Well, Hurricane Florence got me motivated to prep my house and hunker down, and as a mom of two little kids, that means more than making sure we have enough water, bread, and batteries. The more I started to think and prep for losing power, the more I began to realize how important it is to have activities for the kiddos. And I realized how easy it is to assemble new, free/cheap, fun activities for little kids with things you probably already have in your house!
This makes hurricane prep, power outages, sick days, or a boring afternoon just a little more fun and exciting. You can pack them away for the car or a trip, or only take them out in times like these to keep them exciting. Who doesn’t love a few cheap (or free) and activities that double as learning and fine- and gross-motor skill development?! Here are the top busy bag activities that I either had the supplies on hand to make already or found easily at the grocery store/pharmacy while I was out and about.
Paper Towel Tube Sorting
This one is a personal favorite because it’s readily available in most homes. If you don’t have paper towel tubes, chances are you have toilet paper tubes! Either one works. I literally just save a few of them in a bag in my dining room (craft room) and use them for everything.
You can cut them in half and glue or tape them together to make a pair of binoculars. You can use one for a telescope for “I Spy.” My 1 year old loves to put shapes down the tube and watch them fall into a container. Her favorite one is “see if the goldfish fit” and she giggles with delight whenever they fall through into her cup. You can use anything with the paper towel tube for this activity: Cheerios, cotton balls, small toys, anything you have on hand.
For older kids it can be used for estimation and measuring: size, length, width, weight, etc. Have them look at and hold the tube, then have them select toys from their room or a preselected box that they think will fit, be the same length as, etc. Whatever parameters you choose! Have fun with it!
Q-tip Snowflake Shapes
This one looks fancy because of the laminated cards pictured, but its not. Depending on the age of your children, you could even use toothpicks or pretzel sticks. This is a great early geometry activity for little kids.
Draw some shapes using straight lines on a paper (sticky note, index card, back of an envelope, construction paper, anything will do). They can be basic shapes like a triangle, square, snowflake, star, trapezoid, etc. Or they can be more fancy. Then have your child use their Q-tip (or stick, or pretzel, or toothpick) to build the shape using their items.
If you have more time to prepare ahead, you can try some out yourself or use the examples pictured. Laminating the cards just makes them last longer, but its not required at all. You can use plastic spoons and do a bigger version, too, which is great for littler kids or those who might need more help developing their fine motor skills.
Popsicle Stick Puzzle
This one is another easy one. I used the wide tongue-depressor sticks, but popsicle sticks or strips of construction paper work just as well. I got a pack of 100 popsicle sticks at Dollar Tree for $1. You can also cut up pieces of a box or other stiff cardboard.
Use a marker to draw or trace a fun shape and color it in (or have your child help!) Then cut into even strips. If you’re using the sticks, line them up and draw/color (use a non-skid mat under them while you’re drawing/coloring so they stay in place). Mine are 3 different colored mouse ear silhouettes. You don’t have to be an artist to do this one.
The great thing about the popsicle sticks is they all fit in a plastic baggie when you’re done, so it makes cleanup and storage easy. And it adds to the challenge the next time we use them: instead of sorting out one puzzle, they’ve gotta look through 3!
Pipe-cleaners and Straws
This one is another activity that can be modified very easily and simply if you don’t have pipe-cleaners or straws on hand. The other great thing about this activity is there doesn’t have to be a “point” to it. You can string the straws on pipe-cleaners to make beads on a necklace, or you can arrange by size, sort by color, etc. You can use them for adding/subtracting lessons. There are so many possibilities.
My neighbor happened to give some pipe-cleaners to us, so we had a supply on hand. Yarn, string, or even small sticks would work too.
Cut up a few drinking straws of different lengths to make sorting and stringing interesting. Different sizes, textures, and colors of straws just add to the fun and learning. Don’t have any straws? No problem! Dry noodles like penne work great, too!
Children love learning their colors, and many can recognize them by name in directions from an early age (my one year old can bring me a blue ball out of a mix of colors if I ask her for it).
This color matching game looks fancy: it’s a ruler with some colored paper glued to one side in a rainbow, and some clothes pins with the same colors glued to them. But, it’s super easy to make something similar WITHOUT the extra ruler and clothes pins on hand. Cutting up construction paper, or shoot — color your own white paper using a pen or marker! If you have the clothes pins but no paper, you can color directly on the clothes pins!
The big idea is color recognition and matching, the other benefits are skills like manipulating the clothes pins, and the double set of colors helps make the game last a little longer. Sometimes we use just the clothes pin pieces to clip them to other things around the room/house that are that color. “Can you clip this purple clothes pin on the purple shirt in the room? Who is wearing a purple shirt in here today?”
You can use it as a behavior chart. The colors don’t have to be a rainbow, though I always like them. Can’t color or cut straight? Grab some of the paint chips from Home Depot in the colors you like — just don’t forget to grab 2 of each so you can make your clothes pins (while you’re at Home Depot, grab some pain stirrers — they’re free and they work great instead of a ruler!)
Feed the Monster
An old Glad or Ziplock container with a hole cut in it! So easy. We had some markers and googly eye stickers on hand to make it more fancy, but the effect is the same: something to sort shapes in. We used the lids to those puree pouches, but Gatorade bottle lids, pompoms, cotton balls, small toys, snacks will do. Just be careful that whatever items you choose don’t end up around small children unattended — no one needs to be choking on our good, clean fun here!
Depending on what you have and the age of your kids, you can give instructions: feed the monster yellow food, or feed the monster only odd numbers, or feed the monster the letters of your name. We had a TON of these leftover from another activity we did, so we had enough to label with letters/numbers for my 3 year old.
My 1 year old loves learning how to take the lid off, dumping the container, trying to put the lid back on, and putting whatever she can find inside the hole. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Small and Large Sorting
This one was probably the toughest one to make. Even though I had these items on hand, I didn’t quite have the best tools for the job at my disposal.
I took a small reusable plastic salad dressing container that I had previously purchased from Dollar Tree for $1/5-pack, but any Glad or Ziplock container as above would work, too. The grilled nugget containers from Chick-fil-A also work really well (did you know those could be dishwashed and reused? Yay for recycling!) I used a hole punch to make small holes in the lid (this is where the small salad dressing size of the container came in really handy because the hole punch actually fit). Then I used scissors to cut out a bigger hole. This was the awkward part — I tried an eXacto knife, but mine wasn’t sharp enough to be done easily.
Once you have different size holes in the lid, put the lid back on and use it to sort cotton balls, pompoms, Q-tips, or anything else around those sizes.
Egg Crate Sorting
Egg crate sorting is a super easy activity. You just take an empty egg carton of any size (6, 12, 18, doesn’t matter) and color the insides whatever colors you have (marker, paint, etc). Use pompoms, puree pouch lids, beads, colored noodles, etc. and let your child sort the items into the colored bins.
The cardboard egg cartons work the best for this one because they hold paint better, but our grocery store doesn’t always sell them. The clear ones work too, and are actually really fun for other learning activities like mixing colors (cut up and use a red one and a yellow one, hold them in front of a light, and see how they make orange), guessing how many are inside, and sensory bins with different textures inside (describe how they look and guess how they feel).
My little 1 year old LOVES this one. Basically it’s a cleaned out takeout food container with multiple compartments, pompoms, and a spoon. My oldest loves to sort by color, but the babe enjoys stirring and scooping. She spent an hour the other day scooping from one container to the other!
The great thing about this is that really it’ll work with any container, and any objects you already have: beads, goldfish, pretzels, Cheerios, pompoms, cotton balls, noodles, you name it — whatever age appropriate thing you have on hand! Plastic spoon, metal spoon, ladle, ice cream scoop, etc. Easy!
Got any of those Take and Toss plastic cups around? Take a few of those, a flashlight, and a blanket/dark closet, and learn how to mix colors. Hold up a red cup and a blue cup to the light and see how they make purple. Red and yellow, orange. Etc. This is a great one for when the power is out. It sometimes works in the daylight too depending on how much sun you have.
A few years ago I did a free busy bag exchange with 19 other moms. We each made 20 of one item on a list and then met up to exchange them. Each mom walked away with 20 activities for their busy bag. Each one was handmade and it was a really fun experience! I recommend doing things this way. That said, I’ve got many more of these types of activities for my girls to use in addition to these, but in the interest of keeping it cheap, easy, and hurricane-prep friendly, I opted not to list them in this post.
Leave a comment below if you’ve got any to add to the “cheap (or free) and easy” category for those who might not have the ability or means to go out and buy new supplies. What other items that you have on hand could double as a toddler sensory activity?!