Fun, Easy, Free Guided Play Ideas for Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Grade-Schoolers
Most kids have a ton of toys, but they become mixed together, disorganized, and lost. With a little imagination and just ten minutes of prep time, you can bring order to the chaos and ignite their little imaginations for fun and educational play time. Use toys your kids already have, these ideas, and a few minutes of prep time, and you’ve just bought yourself as much as an hour of uninterrupted grown up time while your kids play and play and play!
Grab a few toy play structures and set them together to form a town. Include your son’s parking garage, your daughter’s doll house, your son’s barn and your daughter’s pirate ship. Use a rug with roads or some wooden train tracks to show the roadways for the town. Set up some cars, toy people and animals, and invite your kids to come play! You do not need to set up every single doll and car. The toys do not need to be to scale – your kids don’t care about that, so why should you? Spend only five to ten minutes on set up while your kids are doing something else. Then invite them into the room to continue developing Toy Town and to let their imaginations run wild!
About 30 minutes into their play, keep the fun rolling by getting out blocks or Legos to build buildings, bridges, and castles. Is the barn too small for all the animals? Use some blocks to create another barn, or make a fenced area for the cows to graze.
Stuffed Animal Zoo
I love starting a stuffed animal zoo. I start by putting all the monkey toys in a chair – that’s the monkey exhibit. The cats go under the coloring table. The ponies go on the train table, and so on. Get about half of your kiddo’s stuffed animals in designated zoo exhibit areas. Then invite your kiddos in to play zoo. They will continue to sort the stuffed animals by exhibit area. Set up a reptile exhibit, bird aviary, penguin pond, and maybe even a petting zoo where curious dolls can pet a stuffed goat.
With my kiddos, the Zoo game eventually evolves into a veterinary clinic. I give my kids their toy stethoscopes and any other doctor toys I find while I’m setting up the zoo. They go around and check each stuffed animal’s eyes, ears, and tummy. Most of the animals are healthy, but sometimes one or two require extra care. If my daughter has been to the dentist recently, she will even brush the animals’ teeth and check for cavities.
After playing vet, my kids turn the whole zoo into a Pet Store and invite each other to purchase pets with play money. It’s so cute! They select a pet, pay their money, and then set about naming and caring for their new animal.
Baby Doll Daycare
My daughter’s doll toys end up scattered all over the house. Dolls, doll clothes, toy baby bottles, little crib, stroller, and more. I occasionally guide her play by setting up all of her doll things near her little play kitchen. Put together the crib, bottles, dolls, and clothes. Make sure the play kitchen is stocked with fun play food so your kiddo can cook healthy meals for the babies. If you have some, include some real diapers so she can even diaper her baby dolls. Playing mommy or baby doll daycare is endless fun for little mommies and daddies. As with the other activities, just spend five to ten minutes on set up. Gather together what you can easily find, and let your kiddo do the rest. Creating this imaginary world is part of the fun!
On a rainy day, one of my favorite things is to clear of a large space on our hardwood floor and put out all the Play-Doh I can find. And I mean all of it. The more colors, the better. I gather together the tiny rolling pins, the little shape cutters, and the dull, plastic Play-Doh scissors. Sometimes I start them off by creating a little Play-Doh elephant, and then they proceed to form other animals. One day I had my two kids and their cousin, and the kids started playing independently and then gradually began to create a two-dimensional flower garden on the floor. Long, rolled green pieces were flower stems, and small colorful balls squished with tiny thumbs became flower petals. Smaller green pieces became grass. It was amazing to see them work independently on a flower, bush or patch of grass, and then put it all together to make a little garden that gradually spread across the floor.
Greeting Card Factory
Coloring can become a boring activity for kiddos because they do it so frequently. Direct the play by making it a Greeting Card Factory and ignite imaginations for lasting fun.
Start by grabbing white and/or colored 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper. Fold them in half to make large greeting cards. Leave some blank, but on others start them out by writing “Thank You!” or “Happy Birthday!” Sometimes I write the words very faintly so the kids have to trace each letter with a darker pen for practice writing.
Supply your kiddos with age-appropriate art supplies, like pens, Crayons, stickers, glitter glue, scissors, stamps and stencils. If you have a family member who is sick, get the kids going on Get Well cards. Heading into the holidays, have kids create cards for grandparents or other family members.
Another variation on this is to make a bunch of paper airplanes. Little ones can become discouraged with the art of folding a paper airplane, so quickly fold a few that they can color and then fly.
Simple, Free, Fun Guided Play
Keeping kids busy and away from the TV does not need to require tons of planning or even much direct parental involvement. With the toys you already have, some imagination, and a small amount of prep time, you can get toddlers, preschoolers and grade-schoolers rolling for tons of fun and educational play!
Find more great playtime ideas in one of my very favorite books: Unplugged Play.