I have compiled a whole bunch of ideas we have used in past winters to keep the kids occupied when going outside isn't going to work well. I hope something helps you through the long days indoors!
1. Get 'em cleaning!
There's something about using the real cleaning items that actually will motivate kids to "help" and keep them busy. I have given my son a spray bottle of water (dollar store, cosmetics area at Target or a pharmacy will have empty spray bottles) and had him "wash" the inside of the dishwasher door. He has to be old enough to not want to climb on top though! I've let them wash windows before with a vinegar and water mixture or Shaklee's Basic H (safe for kids) but sometimes too much water will get onto the floor- throw some towels down in front though and it's no big deal.
2. Stuffed animal wars on the stairs.
My kids were pretending to set up Angry Birds.
The blanket didn't really work as a slingshot, but they had fun trying!
3. Frozen Light Catchers
Lay apples or citrus fruit cut into slices, cranberries, and greens from evergreens in your yard (or parts of your Christmas tree after Christmas) into a container. Carefully pour water over them and lay a string on the end of the container with the ends of the string in the water by at least a few inches, creating an unfrozen loop with which to hang them. Freeze outdoors. Once frozen, unmold your decorative ice block (bring inside for a little while if they won't come out by themselves) and hang somewhere outside where you can see the beautiful colored fruit through the water. When it starts to melt, the fruit can be eaten by the animals or birds.
4. Clothespins everywhere
I found these one day in random places around my house, so this was really my 4-year old's idea. You could purposely have your kids "hide" the clothespins for each other (or you) to find. Or, you could hide them and then hope it takes them awhile to bring all of them to you. Just make sure to count how many were hidden beforehand. Although, clothespins are cheap so no big loss if some are lost.
5. Play in Cabinets
When my middle son was around 1, he found an empty space in one of our cabinets and climbed inside. He did this so often that I eventually just emptied one of the cabinets of the larger, lesser-used appliances and stored them in the garage instead for about a year. He loved doing this!
Of course I would often find toys in my mixer bowl before I cleared a cabinet for him,
and my kitchen often looked like this.
Playing in cabinets created hours of fun for my little guy. Literally, hours.
My son at about 18 months playing cabinet peek-a-boo with his Aunt
And while the pots are all out of the cabinet, why not do the next activity?
6. Play Food in Real Pots, or make a Fake Kitchen
7. Rice Bowls or Water Play
My kids loved this activity at ages 1,3, and 5 (above) and 2,4, and 6 (below)
With rice, the goal is to keep the rice in the bowls on the tray (which I forgot in the first photo). It's a little more annoying to clean up rice, but still worth it because of the time you gain. Clean the kitchen or take a nap! :)
8. Book Nook
When my oldest was two I created a little corner with a small shelf (I actually used one level of those cheap plastic shelves we had in our garage and laundry room), and a blanket and pillow (or comfortable chair). I would sometimes just discover him reading there. Win win!
9. Laundry Basket Fun
I'm sure your kids have figured this one out on their own!
10. Pillow Piles (or Blanket Pools)
My kids combined the basket and pillow ideas for a whole new experience. Their little sister didn't mind :)
11. Dot Art
This set of dot markers and special coloring books with thick-lined drawings aren't cheap, but the set we were given as a gift has lasted us years-at least 4 years. All three of my children have enjoyed these markers (we only use them occasionally, but they don't dry out). I know specialty toy stores carry them, but I'd bet the regular toy stores do too. I haven't noticed if big-box stores carry them.
12. Dollar Store Crafts/Activities
If your kids like crafts, the dollar store has lots of options, such as foam stickers and door hangers, or you can use the stickers to make cards for people. If your kids aren't as into crafts (like my boys when they were younger), then you can get fun "science-type" experiments where they can put things into water and watch a sponge dinosaur or something like that emerge. I've also gotten those washcloths that are puck-shaped and when you put them into water it's a small towel.
13. Go to the Library
An oldie, but a goodie. I often forget about this wonderful free option. Our library also has sets of toys that they rotate based on theme and season.
14. Box Fun
Who needs toys when you can get cardboard boxes? Our neighbors once thought of us and our kids when they bought a new flatscreen TV. It was so nice of them to give us the huge box! We created a house with windows and mail slot. I also cut out a few "letters" to play mailman. I had seen something like that in some fancy toy catalog. So why not make it ourselves?
15. Old toys in a new place
My son loved playing with his trains, but they were harder to set up on carpeted floor (almost our whole house is carpet.) So, putting it up on our main dining table made it seem like new again. It's also our only dining table, so this had to be cleaned off before dinner, unfortunately.
Happy New Year and I hope something here helps your kids overcome the winter crazies!
Do you have any ideas to add to my list?