Oh, discount stores and aisles! Love them or loathe them, they can be a great resource for some inexpensive entertainment while we are spending more time at home with our kiddos. Check out some of our ideas below for fun on the cheap with your little ones this summer.

1. Stationary, Stickers, and Markers

So technically this isn’t one item, but it’s one category. That counts, right? Lots of discount stores have loads of notecard packages, individual cards, stickers, and fun pens and markers. Pick up a pack of notecards (oftentimes for just a dollar!) along with some greeting cards (sometimes two for a dollar!) to create fun mailings to send to friends and family. Add in some sticker packages for decorating and it’s a great project to fill a quiet afternoon. We’ve even used stickers as pretend stamps and played post office, delivering mail all over the house to various stuffed animals, dolls, and even the dog. For a small amount of ‘stuff’, you can create quite a few activities and games - think thank you cards for birthday gifts, make a delivery map for your toddler to follow while playing mail carrier, older kiddos can practice learning their parents’ full names and addresses as you write on envelopes, etc. Kids love to play at being grownups and with these cheap supplies, you can engage them with imaginative play as well as practice some more educational skills such as fine motor control and following steps in a process. Oh, and grab a couple of little notebooks, too, for them to doodle in as well!

2. Glow Sticks

Oh, these things have saved me from many a dire bedtime headed straight toward dumpster fire status. Everyone’s overtired, maybe it’s kind of a little too early for true bath time but you’ve already punched your parenting timecard for the day, or maybe it’s just time to wash the crazies off a toddler who’s struggling to hold it together. Draw a nice warm bath, add some extra bubbles, dim the lights, and throw in a few freshly cracked glow sticks to set the mood. You can park yourself on the floor near the tub (safety first!) and just relax while your kiddo plays with the sticks drifting around the tub, buries them in mounds of bubbles, and winds down by that glowing ethereal light. I’m telling you - glow sticks in a tub for a toddler are the equivalent of an epsom salt bath, lavender candle burning, and glass of wine in hand for a mom. If you’re not into using them for baths, they also make great secretly lit spots in forts or the perfect accessories for raucous dance parties with the lights out.

3. Bug Catchers

Hands down, bug catchers have provided hours upon hours of entertainment for my kids and nearly any kid who’s come over. These have been so popular, I even keep an extra couple bug catchers tucked in a high cabinet for when friends are around and a little entomology expedition pops up. Many unsuspecting worms, snails, slugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and other little creepy crawlies from my backyard have found themselves on display in these inexpensive bug catchers. And if catching an insect seems elusive, so many times the kiddos have busied themselves building the perfect habitats inside the catchers to entice a bug to come in on his own. (Spoiler alert: no bug simply dazzled by habitat design has EVER self-trapped himself in one of our catchers, but that has had zero effect on deterring the kids from continuing to design habitats.)  Granted, these are cheap and will typically fall apart at the end of the summer, but not many rollie pollies and grasshoppers are hanging out in the backyard come fall so they are definitely worth the small expense for a summer of entertainment.

4. Floral and Planter Items

Lots of store discount aisles sell little bags of pebbles, rocks, and sand intended for planters and vases. But dump a few of those bags of pebbles into a bin, add some small plastic animals and throw in a couple of Matchbox cars and trucks, and you’ve got yourself a construction site/wild animal habitat for your toddler. My nephew spends hours hauling pebbles in toy dump trucks and digging holes in loose sand with play excavators. It’s a great sensory bin that doubles as a springboard for imaginative play. And if you keep the whole thing in a plastic container, you can put a lid on top and easily stow it away when not in use.

5. Party Supplies

Yes, this is another category instead of a single item, but come on, who doesn’t need a little celebration in their lives right about now? The inexpensive aisles in big box stores have tons of fun items that elevate a regular day to party status. Maybe it’s grandma coming over to babysit, maybe it’s a successful night of staying in your own bed, maybe it was just a really long Tuesday that felt like it should have been Friday and we’re gonna need a little pick-me-up to make it through the rest of the week. Store dollar spots have got you covered. All sorts of balloons - think mylar helium filled balloons, packs of latex balloons, confetti balloons, those insanely obnoxious punching balloons - are usually really inexpensive. Buy a few helium balloons and a sparkly weight, fancy-up the ribbon and streamers at home, and you can create a cheerful centerpiece that may last for weeks (yes, weeks) for just a few bucks. Packages of paper plates and napkins both in bright solid colors as well as seasonal designs are also a great way to make things feel more coordinated for fun. For a whole week’s worth of festivities, designate a different color each day complete with color-coordinated foods, balloons, and decor. (It might help encourage your toddler to try orange peppers or green snap peas or yellow pineapple if it’s in the name of a party!) You can often find cute banners and paper decorations in perky motifs like ice cream cones, emojis, princesses, or trucks to make things seem more fun for your kiddos. All in all, with less than $10, you can completely deck out your house for a celebration.

So whether you’re looking for a few activities you can play with your kiddos, something to occupy them while you catch your breath or make dinner, or just an activity for a stormy afternoon, look into some creative supplies from a discount section in a store. The return on investment is well worth it!

And because I just couldn’t help myself, here are a few more items often costing about $1.00 to try:

  • Small Baking Sheets - These make great bases on which to do projects. They wrangle all the glue and glitter and paint and crap (I mean craft supplies) so it doesn’t end up stuck to your kitchen counter as an everlasting testament to the project. And when it’s time for the activity to dry, just move the whole tray aside.
  • Muffin Tins - They act as sorting bins for games (all red items go in this little pot, all ocean creatures go in this little pot, etc.) They can also help corral those projects that like to roll onto the floor and under your oven like beads, googly eyes, buttons, and water beads.
  • Assorted Arts and Crafts Supplies - Glitter (if you’re really brave), wooden craft sticks, gem stickers, small watercolor sets, plastic paint palettes, and the like abound in a store’s discount section. It’s an easy way to try a new crafty medium without much expense.
  • Puzzles - Often there is a good assortment featuring some of your kiddo’s favorite characters or animals. The pieces are typically made of cardboard (not wood like higher quality puzzles) so they don’t last forever, but they are a productive and fun activity to fill a quiet morning.
  • Coloring and Activity Books - These are another option in no short supply at a store’s dollar spot. A new coloring book tied up with a small box of fresh crayons makes a wait at the pediatrician’s fly by without having to give up your phone.