It's snowing outside, and you're trapped in the house with children—some of them neighbors' children who, when bored, do things like throw fireplace logs at the windows. Depending on how long you've been cooped up, that may seem like an excellent idea, but we've got better options: Here's how to keep them all entertained for 92 movie-free minutes, the length of the standard fallback film, Toy Story 2.
Make Your Own Museum
Add a little grandeur to the day. Have the kids dress up in costumes (anything with a princess, a pirate or an old-fashioned theme works best). Then take each child's photo and print it on 8½-by-11-inch paper, or better yet, have them paint each other's portrait, and mount the masterpieces in the living room, complete with labels: Study of a Dutch Baroness by William the Younger (watercolor, glue, toothpaste, leftover birthday cake sprinkles).
Conduct Random Taste Tests
Blindfold everybody and let them taste from different bowls filled with not-so-everyday food items like olives, cauliflower, beans, cereal, avocado, gummy bears. This is a hands-on activity. (In other words, no spoons allowed.) One point for every correct food item named. Two points for every incorrect but poetic guess, such as my toddler's response to cornflakes: "Tastes like a bowl of snowflakes." Three points for not spitting anything out.
Create Giant Obedient but Fun Paper Dolls
Have the kids trace one another—head to shoes—with a marker on a long piece of butcher paper. Cut out the shapes, draw on faces and clothes, and give the life-size dolls cool names like Gertrude and Maximilian. Let the dolls sit down for dinner with the kids. Let the dolls decide what book you will read tonight—and note how well the dolls listen to the story! Do not, however, let the dolls take a bath before bed.
Redo Nursery Rhymes
You could call it a lesson in the English language, but why ruin the mystique? Create a list of words that rhyme. Then plug them into new versions of "Hush Little Baby." Child example: Hush, little brother / Here is a block / Don't you touch my Legos / Or I'll make you eat Dad's sock. Mom example: Who invented bake sales? / What an unfair plan / We need cookies for 100 / But only have one pan.
Paint with a Pinecone
Forget finger painting. Forget brushes. Search the yard and basement for the least likely replacements, like pinecones, sponges, feathers, wine corks. Then break out the poster paints and let the kids at it. Our favorite: Matchbox cars, whose wheels make thick, skippy lines.
Clean the Bathtub
Kids like spray bottles. That's all I'm saying.
Make Candy Cookies
Tell yourself (or a visiting child's sugar-vigilant parents) that this is a "science" experiment. To prepare, gather all your data—also known as finding all your old Halloween, Christmas and goody-bag candy. Then make a batch of sugar cookies. Top each unbaked cookie with a piece of (this is crucial!) unwrapped candy. Secretly rearrange cookies on pan before putting in oven. Bake and cool. See who can identify the melted candy by observation and hypothesis. If that doesn't work, run a taste test.
Fill a Bag of Red
Everybody gets a paper grocery sack (you can decorate the sack too, which gobbles up half an hour). Set the timer for 10 minutes and instruct the kids to run around the house and fill their bags with red things. The one who gets the most red things wins. Some rules: (1) The things must fit in the bag. (2) By red, we mean red; this includes brown things with red stripes but not brown things with orange stripes. (3) No liquids in the bag. Period.
Compete at Neighborhood Land
Create your own board game based on Candy Land. Draw a path on a piece of poster board and decorate it with local landmarks. With a roll of the dice, move players through the streets of your neighborhood—complete with "Lose a space" oak tree or "Skip forward three spaces" coffee shop or "Go back home!" grumpy old lady. Consider ending the game on an ice cream parlor, which you and the kids actually visit once somebody wins.
Play Toilet Paper Soccer
Clearly a game invented by kids. Take a roll of toilet paper, preferably with the store wrapper still on it. Divide into two teams, each with a wall as a goal, and play soccer using the toilet paper as a ball. The toilet paper will not break lamps or china while soaring through the air. More appealingly, at some point the store wrapper will rip, the paper will begin to unroll and the so-called ball will become a long, crazy paper comet that shoots though the house with every kick, creating the kind of needless mess and mayhem that every child adores.
Make Your Own Granola
Everybody loves granola. It's like trail mix without the requisite hiking. Make the basic recipe in huge bowls that require a lot of stirring and sampling. Then customize each batch with yummy kid-friendly flavors and add-ins like peanut butter and jelly or maple walnut.
Build a Bedroom Diorama
Dioramas aren't just for dinosaurs anymore. Have your kids fill a shoe box with the miniature world of their own room, including toys, books, puzzles and a little bed with a little child in it—at exactly 8:30 p.m.