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in: Diversions, Fatherhood, Relationships & Family, Travel & Leisure

• Last updated: January 12, 2021

30+ Tricks, Games, and Stunts to Entertain Your Kids on Long, Dark Winter Nights

family enjoying games illustration

The pandemic has canceled tons of activities, outings, and extracurriculars, leaving our calendars, including our familial ones, rather empty.

Quarantining with kids in summer — when the sun doesn’t set til late, the weather is warm, and you can spend your evenings doing things outside — is one thing. But quarantining in the cold and dark of winter? Woof. You get done with dinner, and then it’s like . . . alright, now what?

Sure, you can watch a movie or pull something out of the board game cabinet, but you probably don’t want everyone staring at a screen every night and you can only play The Floor Is Lava so many times.

If your family has been experiencing some pandemic-induced wintertime doldrums, below we present over 30 ideas for whiling away these long, dark nights. They have been selected and recommended based on the following criteria:

  • Indoor. These are things you can do entirely within the confines of your house, because baby, it’s cold outside. 
  • Easy. There are tons of involved crafts to tackle out there, but at the end of a long day, nobody wants to bust out a ton of supplies, spend an hour on some meticulous project, and then have a bunch of clean-up to do. The activities below require minimal supplies (and that which is required you’ll already have lying around the house) and minimal preparation and work. They’re turnkey. Save more involved crafts — like building a periscope, pencil catapult, or coin-powered battery — for Saturday afternoons. Which, let’s face it, are awfully long too.
  • Novel. Sometimes a little weird and eccentric, these are activities that you may not have previously thought about doing, and that will give you a welcome break from your typical entertainments.

The McKay family has field-tested all of these ideas and given them our seal of approval. Some will keep your kid occupied for a fairly long time; others provide a short diversion and quick laugh. Some are one-and-done type things; others are games your kids will want to play night after night after night (sometimes to your chagrin!). Keep this list handy and pick a couple things each evening to try out and use to pass the time in some memorably interactive, full-bore wholesomeness. 

Wonder Ball Game

This old camp game, passed down to us by Kate’s father, has been a weirdly big hit in our household. It’s akin to hot potato: you toss a ball around a circle while all singing the Wonder Ball song, and whoever has the ball in their hands when the last word of the song (“out!”) is warbled, is, well, out. Keep on doing rounds of it until only one person, the winner, is left standing.

Here’s how the song goes:

The Wonder Ball
Goes round and round
To pass it quickly
You are bound
If you’re the one
To hold it last
The game for you
Has surely past
You
Are
Out!

In our house, we call the game “Wonder Toad” because instead of using a ball, we use a big plushie of Toad from Mario Kart. Here’s the tune:

Fortune Teller

origami fortune teller.

This never fails to entertain. Fold a paper fortune teller by following the instructions here. The thing that makes this fun are the fortunes. You need a good mixture of good fortunes and bad ones. So for every “You’ll win the lottery” fortune, you’ll need a choice prediction like “You’ll live in a garbage can like Oscar the Grouch.” 

I also like throwing in things like “You’ll eat boogers for the rest of your life” or “Your breath will smell like farts.” Dad gets an immature kick out of it; so do the kids.

Finger Challenge


A physical coordination challenge in the vein of “pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.”

Your left hand has your thumb up; your right index finger is pointing at your left thumb. Now, simultaneously switch your left hand to pointing and your right hand to the thumbs up position. It seems like this would be easy, but it’s not. It’s like something gets crossed in your brain to make it hard to do. With some practice, though, you’ll eventually be able to seamlessly make the switch between thumbs up and pointing.

Fort-Building

In the category of secret hideout creation, making a full-on teepee serves as a great weekend project, but improvised forts are the name of the game on a weeknight. The other week the kids built some creatively jerry-rigged forts using couch cushions, chairs, pillows, blankets, and bedsheets. They spent a good hour working on their respective constructions, and then got to sleep the night in them to boot. 

Flour Mountain Game

flour mountain game.

If you burned out on the early-pandemic baking craze and now have copious amounts of flour lying around, you can put it to good use in this game. It’s a good one for when you don’t mind getting a little messy (it’s wise to do it right before bathtime).

Pour a pile of flour out onto a plate, and then mold it into a cone/mountain shape. Place a match or toothpick upright at the top of the mountain. To play the game, each person uses a butter knife to cut away a bit of the mountain, trying not to let the toothpick fall. Participants can make whatever size cuts they’d like; they’ll naturally get smaller the closer they get to the toothpick. Whoever makes the toothpick fall first, has to pick it up with their mouth — which is likely to result in the person getting flour all over their face. If your kids are like our kids, they may be tempted to intentionally be the one who makes the toothpick fall, because they want to get flour all over their face.

Glass Bottle Xylophone 

glass bottle xylophone with topochico bottles.

You probably know that water-filled vessels can be used to play music, but have your kids ever actually experimented with the idea?

Fill up glass bottles (or drinking glasses) of the same size and shape with varying amounts of water. You can then play around with them in as nuanced or as loosey goosey a way as you want. 

Tap on the bottles with a spoon to see the way the water level impacts the sound; check out the difference in sound that is made when you tap on a water-filled section of a bottle versus an empty section; blow across the tops of the bottles to make yet another type of noise.

Now if you want to get fancy, you can actually “tune” the bottles to a scale and play some songs with your “xylophone.”

Hanger on Head

hangar on head trick.

For a short, weird interlude of entertainment, have your kid close his eyes, tell him to relax his neck, and then put a plastic hanger around his head — above the eyes and ears, like where a ballcap would sit. Your kid’s head will magically want to turn to the side.

There’s actually a study that explains this strange phenomenon. 

Charades

A classic parlor game that still is fun in the 21st century. Charades shows up frequently in our after-dinner entertainment rotation.

We use a random generator like this one to come up with the words to act out; this allows the whole family to play (rather than the person who came up with the words/themes being left out because they already know the answers). 

Soap Carving

soap carving in the shape of a turtle.

If your kids aren’t yet too handy with a knife, a good way for them to practice their whittling skills is by carving things out of bars of soap. Even if they don’t have experience with handling a pocket knife, the soap is so soft they can do this with a butter knife. We’ve got instructions on how to carve a turtle into soap here, but you can also just let your kids be creative and go to town on their bars, carving whatever they want. 

Sleeping Giant

We’ve talked about roughhousing on the site plenty of times in the past. Gus and Scout are now 10 and 7 and we’re still at it, and doing it even more on these long dark nights. 

I’ve invented some roughhousing games as the kids have gotten older. The one the kids like to play the most is called “Sleeping Giant.” It was inspired by the story of Polyphemus in the Odyssey. 

I put the kids in a cave area (it’s usually a spot between our bed and the wall) and block the entrance with my body. I pretend that I’m sleeping and the kids have to try to get over me without touching me. If their bodies glance mine in their attempts (I make that harder to avoid by moving my arms and legs up and down), the sleeping giant awakens and tries to devour them. 

If they get by me or I catch them three times, a no-holds-barred battle royale commences. I throw them on the bed; they do jiu-jitsu locks on me. It’s a hootin’ hollerin’ good time.

Floating Arms

Amaze your kid with this classic trick. Stand her in a doorway, and have her lift her arms until the back of her hands are pushing against the doorframe. Hold for 60 seconds. Have her then take a step forward and experience the feeling of her arms magically floating to the sky.

Put Your Head Through a Piece of Paper Challenge

head through piece of paper challenge.

Cut a piece of paper into fourths and give one of the slips to your kid, asking him to make a hole in it in such a way as to be able to put his head through it. He will hilariously fail. He will then enjoy learning the clever secret to making the seemingly impossible possible, which we’ve laid out here

Poor Kitty Game

All the members of the family except he or she who will first play the part of the cat sit down. The person playing the cat then gets down on all fours and crawls over to one of the family members and meows three times. This person then has to pat the “kitty” on the head three times and say, “Poor kitty, poor kitty, poor kitty.” The “cat” should act as silly and comical as possible, and the first person who laughs becomes the new kitty. 

We found this game in a book of kids’ activities from the 1960s, and it was so totally bizarre that it had us all in stitches before we even started. The laughter continued as we played and took turns meowing and nuzzling each other’s legs.

Make a Paper Balloon

origami blow-up balloon.

Origami is a perennially effective boredom killer for kids, and arguably the most fun kind of origami is that which results in a creation that has some kind of functionality — like a frog you can jump, a box you can put things in, a ring you can wear, a ninja star you can use to vanquish your foes.

Perhaps the king of this category is the origami balloon. It’s just cool to blow something up that’s made out of paper. Once constructed, you can play hacky sack with it, throw it at your little sister, bat it around like a cat, and even fill it up with water and turn it into a water bomb; drop it off your deck and watch it go splat.

Find the full instructions to make a paper balloon here.

Heads Up, Seven Up

The game your elementary school teachers had you play when it was raining at recess. Admittedly, it’s not as fun when there are just four or five participants (we do our familial version with one person having their eyes closed/thumb up, while the three other participants are the potential thumb taggers — that way the eyes-closed participant has more potential taggers to guess between). But our kids still really enjoy it. The hoot of it is planning subterfuges designed to fool the person with their eyes closed as to who did the thumb tagging deed. If you need a refresher, here’s how to play.

Invisible Ink

homemade invisible ink experiment.

Evoking as it does the worlds of secret agents and swashbuckling pirates, what kid doesn’t love invisible ink? The problem is that the classic formula for invisible ink — lemon juice + heat — doesn’t actually work all that well. We’ve ferreted out the recipe that actually does, which you can find here. Bonus: you probably already have everything you need to make it in your cabinets right now.

Musical Chairs

We played this the other night and it was a fun success, even with just our four familial participants. The kids enjoyed both participating in the game, and taking their turn as the “DJ,” who gets to pick their favorite song off Spotify, and be the one who starts and stops it as the other family members march around the empty chairs.

In one round, things got pretty rowdy in the fight over the last chair; a lip was busted; blood was spilt. McKays don’t mess around.

River Rat 

You can also try “River Rat” as a variation on musical chairs. Family members stand on either side of a small, elongated area rug, which represents a river. One person will start and stop the music. When the music plays, family members march back and forth over the rug. Whoever is in the “river” when the music stops, is a river rat, and is out of the game.

Paper Airplane Contest

best homemade paper airplane.

Fold paper airplanes. Throw them. See whose plane goes the furthest. 

Levitate a Thread

levitate a thread with a comb.

Can your kid make a thread rise off the table? He can when he uses a comb which has been activated with the “magic” of static electricity. Just run a comb through your hair a few times, hold it close to a thread (or a small piece of paper towel) and — voila! — the thread will levitate upwards. 

Get Up Off the Floor Without Using Your Hands Challenge

A few years ago, we wrote about the Sitting-Rising Test. It’s a physical evaluation that can predict mortality. The fewer appendages you need to use to get up off the floor from the sitting position, the longer you’re likely to live. The more appendages you have to use, the sooner you’re likely to die.

Well, besides being a test to see how likely you are to kick the bucket, it’s also a fun game to play with your kids. See if they can get off the ground without using their hands/arms/knees. See if they can find more than one way to do so.

Dude Perfect Trick Shots

Think of the trick shots your kid watches on Dude Perfect and scale it down. We do a lot of bottle flipping, no-look sock shots into the clothing basket, and bouncing balls down the staircase and into a cup. 

Don’t forget to scream and run around like a crazy person after a successful stunt. It wouldn’t be a Dude Perfect trick shot without it. 

Pound it. Noggin. SEE YA!

Feats of Strength

Related to roughhousing are old-school feats of strength. These are games that pit participants in a mano-o-mano test of strength and balance. If you were a Boy Scout, you probably played some of these games. Foot boxing, Indian leg wrestling, and Indian staff wrestling are a few such showdowns; be sure to check out this article for more

If you’re much bigger than your kid, going head to head with him wouldn’t make for a fair fight. Instead, pair up kids of a similar size to compete. Though if you’ve got teenagers, they’ll probably be able to give Dad a run for his money.

Don’t forget to do your Airing of Grievances before performing these feats of strength too. 

See Through Paper

pencil rubbing of a coin.

Put a piece of paper over a coin and ask your kid if they can figure out the date on the coin. They will be stumped. You then give a knowing chuckle, and rub the top of the coin with a pencil, creating a relief that will reveal the year it was minted. 

Cartwheel Contest

Have a contest to see who can do the best cartwheel (or the least worst one). Spoiler alert: Dad did not win.

You can also try somersaults, handstands (or at least a tripod headstand), and other variations of poorly performed gymnastics. 

3 Marker Challenge

This is an idea Scout gleaned off YouTube. Each participant reaches into a box of markers and, without looking, pulls out three. When each person has chosen three random markers, everyone has to use their respective collection to draw a picture on the same theme; e.g., everyone draws a hamburger, and if you’ve got a blue, pink, and orange marker to get the job done, you’ve got to figure out how to make the best of it. You then argue about who did the best job.

Paper Cup Phone

paper cup phone game with kids.

The technology of telephones may have changed a lot in the last couple of decades, but making one out of paper cups remains a source of perennial fun. 

Making a paper cup phone is easy: poke a hole in the bottom of a cup and stick a string through the hole. Tie the string inside the cup to a toothpick; this will keep the string from falling out when you pull the “telephone line” between the cups tight (tautness improves sound quality). Repeat with another cup, making a lengthy line between the two cups so you can stand far enough apart that you wouldn’t be able to hear each other talking without the aid of your telephone. One person puts the cup up to their ear to listen; the other talks softly into their cup. The sound volume/quality is surprisingly impressive for such a primitive piece of tech!

Indoor Obstacle Course

Ottomans, chairs, brooms, and cardboard boxes can all be used to create an obstacle course. Have the kids put it together and then bust out your phone’s stopwatch and have a contest to see who can get through it the fastest.

Shadow Puppets

shadow puppets on a wall.

Shadow puppets are fun to make as you tuck your kids into bed. But they can also be played with before bedtime. Point a lamp at a wall, and put your hands, specially positioned to form the silhouettes of different animals (here’s how to make 16 of them), in front of the light. Shadows of the animals will be projected on the wall, and each family member’s animal can interact with the others, to create a full-on puppet show.

Catch the Cane Game

All family members except for one should sit in a circle of chairs. The one not seated stands in the center of the circle, holding a broomstick or PVC pipe or other kind of stick, with one end of it touching the floor. The stick-holder then calls the name of someone sitting in the circle while simultaneously letting go of the cane. The person whose name is called has to jump out of their chair and catch the stick before it falls. If he does catch it, the stick-holder tries again and calls another person’s name; if he doesn’t catch it, the stick-holder sits down, and the person who missed the stick becomes the new stick-holder.

The Rope Trick

rope trick to do with kids.

Give your kid a piece of rope about three feet in length and have them hold it with one end in each hand. 

Challenge them to tie a knot with the rope without letting go of either end of it.

Watch their fruitless efforts with your arms folded. When they finally give up, ask them (while your arms are still folded) to place the ends of the rope in each of your hands. Unfold your arms . . . and a knot magically appears!

Toothpick Puzzles

toothpick puzzle to do with kids.

Puzzle set-up + answer

Use 12 toothpicks to make 4 squares. Can family members figure out how to take away 2 toothpicks to form 2 squares?

toothpick puzzle to do with kids.

Now use 17 toothpicks to make 6 squares. How can you take away 6 toothpicks to form 2 squares?

Pass the Story

I actually played this game a lot back in my high school football days. On the ride home from away games, my buddies and I would sit in the back of the bus dirty and exhausted, and take turns collectively spinning a yarn. 

The game is simple: One person starts a made-up story. About a minute in, he stops and passes the story off to someone else, who then picks up where the first person left off and adds his own segment of the story for a minute. He then passes it off to the next person. Each person has to use the thread they inherited from the last, and then can take the tale in their own random direction. When done with your family, it’s always fun to hear the silly stuff your kids will add to the story.

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