With shelter in place orders, school closures, and working from home as the new norm in our attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19, we need all the help we can get. This post has indoor toy and play ideas for children aged 1-8 to help you keep the peace at home. (Littldata also has a list of social-distance-friendly outdoor toy ideas.)
In evaluating indoor toy options, my main criteria were: capacity to support independent play, play variety, and duration of interest.
Independent Indoor Play Toys and Ideas
Items marked with $ are investments: they’re expensive, but tend to have resale value, and keep a child’s interest for hours at a time and for years on end. Items marked with a * are often cheaper (or even free) and may include consumable or easy-to-lose parts, but offer great bang for the buck. I’ve sorted what I think are the best bets, based on reviews and anecdotal evidence, to the top of each list.
The age groups are minimums only, and very approximate, so check for ideas in the groups above and (especially) below your child’s age.
- $ Play Kitchen, Play Food, and Pots and Pans – For one year olds, play with these items will focus on the sensory aspects, while older children will develop increasingly elaborate dramatic narratives and games. (Up to age 5)
- $ Learning Tower – These large stools with guardrails are not a toy, but a great way to get your kid involved in kitchen activities, and/or for you to be able to engage them while you cook and they play at the counter. (Up to age 5)
- Mega Bloks – Interlocking blocks for the youngest of children. (Up to age 3)
- * Single-use homemade food-safe paint – Just add a few drops of food coloring to plain yogurt. For both this and the play-doh, use your strap-in high chair to contain the mess. (Up to age 3)
- * Munchkin Fishin’ Bath Toy – For the bath, sink, or water table. (Up to age 4)
- Most of the toys on the 2+ list are also great for 1 year olds–the main issue is safety, so hold back if your child is still chewing on toys.
- $ Magna-Tiles – The holy grail of toys for independent play for many families, these toys are endlessly reconfigurable, very easy to use, and are small to store. The wheeled car bases and ‘freestyle’ add-on are also great for the youngest kids. (Up to age 7)
- $ Duplo – An intermediate between Mega Bloks and Lego in terms of dexterity required, these blocks are also compatible with Lego, giving them extra longevity. (Up to age 4)
- $ Wood train set by Brio – Another toy that grows with children for years. (Up to age 6)
- $ Play brooms and cleaning supplies – are surprisingly engaging, since children often love to do what they see adults doing. (Up to age 6, although for an older child you might get this one)
- $ Lunii Storyteller – this device allows children to select and customize their own audio stories, and can be as enthralling as TV without the screen time. (Up to age 8)
- * Art and Craft Supplies – This kit includes pom poms, pipe cleaners, felt, and more. Consider adding glue, scotch tape, or colored masking tape. (Up to age 8)
- * Flashlight
- Kinetic Sand – Another engaging sensory experience that is relatively easy to clean up, the National Geographic kits come in three different sizes. (Up to age 8)
- Large Aqua Doodle Mat – These let your children have the fun of painting using just water, saving you the clean-up and need to refill paint supplies. (Up to age 5)
- Doctor Kit – For playing doctor, although this may be less independent for a solo child. (Up to age 5)
- $ Ride-on Thomas the Train – Expensive and large, yet not offering much exercise, this toy doesn’t have much to offer–except that it will safely entertain your train-loving toddler for hours, day after day. (Up to 40lbs)
- * Make slime with cornstarch, water, and food coloring, or mix baking soda and vinegar and watch the excitement bubble. (Up to age 8)
- *Play doh and any of the associated tool kits are a winner, as soon as your child is old enough to not eat the dough or feed pets. The Play doh Fun Factory Deluxe is open-ended and comprehensive. If you prefer to make your own, here’s a recipe for homemade playdough. (Up to age 5)
- $ More Magna-Tiles. If your child already loves the basic set, you know how powerful these are for solo play, and may want to level up with the wheeled car bases, special shapes to expand the geometric possibilities, this ‘freestyle’ add-on, or even cubes. (Up to age 8)
- * Take-apart airplane or truck – Enthralling yet affordable. Younger children will need assistance at first. (Up to age 5)
- Lincoln Logs – For kids who love to build. (Up to age 6)
- * Washable Kids Paint and brushes – Affordable classic. Use whatever paper you have around, but if you want to buy some, these paper pads are coated to make them less likely to soak through. (Up to age 8)
- Hot Wheels Criss Cross Crash Track Set – and, if you can’t get enough, more Hot Wheels Cars. (Up to age 6)
- Barbie dolls and accessories – For dramatic play. If nothing but princesses will do, Disney Princess Dolls is a colorful set of six plastic dolls that can sit or stand. (Up to age 8)
- * Manual Pencil Sharpener and Pencils for the mechanically-inclined.
- *Stickers – If you can convince your child to decorate a piece of paper or something else that you don’t mind getting plastered.
- * Slinky – A tried and true classic.
- Floor puzzles are often popular at this age, although many children will still need help. (Up to age 5)
- Haba Town Maze Magnetic Game – is completely self-contained, so there is nothing to lose or misplace. (Up to age 5)
- * Crayola Scribble Scrubbie Pets – draw on these pets and play veterinarian to wash them off, again and again. (Up to age 5)
- Note that all of the ideas in the Age 2+ range are still exciting for most 3 (and even 4) year olds.
- $ Lego – This kit has some special parts, such as wheels, but is still very open-ended.
- $ Marble run – Action-packed and great for this age. Younger children will love this too, but the marbles may pose a choking hazard and the pieces can be hard to fit together.
- Haba Tap + Tack – This is a small cork board for creative designs with a hammer, wooden tiles, and nails.
- Lite Brite – A retro, contemplative toy for children who are patient and able to keep their own toys tidy.
- Perler Biggie Beads, with pegboard – a larger-diameter version of the Perler Beads meant for older children, these are perfect for 4 year olds.
- Wipe Clean Workbook – Children love (and learn from) repetition, and this workbook allows them to repeat lessons over and over.
- My First Orchard – An ideal first board game to be played cooperatively by 1-4 players, this can be played by children as young as two with an adult or patient older child.
- Sneaky Snacky Squirrel – This game is almost as simple to play as My First Orchard, but is competitive, for 2 or more children.
- Pengoloo – A board game with a little complexity, for two to four children.
Age 6 +
- $ Snap Circuits – For kids who can read and follow instructions well, this provides hours of educational fun. Younger children will need help.
- CIRO solar robot kit 12 in 1 – Hours of play for a relatively affordable price.
- $ ThinkFun Gravity Maze Marble Run – Another marble run toy that’s also a logic game.
- * Grow N Grow Terrarium Kit – Everything you need for a tabletop terrarium.
- Perler Beads with pegboard and tweezers make for hours of quiet, creative play.
- Guess Who – This updated version of the game shows more diversity than the original.
- $ GoCube – a smart, app-enabled ‘Rubik’s cube.’
- * UNO card game – for two or more players.
Physical Indoor Play
These items are for exhausting your kids when you can’t get outside. Most require a bit more space.
- $ Nugget Couch – Much more than a couch, these strategically-designed cushions support a wide range of physical and imaginative play, if you have the space.
- * Alternatively, build a fort using your sofa cushions, chairs, and blankets. These wooden clips can be used to attach blankets.
- This pop-up tunnel/ball pit/tent system that older babies and younger children will love to explore.
- $ Indoor Trampoline – This 3’ diameter trampoline has a bar for children to hold.
- Little Tikes Basketball Net – Indoors or out.
- Fort builder – A larger building toy that will get your kid using their whole body
- Foam Pogo Jumper – A pogo jumping toy that can be used indoors or out.
- * Velcro dart board – The balls are light and safe to use indoors. Kids will run back and forth to play.
Ideas for Play without Buying Things
- Rotating toys can go a long way in maintaining novelty, and making it a little easier to tidy at the end of the day. Use bins or bags to pack away some toys in a closet for a few days to a few weeks at a time. Young children will often focus well if you set out a few items as provocations at the beginning of the day or play session.
- A natural extension of this strategy is to swap toys with friends and neighbors. You can sanitize toys before using a disinfectant spray, or simply quarantine items for at least three days before use.
- Use things you already have such as building a boat out of cardboard boxes.
- Introduce household tasks now that your children have all the time in the world to learn how to sort beans, sweep up, sort laundry, wash dishes, etc.
- Enjoy outdoor time. Open fields, beaches, and forests remain safe options even when playgrounds are off-limits. If hikes are a hard sell with your kids, check out this list of toys for COVID-19 friendly outdoor spaces. For those in the Bay Area, see my map of COVID-19 friendly outdoor places in San Francisco.
- And screen time. It’s okay, really. Face Time with grandparents, friends, and others can be a great way to keep in touch. Amazon Prime has a wide range of age-appropriate and educational shows for children, as well as a free 30 day trial. And here is a comprehensive list of educational companies offering free subscriptions and services during COVID-19 school shutdowns.
Have an idea that’s not on this list, or other feedback? Please share it with me firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.
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