Cheap indoor entertainment on dark rainy evenings? Talk amongst yourselves.

Stephanie asks:

I have a friend at work who has an 12-year old step-son and a 2-year old son at home. Now that it’s dark after work, she can’t take the boys to the park to play. The family lives in the suburbs, so it’s harder to find indoor activities.

The complicating factor is the family has almost no money, so stocking up on expensive DVDs, board games, or classes is out of the question. Do hackers out there have any tips for cheaply (freely?) entertaining a tween and toddler on cold, rainy evenings?

Ooo, brainstorming rainy day fun! Excellent. My vote would be the tried-and-true indoor obstacle course of pillows, cushions, and anything else you can get your hands on. I also just happened to come across  the book "101 Activities for Kids in Tight Spaces" in a doctor’s waiting room earlier this week. There were some good ideas in there even though the book is geared toward 3-7 year olds.

What say you? Extra points for stuff that gets the body moving (since park play is what she’s trying to replace.)


  1. Sarah in Pittsburgh says

    How about an indoor scavenger hunt?
    Hide objects around the house for each child (easier to find for the two year old and really hard to find for the 12 year old). If your friend would rather not spend time hiding things, have the kids look for objects that can be found in plain sight. Just be energetic and make it seem like a race. READY, SET, GO!!!
    1. Find ten objects that are red (or are circles, or are fuzzy, etc).
    2. Find ten objects that start with the letter D.
    3. Find 26 objects that each start with a different letter of the alphabet.

  2. says

    Never underestimate the power of the aerobics DVD. Or yoga. Or the Wiggles. There are lots of great videos and DVDs out there that actually get kids (and adults) moving, rather than just being couch-potato fodder…

    Also, fort building! Give ‘em a pile of sheets and blankets, a flashlight and some books, and you’re good to go for an hour or more.

    Oh, and two more little words: Dance party!! :)

  3. Cat says

    a quick add-on to the second comment – I get DVD’s and CDs from our public library – so it’s a free activity. My 7 year old and I have recently started watching some of the classics (Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Singing in the Rain, etc.).

    Some libraries also have puzzles and games that you can check out. And of course – books!!!

  4. Cat says

    one more idea – last night, my husband, 2 year old and 7 year old had fun sitting around the table making various creations out of playdough. And of course blocks and legos are great – you may be able to find these at Goodwill.

  5. Lauren says

    Have the 12-year-old write a play that the whole family can then act out (keeping in mind the 2-yr-old’s limitations). Set your camcorder on the tripod and watch it together afterwards!

  6. CarolinaDivina says

    cardboard boxes and paper grocery bags scissors tape and markers – the 12 year old can help create big spaceships or submarines and the 2 year old can play in and out of them – i used paper bags as spacemen suits or robot suits – simply cut a hole at the bottom of the bag and 2 on the sides and draw buttons and gears on the bags to make the robot stuff

  7. Lynne says

    I also do a lot of free DVDs from the library, as well as audio books in the car, which holds my 5-year old’s attention (I guess she is a captive audience that way.) There is also always cooking/baking with your kids, and making your own play dough (add glitter and scents!) We also recently went bowling with another family, a very fun and inexpensive geometry/physics lesson! One more suggestion – bundle up and go outside anyway, even just to your own backyard to look at stars, being out in the dark with a safe adult is very exciting for kids!

  8. Reswob says

    We planned ahead for days like that when we finished our basement. We made 1/2 of the basement their play area, completely open. We also made sure they could run in circles from the playroom, through the school room (we homeschool), to the office and back into the playroom (and around and around and around…).

    With three boys, this unobstructed path means various games of chase, tag, “I’m gonna getcha”, etc can burn lots of energy without going outside.

    Now… If I could just contain them and the noise downstairs….


  9. trifles says

    Remembering my tender youth (where there were few toys, many siblings, and a lot of cold winter days):

    -The Floor Is Made of Lava Game (which can be dangerous to furniture, but I imagine there are ways to adjust for more couch-safe playing — though it’s only good for maybe twenty minutes before all the good “routes” are discovered)

    -The Spy Game
    (adapted from a Klutz book my siblings and I devoured, this is where you carefully map out the entire house, how many steps everything takes, where all the good hidey holes are, everywhere there’s a creak… this one’s good for an afternoon, particularly if there’s more than one kid involved)

    -The Secret Society Game
    (a variant on The Spy Game. Multiple siblings again a plus. Involves creating handshakes, code phrases, secrets symbols, and a headquarters)

    -The Fort Game
    (already mentioned above, there’s always plenty of soft goods around to make the ultimate fort. Consider what goods/service should be available to live forever in your fort — could be a good way to discuss go-bags? Can be related to The Secret Society Game)

    -The Tree House Game
    (variant of The Fort Game. exemplified by the following xkcd comic:

    While this may not be directly helpful for the twelve-year-old/two-year-old indoor dilemma, this might get some gears turning!

  10. linuxgrl says

    once a month we go to the Super Thrift and stock up on cheap ($1-$2) used games, books, toys, etc. I store them away for rainy days. It’s exciting to see the kids get all crazy over the “Secret Rainy Day Treasures”

  11. helene says

    I second the recommendation for both the library and the thrift shop. Our library has books/videos/dvds/books on CD. The Children’s room also has toys and computer software to check out.

    Thrift shops are likely to have sporting equipment, puzzles, games, toys, books, dress-up clothes, etc.

    Perhaps they can also gather with other families and trade off houses, other peoples’ houses can be way more interesting than one’s own house in the middle of winter.

    and they can still be outside, if the weather’s not that bad…

  12. says

    I agree with CarolinaDivina’s recommendation of cardboard box fun, but I’d like to specify: Big, Huge, Box! Like the kind refrigerators come in. They take up space it’s true but you can play with them for hours. Good for making a house/fort/castle/pirate ship, and you can color or paint it inside and out. One of the funniest things we did with a big box was cut out a hole the size and height of a child’s face, then the kids drew a funny elf body on the outside so whoever peeked through the hole became a ridiculous looking elf. We have the photos to prove it!
    Oh, did anyone mention Twister? Lots of fun, very active and silly, good for many ages, and not much money– I’ve found it in yard sales and thrift stores.

  13. Lisa says

    We just moved to Seattle from sunny Southern California, so this post is right up my alley. We were used to spending at least 5 hours a day outside, so it’s been a HUGE adjustment.

    I do scour thrift shops and craigslist, but what I’ve mainly done is create a pretend park in our garage. 6×8′ faux grass carpet (fancy astroturf, I guess), and I bought a used sand box. Then I filled it with “safe sand” (it’s safer than normal play sand, cleaner, more fun and easier to tidy up after —, and only filled it up with 1/6th the normal amount of sand, so it doesn’t go every where. Turned a bookcase we were storing on it’s side and put in small plastic storage containers forted by craft or toy type. The art easel is out there, too. What’s great is that it’s the garage, so who cares if a little paint or sand goes anywhere (we’re lucky enough to have a good window in there, and lighting). The thing is,we don’t go in all the time — so it stays special. And he’s delighted!

  14. Karen says

    If they are so inspired, they could spend some time writing to the local government urging that lights be set up in the park or at a school playground, so that kids CAN play there after 5:00 all year.

  15. Karen says

    I forgot to add in my comment above: this is what we did last night: practiced our Christmas carols! My son is 3 1/2 so his favorite was “Deck the halls” (no words for half the song). My husband plays the guitar, but even without that, anyone who can talk can sing. We gave our son a shaker, and I drummed on the table. My son and I danced from time to time. If you sing every verse, it fills a lot of time and is physically tiring to some extent, although obviously not a replacement for running around and climbing.

  16. says

    Pull out the flashlights! Turn off all the lights and play with shadows, making faces, etc. We like the have the kids stand still and the flashlight moving behind them to make their shadows jump and dance around, or the flashlight gets closer and further away making their shadows get larger and smaller. Other fun will ensue as the kids get ideas of their own. Great on a late summer night outside as well! If you have glowsticks, you can use these for similar shadow fun, hide-and-seek, etc. :D

  17. hedra says

    Brab beat me to it. We used to play with flashlights.

    I also discovered in my childhood attempts to make something or other, that crumpling up foil and then flattening it and putting it over the end of a paper-towel tube made a marvelous ‘constellations on another planet’ activity. The crumples tend to create very small holes, and when you look at something bright through the tube, you get the image of a starry sky… but not OUR starry sky, so it must be someone else’s. I would spend ages inventing new constellations, giving them names, inventing the story of why those ‘other people’ called it that, and mapping them. More for the older kid, though.

    Definitely spent ages learning to make shadow puppets.

    Charades is a possibility as well. You can coach the younger one through being an animal, with none of the complex guessing involved.

    Various tag alternatives can be invented, as well – crawling tag, animal tag (you have to move like the animal the previous person tagged you with, etc.).

    And there’s always Calvin Ball (invent new rules as you go, a la Calvin and Hobbes). B plays this with his grandma, with most games, board games included. They’ve been playing Calvin Ball Chinese Checkers lately (rules change on each turn, pretty much!).

  18. Susan says

    Do they have a local YMCA? I know the one in our area has a ton for kids and families to do. Swimming, open gym, a big play room called the Adventure room. They also offer free child care up to 90 minutes so the parents can also work out. I know you said money is tight….The YMCA also offers finacial assistance.

  19. Jean says

    – old sofa cushions as ersatz trampolines, free
    — yoga cards, $15
    — yoga ball, $20
    — fun cooking utensils (rotary grater, handpowered egg beater, child-safe slicers, salad spinner), $2-$30
    — removable doorway chin-up bars, $20
    — swingset gymnastic “rings” from Ikea, $15
    –nerf basketball, $5
    — musical instruments, $ varies
    — hard plastic office floormat for tap dancing, $15
    — shiny paper plates turned upside down for carpet skating, $4
    — adjustable wooden balance board, $35
    — aluminum foil for building, $4
    — squares of toilet paper for juggling practice, almost free
    — plexiglass nailed to wall, to paint on, $8

    — never having to attach my kids to the electronic teat while I make dinner, priceless!

  20. Mari says

    Okay, not ALL malls have play places… but most newer ones do. There’s a big new(ish) mall fairly close to us that has an indoor play place and a HUGE outside sandbox… or sand patio. Granted, the older child may want to shop more than play with the younger, but I see lots of older kids having fun there too!

  21. says

    Great suggestions above!

    We also like to play in the sink filled with water, pouring into cups and teapots, and then having a tea party picnic with water tea.

    Go Fish is a card game that can include a really young kid who is just old enough to know their numbers.

    As well as building forts and with boxes and many great suggestions above, my daughter also loves climbing a ladder and seeing how TALL she can be, and using her play tools to “fix” things around the house.

    This is also a good time for art – painting, finger-painting (can be done with cheap instant pudding for yummy results), playdough, etc. You can turn this into a game of pictionary easily.

    Good old games like musical chairs, freeze, hide-and-seek, simon says, if you’re happy and you know it. They all encourage movement and are fun group games.

    Music, too. Create shakers with rice and bottles or yogurt containers, make guitars of shoeboxes and elastics, stretch balloons or wax paper over large empty cans for drums, use the old faves the spoons or the wax-paper-and-comb kazoo, not to mention all the body and mouth sounds you can make. There are lots of great books with songs in them or with actions and action rhymes to help out if you are lacking in inspiration. Or just put on a fave CD and dance!

  22. misty says

    I saw the YMCA was mentioned but I wanted to add my family benefits from their financial aid service. We pay sixty dollars every six months… While it may seem difficult to come up with at times, it’s beyond worth it. We get 2 hours of childcare while exercising. This includes free swim lessons, financial assistance for any additional classes you wish to put your family members in. Also, when we get our tax return, I instantly buy a membership to our zoo *sixty bucks for the year. Much of the zoo is indoors so it’s great in the winter too.

  23. Alex says

    I have a mix CD of movement songs like the Hokey Pokey. It’s a relic from my old teaching days but I bet most library systems have similar things that you could copy.

  24. Kathy says

    When my sister was small, we used to play a hide-the-whatever game. She would go in the other room, and I would hide the chosen object for her to find, which she would do using “You’re getting warmer”-type clues. Mom can hide the object (with the help of the 2 y/o) for the 12 y/o to find, and the 12 y/o can hide the object for the 2 y/o (and mom) to find. It at least gets them moving around and interacting with each other.