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*.

Rear view glasses for Super Spies

What: rear view glasses, found as part of the Mission during Kid 7’s spy-themed birthday party. And a message in mirror writing, to solve using the glasses.

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The pre-prepared glasses that Daddy and I stuck together.

How: I looked for rear view glasses online but couldn’t find any cheap enough to order in party quantities. Kid 6 had a pair from a school book club set, and I’d made some once as a kids activity at a science museum. So I knew the rough idea. I ended up ordering a bunch of kid-sized sunglasses from an online party goods store, and a bunch of small craft mirrors from a big box craft store, and assembling them myself. I did consider getting the kids to do it, but thought it might be a bit slow/tricky for a group of six and seven year olds to manage themselves. Maybe nine to eleven year olds would have been fine with it. The problem with self-assembly is that the bits don’t quite match up in size and shape – the glasses have too much curve in them (you want them to be quite flat rather than following the line of a face), the mirrors are too big to fit inside the frame and at the same time too small to see effectively in – that sort of thing. I tried superglue but couldn’t get the mirrors to stick well enough to the frames, so ended up using double-sided sticky tape. Which was mostly a temporary solution, but held together well enough to get through the party.

The kids found the glasses all ready for them in a box in the bathroom, and gleefully put them on. I’ve found with these that they are really tricky to use the first time, and then the second time it’s a lot easier. It takes a little practice working out how to focus on the mirror and make sense of what you’re seeing, and then how to turn your head so you can choose what to look at. The kids had fun trying them out. Some got it, some didn’t, but the idea was Super Cool (and it was sunglasses which are automatically cool) so that was all right then.

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Where do you write a message in mirror writing? On the mirror, of course.

Also in the bathroom, on the mirror, was this big message, in code. Well, in mirror writing. Which doesn’t seem like a tricky code, but given that several of the kids are still working through the first hundred sight words list and can’t immediately recognise words when they see them, and some are not reliable at identifying mirrored and flipped letters like b/d/p/q, mirror writing *was* tricky. I made it a little trickier by breaking up the words and using multiple colours so that even the kids who would normally recognise the words on sight didn’t just immediately know what the message was, and that seemed to even up the speed a bit or at least slow down the faster ones. Trying to read the message with the glasses was a bit tricky for the kids, but being in the bathroom there was another option. Several of the cabinets had mirrored doors, and there’s a mirror on the bathroom door, and if you move the various mirrors around you could get it so the letters were all the right way without having to use the glasses. The message was written with some pens I found that are specifically for use on mirrors, glass and bathtubs and the like. They go on like oil pastels and wash off easily.

Blanket tent

What: A blanket tent playspace in the loungeroom.

How: Well, we tried a few construction methods, it wasn’t all Mummy saying “do this and then do that”. So, this was our first successful attempt (I don’t have any photos of the first try!).

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Mummy, this really isn’t very big. How can we make it bigger?

Basically, we needed a long stable thing for a ridgepole – a broom worked well because the end of the broom helped keep the ridgepole from sliding off the couch – two places to hold the ends of the ridgepole (not as easy as it sounds!), a not-too-heavy blanket, and enough space on the floor free of Lego bits to actually make the tent (that was the hardest bit). Plus lots of conversation, querying the basic principles (“I think if you put it there it’s going to fall straight down… oh look, it did”), discussion of how the blanket just hangs straight down and doesn’t actually make a triangle shape, finding things to hold the edges of the blanket in place so that it does make a triangular space, and plenty more. I like to let the kids lead and discover, so they discovered for themselves that the blanket didn’t make a triangle. And that the blanket they were using didn’t make a *big* triangle. And stuff like that. I mainly only intervened to a) send the ideas in the direction of a blanket tent when the possibility first appeared, and b) if they actually looked like they were going to hurt themselves. Oh, and the occasional c) when they knew what the problem was but needed help solving it, I’d make a suggestion to get them going in the right direction to find the solution. Remember the philosophy: never open the door for them, just ask them if they’ve noticed this really cool doorhandle. (Or with kids well out of their depth in a situation, open the door but never push them through it.)

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The final version, weighed down with some books to keep it stretched out. Which worked fine until they wanted to take the books inside to read with them.

Extras: Well, we managed a few construction attempts at this blanket tent. It’s, as usual with me, all in the things you choose to discuss. We talked about triangular spaces, especially when they discovered that the blanket space was actually really tiny and they wanted more room. We tried a bigger blanket. We could have tried a different ridgepole, or taken it outside and used a tree branch and a tarp for an all-weather setup. If I had an old triangle tent we could have set that up, or I could have gotten out the little dome tent and we could talk about circles having more space inside them than triangles and why tents nowadays go up in circles rather than triangles. And of course, this also leads into a survival skills lesson: the basic debris hut shelter, your simplest “I’m lost in the bush and need to survive the night” shelter, works on a ridgepole triangular structure. So this activity is like a primer for some of the ideas that they’ll use when I show them how to make their emergency shelters.

Gods’ eyes

What: The “gods’ eyes” that were a Big Craft Thing to make when I was a kid.

How: Kid 3 and Kid 5 went out into the garden with instructions to find two sticks, reasonably straight, “about yay long”. I had to assist them a little with assessing whether a given stick was strong enough or too thin or thick – understanding the relationship between “width” (diameter) and area of cross-section is a long way off – but they could do length fine. I got out my box of miscellaneous wool and let the kids choose an initial colour. We crossed the sticks, I tied on the first end of the wool and showed them how you go around a stick, then on to the next and around that, and keep going. When you get to the end of a piece of wool, pick a new colour and tie a new length on.

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Kid 5’s piece, decorated to be “a compass”, with mine and Kid 3’s in the background. Hanging was just a matter of wrapping a string around the same way.

You’ll find better instructions than mine online. What’s more important for you to know is that this was *hard* for the kids. Kid 5 is spatially-challenged anyway, all directions are identical, subjective and meaningless, and Kid 3 is a fiddle-fingers who can’t *stop* turning things around in their fingers. Even though the steps of a Gods’ Eye are simple, they rely on you doing them the same way consistently over and over again. So I spent a lot of time droning the rhythm at the kids – over, around, over again, across to the next – and helping them remember which way they were going so they didn’t unwind their hard-won earlier work or just do the same two spokes over and over again, or switch from looping over to looping under, and so on. Holding the wool at the correct tension was also tricky – it’s a skill you expect a kid to maybe begin to learn at this age, but my two hadn’t learnt it yet. The idea that you had to keep making sure the wool was tight enough and not hanging floppy every time you looped it was a bit tricky. But, they got there in the end. Kid 5 did quite a credible effort. Kid 3 did sufficiently well for them to be proud of their work, and enjoyed it enough that nine months later (as a kid 4) when they had to take something they’d made to school for class “news”, they remembered the Gods Eyes and asked to make a new one to take along. And that effort was distinctly better and easier.

Extras: On the face of it, this activity is just about manual dexterity, manipulating sticks and wool in space, the textures of wool and wood, feeling and holding the tensions steady – getting a feel (literally!) for textiles. It’s the sort of thing you do before you go onto knitting because it’s so much bigger in scale than little needles. A related activity would be back-and-forth weaving on simple looms.

Where this activity jumps into the extras though is in cultural awareness and in religion. Gods eyes were a big thing in the 80s. When Kid 4 asked to make one for school I went looking them up to see if there was another name for them, because as a non-Christian family in a very multicultural school I didn’t want to have to defend Christianity in a discussion about religious materials. Then I realised that their actual name was Ojo de Dios, they weren’t originally Christian, and that the 80s had blithely appropriated a really interesting cultural artefact for the sake of something “pretty” (how unusual /sarcasm/). At any rate, I attempted to teach Kid 4 the Spanish name and that they came from Mexico for the “news bulletin”. So depending on the age of your kids, going at some level into the cultural history of these is quite interesting.

From a pagan and religion POV, I quite like them. They are similar to Buddhist prayer flags or prayer wheels – physical prayers activated by movement. There are some conceptual similarities to the little icons of saints that people used to carry or have on their mantelpiece (and many still do). Making them is a lot like walking the medieval labyrinths, those pilgrimage substitutes, with the same kind of meditative repetition. As a mindfulness activity it’s quite fun too. I will bring these back into my pagan teaching at some point, when we discuss focus objects and how people use objects (and their making) to focus magic or prayer, and also as part of the ideas of sacred landscape and conscious journeying. They’ll also no doubt be a good example of the “cultural trappings” of magic, because the colours had such important meanings in a long-ago-far-away culture but now we might assign quite different meanings and have access to a different range of colours so the “meaning” or “intent” is not a universal constant.

Origami baby ball

What: a lightweight origami toy/gift for a little baby.

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Four month old, fascinated by something they can actually grab and hold and turn.

How: To be honest, I don’t remember exactly how or where we found the instructions for this, it was a random origami book somewhere, but I’ll bet it’s available on YouTube nowadays. The idea was that you folded six of these shapes, attached them together as a cube, and they flexed into a ball shape. The only trick was attaching the bits together. I think I used stickytape for this one, because I didn’t want to risk staples flying around when the baby grabbed with both hands and yanked in opposite directions. The first time I made one of these, for my first Kid 0, I used paper glue (just a standard glue stick) and that worked OK until they worked out how to apply more force than the glue resists. So, fastener is your choice, see what works for you and your kid’s developmental stage / attitude towards interesting objects. I found there was a huge difference between 3 months, 4 months, 6 months – and between children of the same age (there are smashers and kissers and many types between).

I loved this ball because it was light weight, so the baby could pick it up, wave it around and then when their hand strength predictably yet unexpectedly failed they could drop it on their face – and this wasn’t a problem. I also liked that it had lots of pointy-out bits – paper, not stiff, so they didn’t hurt or poke, but small grasping fingers could find plenty of bits to latch onto in order to try and grip. That made it suitable for a whole range of manipulative abilities, it wasn’t something they just accidentally knocked around the room because they couldn’t grasp it when they threw their arms in its direction. Because it was home made we could use a range of textures and colours and patterns in the paper, getting more subtleties than baby toys often have. It’s also visually interesting, with the combination of detail and symmetry. And it’s paper, so if they chew on it, well, it gets soggy and maybe it tears, but at the end of the day it’s still only paper. You can make another one easily enough.

Extras: The first one of these was made as part of an origami party for Kid 0, when friends of ours came over and made lots of origami shapes for a mobile. So it was a nice social thing. It was actually made by a Kid 11, from memory, who really enjoyed working through the printed instructions and then repeating the steps five times to get the six identical pieces. I think you’d need at least a Kid 8 or 9 to make it – it wasn’t too tricky, but it did take a little folding precision (plus of course the ability to read and follow instructions!). I made the one in the photo here, and I also made a third one that we mailed to a friend for a new baby gift. Lightweight = cheap postage!  These latter two were both made under Kid 1 and 2’s “supervision” – they helped select the pieces of paper I used and which order they attached in.

Pattern generation

What: A multicoloured pattern, similar to some wrapping paper designs.

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Shapes going diagonally to the right, coloured squares going diagonally to the left. A maths and art activity.

How:

  • We took an A3(ish) sheet of drawing paper and folded it into a strip, then folded the strip into a small square. When we unfolded it, there was a grid of creases in the paper.
  • In the first square we drew something small, an easily repeated shape, with a coloured marker from a tuned set of six. We then counted across one square and down one square and drew the same shape again, and repeated til we had a diagonal line that went down to the bottom of the page.
  • We then went to the second square, and drew a new shape in a new colour, and repeated this down the diagonal line. There was a little bit of fiddly explanation to show how the line “wrapped” around from the right hand side of the paper to keep going on the left – Kid 6 took this as a random nonsensical instruction and followed it meticulously, eventually beginning to get a glimmer of why, and Kid 4 (who is very pattern oriented) grasped the idea immediately but had difficulty with implementation. Both kids worked out pretty quickly that moving one over and one down always put you on the right of the drawing you did before.
  • We kept going until every square had a shape in it. This is where Kid 4 ran out of patience / thought their pattern was complete / decided they were Done, and where I encouraged them to stop.
  • Then, we took a new colour of marker from the set and coloured the right-most-top square’s background, and went one over-left and one down to make a new diagonal line. I took some care to try and pick a colour that wasn’t going to turn up in the shapes we were colouring around. Eventually Kid 6 worked out for themself that there was a repeating pattern in the shapes they were colouring around – e.g. orange, brown, blue, orange, brown, blue – and that some of the colours weren’t in each line at all. The idea was to keep the background colours wrapping around as well, but Kid 6 lost track of this and decided to do their lines in a symmetrical colour pattern (green – purple – blue – purple – green) instead of wrapping (green – purple – blue – green – purple – blue).
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Kid 4’s pattern, with just the shapes and no background to make it simpler/quicker. Kid 4 also made each diagonal its own pattern, with shapes rotating or growing or changing in size. They are a bit obsessed with patterns and I was OK with them playing with the idea of nesting patterns inside other patterns.

The whole thing took us quite some time, it was meticulous work, and a reasonable way to fill in part of an afternoon when it was too warm to go outside. I actually did this activity with each of the kids separately, having thought that kid 4 wouldn’t be up to that much drawing / colouring (which they hate) but that kid 6 would like the time working quietly with me and talking, and was quite able / needing to deal with 2D patterns instead of linear ones. However, kid 4 is competitive (they both are) and didn’t want to miss out on having a pattern on their gallery wall if kid 6 had one.

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Kid 6’s finished pattern, which they were very pleased with the appearance of. Tuned colour sets do help with the final result. 

Extras: In theory, if we used butcher paper instead of good drawing paper this could become our own wrapping paper. I suspect if it was a good enough piece I could probably digitise it and find somewhere online that prints wrapping paper too (Spoonflower?). We could do something like this again but with stamping and gluing paper squares instead of drawing and colouring, which would speed it up / make it a little easier on the non-drawing child (it’s a long time to grip a marker).  Spending more conscious time on the idea of nesting patterns would be interesting, to see how the results then changed across the whole grid. A related activity would be to tape paper around a cylinder of some sort, get them to draw lines around the cylinder and then untape it to see how the wrapping had mapped back to flat.