Here are ideas for keeping kids busy while you need to get things done around the house. None of them will make a mess, and most can be done with items you have around the house already.
Magnets: make magnets for kids so that they can play with them while you are cooking
You will need: 8 x 10 picture, 8 x 10 piece of cardboard, glue, magnet strip
Glue the picture to the cardboard
Cut the picture into pieces (make large, regular shapes for younger children, and small, irregular shapes for older children)
Glue a small piece of the magnetic strip on each piece picture piece
Show your kids how the picture fits together, then separate the pictures and let them try to put it together like a puzzle
Letter or word magnets
Buy magnet sets where each magnet is a letter (for younger children) or each magnet is a word (for older children)
Have children put together the letters to make words, or put together the words to make sentences
Cookie sheet magnets
Glue green wrapping paper or tissue paper (cut to fit) onto a cookie sheet that you do not plan to use again. Purchase small figurines, houses, buildings, and cars from a used toy store. Glue magnets to the bottoms of these toys, and let the children create a little town.
Use your imagination to create variations of the above description: you can use clothes on the outline of a person or facial features on the outline of a face.
Beads: Buy a lot of inexpensive beads in a variety of colors – make sure that they’re big enough to find if scattered across the floor!
Separate by color: Give the child a lot of little dishes and have them separate the beads by color, so that the yellows are all in one dish, the blues are all in one dish, and so on
Make a pattern: Give the child a string or shoelace and ask them to make a pattern with the beads, for instance, red, purple, red, purple, and so on. If they are too young to understand patterns, they will enjoy just stringing the beads.
Get double prints of pictures of people your child knows such as close friends or grandparents. Cut out the picture so that you just see the person’s face (to about wallet size), and laminate so they make little cards. Mix all of them up, and have your kids try to find matches.
Fill a large sandwich bag with play-doh, kids’ play gel, or sand. Hide very small toys in the bag and cover them up. Seal the bag very tight, and have the kids look for items and tell you what the find. For younger kids, it will be fun for them to just play with the bag and squish it in their hands. You can also make “goop” by either using uncooked biscuit dough, or through the following: mix 2 cups salt, 1 cup water, 1 cup cornstarch; cook salt and ½ cup water for 5 minutes on medium heat, remove from heat and add cornstarch and remaining water, return to heat and stir until mixture thickens.
Make a book of different textures. You can use fabric scraps or any flat (or almost flat) household object.
Let them play with packing material. Kids love to pop bubble wrap. You can also give them a sheet or small box of Styrofoam and objects that are sharp enough to stick in the Styrofoam, but not sharp enough to hurt them (such as golf tees or bobby pins).
Gather up some of the child’s smaller toys. After making a list of them, hide them in nearby places. Using the list, tell your child the name of one toy at a time and have them go find it. Once they find it, tell them the name of the next toy on the list.
Scavenger Hunt: Write down a list of items that the child will be able to find in the area you are working. See how quickly the children can find the items.
Create a masking tape obstacle course. This works best on carpet, but will work on wood floors too. You can create a target for them to throw a ball in (show them how to try and hit the bull’s eye). You can also create a masking tape hopscotch, or create parallel lines and see how far they can jump (trying to jump to the farthest line). Make one long straight line to have them pretend like they are walking on the balance beam, and then many little circles so they can jump from one to the other.
Some of the ideas earlier in this list may be adapted for younger children, so look through those first.
I’ve found that younger children are most easily entertained with household objects, rather than toys. My children always enjoyed cooking utensils, inexpensive jewelry, and magazines.
You can make simple, inexpensive toys that children love. You can fill an empty can or canister with beans or rocks and put the lid on for a noisemaker. Or, you can cut strips of paper and make them into rings, intertwined with each other to make a chain. Children will be able to pull them apart, but it will provide just enough of a challenge to keep them busy for a while.
Food usually keeps children entertained longer than toys. Sometimes, sitting your young child in his or her highchair with finger food will give you enough time to finish a few chores.
Young children love to see themselves; you can set up a large mirror for them to look in for fun.
Fill up a plastic water bottle with water, a little food coloring, and a few small toys. Tape the lid on tight! Children like to watch the toys floating around in the water.
Fill up a bucket with a variety of objects including large rocks, tissue paper, and household objects. Let them dig through the bucket and explore the items.
Build up a tower with Legos, Lincoln Logs, or paper towel rolls and let them destroy it. Young children aren’t yet able to build structures, but they love to destruct them.
Ready-Made Bags: Keep a small bag of toys in a common area of the house; I like to keep one for each of the following activities, and this is the only time the kids can use this bag
Telephone bag (for when I’m on an important call): Play-Doh and plastic cookie cutters
Baby-Sitter bag (for when the babysitter comes over): 2 books, 1 movie, 1 travel-size board game
Laundry bag (for when I’m folding laundry): a small bag of doll-size or infant-size clothes so that they can fold clothes with me; a small basketball with a hoop that I can set up right next to the laundry station
I’m Bored Jar: This is a mason jar that I keep with all of the activity ideas described above; when the kids are bored I let them pull out an idea.