Are you looking for activities that are cheap and easy for you, and fun for kids, that also teach some key science and engineering skills to kids while they play? Here is a collection of ideas that have all been thoroughly play-tested, and will work, whether you’re trying to engage one kid at home, or 20 kids at a vacation bible school or community center summer camp.
All of these are one-day themes. Choose any combination you want for as many days as you want. Each day includes a sensory play idea (water or other), free play prompts (the idea is that you set up an “invitation to play” and then they take it from there and play independently), a craft, a snack suggestion, and a challenge (these are more complex tinkering challenges that kids under age 6 will need an adult to actively help them with – this is your chance to play together with them).
Want more ideas? For recommended songs and stories, related videos and apps, more hands-on activity ideas, or detailed tutorials on how to do any suggested activity, just click on the name of the theme, and it will take you to my full post on that topic, with lots more info.
- Sensory: Dino Dig – hide plastic dinos in a tub of shredded paper. OR Fossil Hunt – bury “bones” in sand – kids dig up and clean them with paintbrushes.
- Independent Play: Small worlds with toy dinosaurs, blocks, and ferns.
- Dinosaur Eggs: Put a toy dinosaur in a water balloon. Freeze it. Cut off the balloon. Put out with salt, water, pipettes, tweezers, and other tools kids can use to excavate their dinosaur.
- Craft: Dinosaur Masks or Dinosaur Skeletons from Pasta.
- Challenge: Make an Animatronic Dinosaur Finger from cardboard.
- Snack: Dino shaped cheese puffs or chicken nuggets.
Geology: Rocks, Earthquakes
- Sensory: Fill a tub with sand, gravel, small pebbles, and big pebbles all mixed together. Include three sifters – one with big holes that lets everything pass through except the biggest rocks, one medium that captures the pebbles, and a strainer that only lets sand through.
- Independent Play: Set up a shake table, or use a massager to create an “earthquake” vibration. Offer blocks or other building materials, and some toy people or animals. Encourage them to build structures that can withstand a quake.
- Craft: Pet rocks or a terrarium with layers of sand, pebbles, and soil.
- Challenge: For age 6+, a DIY seismograph. For younger kids, work together on taking their earthquake proof buildings up a level.
- Snack: you can teach about the layers of the earth, then offer a yogurt parfait where kids layer together yogurt, fruit and granola, or a dirt cup where they layer chocolate pudding, bananas, crumbled graham crackers (or oreos), and a gummy worm.
- Definitely include a hike or field trip to gather a rock collection to study.
- Sensory: Mars rovers or a lunar rover toy in sand is a fabulous play opportunity. Or, you can do “gravitational impact testing” by putting out a tray of flour or sand or soft clay and letting them climb up high and drop things down on it to see whether they leave craters.
- Independent Play: Set up a “planetary surface”, a “rocket ship” and “mission control.” Set out astronaut dress-up costumes and let them play.
- Craft: Model Magic planets or paintings of the phases of the moon.
- Challenge: Make a jetpack from a 2 liter bottle. Or paper rockets on film canisters you can launch into the air with Alka-seltzer tablets.
- Snack: Trader Joe’s sells rocket shaped cheddar crackers. Horizon makes a graham cracker that’s cows jumping over moons. There’s astronaut ice cream. Or you could do some kind of food in a tube or a packet like the astronauts eat. (like an applesauce pouch or yogurt tube)
- Note: see our Gravity theme and Stars and Constellations theme for more space-related ideas.
- Sensory: Make a “blind box” where the kids can reach in and feel something, but can’t see it. Put in several interesting textures. (Details here.) Or, make a board with several textures to explore.
- Independent Play: Musical instrument play.
- Craft: Make and decorate shakers. (Details here.)
- Challenge: Make a musical instrument: craft stick harmonica, drum, or a “stringed” instrument you can strum. (Details here.)
- Snack: Apple variety taste test, or popcorn – talk about taste, smell, texture. (See details here.)
- Sensory and Independent Play: Have containers of water: plastic tubs? wading pools? sensory table? Put out a collection of materials they can test. For older kids, add worksheets where they can predict whether something will sink or float, and make observations about what materials float best, what shapes float best, and so on. Children will want to test everything. Set limits as needed. For example: “before you put anything in water, you must show it to me so I can say yea or nay. After you test things, you need to dry them and put them away where you found them.”
- Craft: Bubble Blowing Art or Sea Shell Impressions.
- Challenge: Build a boat that can float and not capsize. Then add pennies to it. How many can it hold before it sinks? Re-engineer the boat: now how many pennies can it hold?
- Snack: Cereal and milk. (The cereal floats till it gets soggy, then it sinks.)
- Sensory: Play-dough, with wedges (plastic knives, chisels) and levers (scissors.) Screwdrivers, hammers, nails, screws, hand drill and a board. (For smaller children, can screw things into a styrofoam block instead of wood, and can use toy hammers and golf tees.) Spend time clearly teaching how to use the tools safely before having them play independently.
- Independent Play:
- Catapults – set up a “launch zone” with various bars, fulcrums and things to launch (e.g. pompoms) – show the basics of how to set up a catapult and let them explore from there.
- Pulley play. Just set up a bunch of different pulleys and let them play. (Learn more.) Pulleys are kind of a pain to get set up right, but once they’re working, they can engage kids for a long time, especially if you add a story – like using a clothesline style pulley to “send mail” or using a pulley to bring supplies up to a tree house.
- Ramp play. Give kids boards to make inclined planes with, things to prop them up on and things to roll down them. (Balls, plastic eggs, marbles, or anything with wheels and axles.)
- Gears. There are lots of great gears toys out there. If you own one, set it out to explore.
- Craft: Spirograph. Paint with cars: put out big paper, paint, and toy cars – they dip the wheels in paint and drive the car on the paper.
- Challenge: Build a top or a game spinner. (Details.) Or make a marble run.
- Snack: Use an apple peeler / slicer to make apple “screws” or a veggie Spiralizer. Have kids use wedges (knives, melon baller) and levers (scissors) to make fruit salad, and levers (tongs) to serve it. Wheel shaped pasta.
- Sensory: Domino chains.
- Independent Play: Teach them about chain reactions, and how to set up a few basic ones (launch a ball to knock over a domino chain which rings a bell) and let them explore with whatever materials you offer.
- Craft: Kids draw Rube Goldbergs – they come up with a simple task they’d like to do, and imagine the most complicated way of doing it. (Note, this will work better with kids age 5 and up.)
- Challenge: Build a clothespin racer or marble maze.
- Snack: Use kitchen gadgets to prepare snack: like an apple slicer, a hard-boiled egg slicer, an ice cream scoop with the lever that releases the ice cream, a pasta maker, a cheese grater, etc.
- Sensory: Big Dig – sand or cloud dough with toy bulldozers, excavators, etc.
- Independent Play: Construction dress-up clothes, several hands-on activities: Paint a big house on big paper. Paint water on your own house with rollers, hammer golf tees into floral foam, wire Snap Circuits, set up “plumbing” pipes in a water table, or arrange doll house furniture on floor plans.
- Craft: Make houses from paper bags – decorate, then set up a city with toy cars.
- Challenge: Build a house with foam insulation panels, golf tee, and hammers. (I wouldn’t buy all these supplies just for one or two kids. But if you’ve got 6 or more kids, it’s a great way to keep them occupied!)
- Snack: Gingerbread houses with graham crackers, cream cheese or peanut butter as mortar, and dried fruit or cereal as decorations.
- Sensory: Kinetic sand and monster trucks!
- Independent Play: Playing with toy cars – but liven up their typical car play in some way by offering: ramps to run the cars down, or a “car wash”, or roads marked out with tape, or cardboard garages to park in, and so on.
- Craft: Decorate a cardboard box to look like a car. (This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want! We’ve made several, but I don’t have good pictures, so I borrowed this image from here.)
- Challenge: Build a car that can move.
- Snack: “Cars” made of cheese sticks and mini bagel wheels, or bananas with oreo wheels.
- Bonus Activity: Do a “drive-in movie”, either inside in the daytime, or after dark in the back yard. Kids sit in the cardboard box cars they made, and you deliver popcorn and drinks while they watch the movie.
Remember that it’s summer time, not school: These are all intended to be fun! Most are process-based, free play exploration for kids, with lots of hands-on tinkering. You as the adult may be thinking a lot about the theme, and the learning potential, but the kids’ experience is just a bunch of fun activities to explore. Enjoy!