Let’s be real: The school year might be drawing to an official close this week, but Summer Vacay 2020 lost a little of its sizzle when it started back in March. This list is dedicated to the moms, dads, and guardians who have been humming “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” while foraging for craft supplies, helping with long-forgotten algebra, making endless snacks, and trying to work, teach, and pacify under the weirdest circumstances in living memory. As we move into a summer that for many of folks still means more time at home and fewer scheduled activities, it’s soothing to remember that there’s a treasure trove of activity books written by experts just waiting to help us out.
Here are 10 of our current favorites:
This beautifully illustrated book is packed with the kinds of quirky animal and plant facts that kids love to read out loud. (For instance, did you know that slug slime swells when it comes into contact with water?) Organized according to habitat, Cohen and Fylling take children on a tour of the Pacific Northwest’s beaches, freshwater ecosystems, forests, and urban areas, exploring everything from fungi to salmon. Great inspiration for backyard explorations and expeditions to the local park.
A little something extra: Check out Cohen's essay on the joys of sand here.
America’s Test Kitchen raises the bar for children’s cookbooks with this collection of compulsively tested, foolproof recipes and basic kitchen skill tutorials. Unlike a lot of kids’ cookbooks, which focus on sugary or carb-centric foods, The Complete Cookbook is filled with healthy recipes that kids and parents like to eat — pasta with homemade tomato sauce, blueberry muffins, guacamole, crispy baked cod — and teaches kids the cooking vocabulary and techniques necessary to move on to more complicated dishes.
Any fan of Ada Twist, Scientist, Iggy Peck, Architect, or Rosie Revere, Engineer will enjoy Beaty and Roberts’ big activity book of things to draw, invent, and build, including a marshmallow catapult and a solar oven. Elementary school students shouldn’t have too much trouble completing these activities alone or with a friend, though an adult may want to be on hand to help find materials and limit marshmallow consumption. This clever book, filled with pictures of Rosie and the gang and lots of games, is the perfect antidote to the rainy day chorus of “I’m bored!”
This picture book-activity book combo introduces elementary school students to coding concepts and basic computer parts… all without using a screen. Liukas’s adorable characters (Ruby, the Messy Robots, the computer Mouse) and imaginative activities teach kids how to use both organizational, step-by-step thinking and outside-the-box creativity to solve problems. Hello Ruby is a good pick for children who both love and are intimidated by computers, and a great introduction to the STEAM approach to education.
Put all those cardboard toilet paper tubes and egg cartons to good use with Kimberly McLeod’s fun guide to turning recycling into hats, jewelry, puzzles, kaleidoscopes, and more. Easy to use with a mixed-age group of children and a fun way to teach the values of recycling, thrift, and self-entertainment, Fun and Easy Crafting can be a real saving grace on those days when a good project seems like the only way to keep everyone peaceably entertained.
All parents know the virtues of slime. It’s gross, it’s slippery, it’s guaranteed to take a cranky preschooler from scream to dream in just a few, gloppy minutes. Well, if you’ve been using the same old Borax-water-glue combo for years, up your game with Alyssa Jagan’s book of wacky, Borax-free slime recipes. Crunchy, smooth, squelchy, burpy… get out the playdough tools and explore the tactile pleasures of slime time.
My eight-year-old saw the cover of this book and said, “Robots?! That glow??!!” Basically a very cool version of paper dolls, the robots in Papertoy Glowbots can be punched out, folded, and glued into shape, and then illuminated with things like glow-in-the-dark stickers, flashlights, and fairy lights. Each bot comes with a fun backstory and (depending on the light source) makes a neat nightlight.
Kids who like puzzles and logic games will enjoy Cat Stax, a game that involves stacking 12 cute kitties of various shapes and sizes in different ways to solve 48 puzzle cards.
Spangler’s collection of speedy chemistry, physics, and engineering experiments use household ingredients (think vinegar and baking soda) to inspire scientific wonder in elementary-aged children. This book is for the hands-on kid who loves making baking soda volcanoes and homemade slime, without requiring too much parental involvement or cleanup.
Gather up all the LEGOs currently torturing your bare feet and put them (and your kids) to good use with the LEGO Gadgets activity kit. LEGO Gadgets actually comes with all of the LEGO bricks you need to create the 11 projects included in the kit, but kids will love using their extra bricks to make modifications to the designs. From a mechanical hand that grabs stuff off the floor to a machine that makes crinkled paper, building and then playing with the 11 gadgets in this kit will keep kids entertained for hours. (Or at least an hour. Who are we kidding?)