I’ll be honest. I actually looked forward to the idea of winter during the summer. I imagined bundling the kids up in their snow gear and making a family of snow people in the yard. I bought a new sled in hopes of fun rides down our hill followed by mugs of hot cocoa.  

In reality, we haven’t had much snow. Our cold, gray, soggy days don’t bode well for outside play that when the kids need to channel their energy.  

When my kiddos get restless and emotions run high, I need several go-to activities that are easy to put into place and don’t require too much pre-planning. The following ideas work well:  

Snack fort

Although this may need some adult help at the onset, once the main structure is built, it’s pretty easy to step back and watch the kids make it their own. The other day my daughter repurposed a popcorn tin into a table and cajoled me into letting her bring a snack into her fort while her brother napped. She played in it with her friend for three hours.  

Now, granted, the novelty might wear off after a few days but three hours of somewhat quiet on a gray, windy afternoon is gift I will gladly accept.

Shaving cream bath

Fill up the wells of a muffin tin with shaving cream and add a drop or two of food coloring to each well. We start with paint brushes so the kids can mix the ‘paint,’ but quite frankly they prefer using their fingers.  

When it seems as if the tub or – who am I kidding – their bodies are well painted, give them a washcloth and invite them to wipe things down. Sometimes cleaning is half the fun for my four-year-old. It can stretch out for a while and is an awesome way to spend that sometimes long, whiny stretch between supper and bed.

Just be forewarned: The tub can get a bit slippery when covered in shaving cream!

Homemade play dough

A simple Google search for homemade play dough will yield several easy recipes. We like to keep the basic ingredients on hand at all times so we can whip up a batch when we need it. Even toddlers can help measure and mix the ingredients with guidance. Sometimes we add food coloring, glitter, spices, or essential oils before it’s cooked to change it up a bit.  

After the dough cools, try using a variety of materials to extend their play, such as cookie cutters, rolling pins, small plastic animals, or popsicle sticks. A wide-mouth canning jar with a lid will keep the freshly made dough usable for quite some time.  

Sensory table

An under-the-bed storage tub works great as a sensory table. Place it on the floor when the kids need a little redirection, keep a towel handy if there’s water involved, fill it with various materials, and you’re ready to go.  

One of our current favorites is Kinetic Sand with either repurposed containers (cleaned drinkable yogurt containers, baby formula scoops, etc.) or small construction equipment. My toddler son also loves dry rice and scoops or water with a squirt of dish soap and whisks. Meanwhile, my four-year-old enjoys washing her play dishes or experimenting with mixing several containers of colored water.  

Bonus: when not in use, the tub can easily slide under a bed and store unused materials.

Shake and bake

Be it something small, like a boxed muffin mix, or big, like assembling the layers of a lasagna, being in the kitchen can do wonders for grumpy kids. It gives them something to focus on and makes them feel important as they do what is typically considered an adult job.

Also, when kids help prepare food, they’re more likely to at least try eating it!  

Visit your local library

Bring a sturdy bag and give the kids time to browse the aisles of books to see what catches their eye. I’ve started placing some books on hold a few days beforehand, so the specific titles I want to read to my kids are waiting at the front desk. This is especially helpful with toddlers who want to explore the library or, ahem, jump on the library’s furniture.

Either later that same day or the next, make reading the new books an event by spreading a cozy blanket on the floor and inviting the kids over to read. Make it even more special, and perhaps entice those prone to wiggling, by eating a snack while you read.