I’m always on the lookout for stuff that will engage the kids in quiet play without resorting to the all-consuming smartphone or tablet. Obviously, we do sometimes use our mobile devices to entertain the kids when we’re out and about, but for me, it’s a last resort. Having seen how easily kids become glued to their screens and how difficult it is for them to let go, I figure it’s always good to have something else up your sleeve!
So here are my top ten alternatives to handing over your phone.
Note: I’ve tried to list things that are reasonably lightweight, compact, minimal mess and easy to share for those with multiple kids. I’ve also tried to keep it to things which encourage conversation and imagination!
Warning: These activities may require varying amounts of parent participation.
This is the one I always have in my bag, and one of the most versatile of distractions for pretty much all ages. The bare minimum is a tatty notebook and a pencil, but often I’ll bring a small set of watercolour pencils / retractable crayons and a small pad of paper.
Other fun options include: water brushes, highlighters, stencils, and invisible ink spy pens
Usually I just hand the supplies over and the girls get on with it, but sometimes it helps to have some ideas if they can’t decide what to do – draw a treasure map, play hangman, make coin rubbings.
“But isn’t it easier to draw on the iPad?”
From my experience, drawing and colouring apps for kids can be a relatively crude experience on a tablet. The “haptic feedback” is just different – my kids just draw a lot better with pencil and paper. They can be distracted by too many options – novelty brushes, stickers and the like – and there is no motivation to draw deliberately and carefully as unlimited fresh starts are a mere click away. Instead of persevering with drawing something challenging, it is easy to give up and do something else when there are loads of other apps. Instead of creatively trying to incorporate a mistake – they’ll just delete everything and start again.
These issues aren’t necessarily applicable to a more mature user who is using a tablet as a drawing tool, but has honed skills outwith the digital realm. But for kids at this age, I’d go for real pens and paper every time.
The difference may seem trivial, but these are the little grit-and-patience-forming moments that build character.
2. Crazy Aaron’s Thermochromic (heat sensitive colour change) Putty
Ok this one is really for the over 3s, but is one of our most-played-with tabletop amusements. It’s got a really tactile feel – firm but easily malleable, really elastic and bouncy if shaped into a ball, super shiny when moulded against a smooth surface. It’s great for keeping hands busy and the temperature-sensitive colour change properties are impressive too (although we have found it works much better in UK’s climate than in hot Singapore). Pressing a blob of it on a cold glass or hot mug works well!
We’ve had the tin for about 9 months and it’s been surprisingly durable – but we do make sure the kids have clean hands and a clean surface before taking it out to play. Another tip: avoid making the putty too stringy – it’s is harder to remove from hair and clothes if it gets stuck!
I’ll admit – even I love playing with it – and we’ve bought the glow-in-the-dark, magnetic, and liquid-glass versions! (Yes, I think I could write an entire blog post about this putty.) They all vary slightly in terms of consistency and “stickiness”, but I think the thermochromic one is the most durable and easiest to handle for little ones.
3. Multiple mirrors
Two plastic mirrors taped together make a surprisingly fun toy. The girls love exploring the patterns you can make with different objects (coins, jewellery, snacks) as you vary the angle between the mirrors. Combine with paper and crayons for more fun! Draw a slice of cake/pizza and multiply it into a whole one. Split the mirrors apart and kids can explore the infinity effect.
I remember the girls even enjoyed using the mirrors to bounce sunlight on to other surfaces (or chase moving lights as I reflected them around!).
I got our little plastic mirrors at 50p each on sale from Habitat – great because they’re shatterproof and have safely rounded corners.
It’s reasonably easy to keep a small pack of origami paper in your bag. For little ones you’ll probably have to fold something for them – boats, balloons and little animals are easy to make for kids to play with and decorate. You can look up some instructions on your phone if you don’t know where to start!
Paper aeroplanes are great (but not at restaurants!) and there are loads of interesting options beyond the basics, like this record-breaking model which we have tried!
Kids also love fortune tellers (remember those?!) – make a couple of blank ones and the kids can spend ages designing and playing with them! Or you can download and print this one I made on A4 paper to get you started.
Slightly older kids might be interested in modular origami – sonobe units are simple to make – Miss Chu can fold ones that are not perfect, but good enough to fit together. And then you’re just a few steps away from cubes, pyramids, icosahedrons… yes, this one is for secret math geeks.
5. Googly eyes
Googly eyes can bring the unlikeliest of items to life – these have a brilliant silliness factor. Keep a small stash in your coin purse and create instant puppets from almost anything. My kids like taking photos of their creations; you could even make mini videos or stop-motion animations. Tip: bring bluetack or gluedots and non self-adhesive eyes for reusable sticky fun!
Can be combined with ideas 1,4 or 9 to good effect.
6. Activity sheets / puzzle books
An obvious choice and great if you’ve got several kids at the café table. Sometimes I’ll bring along an Usbourne Activity book, but I also tend to have a stash of colouring / puzzle sheets that I’ve printed off the computer at home that the kids can choose from and bring along on little clipboards.
Puzzles are actually something that the iPad handles well – you can get an endless supply and they provide reasonably sensible amusement. But I think it’s important to note that with certain games – like wordsearches for example – the app allows kids to “guess” by swiping their fingers up and down the rows and columns without really looking for words at all. There can often be a “press-all-the-buttons-until-it-works” approach which clearly doesn’t engage the mind in the same way.
Out of all the little travel games we have, Dobble has been Little Miss’ favourite, as it can be played even by the very young. Every card has several pictures on it but there is only one match on every pair of cards. You can play in various ways, but all involve spotting that picture match between any two cards.
8. Measuring tape / mini ruler / spirit level
A little retractable measuring tape is surprisingly entertaining. Little ones just love pulling out the tape and pressing the retractable button. Slightly older kids enjoy measuring and comparing random things. “Is this spoon bigger than your ear?” Another opportunity for mathematical conversation here.
And Miss Chu finds spirit levels oddly fascinating – she likes to check how straight things are!
9. Play foam
My favourite on-the-go alternative to play dough. Really light, holds together, doesn’t get annoyingly stuck to fabric / carpet, and doesn’t ever dry out! Make pretend food, or combine with googly eyes for funny puppets. Even good for making silly prosthetic Pinocchio noses.
But not good for kids who still mouth things.
10. Rubiks cube
Did you know it is the world’s best-selling toy ever? Miss Chu got a 2×2 cube for Christmas and it has been doing our heads in ever since. But it’s a good bit of amusement for the waiting room. I think that soft clackety-clack is quite satisfying. And it sure is challenging enough to last a long, long while!
Hope this list comes in handy for some of you. I usually carry around 2-3 options at a time in my bag. If you’ve got any other portable fun to be had for kids – do add your ideas in the comments!