As a work-at-home Mom, I’m always tackling the creative challenge of keeping my 4-year-old daughter busy. Makenna’s blissful infant naps are long over and my budget won’t allow a preschool tuition payment. I’m learning by trial and error.

Recently, I needed to make an important business call. Since Makenna loves the idea of being “Mommy’s helper,” I filled the kitchen sink with sudsy water, pulled up a step stool and invited her to wash some plastic plates and cups. Then I took the cordless phone into my home office and dialed the client’s number.

As soon as he answered, I heard “splash, splash, splash.” I dashed into the living room and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. I inadvertently left the faucet running! Water overflowed onto the floor and rapidly formed a rushing river headed toward me. Makenna, wide-eyed, stood frozen on the step stool above the rising flood.

I grabbed two afghans off the sofa, threw them over the kitchen floor, and shut the faucet off. I returned to my office to finish the call and my client never knew. However, I am now more careful about setting up my preschooler’s activities.

Whether you work at home or just need a few minutes for yourself, here are 15 kid-tested, mother-approved activities for your preschooler that don’t cost a dime:

Arts and Crafts

  1. Create jewelry by stringing colorful cereal (like Fruit Loops) or pasta onto a piece of yarn or thread.
  2. Have your child take his toys for a bubble bath. Fill the tub with lots of floating toys, bath paints and plastic dishes.
  3. Prepare a giant art kit for your preschooler by filling a large box with art supplies that you find around your home: paper, memo pads, crayons, stickers, paint, brushes, sponges, washable markers, colored pencils, coloring books, glue sticks, tape and recyclable materials (cardboard tubes, buttons, scrap fabric, etc.).
  4. Draw on the sidewalk with chalk.

Learning Activities

  1. Make picture books with old magazines and catalogs. Your child can cut out pictures with kid scissors and secure them in a blank notebook with a glue stick.
  2. Check out audio books from the library for your child to “read along” with.

Mommy’s Helper

  1. Fill the sink with sudsy water and let your child wash plastic plates and cups (be sure to turn off the faucet).
  2. Give your child a feather duster to “dust” the house.

Play Time

  1. Blow bubbles. It’s easy to make a colorful bubble solution for your child:
    • 1 cup granulated soap or soap powder
    • 1 quart warm water
    • liquid food coloring
    • Dissolve soap in warm water. Stir in food coloring until desired color is attained.
  2. Allow your child to make a fort by draping sheets across the couch and chairs.
  3. Divide your child’s toys into several containers and allow your child to play with one container at a time. Too many toys can overwhelm your child; and each time a new container is presented he or she can enjoy the rediscovery.
  4. Save cardboard food boxes (like pudding, cereal, or cracker). Wash out milk and orange juice jugs. After you have a good stockpile, give your child space to set up his or her own grocery store. Have your child “sell” to his or her stuffed animals. Give your child paper sacks to pack sold items in.
  5. Create a “dress up box” for your preschooler. Add old clothing and include hats, scarves, broken watches, necklaces, big shoes and old purses.
  6. Help your child start a box town. Cover shoe boxes with paper. You can cut windows and decorations from construction paper for your child to glue on. Help cut doorways and tunnels. Make cone trees out of green paper. Building blocks, tiny dolls (or game pieces like Hasbro’s Candy Land markers) and matchbox cars add to the fun of a box town.
  7. Find a playdate. By age 4, your child will play most of the date without needing you as a referee, (and half the time the date will be at the other child’s house!).