12 Ways To Keep Kids Busy Playing When They’re Stuck Inside

Beat the snow, rain, or even heat with quick activities that everyone can participate in.

by Ben Marx
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images

Keeping kids entertained when playing outside isn’t an option can require a lot of work or a bit of imagination. While pent-up energy can turn children into free radicals, ping-ponging off the walls, it can also build momentum in the direction of fun. All that parents need to do to ensure the best results is provide a clear focus or outlet. That’s where games — and not just board games — come in. By creating safe play spaces (in the rhetorical and physical sense), parents allow children to get it all out without antagonizing the cat. This is why it’s so critical that parents keep a few great indoor games in their back pockets. Sure, the weather will improve, but until it does it’s good to have a back-up plan.

The indoor activities for kids below can all be set up in minimal time and though they won’t exactly cure cabin fever, they’ll ensure that kids are too busy to spend the afternoon poking electrical outlets with forks. And, yes, some of these games are likely to devolve into horseplay or roughhousing. That’s fine. So be it. Structured play isn’t the solution to unstructured play, it’s the solution the most pressing question any parent can ask when the weather gets bad: What do we do now?

Pass the Story

Prep Time: 1 minute (time for you find a ball).

Entertainment Time: About 30 minutes or about 15 minutes a story.

What You’ll Need: A soft, large ball. Inflatable beach balls are ideal.

Pass the Story is an interactive group story-telling game that relies almost entirely on imagination. One person starts a story (“Once upon a time…”), and then passes a ball to the next person to continue it. The game can last as long or as short as the group decides the story should go (“The End”). It’s a great way for school-age kids to feel included in story time and makes them stay on their toes.

The Spider Game

Prep Time: None

Entertainment Time: Up to 20 minutes

What You’ll Need: A smallish blanket, ideally the size of a crib or stroller blanket. You need to be able to both throw it and wrap it around a child’s body.

“Hide and Seek” meets “Cat and Mouse” in the Spider Game. The player designated as the “Spider” stays put on one spot on the floor, holding their blanket ready. The other participants play the role of “Prey,” who start the game by running a designated path around the house. Every time the Prey passes by, the Spider gets an opportunity to toss their blanket and ensnare them with their “spider silk.” If the blanket touches any part of their body as they run by, they’re considered “caught,” and if it doesn’t the Spider has to keep trying. The round ends when every Prey is caught.

Magic Box

Prep Time: About 10 minutes

Entertainment Time: 20 minutes or more

What You’ll Need:

  • A medium-sized cardboard box that’s been opened at the top.
  • A box cutter or something sharp to cut into the box.
  • Markers, glitter glue, stickers, feathers – whatever crafts you like.
  • Trinkets from around the house.

The Magic Box is a sleight-of-hand trick that might just convince your kid that they have magical abilities. Let them spend some time decorating the “magic” box any way they wish. Then, when they aren’t looking, cut a narrow flap on one of the short sides, and grab whatever trinkets you want to magically appear. Explain to all the players that the box is very, very special, and ask them to wish hard for something to appear. For extra security, you can ask them to close their eyes. Insert the trinket through the slot and wait a few moments for dramatic effect before opening up the box and revealing what appeared.

Obstacle Course

Prep Time: About 30 minutes.

Entertainment Time: 20 minutes to two hours.

What You’ll Need:

  • Things to jump over, onto, or from. Interlocking foam play mats and tumbling mats are great. So are ropes, toys, cushions, and very stable pieces of furniture.
  • Things to crawl under or through. If you don’t already have a play tunnel, pull a sheet taut and have them crawl under it, army style.
  • Things to throw. Make a station where aim is important. Throwing is a skill very young kids can develop.
  • Things to balance on. An extra piece of woods in the shed can be a balance beam. So can a floorboard if everyone agrees it’s surrounded by lava.

Building an indoor obstacle course is an age-old classic that feels just as fun every time you do it. The best way to make an obstacle course feel fresh is to set up or rearrange different stations with unique challenges. It doesn’t have to all be big structures, you can keep things simple, like having to carry a ping pong ball with a spoon around the whole house before proceeding, or dragging something heavy past a line.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images

The Detective Game

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Hours of Entertainment: About 30 minutes

What You’ll Need:

  • Something to hide. It can be anything, but the game works better if it’s either sentimental or edible.
  • A series of clues, which can be either actual objects that point to another part of the house or a piece of paper with a riddle, question, or other written message. They should be understandable to a child and small enough to be hidden.
  • Props, like a fake magnifying glass or Sherlock Holmes hat. Not required, but certainly fun.

The Detective Game makes your kid feel like a true sleuth by following a series of clues to uncover something special you’ve hidden somewhere in the house. Pick something they’ll really want back to add to the excitement, like a favorite toy, stuffed animal, or candy. Work backward to hide your clues around the house when your kid’s not looking, and start the game by informing them that the object’s missing and nudge them towards the first hint.

Happy Fun Time

Prep Time: Less than five minutes

Entertainment Time: Twenty minutes

What You’ll Need:

  • A whiteboard and dry-erase markers, or an easel with poster paper and markers.
  • A zany getup/silly hat for the host; last year’s Halloween garb usually works.
  • The material/curriculum you want to quiz your kiddos on.
  • Stuffed animals/items from the toy box to serve as prizes.

Start by making the Happy Fun Time game board by drawing a grid of squares. The grid can be 4×4 or 5×5 or any number, depending on how long you want the game to last. Fill in each square with a vocabulary word, a shape, an arithmetic problem, or anything related to what your kid is currently learning. Then, get into character as the host of your game show. Introduce your contestants and hype them up for the challenge ahead. Explain the rules: Contestants buzz in by raising their hands, and they get one point for each correct answer. Cross out each box after someone gets it right, and once the whole board is crossed out, tally up the score and issue “prizes” to each contestant

The Pillow Game

Prep Time: None

Entertainment Time: 3-8 minutes (or however long you can keep it going)

What You’ll Need:

  • A bath mat or soft surface for a child to lie on after a bath.
  • A fluffy towel (preferably hooded, because it just works better).
  • A bathtub and a (reasonably) clean child.

The Pillow Game is an after-bath activity that helps your kid quickly get dry with a mash-up between Guess The Animal, Peekaboo, and Charades. While your kid is wrapped in a towel in the bathroom after washing, start the game by laying on their wrapped back as if they were a pillow. Your kid will then pretend to be a specific animal trapped inside a pillowcase. When your “pillow” inevitably starts to move, you can start to wonder out loud what animal could possibly be under your head. If you can’t seem to guess correctly, the game lasts as long as your kid is still willing to be a pillow.

Jump the River

Prep Time: one minute

Entertainment Time: 15 minutes

What You’ll Need: Two sticks or pieces of string/tape, chalk, or a handful of rocks.

Turn the simple act of jumping into a death-defying, imagination-flexing adventure with Jump the River. Lay down your materials (string, tape, rocks, etc.) into two parallel lines a short distance apart. Line your players up either on the river’s edge or a few feet back, and have them take turns leaping over the “water.” If a kid’s foot lands in between the lines, they’re “wet” and out of the game. After everyone’s taken a turn jumping across, increase the challenge for the next round by widening the distance between the lines. Continue through multiple rounds until only one player is still “dry.”

Bear Cave

Prep Time: None

Entertainment Time: 5-10 minutes

What You’ll Need:

  • A closet.
  • An ability to make believe/suspend disbelief.

Bear Cave is a simple make-believe game where toddlers and the rest of the family pretend to be hungry bears who just woke up from hibernation. The game starts with everyone lying down and going into hibernation in the dark closet. At any point, someone can yell “wake up!” and everyone has to groggily crawl out of their cave to forage for food. Everyone’s bear behavior can take different forms, including searching for a beehive full of honey or trying to sniff out berries. Once every bear feels stuffed, you return to the cave to take a nap.

Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images

What’s in the Box?

Prep Time: About 15-20 minutes the first time. Afterwards, about 30 seconds.

Entertainment time: 15-30 minutes at a time.

What You’ll Need:

  • A box (you can also use a bowl or jar or cup).
  • Some random objects to place in it.
  • Optional: construction paper and glue.

What’s in the Box is a sensory game where kids have to use their instincts and imagination to figure out what object you’ve hidden in a box only by feeling it. Find an old shoebox and let the participants decorate it, if they’d like. Then, gather a few items of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Blindfold your players, and have them reach in and feel the objects in 20-second increments. They can only probe the item with their hands, they can’t remove it from the box or scrape it along the sides. After their turn, ask them if they know what it was. The player with the closest or most creative answer wins, it’s up to your discretion.


Prep Time: None

Entertainment Time: Endless

What You’ll Need: A small area with lots of places to hide or duck behind. Trees, rocks, logs, bushes, sofas, and tables all work. Five to ten participants is ideal, but just about any number can work.

Camouflage is a fusion of hide-and-seek and tag, and takes just as little setup to play. Whoever is “It” stands in one place, closes their eyes, and counts down from 20, during which time all other players run off and hide. When the person who’s “It” opens their eyes, they try to spot all of the hiders without leaving their spot. When they can’t find anyone else, they close their eyes again and count down from 15. This time, everyone left has to run from their hiding place, tag them, and quickly hide again. The rounds continue like this until only one hider remains, who gets to be “It” next game.

Pretend Car

Prep Time: None

Hours of Entertainment: For child, many. For you, it depends.

What You’ll Need: A chair, preferably a leather chair with an ottoman so you can sit in the more comfortable “back seat.”

In Pretend Car, your child is completely in charge of the vehicle (a chair), while you just get to play a passenger. It’s an improvisational, imagination-heavy activity where you have to play along with wherever the driver decides they want to go, be it the Pretend Grocery Store or the Pretend Park. You can ask from the backseat to listen to music, or roll the windows, or even ask the driver to stop swerving like a maniac.

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