There is nothing wrong with a movie marathon on a sick day. But what if that sick day is going on two, or three, or four? Kids do get sick of screen time. I know, because the unthinkable happened to me this winter: my 4-year-old son had a cold and wanted to turn the television off. We couldn’t schedule play dates, and he didn’t have his normal excess of energy. I realized I needed a stash of creative ideas on hand for the next time we went down with a cold.

I asked suggestions from Pat Rumbaugh, founder of the nonprofit organization Let’s Play America and Rachelle Doorley, blogger at TinkerLab and author of the book, “TinkerLab: A Hands-On Guide for Little Inventors.”

But first, a few tips. Doorley reminds us not to try anything overexerting for the body or brain. This is not the time to teach the alphabet or practice cursive. As the kids get better, you can break out a new coloring book or game. If you need fresh inspiration, Rumbaugh says to ask yourself what you played when you were a child who was home sick.

So pick and choose from these fun ideas, hide away some supplies, and you’ll be ready for when your child says what mine said: “Mommy, I don’t want the TV anymore.”


Play with Play-Doh
Play-Doh, or some other type of modeling compound, is “a very soothing thing,” Doorley says. “It’s fully immersive for the body and mind. It’s meditation for the physical senses.” If you don’t have any on hand, try Doorley’s recipe that uses flour, salt, water, cream of tartar and oil. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, because you probably want to toss this germy Play-Doh in a few days anyway. Use tools from the kitchen to cut, press and roll.

Create with stickers and stamps
You might be surprised at how fully absorbed toddlers can get by a sheet of stickers and a piece of paper. Doorley suggests drawing a background on the paper, if you want to make it more engaging. Try stamps and stamp pads, too, for a similar experience.

Make tape roads
If you have a child who likes toy cars, make them an expansive roadway with blue painter’s tape throughout your kitchen. Draw roads and tracks on the tape with permanent markers. For the non-DIY version, try PlayTape.

Experience a sensory bin
There is no end of things you can do with a plastic tub. Fill it with water, a baby doll and sponges, and let your toddlers give the baby a bath. Or try funnels and washable water colors. For a dry experience, try scooper and bowls with wheat berries, rice or beans. Sensory bins don’t require a lot of mental activity and they’re calming. “When your child is sick, keep the activity easy and frustration free,” Doorley says.

Scavenger hunt
Go through the house looking for everyday items to exercise that wiggly energy that can’t be got out on the playground.


Give them drawing prompts
Give a child a tray or a squishy desk that they can use in bed or on the sofa, plus some coloring pages (try Doorley’s Camouflage Coloring Pages) and crayons, colored pencils or markers. Let them use their imaginations or give them art prompts: try drawing one part of an animal, letting them draw the next part, and so on. Doorley has an example of these, too, on her blog.

Play exquisite corpse
Try this surrealist game from the 1930s: You take a piece of paper, fold it into thirds. The first player draws a head and then passes it on to the second person, who draws the middle. The next person draws the legs. “It’s a silly, fun thing to do,” Doorley says.

Put together an art caddy
For kids who are stuck in bed, try an art caddy. Put supplies such as glue, tape, crayons, yarn, buttons and more into a container and let them be inventive. As kids start to recover and their energy rises, you can introduce new things, such as an art kit you’ve never used before.

Make a collage
“Preschoolers like gluing things,” Doorley says. Give them a bits and bobs box, with whatever you can forage from around the house: pieces of magazines, feathers, strips of aluminum foil, cotton balls, etc.

Try Kinetic Sand
Kinetic Sand has similar sensory qualities as modeling compound, and can be used in a sensory bin with scoops, bowls and sand toys. You can buy the regular beachlike Kinetic Sand, or try color or sparkly versions. There’s sensory sand sets, too. And there’s also the DIY alternative: cloud dough.

Make a blanket fort
The best kind of story time for my son right now is one in which we’re hiding in a cave (his dark room) and reading by flashlight. Maximize this wonder with a blanket fort in the living room or family room and break out some new books from the library or otherwise.

Write on the body
A sickness is the perfect opportunity for using temporary tattoos and tattoo pens. Nobody will see them for days! And the kids will get a kick out of it.


Sculpt with oven-bake modeling clay
Clay is soothing, just like Play-Doh, or kinetic sand, but oven-bake modeling clay makes the activity a little bit more mature. Encourage them to make whatever they want and bake it in the oven. “They can create a sculpture while they’re at home,” Doorley says.

Make collages
Same activity as collages for preschoolers, but let the older kids have scissors and a magazine to cut up as they wish.

Play drawing games
“You can do more drawing collaborations with older children,” Doorley says. Show them how to do tic-tac-toe, or introduce them to Pictionary. There are many books out there that teach drawing, too, such as “How to Draw Flowers” and “How to Draw Planes, Trains, and Boats” and lots of sophisticated coloring books to let older kids try. Maybe with a new set of colored pencils?

Get some fresh air
If the stir-crazies are setting in, bundle up for a walk to the corner coffee or doughnut shop. Or just try a walk around the neighborhood with the promise of hot chocolate at home. Fresh air does wonders.

Time for a spa day
Rumbaugh says to give kids a soothing spa day. Let them take a long lavender bath with toys and dry them with a warm towel from the dryer. Paint their nails, if they’re interested, and warm up a tube sock of beans in the microwave to soothe their neck and shoulders.

Look at family photo albums
A sick child might be a captive audience for stories from your own history. Bring out those photo albums and wow him or her with pictures of Mom or Dad as a kid!

Listen to an audiobook
Sometimes, it’s too hard to do anything. That’s where audiobooks and stuffed animals come in. Cozy up your child to something great, like “Little House in the Big Woods” or even “Peter and the Wolf.”

Movie marathon
Yes, this idea uses screens — but let’s not forget that, as Doorley says, “TV is a great tool.” To give screen time some novelty, try a movie marathon with popcorn and warm tea.

Lindsey Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at and she tweets @lindseymroberts.

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