If your family is sticking close to home, try these free and inexpensive options to keep the kids occupied.

With apologies to William Shakespeare, now is the winter of our discontent.

At least it can certainly feel that way, after hours on end cooped up at home, away from in-person get-togethers with extended family and friends. 

Because I am considered at high risk for COVID-19 complications, our household—my husband and I, who both work full time, and our nearly 3-year-old son—have to be especially strict about our activities. That means no trips to the art museum, the mall, indoor play spaces and the like. In short, no trips to anywhere you might go to stave off a case of cabin fever.

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If your family is also sticking close to home, I’ve compiled some inexpensive ways to stay entertained this season without going stir-crazy or breaking the bank.

Make Your Own Museum

You can enjoy visual art in a variety of ways without setting foot in a gallery or museum. Weather permitting, bundle up and check out amazing outdoor art throughout Central Ohio. Experience Columbus’ blog offers “A guide to the best street art in Columbus, Ohio” (with a map), although I am partial to wandering until I see something that catches my eye. 

Give kids a variety of challenges: What can you make out of all-natural materials? What if you only use items salvaged from your recycling bin? Put those Amazon boxes to use by making a small playhouse or building a robot or fantastical creature. Or, in the gray days of winter, tape a piece of clear contact paper to a window, sticky side out, and cut or tear colored tissue paper to stick on the adhesive, creating a stained-glass look.

Have an Indoor Campout

One of my favorite childhood memories is building elaborate forts in my family’s living room, draping sheets and blankets over couch cushions, tables and chairs. There are commercial fort kits for sale (of course!), but using your own materials is much cheaper and gives the architecture a rustic charm. Fill the fort with pillows and stuffed animals so kids have a soft space to snuggle, or outfit them with sleeping bags and flashlights and serve s’mores (with marshmallows roasted in a fireplace or fire pit, if possible). Give the setup some extra oomph with flickering LED “candles,” a YouTube video of a crackling campfire or a Spotify playlist of nature sounds.

Play Games

Puzzles, board games, card games or web-based competitions are another low-cost way to entertain all ages. I enjoy vintage jigsaw puzzles for their often wacky, cheesy or wholly unexpected art. Such puzzles can generally be picked up at a neighborhood thrift store. (Yes, sometimes they are missing pieces. Yes, this is maddening. But for $2.99, I don’t complain too much.) Once you’ve snapped in that last piece, swap it with a friend—it will save storage space and money.

A simple deck of playing cards offers lots of options, including standbys like gin rummy, hearts, solitaire and the Midwestern staple, euchre. Alternatively, apps such as Houseparty and Jackbox.tv provide a virtual gaming experience across households. 

One option that spans the tech divide is the classic drawing-and-guessing game Pictionary. Don’t have the board game? Use the Random Word Generator to pull words for free. Add in an online meeting platform, and you’re set to take on friends living elsewhere, too.

Cultivate Some Greenery

When the world is gray outside, it helps to have some green inside. Not only can indoor plants provide psychological relief, but they also offer a learning opportunity for children as they watch a seed or cutting grow into a sturdy plant. You don’t have to spend much money. Pothos and spider plant clippings are hearty and relatively easy to come by via a friend, neighbor or Facebook group. 

Another option is to create a garden. Save the bottoms of celery, green onions and romaine lettuce; when immersed in water, they develop roots and, in a week or so, they can be planted. Growing sprouts (broccoli, mung beans or chickpeas, for instance) is another low-effort, high-reward project. All you need are seeds, a jar and a screened lid. Kits are available online or at local stores, or go DIY. Instructions abound online.

Do Something Sweet

Cooking can nurture both your body and spirit—and encourage picky eaters to try new foods by involving them in the prep process. My mother has had great fun making recipes with my son using a library copy of “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up” by Mollie Katzen. A fun book for tween chefs is “The Star Wars Cookbook: Wookiee Cookies and Other Galactic Recipes” by Robin Davis, a former food editor at The Columbus Dispatch who’s now director of media relations for Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

Need more motivation? Here are two suggestions: 

If you haven’t watched The Great British Baking Show, do so at once. This competition show is charming, inspiring and suitable for all ages. 

Second, consider sharing your treats. Drop off a pie to a neighbor living alone or mail cookies to a family member or friend. After all, at a time when so many of us feel isolated, sharing food is an age-old form of connecting with one another.

Jennifer Wray is a freelance writer, mother and fan of all things pop culture.

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.