Being stuck at home for going on five months definitely has us desperate for new ways to entertain the kids—beyond downloading Disney+ and just handing over the remote. Our Los Angeles Editor Shannan Rouss feels us. A full-time, working mom with a four year old, Shannan shares her top picks for games, toys and gears to get you through the pandemic.

As a mom to an only child, I’m also my son’s only playmate. Which means I’m always looking for toys, games and crafts that he can do on his own, so that maybe—just maybe—I might get a few minutes to respond to a work email or unload the dishwasher. Added bonus if they’re also educational. Read on to find for all my sanity-saving finds.

Play Make Create: A Process Art Book

At a certain point, even the most creative of moms is going to run out of art projects. Enter this book from the titular owner of kids art studio Meri Cherry in Encinco. Her book is my go-to when I'm stuck for a crafty activity. So far, we've borrowed her recipe for colored sand (hint: salt is involved), made clay beads, created a science station, painted over a tape collage and whipped up some ooey-gooey Oobleck. 

Browse Meri Cherry's Play Make Create: A Process Art Book.

Polymer Clay Starter Kit

I got this pack of polymer clay to make beads (an idea from Meri Cherry's book), but my son ended up using it to just create his own free-form sculptures (or what he called playgrounds, mountains, forests, etc.). Polymer clay (known by brand names like FIMO and Sculpey) has great tactile appeal, is easy to cut, mold and manipulate, and hardens when it cooks. The kit comes with keychain and jewelry attachments, which we didn't end up using but are great for older kids.

Shop now for this Polymer Clay Starter Kit, $19.79.

Lego Creator Deep Sea Creatures

Legos are my babysitter when I just can't anymore. I think we're averaging around 2-3 new Lego sets a week. That might seem excessive, but we go for the under-$15 boxes and, like I said, they're basically childcare... because my son is Lego-obsessed and he pretty much does them on his own. (Happy dance!) There are lots of 3-in-1 options from Lego Creator, which means more bang for your buck. And deal alert: Lego Creator Deep Sea Creature, $12.79, is actually a 4-in-1 set, with downloadable instructions for a fourth sea creature online. 

Shop now for Lego Creator, from $9.84.

Magic Tree House Books 1-4

I was searching for a chapter book I could read with my 4 year old, something that both he and I might enjoy. Friends said he was too young for Harry Potter (confession: I've never read the books myself), and we tried A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner, which was sweet but a little slow. Thankfully, someone recommended Mary Pope's Magic Tree House books, and my son was instantly hooked on the time-traveling tales. Each book is about 70 pages long, but the font is large and there are hand-drawn illustrations peppered throughout, so we can finish one off in a single sitting. And just like that a half hour of our day has flown by.

Shop now for Magic Tree House, $11.30 (for Books 1-4). 

Liquid Chalk Markers

All those drive-by celebrations? These Liquid Chalk Markers are a must for decorating the car. They come in bright, vibrant colors and wipe off easily. My son has used them on our house windows too—though if the chalk gets on a wooden window frame, it takes some effort to clean up. Another fun and easy way to use them: Get out some black paper for kids to color on. Simple, but oh-so exciting for little ones. 

Shop now for the best Liquid Chalk Markers, $9.95.

Spooner Boards Freestyle

For some reason, my son is obsessed with surfing. I think he saw a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episode about it. Or maybe it was Lilo & Stitch that sold him on the idea. Regardless, he's only 4, so we're not ready for surfing lessons (plus physical distancing and all). So instead, he "land surfs" on the Spooner Board Freestyle. It took him a few attempts to get the hang of it, but he's mastered a 180 spin and is working on his 360.  

Shop now for a Spooner Board Freestyle, $44.

Melissa & Doug See & Spell

I had seen these at my son's preschool, so when it came time to create our own version of at-home preschool, I purchased the set of spelling puzzles. It's a great way for him to practice letters, sounds and sight words. To make things more exciting, we'll sometimes set a timer and see how many he can complete is under a minute. Gotta keep things interesting!

Shop now for Melissa & Doug See & Spell, $17.99.

Hi-Ho Cherry-O

This game is an oldie but a goodie. I'm pretty sure it's the first board game my son has actually mastered, meaning he follows the rules and doesn't make up his own. Plus, it's great for working on counting skills. 

Shop now for Hi-Ho Cherry-O, $12.99.

Highlights Alphabet Puzzles

We signed up for the monthly Highlights subscription (Puzzle Buzz for kids ages 4-7) and it's filled with fun mazes, matching games and hidden pictures. It's such a treat for my son to get his own mail and tackle the puzzles, mostly by himself. To help balance out the insane amount of TV he's been watching (no shame... well, a little), I've been supplementing our subscription with even more Highlights activity books, like this Alphabet Puzzles one. 

Shop now for Highlights activity workbooks, from $4.79.

Crocodile Creek Day at the Museum Puzzle

This is just one of the many puzzles that has been added to our pandemic puzzle collection. The puzzle is challenging enough that a grownup may need to help at first, but once kiddos have done it a few times, they'll take pride in being able to complete it on their own. Made by Crocodile Creek, the puzzle's pieces are thick and sturdy, not likely to bend or fray like flimsier alternatives. Another favorite puzzle brand in our house is Mudpuppy—they make puzzles for all ages, including 500-1000 piece versions to do as a family. 

Shop now for Crocodile Creek Day at the Museum Puzzle, $16.99.

–Shannan Rouss

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