As a parent of two toddlers, getting outside with our little ones is one of my favorite things to do in the summer months. The long days, warm weather and endless opportunities for play in nature offer countless possibilities for exploration and fun that keep us all entertained for hours on end.
We’re certainly not strangers to finding creative ways to have fun indoors during the winter months (hello snow days!). But being stuck inside for a whole day in the summertime has been a little less common in the Northern part of the U.S. in recent years.
We normally have very little to keep us indoors except for the occasional passing thunderstorm. And are almost always able to sneak outside for some fun each day—that is until this summer. In recent weeks, we’ve found ourselves confronted with air quality warnings due to smoke from Canadian wildfires that have kept us inside for days on end.
While this experience was new for our family, there are so many reasons families may find themselves indoors in the summertime. Heat advisories, storm and tornado warnings, air quality advisories, and even your garden-variety sick day, can keep you and your family inside. So it can definitely be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve, even with kids on summer vacation!
As I found myself faced with the prospect of an entire weekend indoors with two toddlers (and hoping to not burn through the entire Disney+ catalog right away), I brainstormed a handful of ways we could bring our favorite outdoor experiences in, so the kiddos could experience some summer fun no matter what the forecast might bring our way.
Screen-Free Activities For Kids When You’re Stuck Indoors
1. Camping in the living room
Whether you and your family are camping pros, or this is the summer you were hoping to introduce your little ones to your love of the great outdoors while sleeping under the stars, this activity is sure to be a hit! Grab your tent and a couple of sleeping bags. And have fun setting up camp in your living room! Bonus points if you all actually sleep in your sleeping bags for the night. For ambience, eat camping foods (hotdogs and baked beans anyone?), turn on a starry night light, set a sound machine to “nature sounds” and tell all your favorite ghost stories (or sing camping songs!) by flashlight.
2. Star gazing from bed
If exploring the night skies makes your heart sing, bring the joy of stargazing to your little one’s bedroom. Draw the blackout curtains and grab a set of glow in the dark stars. And let your imagination run wild! You can even arrange the stars to mimic favorite constellations and talk about the stories associated with each. With older children you can also talk about using the night sky to navigate. Or the different phases of the moon.
3. Popsicle baths
Nothing says summer like popsicles! If you need a snacktime break from the heat, take the sticky sweet fun to the bathroom where your little one can splash in a cool bath and enjoy an even cooler treat! Cleanup is a breeze. And sticky hands don’t even enter into the equation!
4. Bath time pool party
For another fun bath time inspired activity, this is a fun way for your little ones to cool off! Pop on bathing suits, crank the summer tunes, and use beach towels to add summer ambience to the bathroom! You can sip lemonade, pop on goggles and explore “under the waves” as you practice water exploration like blowing bubbles, holding your breath, and seeing if you can spot fun sinker toys under the surface.
5. Bring on the s’mores
S’mores might just be the most summery dessert ever created—and even just thinking of the word you can probably almost hear the crackle of campfires and see the lightning bugs. If you can’t be outside to fully recreate s’mores experiences of your youth, try putting a spin on your favorite summer treat by getting creative in the kitchen! You can pop a couple of stacked s’mores in the toaster oven. Or even have the kiddos help make a s’mores inspired treat like this or this!
6. Flashlight freeze tag
This one is for the slightly older crowd—but if you’re up later and need to get some wiggles out (or just want to have a fun time as a family!) grab a flashlight and go to town! You can set limits to keep even the smaller kiddos safe. (Like keeping staircases or kitchens out of bounds).
7. Indoor hide-n-seek
For anytime play, try good old-fashioned indoor hide-n-seek! Again, keeping certain areas of the house out-of-bounds might be helpful. And there are endless ways to vary the fun from keeping the hiding “classic” to switching to more challenging rules like “sardines.”
8. Extreme fort building
This is perhaps not for the faint of heart (or those who have pricier throw pillows). But if you can resign yourself to a certain amount of chaos, engaging in some extreme (indoor!) pillow fort building can provide hours of entertainment! For this activity, simply collect any and all pillows from the house (throw pillows, couch cushions, bed pillows, etc.) and assorted sheets and blankets and let imaginations run wild! Old-fashioned clothes pins or chip clips are helpful for keeping everything in place. And a string of LED battery-operated twinkle lights can add a touch of magic.
9. Build (and decorate!) your own castle
For stretches of weather that might keep you indoors for several days, building a more “permanent” structure can also be a fun challenge. Bring out any old packing boxes you might have in storage or in the garage. (We always keep a few on hand for just this type of situation). And with the help of a parent, kiddos can create their very own hide-away! From castles to cottages to rocket ships to boats, a little imagination, an (parent-held!) X-Acto knife, and some water-based paints can take any old cardboard box and transform it into the backdrop for endless open-ended play.
10. Indoor carnival vibes
If you’re missing out on a summer fun fair this year, you can bring the joy of games and carnival treats right to your living room with a few creative twists! Pop up some popcorn in the microwave (and if you want to get fancy you can DIY these fun bags!), assemble a handful of “activities” (face painting, balance games, egg races, and other relay races, and target toss games are all easy to set up and can easily be re-done over and over), and turn up a fun summer playlist to set the mood! Prizes are optional. But if you have a few dollar store treats (or popsicles in the freezer!) everyone can take something “home” from their day at the fair!
11. Family Olympics
For those families with multiple little ones to entertain (or some extra competitive parents?) this is your opportunity to let your talents shine! Make a list of fun or tricky things that individuals in your family can do. And challenge others to see who performs “the best” (a totally subjective term when you’re having a summersault contest). Some ideas for fun:
- Who can jump rope the longest without getting tangled?
- The longest hula hooper?
- Who is the most flexible?
- Who can touch their tongue to their nose?
A “medal” ceremony a’la Dundermiflin Olympics to close out the competitions is highly recommended.
12. Flower art
If a parent can step outside briefly to collect some supplies (or you have some fresh flowers already indoors in the form of houseplants or a bouquet), a fun way to bring the outdoors in is with a summer art activity: pressed flower crafts! From bookmarks, to sun catchers, to pinch pots and even lanterns, there are so many beautiful and fun crafts to make with this hallmark of sunny summer days. Once a parent has gathered the blooms (or even some pretty leaves!), let the crafting begin!
13. Hand puppet theater
If your little ones are deep into imaginative play, they might love putting on a show for the rest of the family! In this two part activity, first everyone creates their own puppet—either a stick puppet like this or a hand puppet like this or this (for added fun, choose a theme or a favorite fairytale and create a puppet for each character!) and then rehearsals can begin! Little ones might just have fun carrying puppets around the house as they play. While older kiddos might get a kick out of a full-scale production with a storyline, a backdrop, and even creating DIY playbills for the other family members who attend the theater!
14. Giant paintings
If you don’t have a large supply of eclectic art supplies already on hand, this might require some advance planning. But one of our favorite activities when my sisters and I were toddlers was to create “giant” paintings on a large roll of three-foot wide drawing paper that my mom had stuffed in a closet for a rainy day (courtesy of a local print shop). You can find extra large rolls of easel paper online. Or cut-up brown paper grocery bags to make a giant canvas.
15. “Sand” castle contest
Now that I’m a parent of two toddlers, I also have a deep and abiding love of kinetic sand! So if your little one is a big fan as well, bring on the summer fun of sand castles with a kinetic sand twist! While kits exist for this type of activity, you can also get creative by DIYing a large batch of kinetic sand and grabbing a handful of household supplies (like measuring cups and spoons) and letting the kids’ imaginations run wild! If you’re a family that regularly collects nature objects (anyone else constantly bringing home rocks and shells?) you can incorporate these treasures in the castle contest too!
16. Build your own sundae stations
A quick trip to a grocery store is all that stands between you and the sundae bar of your (children’s!) dreams! You can keep the sugar at bay by opting for chopped fruit and nut toppings. Or go all out with whipped cream and chocolate sauce to dress up a pint or two of everyone’s favorite flavors! If you have a little extra time (or a few additional days stuck inside), you can even make your own (a dangerously easy and delicious way to pass an afternoon).