Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

6 simple, cheap stay-at-home activities

Easy, active fun for your little ones at a time when we're all looking for ways to be entertained at home.


Think back to your own childhood memories of being outside. Chances are they are quite simple; playing freeze tag in the grass, dripping cherry popsicles as you ran through the sprinkler, or hammering together a tree house with some wood you found in the garage.

Now that you are all grown up and the school year is winding down, plan to recreate these memories and more with your own family this summer. Simple, inexpensive fun can be had in your own backyard, using supplies you already have tucked away in your cupboards and closets. So fill up the kiddie pool and let the fun begin!


Outdoor, washable mural

This one is always a hit with my family, and can take up many hours on a sunny day. (Warning, you have to let go and enjoy the mess.) Invite your friends and neighbors and hand out paint brushes of all sizes, even the big ones that you use for the walls. Set out watercolors, water in plastic containers, and plenty of washable paint measured out in empty yogurt containers. Include chalk; when the colors get wet they become extra bright.

Then, let the kids go to work on any paintable surface. It's so much fun to see the look on a child's face when they know they have the freedom to create, and get messy doing it. We've painted our driveway, fences, sidewalks, patios, rocks and stones, even our wooden swing set. Rain or a hose will wash it all away, but never the memory of a great afternoon.



Yes, marbles! I've turned a bunch of video-playing boys into old school marble champions. You probably already have a jar of marbles somewhere in your house, but if you don't, local toy stores usually have a good supply. Spend some time choosing your favorites. They come in all colors and sizes, and are really beautiful when you take the time to look at them.

To get started on your game, find a flat surface, like a patio or a large piece of plywood. Use chalk, a piece of string, or painter's tape to create a "trashcan lid" size circle. Next, have each player choose their "shooter," or a marble that is larger than the others. Place all of the smaller marbles inside the circle. Flick your thumb to use the shooter to try and knock the marbles out of the circle. Take turns. The person who knocks the most marbles out wins.

For official rules of the game, visit or simply make up your own rules. We've had marble races, tried to hit targets with marbles, and played a variation of "Go Fish" with them. Your little ones will enjoy hunting for marbles in their sandboxes, too. Sometimes a "pirate" comes into our backyard and buries marble treasure!


Life-size family portraits

This will most likely reduce your family to hysterics. All that you need are some markers and a wide roll of butcher's paper. Or, you can cut up paper bags and tape them together with enough space for someone to lie down on top. If you don't have paper, try chalk on a driveway or patio.

Take turns tracing each other. This may take a long time, depending on the tickle factor in your family. Personalize your self-portrait. Color in your favorite outfit, a hat and shoes. Add yarn for hair, or glitter for jewelry. Don't forget your pets, although you will most likely have to improvise with them. Finally, cut out your family and hang them in your hallway, or take a funny photo of your paper family and send it to grandparents.



Homemade playdough is surprisingly easy to make. Bring it outside and you won't have to scrape it off of your kitchen floor! Heres a tried-and-true recipe:


1 cup flour

½ cup salt

1 cup water

1 tablespoons oil

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Mix and stir constantly over medium heat. The mixture will begin to clump. When the mixture becomes thick, like dough, remove it from the pan and knead it on a floured surface.

We like to add food coloring and glitter to make it fancy. Step outside the cookie cutter box, and find things in nature to sculpt your dough. Sticks, pinecones and shells make interesting patterns. When you are finished, store your playdough for a few days in an airtight container.


Silent walk

If you need to get out of your own backyard, try a silent walk. Everyone has to promise that they won't make any noise after you walk out the front door. It doesn't have to be a long walk. While you are out, observe the sights and sounds around you. When you come back, have the children write or draw what they saw, heard and felt. The results can be amazing – a bird you never noticed, a tree branch brushing against a fence, or the neighbor's annoying weed whacker. In our fast-paced world, it's a nice change to slow down and look at your neighborhood in a different way. This activity also goes along nicely with an afternoon nap in the shade.


Memory journals

You may want to include your silent walk findings in a journal. Our family has been keeping journals since before the kids knew how to write. They each have their own binders with personally decorated covers and plastic sleeves inside for their papers to slip into. On the first day of summer vacation, we open them up and remember our past summers. Gather everyone around the table, hand out paper and markers, and pick a different theme for each day.

Kids love being interviewed. Ask them about their current favorite sports, foods and friends. Include a page for "your favorite event," and "what I want to learn this summer." Every year we write a poem, and make a collage out of old magazines. Be sure to write the year and date on each page. As the years speed by, children's drawings turn from smiley faces to cursive writing, and the memories become even more cherished. 




Tonya J. Cunningham is a freelance writer and poet living in Lake Forest Park. When her three children aren’t in their usual cleats and ballet slippers, she loads them into the van and leads them on new adventures.

Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in summer of 2014.