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Offline and Off-Screen Activities for Minds-On Learning

Take learning offline with activities that engage kids in a variety of ways.

Christine Elgersma | January 20, 2022

If there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that kids use screens -- a lot. And while there's a lot of debate about how much is too much, research seems to suggest two things: The quality of the content and activities that kids access on screens makes a difference, and finding balance with offscreen activities is important.

Striking that balance can be tricky, especially when schoolwork requires a screen and games and social media are so compelling. But we've collected some cool resources -- some with links and some without -- that can help you tap into kids' curiosity, problem-solving, self-reflection, and more.

We've grouped the activities into the categories below and then labeled them with the most applicable grade band(s). Of course, you could easily adapt some of these activities to work with other grades -- we've marked these with an asterisk (*). Use these links to jump to any section below:

Offline and Off-Screen Activities to Get Kids Creating

Getting students to flex their maker muscles is great, whether you're on or offline, but creating in a more tangible way can be satisfying and instructive for different reasons. Some of these activities are very prescriptive, and others are deliberately open-ended, so shape them around your kids or subject matter to make them work for your home or classroom.

Grades Pre-K-2

  • Make some thank-you cards! Though it's great for kids of all ages to express their gratitude, this activity from PBSKids is geared toward little ones. Talk about gratitude and why it's important to express it.
  • Gather some empty cardboard rolls, dip the ends in paint, and stamp some circles. Now press or fold the rolls. Talk about how the shapes change.
  • Color and cut out snowflakes, flowers, leaves, and more to decorate your windows to show the season or a holiday. Not only will the results brighten your home or classroom, but it's also a way to explore seasons.
  • Use things from around the house or classroom as musical instruments and compose a song, or just jam! Kids can experiment with the sounds the objects make and talk about why different shapes and materials might make varied noises. Then practice listening to make music all together.
  • Though this set of activities from PBS is framed as a "Summer Activity Book," kids can do them anytime. And there are plenty of opportunities to use their imaginations and creativity.
  • Carve a pumpkin and use this messy Halloween tradition to do some basic math. While you're scooping pumpkin guts, count seeds individually or by groups of five or 10.
  • *Wrap black paper over one end of a paper towel roll and secure it with a rubber band. Poke holes in a pattern to create a constellation! Little kids can poke at random, but older kids could try to recreate real constellations or make ones of their own after learning about existing ones.
  • *Use this activity featuring Matisse cutouts to teach kids about the artist and have fun emulating his style. For little kids, it's a great opportunity to practice with scissors and talk about shapes and colors. For older kids, they can experiment with geometry and try to create something out of shapes.

Grades 3-5

  • Draw a picture on a piece of paper and glue it to a piece of cardboard. Cut it into puzzle pieces and challenge a family member or classmate to put it together. If you're creating in the classroom, specify the number of pieces to even the playing field, and if cutting cardboard is too difficult, try card stock. Make the picture relate to something you're learning!
  • Grab some cardboard and any art supplies you have to build a playable arcade-style game for your family or classmates. Think Skee-Ball made out of boxes! If in the classroom, kids can work in groups to brainstorm, plan, design, and create the game. Make sure to have them reflect so they can think about how they worked together and solved problems.
  • Try folding paper into airplanes without a model. Then look up different techniques. Which ones fly the farthest? Why? Talk about the physics involved.
  • Use this activity from 826 National to get creative with traditional recipes and transform them into poetic creations.
  • Create a set of picture cards that show every step of a task, similar to how a computer works. For example, what steps do you take to brush your teeth? Then have someone else follow those steps. Aside from reading and following directions, it's a great way to practice executive functioning skills.
  • *Design a dream home! Kids can use measurement, geometry, perspective, and more to draft a floor plan of their dream home. Older kids can design a more complicated layout and or design a home for a book character.
  • *Have kids make a Who I Am collage that illustrates their interests, values, and backgrounds. There's a 45-minute video available that walks you through the whole activity, but you don't need to watch the whole thing: The actual instructions start at minute 22, and you can explain the steps to kids if that's easier. Older kids could definitely do a more sophisticated version of this activity.

Grades 6-8

  • *Design a mini-exhibit using objects from home or the classroom, inspired by this video from the Smithsonian. The idea is to decide on a theme and curate mindfully and with purpose. For the classroom, you can have kids create an exhibit around a concept you're exploring, too.
  • *Make a zine -- a mini-magazine -- using just one piece of paper! Follow the instructions in the video, and choose an idea to capture in this format. Teachers can even use this activity as a formative assessment.
  • *Have kids create (or write) something that represents their background and culture. Kids can interview family members for extra help with details and perspectives. This is a great way to help kids share and appreciate diversity in the classroom.
  • *Have kids illustrate a map of their block or neighborhood. Mark things they'd want to show a visitor and spots that are important to your family. Not only is this a great activity for mapmaking skills and cardinal directions, but it also reinforces community touchstones and landmarks that students might share.

Grades 9-12

  • Conduct a carefully planned interview with guidance -- and tools -- from Storycorps. Teens can take the opportunity to talk to an elder in their family or community while using some writing, communication, and technical skills along the way.
  • Create a playlist to reflect a book, character, or historical event. Write the list of songs and explain how each one is significant.
  • Make a plan to tackle a community cause. Get together with a group to identify a problem or need in the school or community, create a plan, and put it into action. This would also be a great project-based learning challenge.
  • *Pick a friend or family member and write them a letter the old-fashioned way. Invest some time in connecting with someone by writing something more extensive than a text message. Teens can even start a pen pal program at school with a local retirement community.

Offline and Off-Screen Activities that Get Kids Listening

Since active listening is such an important skill, these resources can help kids practice. And though just listening in a classroom can make kids unsure of what to do or where to look, having them close their eyes or take guided notes can be really powerful, especially if you build in some metacognition around the process. Of course, some of these activities do require a device, but they are still screen-free! And while there are a ton of podcasts out there, we've tried to highlight some apps, shows, and episodes you may not have heard of. Of course, if you're in class, make sure kids who are deaf or hard of hearing can participate, too.

Grades Pre-K-2

  • Use stories for calm transitions by listening to Sparkle Stories (free trial).
  • Try a podcast like Wow in the World to get kids thinking and talking about different science concepts. They're presented in a fun -- and often silly -- way that will keep kids engaged.
  • Practice mindfulness and positivity with Like You, a podcast for kids about emotions, self-esteem, deep breathing, and more.
  • Base some listening around daily routines with the Kinderling Kids Radio app! There's also plenty of fun audio content for the classroom that involves science, global exploration, and mindfulness (free trial).
  • Give kids an instruction and have them follow it. Then give them two in a row. Then give them three, and so on. See how many they can remember just by listening.
  • Take kids on a silent walk -- outside or around the school -- and have them just listen. Then talk about all of the things they heard.
  • *Try the Kids Listen app to see if it's a good fit for your family or classroom. There's a subscription to unlock all of the content, but it's free to try and full of great podcasts for kids so you don't have to hunt around!
  • *Pinna is another app to try for curated kid's audio content, and it has a free trial, too!

Grades 3-5

  • Get kids up and moving while they're listening with GoGoGames! Audio Adventures, which feature interactive stories that get kids active. Teachers should preview to make sure the instructions aren't too home-specific. Free to try.
  • Create playlists with Leela Kids, which has audio content for broad age appeal. Also subscription-based.
  • Dig in to specific episodes of The Past and the Curious, featured in Kids Listen. Kids will hear about Elizabeth Cotten and her song that was eventually played by the Beatles.
  • Check out SoundCloud for more content, like the story of Hazel Scott, a musical prodigy, which is a part of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series.
  • Dive into free audio books on iTunes, like the classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. After listening to the book, watch the movie and compare!
  • Make math mysterious with Detective Mathema's Maths Puzzles for Kids. Listen to these short episodes to get kids solving these audio word problems.
  • *Select some pieces of music that are each very different from one another, and then have kids draw or write something in response. It's one way to have them practice figurative language as well.

Grades 6-8

  • Look to Flyest Fables for interesting stories that aren't afraid to deal with topics that work for tweens and young teens. They range from 10 to 25 minutes, so they could be great for a short drive or a Friday writing prompt.
  • Discuss current events after listening to the Listenwise News Bites podcast. With episodes about 10 minutes long, they're manageable for making dinner or as lesson starters.
  • *Take a deep dive into the dictionary with The Good Words Podcast, which could be a cool way to spur further word study at home or in the classroom.
  • *Listen to the short episodes of Math Dude to introduce different concepts or even introduce demonstrations you can do in class or at home.
  • *Practice active listening by asking kids to interview each other or a family member. You can provide questions or have them develop their own. They can make notes, ask follow-up questions, and then present what they learned.

Grades 9-12

  • Use the varied topics of Part-Time Genius to kick off a science or history lesson, or spark curiosity about a project. The podcast covers a lot of ground, so you're bound to find something that works for your kid or class.
  • Examine what the consequences of internet algorithms can be through this real-life example as presented by the Rabbit Hole podcast from the New York Times. It could be a great way to open a discussion or start a project.
  • Offer up some tidbits of weird information with the Atlas Obscura podcast, which goes all around the world, capturing deep-cut, fascinating facts.
  • Listen to authors read their own work in Spanish courtesy of the Library of Congress.
  • Enjoy Shakespeare with these readings from the Folger Shakespeare site. It's a great way to supplement reading so you can hear actors speak the lines.
  • Create a list of sentences that change their meaning when words are emphasized differently. You can read them, or kids can read them in pairs, using emphasis to alter the intention. You can use this activity to discuss tone and mood.

Offline and Off-Screen Activities to Get Kids Moving

Sometimes, students -- both big and small -- just need to move around. School can involve a lot of sitting, so it's important to give kids opportunities to wiggle, stretch, and play. In addition to being a brain break, revving up blood flow, and just plain being fun, activities that involve movement can also be instructional. Of course, not every kid will be able to do every activity, so make sure to choose and adapt to make sure all kids are included.

Grades Pre-K-2

  • Ball up socks, pieces of paper, yarn, or other soft things. Decide on teams and rules, and let the epic "snowball" fight begin! This one could easily go awry in a school setting, so it might be best for home!
  • When ice skaters do a cool new move, it's named after them. Make up some moves -- jumps, tricks, and poses -- and show them off!
  • Use chalk, tape, or other materials to jump into some old-school hopscotch for indoor or outdoor fun. This could be a way to get kids counting by 1s, 5s, or 10s.
  • Scatter pennies and pick them up as fast as possible. Then add challenging variations, like only picking them up with one hand, using a magnet on a string, etc. Kids can practice writing instructions to follow to pair with this activity.
  • Curate a playlist of pop songs from varied cultures or countries. Dance your way through the playlist. Then talk about the cultures or countries featured in the playlist. If in the classroom, make it representative of the kids in your class!
  • Set up a simple, safe obstacle course inside or outside, and do time trials to see how fast kids can go. You can use this activity to talk about minutes and seconds.
  • Move around the room without touching the floor. Step on chairs, pillows, blankets, but not the hot lava! You can design it so kids can only move to the next safe step by answering a question.

Grades 3-12

  • Upcycle items to create a mini-golf course. Find objects to use as a club and golf ball, and then put it to the test! In the classroom, design in groups to create a hole using some elementary physics. The older the kids, the more sophisticated the concepts and design can be.
  • Write five creative clues that will lead someone -- or another group -- to a treasure. Do it outside if you can! To add another layer, each clue could be based on a specific topic kids are learning about.
  • Have kids create TikTok-style dances that book characters would do and then have them teach the dance to someone else, or the whole class.
  • Make "yes" and "no" signs, and then tape them to opposite walls. Ask questions about personal preferences, specific subjects, or whatever works for your setting, and have kids indicate their answer by walking to the "yes" or "no" wall. Change up the signs with character names, countries, etc. Another variation is having kids stand up or sit down in response to yes/no questions.

Offline and Off-Screen Activities to Get Kids Reflecting

Encouraging kids to look inward and take stock is important. At home, modeling and doing it as a family can provide access points. In the objective-focused environment that is school, it's easy to cut out anything that feels extraneous. Sometimes that means activities that are more about focusing on our inner process rather than external output. But reflection has its own set of educational benefits -- including reinforcing SEL -- so taking some time to encourage kids to look inward is also time well spent.

Grades Pre-K-2

  • Practice financial literacy with this spend-save-share activity from FitMoney. Get kids thinking about setting goals, saving, and contributing money to causes.
  • *Describe the day to a family member, or start/end your class, with one thing that fits each category: Include something positive (rose), something hopeful (bud), and something challenging (thorn). Take turns sharing.
  • *Find some markers and paper and turn emotions into art. What color is joy? Sadness? Boredom? Love? This could also segue into writing poems.
  • *Have kids write about or draw pictures of things they appreciate about themselves. Though this will likely be easier for younger kids, it can also be a beneficial activity for older kids who might be struggling with self-image.
  • *Decorate a gratitude jar. When kids feel grateful, they can write or draw the reason on paper and put it in the jar. Read the results each week. This can be a family or classroom activity!

Grades 3-5

  • Use this activity so kids can practice differentiating between needs and wants. You can use this as a jumping-off point for a bigger discussion about sustainability.
  • *Talk about what toasts are, and then have kids prepare one for a person or pet they love and appreciate. Pour some juice and take turns toasting.
  • *During the week, have kids take pictures of things they're thankful for. Then have them combine them into a slideshow, collage, or other collection to revisit and add to.
  • *Ask kids to write down their favorite things to watch, read, or listen to. Why do they like each of them? Do they all share a common theme? Challenge them to really examine their preferences.

Grades 6-8

  • Though some kids might be able to jump into a gratitude journal, this printable can help others get started. Encourage them to write 5-10 things each day. You can also preface this ongoing activity by digging into the science around the positive effects of being thankful.
  • Explain or show what the pandemic experience and world events have been like using words, art, music, Minecraft -- whatever works. By creating and sharing, kids can process their experiences.
  • Ask kids to think about something that they know has tons of learning value but may not typically be considered educational. Then challenge them to persuade you!

Grades 9-12

  • Have kids take a peek into the future. What are they looking forward to? What goals do they have? Ask them to find a way to show or explain the things they want to make happen.
  • *Though these focus exercises from SERP are great for younger kids, too, teens often face lots of distractions. Do them with your teen or class so kids can figure out which ones work best for them.
  • *Have teens think about a success story from their life using this activity from Character Lab. Reflecting on the actual steps can help inform efforts toward future goals. Some kids might struggle with identifying a "success," especially if they're having a hard time, so make sure all kids find something to focus on.

Offline and Off-Screen Activities for Giving

Sometimes the best activities are the ones that offer something to others. Like reflecting, the act of giving definitely involves SEL, but there are ways to connect generous acts with subject-matter content, too. Whether through a short standalone lesson or a design-thinking, student-driven project, students can learn a lot from helping others.

Grades Pre-K-2

  • Use this printable from PBSKids to help kids express thanks to the essential workers who keep everything going in good times -- and not-so-good times.
  • Get crafty and create a bouquet of flowers for a family member out of paper, pipe cleaners, and upcycled materials. Write a note or draw a picture to go with it.
  • Spread some love! Color paper hearts and cut them out. Then write positive, encouraging messages on each one, and place them around the house or classroom for your family or classmates to find.

Grades 3-12

  • Let Love for Our Elders facilitate some letter writing! Follow the guidelines and write some snail mail to elders who might need some contact and encouragement!
  • Challenge kids to help an adult in 15-minute bursts, or longer! They can clean, carry, cook, etc., to be of service. In the classroom, kids can keep a service journal to reflect on their experiences.
  • Pass the appreciation: Gather the family or class in a circle. Grab a ball or pillow, toss it to someone, and say something you appreciate about them. Keep it going!
  • Have kids write a short thank-you note to someone who did something nice for them this week.

Lead image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action