the hidden objects! Once they’ve found them all, of course, their job is to bury them again. For bonus points, add a little food coloring to the shaving cream and let them try mixing colors.

Why I love it​: Shaving cream is my favorite preschool-teacher-secret-weapon. It’s as much fun as slime, as creative as paint, and as sensory as play dough, but it’s so easy to clean up. Just a little bit of water washes it all away, and you’re left with a fresh, clean smell! “Shaving Cream Hunt” and “Shaving Cream Color Mixing” can each fascinate kids for 20 minutes, easily.

What they learn​: Using letters in shaving cream can help build early literacy skills as young children learn to recognize the shapes of different letters. But if you don’t have letters, you can use any toy — the discovery of objects in the shaving cream can help kids develop their curiosity and their dexterity. If you add food coloring and let them stir colors together, it’s a great way for kids to learn about color mixing and get creative.

4. Freeze Dance

What you need​: Anything that plays music

What you do​: Pick a favorite song, and start the music! All players have to dance while the music is playing. Then, stop the music, and all players must freeze in place. When the music starts again, players get back to dancing! Try directing the kids to dance differently each time the music starts, first their “happy” dance, then a “sad” dance, then their “silliest” dance.

Why I love it​: Kids love playing freeze dance, and it instantly turns any room into a party. It doesn’t matter what age they are; this game will have everyone giggling. And it couldn’t be easier!

What they learn​: It’s so important for our kids to develop the skills to shift their attention and control impulses. If they can build these skills with a fun game, using “stopping” and “starting” as a game mechanism, it will actually help them with the ability to use self control and follow directions later on. Transitions can be a real challenge for kids, and giving them fun opportunities to practice is key. I also use this game to help preschoolers learn about emotions, or try to embody different animals as they dance in different styles, because kids learn with their whole body!

5. Car Wash

What you need​: Toy cars, bowls, sponges, water, soap

What you do​: Shallowly fill the bowls (or any watertight container) with water and a little bit of soap. You don’t need a lot — just enough to cover the bottom of the container! Give each child a sponge to wash off the cars. Then, have the kids dry each car until they’re ready for the road.

Why I love it​: My students are obsessed with “car wash;” it’s such a fun excuse to play with water and sponges. I usually like to get the cars nice and messy first by letting the kids drive them through paint to make beautiful art works, but if I’m in a pinch, I’ll let students take any toys we’ve used that day and put them through the car wash. I love having little helpers in class, and the kids love squeezing the sponges to see the water drip down. This is a calming activity for kids, and it has the same sensory benefits as a lot of really messy projects, even though the most mess you’ll get is a bit of a splash or water spill.

What they learn​: Young kids can really develop their fine motor skills by using sponges and soap to wash a toy, and kids of all ages can feel empowered by learning to help with tasks like cleaning. Try talking about absorption as they play with sponges, or discussing buoyancy as they learn which cars can sink or float; kids can learn a lot of introductory science while exploring the movement of water.

So, don’t tell the other preschool teachers that I’ve blown our secret, but I hope you enjoy some of these easy activities next time your kids have “nothing to do!” And from me to you, I wish you the very best in these tough times. Stay healthy, keep learning, and wash your hands!