Expect a Surprise: 100+ Ways to Keep Kids Smiling During COVID
For happiness, we need someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Who originally said this is debatable... was it Elvis? Andrew Carnegie? Immanuel Kant? But it has never been more true than it is now, during COVID. Your family is literally all in this together, and while that can be wonderful, it's also a challenge. One vital way to maintain mental health and optimism is to appreciate today and anticipate joy and fun in the future. Parents can be heroes in this category, because we've got the power to turn ordinary life upside down and keep kids smiling. But if you're busy or stressed, it can be tough to come up with creative ideas on the fly.
We've compiled a list for you, with help from KidsOutAndAbout.com readers and staff, to help your family get through COVID. Remember: kids can come up with amazing ideas of their own, so talk about this list with your kids and start planning some family adventures.
Cooking and Food
- Do a Chopped Competition.
- Bake or cook something new together.
- Plan a DIY/Buffet style dinner (make your own pizza, taco bar, etc.).
- Enjoy candle-lit breakfasts.
- Weekly Fancy Family Dinner: dress up, break out the special dishes, make a toast, speak with an accent and remember, “pinkies UP.”
- Weekly taste-testing: It works best if you are very specific. Instead of voting on which cheese your family likes best, do which cheddar cheese is best. Or which italian dressing, or apple juice, or cocoa, or honey. We even did a milk taste test using 2% milk and it was surprising how different each brand’s flavors were!
- Every once in a while, swap out the forks and spoons for chopsticks and laugh your way through dinner (or lunch or breakfast). You can find cute hinged sets that look like giant tweezers and are great for beginners.
- Buy one piece of exotic produce with each grocery trip and have everyone try it.
Theme Parties & Dinners
- "Rainforest cafe night. I covered the dining area with stuffed animals, played jungle noises and even made a volcano dessert to share." - Alecia J
- "We had restaurant nights that involved creating a menu, cooking to order, and my daughter loved being the server for the night. Great for me, too!" - Alecia J
- "For a while my husband and I made theme based meals for the kids to teach them about times past. The one that stood out the most for the kids was pirate night, homemade treasure maps, hard tack, and each got a sip of rum. : ) Not the tastiest meal, but certainly very fun!" - Suzy C-W
- Weekly Family Sleepovers: break out the sleeping bags because everybody sleeps in the family room including Mom and Dad. Play a game, watch a movie, snack on junk, make a fort, stay up late.
- Evening Happy Hour: invent or find recipes for fun mocktails you can drink with your kids. Make it super fun by using plastic wine glasses and adding tiny umbrellas and chopped fruit skewered onto little plastic swords. Appetizers optional.
- We need to celebrate our lives more than once per year! Calculate everyone’s half-birthday (quarter birthday, one-third birthday, etc.), and plan activities based on fractions, or the number of months someone has been alive, etc. Make half a cake (or a half-frosted cake), play half a game of monopoly, cut all vegetables in half, and so on.
- Pair books or movies with themed meal (examples of picture books that would work well: Jamberry, Yoko, Chicken Soup with Rice, Bee Bim Bop; our family enjoyed potato latkes while watching Fiddler on the Roof).
- "Every November we set up a thankful tree. Each night, each member of our family writes one thing they are grateful for on a leaf and we hang it on the tree. By the end of the month we have a beautiful tree full of what a wonderful life we have." - Alecia J
- Once a week, have each person choose one thing they're thankful for and write it on a colorful Post-It note. Toss the notes into a big jar, then open and read them on a special day (our friends do this for New Year's Eve).
- Create a Reverse Advent calendar- fill a box with a (non perishable) food item or other item to donate - one thing a day.
- Do a weekly gratitude circle. List your family members, then have each person names something about the next person on the list for which they are grateful. Also works on a Zoom call or via old-fashioned mail.
- As a family, decide together on someone you should thank with a note: a favorite author, a teacher, or someone who helps you at a local business?
- Gather images and mementos to make a gratitude collage.
- Plan an Awards Ceremony--Each family member plans and presents a few. Awards can be silly or sincere, and they can be presented to people, pets, or even objects around the house. Dress up and enjoy some sparkling juice.
- "For December I am creating an activity advent. Every day will have a scroll with an activity inside such as; create a paper chain countdown, make something for someone, hot cocoa bar and movie night, Christmas crafts, make birdfeeders, light sightseeing, salt dough ornaments, cookie decorating, make a snowglobe, gingerbread house decorating, cards for elderly, zoom caroling, and Nerf wars." - Alecia J
- Make a patchwork quilt together. Then make another until everybody has one.
- Pinterest Fails are amazing. Find some kind of project, do it together and laugh at the results. It can be cooking, baking, sewing, wood working, artistic - anything!
- Use cardboard boxes to make a Cat Castle for pets, a maze for a toddler or preschooler, or a fort for kids.
- Let kids paint something that doesn’t matter--a garage, the inside of their closet, a wall of their room or playroom.
- Take a photo of something every day during the month of December- document more than just holidays. It can be a photo of anything- cooking together, watching a movie, a bird you saw, wrapping a gift, just ordinary or not-so-ordinary activities. Then, in January, make a photo album or scrapbook of your December Daily.
- If it's cold outside, you can have Fun with Ice and Snow.
- We have one of those over the door b-ball hoops. We do family free throw contests in the hallway upstairs. And this goes with the minute to win it, but arrange Family Olympics. We did that on our family reunion vacation and it was a ton of fun.
- Choreograph weekly family TikToks.
- Fill an idea jar for daily activities.
- Do a “Zoom exercise class”--especially fun when kids act as trainers for grandparents, or an older cousin teaches younger cousins a dance.
- Pick a “home base” that’s a little out of the way. Choose a siren noise that’s easy to access via phone. When the siren goes off, everyone drops everything and runs to home base.
- Choose a challenge (it could be to complete a peaks challenge for hiking, a virtual 5K or marathon, or walking a specific meaningful distance.)
- Surprise each other with a physical contest: who can do the most push ups or the best headstand?
- Take a daily litter walk if you don't already have a dog to walk.
Make Community Connections
- "Do a 24 days of kindness challenge. I make a separate advent calendar with kindness challenges, things as simple as "make someone smile today", "give a compliment", or "send someone a letter" all the way up to donations of time etc." - Alecia J
- Plan a weekly or monthly swap of toys (or books, or games) with friends or neighbors.
- Gift friends or family members with yard surprises (ie, Leave a garden gnome on a friend's front lawn with instructions to let them "visit" for a week, then deliver somewhere else. Or drop off treats or a care package to a different home each week).
- Schedule weekly Teleparty (formerly called Netflix Party) meetups with long distance cousins or friends you haven’t seen for a while and watch a movie or a few tv episodes together. Teleparty is a chrome extension that allows you to synchronise content from Netflix, HBO, Hulu and Disney Plus and watch it with multiple people.
- Invite a surprise guest to family dinner once per week via Zoom (or Hangouts, Skype, Facetime, etc). Don’t tell the rest of the family who’s arriving. Even better, teach a relative who doesn’t know how to use the system how to do it so they can be the surprise guest!
- Play literal telephone. Call a family member, tell them a story, ask them to call someone else and tell the story, and keep going ‘til you circle back to the first family member.
- Coordinate with neighbors to display something simple for hunts as you walk around: rainbows, stars, pictures of different animals for a “safari,” letters of the alphabet, your school district’s mascot. You could plan a weekly hunt with families taking turns choosing what folks should display.
- Plan a “Tour de” Something. Choose a favorite category (ie., playgrounds, hiking trails, farmers’ markets, hot dog stands, ice cream places) and plan to visit a different one each week.
- Give everyone a very small budget (say, $3 to $5) and visit a garage sale, library book sale, or consignment shop. Buy gifts for each other.
- Make cookies or another treat to deliver somewhere once a week, and take turns deciding who should receive them. . . maybe your local firehouse, the school secretary, your pediatrician, your local library....
- "We did a minute to win it game night. Super easy to find supplies around the house to have a ball for an hour or two. We were crying we laughed so hard." - Alecia J
- "We have each person create a mini golf course so we can then go around and play mini golf altogether. This is a great way to reuse things like toilet paper rolls etc." - Alecia J
- "We do paint nights, dance competitions, movie nights, cupcake decorating nights, and hawaiian nights." - Alecia J
- Plan a board game night and let kids take turns choosing the game and/or the snacks.
- Play video games online with friends and family who are far away.
- Family Dare: everybody writes down silly/embarrassing suggestions and once a week or once a day (if you’re brave) take turns pulling one out. Everybody must complete the dare. For example: bark in public, say Hello to every single person you see, wink at a stranger, skip across a parking lot, etc.
- Plan and execute an Awkward Family Photo session.
- Hide jokes/riddles all over the house.
- Hide your kids shoes/jacket/toothbrush and make a treasure map for them to find it.
- Close your eyes and write your names. It’s easy enough to do every day and the results are funny enough to keep this up for a while. When it starts getting a little old move on to something else like drawing a self portrait, or the family dog, or your home.
- Choose some ideas from our 100 Things to Do with Kids During a Power Outage.
- After school dance party: celebrate the transition from school time to home time with a fun little dance party. Let your kids create the playlist to make it even more significant for them.
- Do a “string hunt”: tie a piece of yarn to a small surprise, then unwind the yarn all over the house and yarn. Give your child the other end of the yarn to follow & ball up on their way to a surprise.
- Set up a ping pong net on a table -- there are inexpensive kits to buy.
- Do a Scavenger Hunt -Crack the Code- Style: Type clues and then cut up the sentences (or for younger kids use a picture sequence, or just cut up a picture to create a puzzle) Put the pieces in an old Easter Egg and hide them - Players have to solve the 'puzzle' to figure out the clue before moving on.
Achieve a Personal Goal
- Make chores or To Do lists fun by turning them into Bingo cards. When someone gets BINGO they get a prize.
- It takes 21 days to break or learn a new habit. Grab an old jar and pay yourself $1/day for 3 weeks - you'll have achieved something new and have earned $21. - Treat yourself.
- Make a family sticker chart and track each member's progress on a daily goal. Plan a prize if you fill the whole chart for the week.
- Plan a weekly family meeting to set family and individual goals and then check your progress each week.
- Set a financial goal (maybe for a trip or a big-ticket item), then brainstorm how to achieve the goal.
- Choose a theme song or special phone sound to indicate it's time to Drop Everything And Declutter.
- Have each member of the family pick a silly surprise goal to share with each other. Plan for a week or a month, then share together. Learn to do a cartwheel or the splits, train your dog to do a new trick, take up knitting. Then display your new talent with the family.
Just for Fun
- Designate one weekend day as PJ day and stay in them no matter what. Yes, even if you have to go to the grocery store, bank or hardware store.
- Never be without a celebration! Make a Celebrations Date Book: Go through your calendar and try to write down all relevant anniversaries. It doesn’t have to be wedding anniversaries, it can be anniversaries of your graduation, your first promotion, the day you first ran a 5K, whatever. Find a good way to celebrate, but don’t tell everyone what it is, and let them guess from your clues.
- Read your horoscopes each morning.
- Write fortune cookie style fortunes and put them in lunch boxes or fill a jar with them and take turns pulling one out after dinner.
- Find an old photo and re-enact it for a new photo shoot. Send it to someone who’ll love it and encourage them to return the favor.
- Plan a monthly photo challenge - Example: Day 1: Weather; Day 2: Cozy, Day 3: Happiness, and more. Families & Friends can set up private FB groups so everyone can join in.
- As a family, have each member nominate their favorite short videos in several categories (Funniest, Cutest, Most Informative), then watch together as a group and choose the winners in each category.
- Plan a weekly cozy reading night (each family member can take a turn choosing picture book classics, or choose an adventure/suspense novel and read in installments).
- Do a costumed photo shoot -- dress up as a royal family, pirates, or animals.
- Rearrange the furniture. Maybe one adult/kids rearrange as a surprise for a parent.
- Have a decluttering challenge. Give each child a bag to fill with donations of unneeded toys or clothes.
- Paint your walls a new color.
- Or paint a wall with chalkboard paint.
- Peel and stick wallpaper is fun, too.
- Spiff up a walkway or garden space.
- Review your bathroom, laundry, and kitchen set ups and reorganize with an eye toward helping your kids gain more autonomy or independence. You might add a step stool to a bathroom or relocate plastic cups and plates to a lower cupboard kitchen cupboard for a toddler. Or post instructions over the washing machine or stock the kids' bathroom with their own cleaning supplies.
- Swap in new little accessories to make your living space perkier. Replace cabinet knobs or outlet covers an switch plates.
- If your kids' rooms have ceiling fans, they're easy to remove and repaint as kids' asethetic choices mature.
- String some lights somewhere--in a kid's room or draped over a cozy story space or favorite table.
- Start a compost pile.
- Borrow or rent a pressure cooker. It is immensely satisfying.
- Wash your windows. Trust us: everything will look brighter.
- Clean your bathroom well, then add a fresh bead of caulk wherever it's looking grungy. It's cheap, relatively easy, and tough to screw up. And it makes your bathroom look much nicer.
- Clean your dryer exhaust. It feels cleansing, and the kids can even use the lint for crafting (if that doesn't gross you out too much).
Fun and Learning
- You can also easily celebrate the Birthday of the Day. Use Wikipedia to find out whose birthday matches up with your selected day, and plan an easy theme around that person. Have a trivia contest with a prize at the end to see who knows the most about the person.
- Drop Everything And Read.
- Plant herbs, microgreens, or flowers. Start from seed to anticipate the first sprout or skip the early steps to start with baby plants. Enjoy sharing flowers or tasting your produce.
- Everyone takes a virtual tour of a museum. Then each member of the family copies a favorite piece of art. OR, if kids are a little older, each member chooses their favorite to copy, then the rest of the family is challenged to match the homemade copy to the virtual tour original.
- Plan international nights. Dress up, eat new foods, and investigate some of their customs to incorporate into the event.
Have an activity to suggest? Send it to email@example.com.
Subscriptions: Gifts That Keep on Giving
Now more than ever, it's great to have something to look forward to. That's what makes the current trend in gift box subscriptions such an excellent fit for the holidays this year. Send thoughtful choices to the ones you love near and far, and plan some excellent expected surprises for your own family in the months to come. KidsOutAndAbout has put together of some of our favorite choices with a range for all different ages and interests. There's absolutely a gift subscription that's perfect for every person. Knock out that shopping list in record time, and send love and care to all of your most special people this season.