Holiday breaks. The bane of every parent's existence. You start the break with idyllic images in your head: You'll snuggle and read stories, make hot chocolate, go for walks in the crisp air and do lots of craft. That quickly devolves into survival mode -- you're just trying to get through the break without losing your mind.
While you can't plan for every contingency during holiday break, you can start with a plan in mind. Having a few activities to fall back on can stave off boredom and keep your kids engaged and happy.
We're here to help! Here are five affordable ideas to keep your kids busy during holiday breaks:
1. Creative Coloring
When kids are 2 years old, a box of crayons and some paper can keep them busy for hours. But as they grow, they may need a few more creative ideas for how to use those crayons to stay busy. Here are some creative coloring options:
-- Coloring wrapping paper. Who doesn't need more wrapping paper for the holidays? This is a twofold activity. You get your wrapping paper at a low price, and you keep your kids busy awhile. Just buy rolls of cheap, plain-colored wrapping paper. (The cheap kind is thin, so darker colors work best.) Roll it out a few feet at a time on a table or a hard floor, and let the kids go to town.
-- Upside down coloring. Turn coloring on its head -- literally -- with this easy activity. Just tape coloring sheets to the bottom of a table, and turn your child into a tiny Michelangelo. This is a great way to keep them busy and build upper arm strength.
-- Color the windows. Kids love being able to use crayons on surfaces that are usually off-limits. Crayola makes some crayons specifically for coloring on windows. Grab a pack of these, and let kids decorate the windows for the holidays.
-- Try complex coloring sheets. Older kids may think freestyle coloring is boring. Try printing off complicated geometric coloring sheets. Kids can create gorgeous designs, and the challenge keeps them engaged longer. (Note: They may need colored pencils and a good sharpener to be able to tackle these detailed designs.)
2. Indoor Games
Probably the worst part of the holiday season is that it may be too cold to play outside. And you probably don't have a gym like your kid's school does where they can release their pent-up energy. Luckily, with some creativity and basic supplies, you can create your own indoor gross motor games to burn off that extra energy.
-- Obstacle courses. Obstacle courses are surprisingly easy to create, and you can customize them for kids of any age -- even elementary-aged kids would love a superhero obstacle course. These can be heavy on the prep work, but one course could keep your kids busy the entire day. (Worth it!) This letter recognition course is really simple. This yarn laser maze is great for older kids, as is this pompom racing course.
-- Hopscotch. What better way to burn off energy than with hopscotch? Crafty parents can put together this adorable indoor hopscotch mat to use again and again, or you can just make a hopscotch course with masking tape. Here's another variant you could use to teach shapes or colors.
-- Scavenger hunts. You may think scavenger hunts are just for outside play, but you'd be surprised. You can put together some fun indoor scavenger hunts. These are a great way to get kids to play independently or in teams while you get other stuff done. (Or just relax with a cup of coffee for 20 minutes!) This indoor bug hunt is great for little kids, or try this Thanksgiving-themed turkey feather hunt. You can come up with any number of scavenger hunts tailored to your kids' ages and interests.
-- Tossing games. Throwing balls in the house is usually off-limits. But indoor tossing games turn that rule on its head. This newspaper and spider web activity is great for practicing hand-eye coordination in a safe way. Or try this shape tossing game to work on identifying shapes with younger kids.
3. Arts and Crafts
Before the holiday break starts, plan some crafts for your kids to do during the break. Then, hit your local craft store sans kids, and pick up the supplies you need. Stick supplies for each craft into a gallon-sized bag, and write the name of the craft and any necessary instructions on it with a marker. This may seem over the top, but when your kids are in the throes of boredom two days into break, you'll be glad you have an activity to pull out and run with. Here are some craft ideas to try:
-- Thanksgiving crafts. Woven placemats can keep older kids busy for quite a while, and you can make them out of cheap felt. Use paint to make a thankful thumbprint tree or leaf prints. Or try some thankful pinecone turkeys.
-- Holiday gifts. Kids love to make things to give to others, and if you have a lot of people on your list, you can keep them busy all break long making DIY gifts for the holidays. Hand-painted ornaments are always a great option, and these handprint ones are especially cute. Grab some canvas aprons, and let the kids decorate them with fabric paint as gifts. Older kids can also make no-sew blankets and pillows without much supervision.
-- Winter crafts. Kids of all ages will love to make and play with this snow clay, which you could use to make ornaments for gifts. This adorable luminary jar ornament would be great for older kids, or try this snowman slam game, which you can make and then play with. And, of course, kids of all ages love to make paper snowflakes!
4. Service Projects
This is the time of year when many of us are trying to find ways to give back. Why not involve your kids in giving back this year? Some ideas include raking leaves or shoveling snow for older neighbors, baking cookies for local police officers or firefighters, or making boxes of goodies for ill children. Another option is to make cozy fleece scarves for a local hospital or nursing home. Older kids can even plan, shop for and make a meal for ill or elderly neighbors, or the couple down the street with a new baby and no time to cook.
5. Sensory Bins
Finally, crawlers to elementary-age kids love sensory bins. (They can be surprisingly fun for parents, too!) Yes, these can get a little messy. The best trick is to set up a sensory bin on an old-fitted sheet. Weigh down the elastic corners with books, and you'll create a little valley to catch most of the mess. Here are some sensory bin ideas for the holiday season:
-- Dried corn fall sensory bin. This one includes popcorn seeds, Indian corn, mini pumpkins, silk fall leaves and cookie cutters in fall shapes. You'll want to include some cups and scoops in this and all your other sensory bins, too.
-- Apple pie bin. This simple sensory bin is just dough (flour and oil), a pie plate and some measuring cups. You could add in cinnamon for apple pie smells, and include red gems to look like apples.
-- Apple rice bin. Making colored, scented rice is pretty simple. And it's a great way to theme your sensory bins. This red apple scented rice would pair well with play apples, cookie cutters, measuring tools or fall leaves.
-- Cotton ball snow bin. For a less messy sensory bin, fill up a tub with cotton balls. Add in some measuring cups and winter-themed toys, and you have your very own (not-so-messy) snowscape.
-- Decorate a tree. This is a genius idea that may keep some of the sensory bin materials more contained. Instead of measuring and pouring, this decorate-a-tree activity lets kids carefully place decorations on their own tree.
-- Sparkly snow bin. This sensory bin features sparkly snow made from Epsom salt, iridescent flakes and tinsel garland. Add in some winter-themed plastic animals, and you're good to go.
Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for personal finance blog The Dough Roller and contributes to Dough Roller's weekly newsletter.