We love ideas for cheap kids’ activities and homemade toys. The creativity used to make handmade toys is fun in itself. Plus, using household items is a good way to reuse and recycle stuff you already have. Here are 10 DIY toys, games and kids activities suitable for indoor play. The simplest kids activities are listed first, followed by ones that require more materials, skill, preparation or adult supervision.
Puzzles and games
Here are some easy-to-make or download puzzles and games.
- Homemade jigsaw puzzles are easy and cheap to make from cereal boxes and greeting cards. Simply cut the front from a cereal box or greeting card, and then cut the image into shapes. For young children, cut the puzzle into only 4 or 5 simple pieces, with mostly straight edges (squares and rectangles). For an older child, cut more pieces and make the shapes more intricate (angled cuts and random shapes with many edges).
- Timeless games. DLTK-Kids.com has a page of online games. Our favorites include several versions of Tic-Tac-Toe, Hangman and Word Search.
- Paper fortune teller. WikiHow.com offers detailed instructions, with photos, for creating a fortune teller. This is a simple type of origami that has many variations. DLTK-Kids.com takes it further and offers several different versions for fortune tellers for holidays and seasons throughout the year.
Origami (paper-folding art)
Origami means “fold paper” in Japanese. And that’s exactly what origami is. Square paper folded into whimsical shapes. If you have ever made a folded paper hat or paper airplane, you already know how to make simple origami. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, we found several sites that explain origami in detail with step-by-step instructions, many with photos and some with videos.
Basic origami always uses a six-inch square of paper, about the weight of standard gift wrapping paper. If you don’t have origami paper, cut wrapping paper to size.
- Origami-Instructions.com. Start with the Origami for Kids section, which is easy for beginners. Try some other simple origami designs and master base folds before moving on to more complex designs.
- Origami-make.com. Take a look at How to Make Origami, which explains the basic folds in pictures. Then try Easy Origami to practice the folds before moving on to more complex designs.
- Origami Resource Center.com. This collection offers free origami instructions from the paper-folding art community.
- Origami-fun.com. Try the printable origami instructions and origami folding tips. These are great for beginners. Many of the designs are rated to indicate the difficulty.
Once you understand the basic origami folds (including mountain, valley, reverse, etc.) and create a few simple origami pieces, you will be ready to move on to more complex origami designs.
Stamp art using vegetables and fruits
One method for stamping is to carve firm vegetables (potatoes, carrots, turnips, jicama, etc.) into shapes (squares, stars, etc.). But it’s even easier to use interesting vegetables and simply cut them in half. We’ve suggested 16 fruit and vegetables below. Cut the produce as indicated and rest on a paper towel cut side down for 5 minutes to absorb excess moisture; this step helps the fruits and vegetables absorb ink or paint for stamping.
- Apples or pears. Cut apples or pears in half horizontally.
- Brussels sprouts. Slice Brussels sprouts lengthwise in half. Insert a toothpick into the rounded side of the Brussels sprout for holding while you dab ink or paint onto the cut side.
- Cabbage or radicchio. Cut cabbage head two to three inches from the core end for a large flower shape.
- Carrots. Cut a two to three inch length for a small circle stamp.
- Cauliflower. Cut off a floret, and then cut off the top to make a flat stamping surface.
- Celery or bok choy. Cut a celery or bok choy bunch two to three inches from the end. Wrap tape or heavy rubber band around the end to hold the bunch together. The bunch makes a flower shape. Celery stalks can also be separated and cut in half for a “U” shape.
- Mushrooms. Cut in half lengthwise. These may work as stamps without any drying time. Use a toothpick to hold the mushroom as for Brussels sprouts.
- Okra. Cut in half across the middle, creating a star-like circle stamp.
- Oranges or lemons. Cut in half across the middle. You may need to dry these for a few hours or overnight, because they are very watery.
- Potatoes or sweet potatoes. Cut lengthwise into thick strips for long shapes or cut in half for round shapes.
- Winter squash. Cut in half any small winter squash (such as acorn) or pumpkin. Scoop out the seeds. The squash is easier to use as a stamp if it has a stem that can be used as a handle to lift it off the paper after stamping.
To use the cut produce as stamps, use an ink stamp pad or apply a light coat of craft paint (acrylic, tempera or poster paint) to the cut surface of the vegetable (or fruit) using a foam paintbrush. Alternatively, pour a small amount of paint on a paper plate and dip the vegetable into it, perhaps stamping lightly on another plate to remove any excess, before pressing onto your artwork. Avoid using too much paint, or you will create a blob. Press stamp firmly onto heavy paper.
Repeat to create designs, using different stamps and ink or paint colors. When you are satisfied with the overall design, allow artwork to dry thoroughly.
Storytelling with simple homemade puppets
Making puppets is two times the fun. Puppets can be made from materials around the house and then can be used in storytelling.
Two-dimensional puppets can be made very simply from construction paper cutouts taped onto a holder, such as a thin wooden dowel, ice cream stick, sturdy twig, fork, chopstick, or wooden spoon. Alternatively, draw characters on paper or cut them out of magazines, and then glue onto cardboard before securing to a holder.
Three-dimensional puppets can be made using simple household items such as tennis balls, wooden spoons, socks, potatoes, paper cups or even a letter-size envelope. For these puppets, you might use thumbtacks for eyes and corks for noses (stick on with tape), or write on paper with a marking pen. Use yarn or curling ribbon for hair. Use rubber bands to secure cloth and form bodies and hands. Doll clothes and hats can provide more personality and props.
For a little inspiration in puppet-making using household items, watch this vintage show on YouTube showing Jim Henson making puppets. This 15-minute show originally aired on public television in 1969, before Henson joined the then-fledgling Sesame Street television show. Eventually, Henson helped create some of the most famous puppets of our generation, including Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and many more. His advice is simple but timeless, creative, fun and cheap.
For story inspiration, kids can create puppets to re-enact a movie, vacation adventure, family history or a story from a favorite book.
Dollmaking is another fun kids activity that young girls and boys alike will enjoy. We found instructions for several types of dolls using leftover fabrics, socks and corn husks. Try these sites:
- Primitive dolls. Ideas and materials for making folk art dolls.
- Corn husk dolls. Several ideas for Native American corn husk dolls. Dried corn husks can be purchased where Hispanic groceries are sold and soaked until pliable for doll making.
- Sock dolls. These easy sock dolls require no sewing.
- Rag dolls. These rag dolls require simple sewing.
- Fabric dolls. Instructions and patterns for charming handmade cloth dolls from Martha Stewart.
Handmade dolls share some of the techniques with puppet making.
Fort building is a quintessential kids activities. The basic fort-building equipment includes two to four sheets or blankets and something to help create structure. Figuring this out is part of the fun. An adult should usually help at this stage, especially if there is a need to move large furniture or to approve the use of materials.
For the basic fort structure, a large table is ideal, but large furniture, a cardboard box, an ironing board, a camera tripod or high-back chairs are also useful. Simply drape the sheets to create the basic fort. You can also hang a sheet over a clothesline or rope, if you can tie it to something sturdy. Or tape one edge of the sheet on a wall using duct tape or blue painter’s tape, and then tape it to furniture a few feet away. Just be sure to test a piece of tape in an inconspicuous area first. You don’t want to remove paint or the finish on a piece of furniture. Other options for securing sheets to objects (or each other) include clothespins, safety pins or large binder clips.
Inside the fort, put a blanket on the floor. Pillows or chair cushions can create comfy areas for sitting and laying in the fort. Add other decor, such as cutout foil stars taped to the “ceiling” of the fort, or a strand of holiday lights. Flashlights or glow sticks also create an interesting aura.
If you want privacy, tape a sign outside the fort, perhaps “KEEP OUT,” “MEMBERS ONLY,” or “JOHNNY’S FORT,” made with construction paper or cardboard and markers.
Wax paper art using natural and household items
Pressing leaves in wax paper is perhaps one of the most common kids fall or winter activities. But don’t stop there. Many other items can be pressed between wax paper to make beautiful and personal artwork. Wax paper art requires some adult supervision, or a responsible (not to mention willing) teenager. Set an iron on medium-low heat. Be ready to iron artwork as your artist finishes assembling their masterpiece.
If the weather is bad, you will need to have collected leaves or flowers ahead of time. But you can also use household items, such as construction paper (or drawings), glitter or pieces of foil, ribbon or yarn, wrapping paper, tissue paper and wax crayon shavings (using a pencil sharpener). Note: Just a little wax crayon shaving goes a long way — so don’t use too much of this. Photos can also be used to accent the artwork. For leaves or any other bulky items, it is helpful to iron the item flat before assembling the artwork.
To assemble the artwork, tear out two equal-sized sheets of wax paper. Pieces of wax paper that are approximately 12 inches x 18 inches can be used as table placemats.
Place one piece of wax paper on a piece of newspaper on a flat, soft surface that you can iron (such as an ironing board, or a tray covered with an old t-shirt or thin kitchen towel). Arrange leaves, flower petals, or any of the other suggested items on the wax paper. Do not cover the wax paper entirely, leave some portions of wax paper to show through, and leave the edge free to create a good seal all the way around.
This is where the adult steps in. When the décor is in place, place the second wax sheet over décor; be sure to line up the sides of the top sheet to match the bottom sheet. Cover everything with another piece of newspaper, taking care not to disturb the artwork. Iron the top sheet with a warm iron, pressing down lightly from the center of the artwork, and working out in a circular motion all the way to the edges in every direction. This will melt the wax and seal the two sheets together, with the artsy bits in-between. Check the artwork; if the décor can shift or the wax paper still separates, repeat the ironing process and check again. Repeat as needed until a complete seal is attained, usually no more than 3 passes. Remove the artwork. Use scissors to trim the edges as needed.
Hang the artwork in a window and let some light shine through for maximum effect.
Homemade play dough
One batch of homemade play dough (also called salt dough) can be mixed from common household ingredients. Each batch costs less than $1 and makes the equivalent of 2-3 cans from the store, or enough for one child for 1-2 hours of play.
Cooked play dough: Place in a saucepan 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar or citric acid (either is available in the bulk bin or spice aisle at grocery stores, or at stores selling candy making supplies), 1 cup warm water, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and food coloring (see ideas below). Place pan over low heat and stir ingredients until smooth. Continue stirring until mixture thickens. Keep stirring until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan. Eventually the dough will become one solid ball that is no longer sticky. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool 30 minutes, or until it can be handled comfortably. Massage the dough and form into a smooth ball.
Uncooked play dough: In a bowl, stir together 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar or citric acid and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Slowly add 3/4 cup boiling water, stirring until combined. Mix until a dough forms that is neither too mushy (needs more flour) or too stiff (needs more water). Place dough on a large piece of foil. Add liquid or paste food color and knead (massage) using your hands until color is evenly distributed. Form dough into a smooth ball.
Food coloring ideas: Use several drops liquid food coloring or several pinches powdered/paste food coloring (available at candy making supply stores) OR one package unsweetened powdered drink mix, such as Kool-Aid, which makes dough with vibrant color that also smells fruity.
Other optional ingredients: Add few drops of essential oil to the mixture to make a play dough with a pleasing fragrance. Add a tablespoon of glitter with the dry ingredients to make a “sparkly” play dough.
Tips for making play dough: Do measure the ingredients carefully. The oil and cream of tartar or citric acid are optional, but results in a dough that is more elastic that can be worked and stored longer without drying out. Store play dough in an airtight container until ready to use or between play periods. Play dough made with oil and cream of tartar or citric acid keeps in an airtight container for about six months. If you live in a humid climate, store it in the refrigerator.
Homemade wood blocks
Wood blocks are a classic toy that every kid can enjoy. Buying a set of wood blocks can be fairly pricey. If you own a few tools and know how to use a hand saw and drill, you can make a set of wood building blocks for around $10, or next to nothing if you make them out of scrap wood. We found detailed instructions online for making handmade wooden block sets.
- MakeBabyStuff.com offers instructions on How to Make Wooden Building Blocks from scrap wood.
- HowStuffWorks.com offers detailed instructions on How to Make Wooden Blocks from new pine wood for around $10.
This science project is advanced and generally requires some preparation. You might source the materials and keep them, along with the instructions, in a box to pull out at an appropriate time.
- Sci-toys.com. This website contains all kinds of science toys you can make with your kids, including a section on radios. For a first radio project, try the Radio out of Household Items or the Quick and Simple Radio.
- Instructables.com has a page on building a Bottle Radio, one of the cheapest ways to listen to music.
Teenagers might be especially interested — and amazed — by these radio technology projects.
Use these cheap kids activities and homemade toys whenever boredom strikes and weather keeps them inside. The creativity used to source materials for handmade toys is as much fun as the activities themselves.