17 free (or very cheap) ways to bring kids joy indoors

17 free (or very cheap) ways to bring kids joy indoors

With coronavirus restrictions getting tighter again, many will need to find ways to entertain kids indoors. So we've come up with some tips to help to bring kids joy and sprinkle magic for little or no money – from glamping in the front room to having a virtual tiger come to tea in your kitchen.

We first wrote this back in April when schools and nurseries were shut across the country. Of course, for many there’s more freedom to wrap up and spend time outdoors now. But for those isolating or just cosying up at home, here's a list of simple indoor experiences to keep kids happy and active (for a few nanoseconds, at least).

We'd also love to hear what fun you've been up to – please post in the comments below.

Beam a tiger (or shark, panda or pug) into your home

Thanks to Google's augmented-reality search feature, you can beam a virtual tiger, shark or pug into your home. Just download Google Chrome to your phone, then search for an animal. Click the 'view in 3D button', then 'view in your space' and you should see the creature prowling your room on your device's screen.

It doesn't work for every single animal, but some other fun ones include penguin, hedgehog and lion. A special thing you could do, if your kids have read the book, is have sandwiches and buns with 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'. Or you could invite an alligator or shark along to bath time (just don't drop your phone).

To access this feature, your device will need to be AR (augmented reality) enabled, so this might not work on some older phones. The easiest way to find out is to try it.

Make easy homemade playdough

What toddler doesn't love squishing and rolling colourful playdough? We made our own last week using this recipe I found online, and I was surprised by how easy it was (I left out the glycerine and cream of tartar, as we just didn't have them in the house, but it still worked). My daughters loved helping out with the mixing and kneading.

Get a 'Zabysitter' (a Zoom baby-sitter)

If you have grandparents or other friends and family at a loose end, ask if they can 'zabysit' the kids. Connect them up with Zoom or another video-calling app such as Skype, FaceTime etc. Then ask them to read stories or play games. (If using Zoom, check out these safety tips first.)

One fun game is writing down a word and showing it to the friend you have on Zoom. They then give your little one clues to help them guess the word. Or how about a lockdown geography lesson? If you have a pal overseas, ask your kids to come up with a list of questions about that location, then interview them.

Make rocky road or 'school cake'

Give the Great British Bake Off a run for its money and whip up some rocky road, banana sushi or a school-style tray bake. Alternatively, make their days with a tasty fakeaway Happy Meal. Mumdonald's (or MaccyDad's), anyone? Kids will be lovin' it.

Enjoy 100s of free Audible kids' audiobooks, incl Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland

Amazon's audiobook-seller Audible has released a collection of audiobooks for free, which it says will be available "for as long as schools are closed". Books include Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Secret Garden and Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter. This is an amazing freebie and we've listened to hours so far.

For even more material, most libraries allow access to a vast catalogue of adults' and kids' e-books and digital audiobooks for free. As an example, our local library in Essex uses a brilliant app called Borrow Box. You can borrow up to seven audiobooks and seven e-books at a time from a selection of hundreds.

All libraries are different, but every one we checked had some kind of digital service, so it's widespread. Check your library's website to see what's on offer.

Also see our 11 cheap Kindle book hacks, including how to get any book from the Harry Potter series for free.

Glamp in the front room

Little kids will love the adventure of camping out in the living room. Set up a makeshift camp with a torch, rugs, cushions and stuffed animals. You could glam it up with whatever you have to hand, be it bunting, wooden crates or fairy lights. If you have some, complete the experience by roasting marshmallows or s'mores.

Learn ballet, how to draw, yoga and more with fun online classes

Organisations are pulling out all the stops to provide you with free activities online. Here are some of the best we've found – we'd love to hear about others you've tried.

- Draw along with Rob Biddulph. The children's book author and illustrator posts a draw-along videos on YouTube. Also check out the BookTrust for more tutorials from illustrators, including Lydia Monks and Ed Vere. 

- Cosmic kids' yoga. Get kids practising their downward dog with these brilliant 10-minute yoga classes with themes such as Frozen and Minecraft.

- Train with The Ballet Coach. English National Ballet School-trained dancer Sarah Du-Feu posts brilliant lessons on YouTube, suitable from age three to right up to adult. 

- Get cosy and listen to a story. We also like Storyline Online, where you can listen to a host of famous faces reading storybooks, from Rami Malek to Oprah Winfrey, but most importantly, "ANNA FROM FROZEN!!!" Watch on YouTube.

- Learn indoor (yes, indoor) cycle skills. Even if you can't get outside, British Cycling has a host of balance-boosting activities to do anytime, anywhere – no bike needed. Scroll through for games such as 'twist and pass' and 'swipe and swap'.

Hit the deck

Now's a great time to dust off the playing cards. Go Fish and War are fab starter games which teach number skills too. Even if you're not a hardened card sharp, easy YouTube tutorials for different games abound.

Watch The Wind In The Willows theatre production for free in your living room

From 2pm Wednesday 28 October, The Shows Must Go On YouTube channel is streaming The Wind In The Willows for free. The full length performance will be available for 48 hours from then. This show has a big thumbs up from us.

To up the experience, don your finery, use this cute pretend ticket generator to make tickets and pause for an interval treat.

Write to a celeb – you may well get a letter back

What could be more exciting than receiving a letter from someone famous? It only costs the price of a stamp to send off the letter, it gets kids practising their writing skills, and they're more likely to get a reply than you might think. Ex-MSE Ant H's wife Kayleigh still treasures a handwritten reply she got from comedian Kathy Burke as a kid.

From authors to footballers, if your child has a hero, why not write them some fan mail? People often post the replies they've received from celebrities on Twitter, so it's worth searching there for inspiration. We've heard of David Walliams, David Attenborough and Jessica Ennis-Hill replying to kids.

Get kids comping for prizes, including robots and art vouchers

Entering competitions is such a fun hobby for kids – there's nothing like that feeling of winning a prize. They could be more likely to win than you think, especially if there's extra effort involved – which they now have plenty of time to put in.

Our 40+ Comping Tips guide explains how to source and enter contests systematically. However, as many competitions are only open to over-18s, it's worth scouring kids' magazines and websites to find suitable comps.

Of course, it's worth reminding them about internet safety here – only enter competitions from large, respected organisations and never give out personal details without your permission.

Goodies currently up for grabs include:

- MilkShake! TV is running a 'draw a picture of your favourite Milkshake! Character or Presenter' competition. The prize is a bundle of Sunny Bunnies toys. Closing date is Friday 13th November 2020.

Funky Pigeon is running a competition which asks kids to 'create a festive-themed card'. Prizes include £100 of Funky Pigeon credit and a bundle of kids’ toys. It will award prizes in three age categories: five and under, 6-9 years and 10+ years. The deadline's Friday 13 November 2020.

- The BBC’s Young Reporter Competition challenges young people aged 11-18 to report on a story or issue which is important to their life or the world around them. To enter you need to send it an outline of the story idea before the closing date, Saturday 31 October 2020. Winning entrants and will be broadcast by the BBC on either TV, radio, online or social media.

Make your own stop-motion movie with a free app

"Action, cut, do it again but more awesome!" Kids can stage their own 'stop motion' movie with their Lego, Playmobil, Sylvanian Families figures or whatever toys they have to hand – just by downloading a free app. The idea is you give life to inanimate toys by shooting a few frames at a time, while moving objects in between shots. 

To create your own short film, get the free Stop Motion Studio app on Google Play or Apple's App Store and follow the instructions.

Oooh argh, have a pirate day

Scrawl on some black eyeliner and red lippy, then tie a scarf round your head... you're pirates! Next make some pirate swords out of cardboard and stick some pirate films on the telly.

This lovely free printable pirate treasure hunt was a hit with my little buccaneers – probably because of the pirate booty at the end of the hunt, a few choccie gold coins.

Do a fun £2 experiment to see if kids are brushing their teeth properly

If you're going to a Boots anyway, you could add some of these £2 Kids' Plaque Reveal Tablets. The chewy tablets highlight plaque in purpley-blue, helping kids see areas they should brush better next time.

Just brush your teeth as normal, then chew the tablets to reveal the proof of plaque. To help explain more about how to look after those pearly whites, check out the book Open Wide, What's Inside or watch this Ted-Ed lesson on what causes cavities.

Join a Facebook group for family lockdown tips

Facebook groups are often where the best ideas are to be spotted. For example, I've got tons of ideas via the Family Lockdown Tips and Ideas group. It's a friendly, inclusive community, where parents share their top tips to keep little ones occupied.

Dig out the family albums

Sounds simple, but when I read this list of ideas to my then five-year-old, this was one of her top choices. Kids love checking out family photos and hearing stories –especially as they can't visit friends or family in person.

My kids are obsessed with poring over our wedding album – the ultimate game is trying on my dress.

Identify stars with a free stargazing app

Billing itself as a 'free planetarium', the Star Walk 2 app is available on Apple or Android. Point your mobile skyward to reveal the names of stars and constellations, galaxies, asteroids and more. You can even let the app access your camera, so you get an augmented-reality overlay showing what's what. The app also gives info on whatever you spot, so kids will know their meteor shower from their Milky Way in no time.

While this works best in the evenings, if the kids can't stay up late enough you can use it in the daytime too – even if you can't spot the stars, you can see where they should be. It'll even help you spot the sun if the weather's not co-operating.