OK, I admit it. I'm cheap.
When my 2-year-old spills his new bottle of bubbles, instead of seeing a puddle of liquid slowly drying in the sun, I see nickels and dimes evaporating from my wallet. Or when my 4-year-old uses half the chalk in one afternoon because she made a pile of chalk dust and danced around in it, I try not to see dollar signs in her footprints. At least the baby isn't on the move yet.
Luckily, I've found some pretty easy "recipes" for some of these basic staples of childhood, plus I've discovered quite a few other great activities using things we already have around the house.
First up: Bubbles
Store-bought bubbles are pretty inexpensive, but making your own anything is (usually) cheaper. An online search for "bubble recipe" yielded many results. Water? Check. Liquid dish soap? Check. Glycerin, sugar or corn syrup? Um, yes? Apparently this bonus ingredient makes the bubbles a little hardier, especially if you let it sit overnight.
I suppose they were a little sturdier than store-bought bubbles -- my daughter was able to catch more of them back on the wand, and several landed successfully on the glass patio table.
Consensus: They were easy and cheap to make, and worked just as well. I will make more, then reuse my store-bought bottles and wands all summer long.
Next: Sidewalk chalk
The recipes I saw online looked a bit more time-consuming than bubbles, but I definitely wanted to give it a try.
I found my recipe through Pinterest at Happily Domestic blog on blogspot.com. I actually tried this twice.
The first time was an epic failure: We used too much water (too runny), stirred too vigorously (couldn't eliminate all the air bubbles), didn't line the toilet paper rolls with wax paper (the cardboard got soggy and stuck to the chalk), tried powdered drink mix instead of the powdered tempura (colors were not bold enough, although food coloring can be used instead if you use enough of it) and only waited 24 hours drying time instead of 48 (still soggy).
So, yeah, don't do any of that. Follow the directions.
The second attempt went much better. The chalk didn't dust up as much, but it drew just as well. It also didn't break when my 2-year-old threw it.
Consensus: It is rather time-consuming (plus, you have to store the toilet paper rolls), but I really liked the end result. I will likely keep both store-bought and homemade chalk on hand.
Here's an idea:While you are waiting for your chalk to dry, why don't you mix up some sidewalk paint? That's easy enough (I mean, it sounds easy. I haven't actually tried it yet …) -- equal parts water and cornstarch, and several drops of food coloring -- and you can use it right away.
Third: Sponge balls
Sponge balls looked easy and fun for a hot summer day. I got out some sponges, floss and scissors.
Tip: Don't use glide-style floss. It stretches and breaks fairly easily when you pull it tight.
My kids didn't want to throw these at each other, but they did like to soak up water from one bowl and squeeze it into another. Hey, whatever works, right?
Here's another easy water activity. Partially fill several clear cups and add a drop of food coloring. Get an eye dropper if you have one, or a spoon, and let the kids experiment with making different colors. Bonus: The kids can drink the water at the end, if it hasn't all been spilled.
One of my favorite ideas for indoor fun is called Cloud Dough, again from the Play, Create, Explore blog. All you need to do is mix together 4 cups of flour and a half cup of baby oil (double the recipe for two kids) in a large container.
That's it! It is so cool because it stays soft like flour but is also moldable.
My kids like to bury things, create mini castles and make tire tracks. I just like to squish it between my fingers.
Warning: Major mess alert. This would also be a great time to teach your kids how to use the vacuum.
Playdough is another thing you could buy (in the form of Play-Doh) but can easily make instead.
It's not as easy to make as Cloud Dough is, but about the only thing more simple is just giving your kid a big paintbrush and a bowl of water and pointing them in the direction of a wall or the sidewalk -- which my kids love to do, by the way.
I had my pick of recipes after searching online for "playdough recipe." My mom used to cook up big batches for us, so I chose a cooked playdough recipe, though there are no-cook versions, as well.
This stuff is edible, though very salty, so don't be surprised if your kid sneaks a few bites. You can play with it as soon as it cools slightly.
Consensus: There is no reason to ever purchase playdough again. This stuff is the best.
Also, I found on Play, Create, Explore a great way to use up old playdough that is still soft but maybe turned a yucky color or something: Fill balloons with it! It takes a few minutes to stuff the dough in (I made a bunch of little "snakes" to drop down the neck of the balloon), but then you have a great squishy toy or stress-relief ball.
I used a Sharpie to draw a face on my daughter's balloon. Apparently Sharpie is not actually permanent when used on latex, so the face rubbed off after a bit, but that was OK, because by then she wanted a different picture anyway.
Baked cotton balls
One of my kids' favorite crafts is baked cotton balls, also at Play, Create, Explore, which we call dinosaur rocks. Mix up flour and water, add food coloring, and I use a muffin tin to divide the colors. The kids love dipping the cotton balls in, and then while they are baking, they like to use the leftover mixture to finger-paint.
Once cool, the balls have a hard outer shell but are perfectly preserved within. And while the dipping is fun, the smashing is probably the best. Smash with wooden spoons, sticks, stomp on them (with shoes on, please) -- get creative!
Consensus: Easy and fun. The kids ask to do this probably once a month.
The thing to remember about making things at home is that part of the fun is the process of making it with your kids. Your first attempt might not turn out as expected, but watching the kids pour and stir and guess what will happen next is great. Don't forget to take pictures!