Review: 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids

150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids, by Asia Citro, MEd

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About: This is hands-down one of my favourite books and a regular go-to for “What can we do this afternoon?”, “Mummy, please play with us” and “I don’t know what to DOOOOOOO” moments. I look through the book myself for something I’m willing to face up to, or I hand the book to the kids and get them to pick something out that they like the look of. I’ve also handed this book to Daddy for his nights-doing-stuff-with-kids and told him if he picks something he wants to do, I’ll make sure we have the ingredients. I really like Citro’s approach – she encourages a lot of the fundamentals of very-early-childhood science, which is basically investigating substances and the way they behave when you do stuff to them. It’s all play. Much of it is messy. It’s fun, it’s delightful, it’s imaginative, it can be wondrous. Many recipes and activities are suitable for kids who put things in their mouth, or who have allergies. Some take more prep or cleaning up than others, so I can choose what I’m capable of on a given day and find something fun. There’ll be a few activities I post up on this blog that have come from this book, or from Citro’s blog, FunAtHomeWithKids.com, which is well worth an explore. The age range of activities is probably 0 to 10 years, at least, so it’s a book you’ll get plenty of use out of.

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Each activity has preparation time, suitable age range, and a bunch of other quick things you might be looking for (eg eat safe, gluten free, nut free etc). I also like the “Tips for doing things on a budget” boxes in each section of the book, though they are less relevant if you’re not in the same country as the author.

Good things:

  • Wide age range suitability
  • Lots of ideas with accessible ingredients
  • Well laid out and photographed
  • Kids can look through the book themselves
  • Good science fundamentals (and literacy and numeracy and manual dexterity)
  • Basically, all-round good early childhood resource
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There’s also variations on each activity, to break it down or build it up to different age ranges, or to work with different materials if you don’t have something in the cupboard, or to extend it if you’ve already done this activity ten times and your kids want to do it *again*.
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Winter leaves

What: Painted fallen leaves, arranged on the wall.

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The veining and shape of the leaves suggested spots to do different colours.

How: We collected fallen leaves from one of the local plane trees, choosing a range of sizes but mostly “the big ones”. Then I gave Kid 4 and Kid 2 each a paintbrush and a plastic takeaway container lid with some dobs of acrylic paint on it, and let them go for it. They mixed some colours on the tray, and others directly onto the leaf. I painted a few as well to get a bit of variety in colour and style. Once they were dry, we arranged them on the wall as if the wind was blowing them along. Kid 4 helped me with the sticking and enjoyed getting up on the stepladder to do it. So there were two activities here.

Note to people in other climates: here, leaves fall in winter – if they fall at all in this evergreen land. It just doesn’t get cold enough before then. So this for us is very much a winter activity. We also don’t get much of what people talk of as autumn colours – again, because even in winter it’s not cold enough to trigger the colour change in most of those trees that are famous for it. So painted leaves can be as close as we get, even if the colours are unusually fantastic.

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The drift of painted leaves lowing along the wall. I think we stuck them on with bluetack. I wasn’t too fussed about what it would do to the wallpaper underneath.

Extras: Talking about the seasons with the kids is something I have to do every autumn and winter – they are barraged with the cultural ideas of “fall” and “autumn leaves” and it’s not always obvious to them that the autumn they experience isn’t like that at all. Though as they get older they’re noticing it more. Our autumns – and indeed, much of our winters – means bright, bright flowers against brilliant hotly blue skies. Bougainvillea, trumpet vine, poinsettia, plumbago, umbrella tree – oranges, reds, corals, pinks, scarlets, light blues, purples all so vibrant. Autumn is also the time when the eucalyptus trees lose their bark and show their trunks in an amazing range of colours. So going on a colour hunt is something we should try doing (though now that it’s winter it’s too late for the tree bark!). There are other things to try with plane tree leaves too. This year we’re making a picture with the plane tree leaves, and I’ll put that up as a separate post once we’ve done it.

Sticky tape resist paintings

What: Resist paintings done with sticky tape, made by several Kid 5s at one of the activity stations in our make-lots-of art birthday party.

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Birthday Kid 5’s finished product.

How: I had a pile of those little canvas-covered boards that sell for about $2.50 each in arts and craft stores, about the size of an envelope. I got the kids to put a few pieces of sticky tape on their board (after writing their name in marker on the back!). Then they had free rein to paint anything they liked over the whole board, they had to cover the whole thing with colour. Once it’s dry, pull off the sticky tape and see what you’ve got!

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Party station setup post-activity, waiting for them to dry. Most kid 5s ended up doing stripes, though some just did small blotches (that do still cover the tape).

Party setup: I had acrylic poster paint in five colours, each in plastic party cups with a paintbrush in. These kid 5s are all familiar from school with the drill that if the cup has a brush in it, that brush stays with that cup only. I’d also taped newspaper to the whole dining table surface to make the workspace. There was room for about four or five kids to work at once, and we just kind of funnelled kids through (or they funnelled themselves through, it was a bit hard to tell). The first child to seat themself at the table and say “I want to do THIS!” had a parent with them, who I promptly delegated to be a general supervisor of that activity station and help make sure each kid who turned up knew what to do. It turned out the little boards had plastic wrap on them, which was too well sealed for little fingers to pry open (why can’t that happen with snack foods!), so another spare adult got delegated to unwrapping them all. We left the boards on the table to dry. Turned out they didn’t quite dry by the time the party was over – they could have, if paint had been used a little more sparingly and not in large globs! But you get what you get. Plus some kids did their paintings much later than others. So the kids took them home with instructions to wait until they were fully dry and then take the sticky tape off. I have no idea how they all went after that.

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The original from Kid 3’s daycare that gave me the idea.

Extras: This idea came from something Kid 3 did at daycare. They made little Christmas tree pictures, by sticking on tree shapes that had been cut out of contact and then painting over that and removing it. I considered doing contact shapes, or spot stickers that could be peeled, but decided the manipulativeness and simplicity of tearing and sticking pieces of sticky tape was going to run a lot more smoothly in the party context.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, balloon painting, paint making and party bag decorating, and the cake.

Art party activities #1

What: Some of the activities we did at Kid 5’s make-lots-of-art birthday party – painting balloons, making paint, decorating party bags.

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Painted balloons – the final product. (And yes, the boys are happily playing with the dollhouse in the background.)

1. Painted balloons. My husband battled the breezes to attach as many white balloons to the punching bag as he could using string and tape. I saw this done at a community fair where they’d attached dozens together close and tight to a rope to make a dragon shape for painting. After our efforts, I have no idea how they got the balloons attached but I applaud their skill. Then, paint. I put some acrylic poster paint in plastic party cups, put a paintbrush in each cup, and put the cups on a milk crate (which has slots about the right size to hold these cups upright). Up to five kids at a time were clustered around this activity, painting on the balloons. Several of the balloons were later taken home by kids, on request. Except for the one where the kid asked, and his mother made frantic waving motions of “No wet paint in my car!!!” behind him so I had to say no, we wanted to keep them to remember the party by.

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Paint production process in progress.

2. Making paint. The kids got to make a little bag of paint and take it home with them. I set up a bag of flour, a bag of salt and a jug or water, each with a metric tablespoon in them. The kids had to take one spoonful of each and put it in their little ziplock bag. I added food colouring of their choice – about a lidful – then they sealed the bag and mixed. In theory the proportions should be 1:1:1 of flour:salt:water, but in practice most kids needed two tablespoons of water because Kid 5s don’t know to level off their tablespoon of flour (or even that there’s enough of a difference to matter in how much is in a level spoonful vs a heaped spoonful), and there was enough of a crowd around the table that I wasn’t able to tell or help most of them with that. I kept my hands on the food colouring and insisted that only an adult add that. Which meant we didn’t have anyone accidentally tipping the entire bottle into their bag until the very last child, so that was good. Once the paint is mixed, you can keep it in the sealed bag and run your fingers over it to “draw” pictures mess-free. My original plan was to tape the bags of paint to a glass door so that they could do the finger-drawing there, but with all the chaos going on most of the kids were happy to just put the bag of paint in their party bag and move on to the next activity.

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Spot the party bags, ready to begin.

3. Party bags. I’m not keen on loot bags at parties, but the kids were going to need some way of taking their art home with them. So the very first activity we had set up before doing the main party stations was this one. A pile of coloured paper bags from the local craft store, and lots of coloured dot stickers of various sizes. The kids had to write their name on the bag first, then make themselves a picture on their bag using only sticky dots. We had a wide variety of results! Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of the final products. It was good to have the sticker sheets cut into strips, because each of the Kid 5s tended to take a strip and then put all the stickers on it onto their bag somewhere before making the next decision. They’re not visualising what they want to make and then choosing the bits that will make it, at least, not to the degree that they can put a sticker sheet back down without using ALL the stickers. This worked well as an icebreaker, as kids who didn’t know very many others got something to do without feeling lonely, and it got everyone busy and thinking about making art. It could also be relatively unsupervised, unlike the main station activities.

Other art party activities: suncatchers, sticky tape resist paintings, and the cake.

Carrot prints and painting

What: Printing and painting with food dye, using carrots cut into shapes as stampers and “brushes”.

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In progress. Kid 6 is beginning a picture on the left, kid 4 is making random stamps in the middle, and I am partway through some more coordinated stamping on the right. There is a tray of blue dye and a tray of yellow. Carrots don’t “wash off”, so double dipping has predictable results.

How: Cut the carrots on a couple of different angles and at different sizes – you should be able to get small circles, big circles, ovals, irregular/pointy ovals, and even a rectangle or two of various proportions. I also cut one carrot unevenly so that it stamped a half circle, and cut another to give a more triangular result. Take plastic or styrofoam meat/fruit trays and put a few drops of different colours of food dye on them. Rub the carrots in the dye and stamp them or roll them or “brush” them on the page to make patterns and pictures.

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Kid 6’s finished pieces on the left, and kid 4’s finished pieces on the right (which may have devolved into finger work). Streaking was a popular technique.

Extras: Careful choice of dyes means you get to talk about mixing colours – and the colours WILL mix! You can focus on making patterns of whatever level of complexity your kids are up to, do it “wrapping paper” style. Or use the shapes to build up a picture and talk about what shapes are in the picture or make up different parts of the picture. I would have liked to talk about what happens when you roll – that mental translation from a 3D object to what its sides look like in a 2D form as you roll it across the page – but neither kid 4 or kid 6 was quite up for that. At first (and mostly) they just used the carrots like pencils, but as they went along they began to see that they could do more than that.

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My two pieces, made for the purpose of keeping my hands busy, talking as we went and (without specifically saying so) demonstrating ideas. The first was wrapping-paper style stamping, the second was experimenting with techniques and shapes to make a picture. The “dunes” at the bottom are one piece of unevenly-cut carrot, rolled across the page.

Under-the-table chalkboard

What: A chalkboard on the underside of the (wooden) dining table.

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Note the line down the middle to make it clear whose drawing space is whose. 

How: I got a $4 pot of chalkboard paint from the local two dollar shop. Any chalkboard paint from any paint store or Internet recipe will probably do. I swept under the table thoroughly (see my last blog post!) and put masking tape around the inside edges to cover up surfaces that weren’t supposed to be painted.. I could have done this much more thoroughly than I did. For some reason I thought we weren’t likely to make much mess. Please learn from my experience.

The paint went into two “meat trays”, those styrofoam things that they sometimes sell batches of fruit in. I gave the kids half a sponge each and they sponged the paint on. It took a little while. I helped with corners and tricky bits. Then we left it to dry. I did come back after the kids went to bed and do an extra layer in places where they had trouble getting the paint thick enough, but I didn’t bother with a full second layer, I didn’t think we needed perfection.

24 hours later, it was five minutes til dinner time but Kid 6 and Kid 4 needed dinner Right Now and were ready to kill each other if not distracted or sated. So I handed them a packet of chalk and told them the table was dry. That ended up earning me a full fifteen minutes to finish cooking and get food ready and on the table.

Extras: The important thing I think about this was that they had a hand in making it. It’s a space that’s there for them, and they helped make it that way. Plus it’s given me multiple holiday crafternoon distractions – the painting was one afternoon, we’ve had a few drawing afternoons since. It’s also very much about making the most of small spaces and not needing a 40-square house to contain small children. The other thing this goes well with is my “cubby” tablecloth, which turns the self-same table into a blanket fort and which I’ll post about eventually. Oh, and it goes well with sweeping. But that seems to be my job.

Citrus prints

What: There’s a huge pile of lemons under the lemon tree at the moment. So when the kids saw Mister Maker doing citrus prints on TV, it became one of our summer art projects.

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Mid-activity.

How: We used a few different sizes of lemon, cut in half – I had helpers for the cutting to make sure there were several halves per paint colour. The paint was my standard acrylic, thinned with a little water and put on small styrofoam fruit trays for easy stamping. I picked three fluorescent colours this time. We each stamped over our page and let it dry, and then worked back into the design with permanent markers to emphasise the citrus shapes. Kid 6 insisted they wanted to do theirs exactly as they’d seen on TV and used a plain black marker, which gave quite a striking effect against the fluorescent paint. I used a range of coloured markers on mine to play with various effects. Kid 4 ignored this step completely.

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Kid 6’s final product.

Extras: While we were waiting for the citrus prints to dry, both kids helped me use up the rest of the paint with some finger painting. Kid 4 carefully built a complicated Star Wars narrative around theirs, layering in the story stroke by stroke. Kid 6 discovered that the paint was thin enough they could layer in the image handful by handful, and covered their whole page.

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My print, with multiple colours of marker and a variety of shapes drawn back into the print. I also allowed my shapes to overlap, something the kids weren’t quite sure was acceptable.