Outdoor Toys to Make Fields and Forests Fun for Kids During COVID-19

With California announcing a shelter in place order as of March 19, and many other places likely headed this way soon, families need options for getting fresh air and exercise while managing risks.

One thing to note is that it’s impossible to avoid all risk of transmission, since the virus can remain in the air for 3h, survive for up to 24h on cardboard and for three days on plastic and stainless steel. But we can all do our part to greatly reduce the risk, by:

  • limiting outings to what we need for health and sanity
  • staying at least 6′ away from anyone not in our household
  • reducing contact with surfaces that others may have touched
  • avoiding touching our faces, and washing our hands often

Because being sneezed, coughed, or breathed on by an infected person are the most likely ways to catch COVID-19, this post has recommendations for toys and play ideas that can be helpful to make wide-open and remote spaces more fun for children. Items marked with a $ are more expensive.

For your patio or backyard

  • Water Table (Age 1+) If you have an outdoor space to set it up. Accessorize with a toy egg beater and soap, or water beads, or whatever containers and spoons you have available. If you don’t want to buy a water table, any large container will do. You can also add play sand to your water table. For hygiene, drain and dry toys daily.
  • $ Sandbox Digging machine (Age 3+) If you’re lucky enough to have a large sandbox or other place to dig.
  • $ Climbing dome (Age 1-9) This needs a space at least six feet in diameter, but kids love it for both active and dramatic play.
  • Mini golf (Age 4+) If your child is old enough to use a long golf club semi-responsibly. Also great for the beach or open fields.
  • $ A giant Jenga game (Age 1+) can be used according to the rules, or for more open-ended building.
  • Not a toy, but an idea (Age 2-4) Ask your child to go on “quests,” to go touch “something red,” or “the fence,” or “find a leaf and bring it back.”

For sidewalks and paved spaces

  • $ Micro Mini Deluxe Scooter (Age 1.5-5) Children under 2 are often fascinated by scooters but may not be quite ready for them yet. Great exercise, fun, and transportation once your child figures it out.
  • $ Balance Bike (Age 1.5-5) Most children won’t be ready for a balance bike until at least 2, but again, this can make for great exercise and transportation.
  • A pogo bouncer or hopper ball (Age 3+) builds gross motor skills while getting out plenty of energy. These are also good indoors.
  • Rollerblades or skateboard (Age 5+) for the adventurous child. A helmet is necessary, and protective gear recommended.
  • Moon Ball (Age 5-Adult) A high-bouncing ball that makes a funny pop. Even much older children and adults tend to enjoy this.
  • Don’t forget a helmet for all of the ride-on items.

For open fields

  • A soccer ball (Age 1+) is a classic choice. Choose size 3 for children age 8 and under.
  • T ball (Age 1.5-6) A novelty to learn a new skill: hit, fly, roll, run, retrieve, return, and repeat.
  • Stomp Rockets (Age 2-10) The absolute best toy for making an open field fun, with lots of running and excitement. It’s inexpensive and cheesy, but do not underestimate this toy, even for older children.
  • Kites (Age 3-Adult) are also a great bet if you have access to a large open field.
  • Flying Airplanes (Age 3+) These foam toys are also great for running and playing in an open field.

For beaches

  • Shovel and bucket or beach “baking” toys (Age 1+) for endless sand play.
  • This water blaster (Age 6+) does not look like a weapon but is great at shooting water, and it floats.
  • If your beach has magnetic black sand, a magnet, plastic cup, and piece of paper can create a fascinating science experiment. (Watch this video from the Exploratorium about the magnetic sand at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.) (Age 3+)
  • Most of the toys in the “open fields” section above are also perfect at the beach.

For the forest

  • Bug catching kit, net, and/or magnifying loupe (Age 2+) Everything kids need to explore bugs and other things in the woods.
  • Shovel and bucket (Age 1+) For younger children.
  • Some cotton twine (Age 4+) opens up lots of options for building outdoors, using branches and other natural materials. Be sure to supervise closely for safety, follow park rules, and take the twine with you when you’re done.
  • Binoculars (Age 3+) What toy screams COVID-19 more than one that lets you look at interesting things from a distance? For older children, consider getting a pair of adult binoculars that the whole family can use for years.

You may be able to swap or share toys with other families. Because the virus can live for up to three days on plastic and metal surfaces, many families are choosing to “quarantine” items and boxed deliveries for three days before using, to avoid breaking out the Clorox wipes.

Have an idea that’s not on my list, or other feedback? Please share it with me at littldata@gmail.com


Want to read more? Check out the three easiest things you can do to help your family be well while staying at home during COVID-19; a list of toys that support independent play for ages 1-8; and, if you’re in San Francisco, a map of outdoor places where socially distanced exercise may be possible for the whole family. 

Get the latest Littldata here.

About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.

I would love to hear from you anytime at littldata@gmail.com. Join Littldata’s mailing list here for updates and special content to make your family logistics easier. Follow Littldata on Twitter @littldata, and on Facebook at Littldata.

Indoor Toy and Play Ideas for Children Aged 1-8

With shelter in place orders, school closures, and working from home as the new norm in our attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19, we need all the help we can get. This post has indoor toy and play ideas for children aged 1-8 to help you keep the peace at home. (Littldata also has a list of social-distance-friendly outdoor toy ideas.)

Quiet, independent, long-duration play is the goal right now for many parents.

In evaluating indoor toy options, my main criteria were: capacity to support independent play, play variety, and duration of interest.

Independent Indoor Play Toys and Ideas

Items marked with $ are investments: they’re expensive, but tend to have resale value, and keep a child’s interest for hours at a time and for years on end. Items marked with a * are often cheaper (or even free) and may include consumable or easy-to-lose parts, but offer great bang for the buck. I’ve sorted what I think are the best bets, based on reviews and anecdotal evidence, to the top of each list.

The age groups are minimums only, and very approximate, so check for ideas in the groups above and (especially) below your child’s age.

Age 1+

  • $ Play Kitchen, Play Food, and Pots and Pans – For one year olds, play with these items will focus on the sensory aspects, while older children will develop increasingly elaborate dramatic narratives and games. (Up to age 5)
  • $ Learning Tower – These large stools with guardrails are not a toy, but a great way to get your kid involved in kitchen activities, and/or for you to be able to engage them while you cook and they play at the counter. (Up to age 5)
  • Mega Bloks – Interlocking blocks for the youngest of children. (Up to age 3)
  • * Single-use homemade food-safe paint – Just add a few drops of food coloring to plain yogurt. For both this and the play-doh, use your strap-in high chair to contain the mess. (Up to age 3)
  • * Munchkin Fishin’ Bath Toy – For the bath, sink, or water table. (Up to age 4)
  • Most of the toys on the 2+ list are also great for 1 year olds–the main issue is safety, so hold back if your child is still chewing on toys.

Age 2+

  • $ Magna-Tiles – The holy grail of toys for independent play for many families, these toys are endlessly reconfigurable, very easy to use, and are small to store. The wheeled car bases and ‘freestyle’ add-on are also great for the youngest kids. (Up to age 7)
  • $ Duplo – An intermediate between Mega Bloks and Lego in terms of dexterity required, these blocks are also compatible with Lego, giving them extra longevity. (Up to age 4)
  • $ Wood train set by Brio – Another toy that grows with children for years. (Up to age 6)
  • $ Play brooms and cleaning supplies – are surprisingly engaging, since children often love to do what they see adults doing. (Up to age 6, although for an older child you might get this one)
  • $ Lunii Storyteller – this device allows children to select and customize their own audio stories, and can be as enthralling as TV without the screen time. (Up to age 8)
  • * Art and Craft Supplies – This kit includes pom poms, pipe cleaners, felt, and more. Consider adding glue, scotch tape, or colored masking tape. (Up to age 8)
  • * Flashlight
  • Kinetic Sand – Another engaging sensory experience that is relatively easy to clean up, the National Geographic kits come in three different sizes. (Up to age 8)
  • Large Aqua Doodle Mat – These let your children have the fun of painting using just water, saving you the clean-up and need to refill paint supplies. (Up to age 5)
  • Doctor Kit – For playing doctor, although this may be less independent for a solo child. (Up to age 5)
  • $ Ride-on Thomas the Train – Expensive and large, yet not offering much exercise, this toy doesn’t have much to offer–except that it will safely entertain your train-loving toddler for hours, day after day. (Up to 40lbs)
  • * Make slime with cornstarch, water, and food coloring, or mix baking soda and vinegar and watch the excitement bubble. (Up to age 8)

Age 3+

Age 4+

  • $ Lego – This kit has some special parts, such as wheels, but is still very open-ended.
  • $ Marble run – Action-packed and great for this age. Younger children will love this too, but the marbles may pose a choking hazard and the pieces can be hard to fit together. 
  • Haba Tap + Tack – This is a small cork board for creative designs with a hammer, wooden tiles, and nails.
  • Lite Brite – A retro, contemplative toy for children who are patient and able to keep their own toys tidy.
  • Perler Biggie Beads, with pegboard – a larger-diameter version of the Perler Beads meant for older children, these are perfect for 4 year olds.
  • Wipe Clean Workbook – Children love (and learn from) repetition, and this workbook allows them to repeat lessons over and over.
  • My First Orchard – An ideal first board game to be played cooperatively by 1-4 players, this can be played by children as young as two with an adult or patient older child.
  • Sneaky Snacky Squirrel – This game is almost as simple to play as My First Orchard, but is competitive, for 2 or more children.
  • Pengoloo – A board game with a little complexity, for two to four children.

Age 6 + 

Wooden clips are small, but allow kids to create big spaces with blankets and sheets.

Physical Indoor Play

These items are for exhausting your kids when you can’t get outside. Most require a bit more space.

  • $ Nugget Couch – Much more than a couch, these strategically-designed cushions support a wide range of physical and imaginative play, if you have the space. 
  • * Alternatively, build a fort using your sofa cushions, chairs, and blankets. These wooden clips can be used to attach blankets.
  • This pop-up tunnel/ball pit/tent system that older babies and younger children will love to explore.
  • $ Indoor Trampoline – This 3’ diameter trampoline has a bar for children to hold.
  • Little Tikes Basketball Net – Indoors or out.
  • Fort builder – A larger building toy that will get your kid using their whole body
  • Foam Pogo Jumper – A pogo jumping toy that can be used indoors or out.
  • * Velcro dart board – The balls are light and safe to use indoors. Kids will run back and forth to play.

Ideas for Play without Buying Things

  • Rotating toys can go a long way in maintaining novelty, and making it a little easier to tidy at the end of the day. Use bins or bags to pack away some toys in a closet for a few days to a few weeks at a time. Young children will often focus well if you set out a few items as provocations at the beginning of the day or play session. 
  • A natural extension of this strategy is to swap toys with friends and neighbors. You can sanitize toys before using a disinfectant spray, or simply quarantine items for at least three days before use.
  • Use things you already have such as building a boat out of cardboard boxes.
  • Introduce household tasks now that your children have all the time in the world to learn how to sort beans, sweep up, sort laundry, wash dishes, etc.
  • Enjoy outdoor time. Open fields, beaches, and forests remain safe options even when playgrounds are off-limits. If hikes are a hard sell with your kids, check out this list of toys for COVID-19 friendly outdoor spaces. For those in the Bay Area, see my map of COVID-19 friendly outdoor places in San Francisco.
  • And screen time. It’s okay, really. Face Time with grandparents, friends, and others can be a great way to keep in touch. Amazon Prime has a wide range of age-appropriate and educational shows for children, as well as a free 30 day trial. And here is a comprehensive list of educational companies offering free subscriptions and services during COVID-19 school shutdowns.

Have an idea that’s not on this list, or other feedback? Please share it with me littldata@gmail.com


Want to read more? Check out the three easiest things you can do to help your family be well while staying at home during COVID-19, or browse all of Littldata’s COVID-19 content in one place.

Get the latest Littldata here.

About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.

I would love to hear from you anytime at littldata@gmail.com. Join Littldata’s mailing list here for updates and special content to make your family logistics easier. Follow Littldata on Twitter @littldata, and on Facebook at Littldata.

How Families can Prepare for COVID-19 Before It Arrives

[Updated March 9, 2020] As the situation is rapidly evolving and I don’t want to present out of date information, I’ve removed parts of this article that refer to changing policies. Please check the CDC’s information on travel and pregnant women and children.

Otherwise, read on for tips on ways that parents can prepare for the very real possibilities of school and business closures, working from home, or caring for a sick family member.

Things To Do

Brush up on basic hygiene, and reinforce practices with your children. The CDC recommends avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, washing your hands thoroughly and often with soap (hand sanitizer is a second choice as necessary), covering your cough (but not with your hands), and staying home when you are sick. If you get a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, contact your doctor immediately and check out the CDC’s info.

In terms of travel, check out the CDC’s information on restrictions and recommendations. In order to reduce your personal risk and to help protect medically fragile members of your community, you may want to consider reducing travel by leaning on staycations for leisure, and on conference calls for work, whenever possible.

For childcare, what are your options in case your children’s school, daycare, or preschool closes for a month or more? If there are reasonable steps you can take now to make this outcome less stressful, consider taking them.

  • Do you have a family member, nanny, or friend who may be able to help? Talk with them about this possibility.
  • Is there another family in your area that you could swap playdates with?
  • Consider stocking up on inexpensive toys and books that could entertain your children at home, pre-purchasing their next birthday gift just in case you need it, or swapping unused toys with friends.
  • Identify nearby outdoor and natural areas where your children can play. Because the virus spreads through close contact, outdoor activities such as hiking and kite-flying safer than, say, a visit to the indoor playground. If you’re in San Francisco, you can access Littldata’s map of family-friendly outdoor destinations by joining my free email list.

Working from home might become optional or necessary, where feasible.

  • Do you need to get set up with VPN or any other resources?
  • Stay home if you feel even a little sick, and encourage your colleagues to do so as well.
  • If your workplace does not yet have a work from home option but your role would be compatible with it, ask about this possibility.

Join your neighborhood group on Nextdoor or Facebook, to keep up to date on resources and information, and to find ways to help each other.

Choose a room in your home where a sick family member can be separated, ideally one with access to a separate bathroom. The CDC has advice on how to take care of a flu patient at home, including how to clean their room daily, to reduce the chance of transmission.

For medically fragile people: What would they need in terms of help, resources, and supplies if there were a lockdown in your community? Elderly family members, friends, and neighbors are particularly vulnerable, and could benefit from active assistance or just a plan to check in on them regularly.

Things to Buy

While it’s important to not buy more than you need, you should keep the following supplies on hand, as a hedge against supply-chain disruptions, so that you’re ready to self-quarantine, and in order to reduce your exposure by consolidating and minimizing outings. I’ve linked to the best option I’ve found from Amazon or other suppliers, if you want to keep things simple.

  • Prescription medicines: While you shouldn’t hoard, make sure to keep any current prescriptions filled, ideally with a two-week supply.
  • Over-the-counter medicines: Make sure your adult acetaminophen (Tylenol), adult ibuprofen (Advil), liquid acetaminophen for children, and liquid ibuprofen for children, as well as any other over-the-counter medicines you typically use, are topped up and not expired.
  • A thermometer is a must, and this ear thermometer can be easily, hygienically, accurately used for the whole family. If you’re on a budget, this oral one is also great.
  • Basic hygiene supplies: Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels; soap, hand sanitizer, and feminine hygiene products–enough for a few weeks is plenty.
  • Baby supplies: Diapers, baby food, formula, wipes, and anything else your baby regularly needs.
  • Household cleaning: disinfecting spray cleaner, disinfecting wipes, laundry detergent, dish sponges. An inexpensive jug of bleach, stored well out of the reach of children, is also indispensable if there is illness in your home. If you’re concerned about the toxicity of conventional cleaning products, consider investing in a Force of Nature kit–it is an EPA registered disinfectant.
  • Face masks are now proven to be a crucial tool in keeping yourself and others safe. Surgical masks are widely available and provide efficient filtration; cloth masks are reusable and may fit better than a disposable surgical mask; and N95 masks are the gold standard for higher-exposure situations, but are expensive and often difficult to find. A well-fitting KN95 mask from a major supplier can be used instead of an N95 mask, and can be layered with a cloth or surgical mask for extra protection. Note that any valves need to be covered with tape or another mask, and that masks are only for adults and children aged two and older.
  • Toys and books that could keep your kids entertained if their usual childcare or school arrangements are disrupted.
  • Fuel in your car’s tank, and batteries for anything essential that requires them (though of course, you are using a charger for rechargeable batteries).
  • Nonperishable food that you can keep at home and actually enjoy eating, which could include nuts, cereals, beans, canned fruit, pasta and sauce, shelf-stable milk, granola and protein bars, coffee, tea–and obviously, chocolate and wine. Don’t forget food for any pets. (If you’re looking for another retailer, Thrive Market ships shelf-stable organic food and household goods, as well as frozen meat, throughout the mainland United States at relatively affordable prices.)
  • Vitamins can be a nutritional hedge if a disrupted food supply changes your usual eating habits. This is a good general multivitamin.
  • Perishable food such as eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, bread, meat, frozen prepared foods, and fresh produce are obviously preferable to shelf-stable alternatives. If you’re able, keeping your fridge on the fuller side (while not buying more than you will eat before food spoils) can help you be ready for an unexpected family illness.

Context and Details

[Note as of March 9, 2020: I am not updating this section, as the situation is evolving so quickly. Please check the CDC or major news outlets for current developments.] On February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that Americans should begin preparing for the spread of coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) in the United States. “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said according to the New York Times. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.” Stocks markets have also been in decline this week over concerns about growing economic disruptions worldwide.

Coronavirus is a problem because there’s no vaccine for it yet; it spreads easily and can be incubated and transmitted by people for up to 14 days without symptoms; and because its effects can be severe. While much is still unknown, and treatment in the United States may be more successful than in China, Coronavirus has been fatal for somewhere between 0.4% and 2.3% of people in mainland China. This is higher than the death rate from the flu in the United States, which is closer to 0.1%.

That said, your chances of getting Coronavirus and of it becoming severe depend on your age. Most of the people getting Coronavirus are adults from 30-70, but deaths have been concentrated among the elderly. So it’s a good time to help your older family and community members to stay in good health and avoid contact with anyone who may be sick; and to enjoy some peace of mind that no children under 10 have died from Coronavirus to date.

Further Reading

Littldata’s content to support parents during the pandemic is on our Taking Care of Your Family During COVID-19 page, and includes a list of indoor toys for independent play; outdoor toys that are conducive to social distancing; a map of outdoor places in San Francisco where socially distanced exercise is possible; and the three easiest things you can do to help your family stay sane while staying at home.

Get the latest Littldata here.

About Littldata: At Littldata, my goal is to help parents figure out their family logistics by sharing calendars, maps, lists, and spreadsheets–as well as research-backed blog posts and data graphics. This post uses Amazon Affiliate and referral links.

I would love to hear from you anytime at littldata@gmail.com. Join Littldata’s mailing list here for updates and special content to make your family logistics easier. Follow Littldata on Twitter @littldata, and on Facebook at Littldata.