Even if you are a trained professional (I’m an ex-teaching assistant) and have survived six years of being a stay-at-home parent, the thought of having little kids at home full-time is a lot. Forget loo roll, I am stocking up on Cadbury’s Creme Eggs to get me through the coming weeks.

Children learn through play, but my own forcing me to drink a pretend cup of tea for the 85th time made me seriously question my life choices. So I decided to start thinking up easy games that I could enjoy, too. I could fully engage with the kids while we played, and then allow them to play independently afterwards, knowing I had done my bit for a while.

I have just one rule for every single game we play: always let the kids come to the game. If they come, great. If they don’t? Leave the activity out if you can. They might approach it later. They might not. It doesn’t matter.

In April 2018, I set up my Five Minute Mum blog, sharing activities that used stuff from around the house. I now have more than 150 games on my website and in my book, including the selection below, and I will be using them to get through the weeks and months ahead. Along with the chocolate, of course.

Giant snakes and ladders (age 3+)

Giant snakes and ladders.

Giant snakes and ladders.

I love dice. There are so many games you can play with them, and counting the dots from one to six is such a great early skill. This game came to me right when the kids were driving me bonkers and I was fed up with muttering “FFS” to myself.

You will need
A load of books or cushions (about 25)
A length of string (or more if you want more snakes)
Masking tape
A dice

To set up
1. Scatter the books or cushions across a room in a rough, wiggly line – these are your board-game squares.

2. Between two of your squares, lay down a wiggly line of string – this is your snake. You can have one or more snakes.

3. Between another two squares, stick down some masking tape – this is your ladder. It doesn’t have to look like a ladder; it can be just a line. But you can make rungs, if you’re feeling fancy. Again, you can have one or more ladders.

To play
1. Err … it’s pretty self-explanatory. Just take it in turns to throw the dice and jump across the corresponding number of board squares. (You are the counters!)

2. If you land on a snake, you go back to the square at the end of the snake.

3. If you land on a ladder, you go forward to the square at the top of the ladder.

4. The first player to reach the finishing line wins.

For those learning to read, add some additional squares with bits of paper that say things such as “Hop 5 times” or “Go back 3 steps”.

Letter racetrack (1+)

Letter racetrack.

Letter racetrack.

Giant cardboard boxes are the best. You can quite literally throw one in the direction of small children and go and make a cup of tea. Once they have run out of things to do with it, cut it down and lay it flat and you have got yourself an instant racetrack.

You will need
A large cardboard box
A pen
A toy car for each player

To set up
1. Write your child’s name in the style of a road along the flattened-out box.

2. Leave the cars nearby.

To play
1. Each player chooses a car and drives it along the letter roads. Tell your child the letters you are driving along. See if they want to join in.

2. You could also write your name alongside your child’s and have a race.

3. Or perhaps try taping a pen to the back of your child’s car, then see if they can draw around the racetrack with it.

If you don’t have a box, an old wallpaper roll works well.

The code-breaker (4+)

The code-breaker.

The code-breaker.

This is probably my most popular game; it seems to set the kids’ imaginations running wild – the way playtime should. Plus, it gets them to practise writing numbers without realising that’s what they are doing. You will need quite a few bits and bobs for this one, but hopefully it’s stuff you already have at home.

You will need
A small toy your child likes – we use Dennis the Dinosaur
A little basket or box
Play-dough or Blu-Tack
3 differently shaped keys
A pencil and some paper
A dice

To set up
1. Put the toy under the upside-down basket or box.

2. Make three balls out of the play-dough or Blu-Tack, then press a key into each one to make an impression. Put the three key impressions on top of the basket or box.

3. At the top of one bit of paper, trace round one of the keys with the pencil. Draw three boxes below it. Then repeat for the remaining two keys.

4. Leave the dice near the basket or box.

5. Finally, hide the keys around the room.

To play
1. Tell your child that their toy has been trapped inside a cage and they need to set the toy free. In order to do this, they have to find the keys to the cage – and the keys are hidden somewhere in the room.

2. When they find a key, they must match the key to its outline on one of the bits of paper. Let them find the correct bit of paper by matching the key shape.

3. Before they can use the key to unlock the cage, they must roll three numbers on the dice to get the code. They then write the code on the piece of paper. Let them roll the dice, recognise the number and write it in a box.

4. Once they have written down the complete code, they can put the key in its play-dough impression.

5. Repeat with the remaining two keys.

6. When they complete the third key, the cage is unlocked and the toy is released. They will also have written out nine numbers, and hopefully laughed their little socks off.

Toddler pong (1+)

Toddler pong.

Toddler pong.

My hen do was full of brilliant games, including “prosecco pong”, which ended with everyone crying with laughter. When I arrived home in a bedraggled state, I discovered a ping-pong ball in my handbag and I thought the kids might like a go, minus the prosecco.

You will need
Some cups
A pen and some paper
A ping-pong ball or bouncy ball

To set up
1. Pop the cups on the floor. They can be dotted about randomly, in a line or in a triangle.

2. Write on a piece of paper something you would like your child to practise, then cut it out and put it in a cup. For example, if they are learning particular letters or numbers, write them down. Do this for all the cups.

3. Put the ball nearby.

To play
1. Explain to your little one that the idea is to bounce the ball and try to get it to land in one of the cups. (Take turns if you are playing with more than one child.)

2. When a player gets the ball into a cup, they can take out the bit of paper and see what it is. Help them to read it out loud, then remove that cup.

3. Keep playing until all the cups are gone.

To practise colour recognition, use different coloured cups or put different-coloured items inside each cup. This is good for ages one to three.

Musical letters (3+)

Musical letters.

Musical letters.

In my experience, simple is always best. If my kids and I can play a game with just a pen and paper, it makes my day. No big clean-up and I get five minutes of feeling that I am nailing parenting because my kids have the biggest grins on their faces. Whenever I hear them say: “Can we play it again?”, it’s music to my ears! (Well, not always, but, you know, if I’m in the mood for it.) And speaking of music …

You will need
10 bits of paper
A pen
Something to play music on

To set up
1. On each piece of paper, write a different letter. It could be the letters of your child’s name, phonics sounds or even words. I tend to mix it up, including a few letters my kids are confident with and a few that are new or that they get stuck on.

2. Spread the letters out on the floor.

3. Put the music on standby.

To play
1. Explain that when the music plays, they can dance or run around between the letters. Then, when the music stops, they have to jump on a letter and shout it out. You jump on a letter, too, and shout it out.

2. Remove the letters that get jumped on, then start the music again.

3. Keep going until there is only one letter left to win, or until all the letters are gone.

If you want to make things more competitive, stop the music and shout out a letter for children to find – and race them to it.

Give Me Five by Daisy Upton AKA Five Minute Mum is published by Penguin. Follow her on Instagram, @fiveminutemum



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