Time off school in my house always starts with a "yay" and quickly escalates to a "now what?" Good question. I'm game for anything inexpensive, easy to set up, and that doesn't involve three hours of clean up for me at the end. I am also a big advocate for STEM activities (science, tech, engineering and math); partly because I am a huge geek, and partly because kids love them.
Here's how to STEM the shit of your school break.
The basics of coding are just simple instructions and learning how to string them together. There are loads of free online sites where kids can learn how to code. My favourite is Code.org. Their tutorials include Star Wars, Frozen and Minecraft themes. Most of them suggest minimum age 6 and up but if you have an interested 4 or 5 year old I would not hesitate to let them try. There is no maximum age.
If you already know the basics and are looking to learn a new coding language, codecademy has you covered.
And of course, there's an app for that. Search "free programming app" on your app store and you'll get lots. My recommended favourites are ScratchJr (free) and Lightbot ($3 to download). Both start at age 4. Lightbot has both a Jr and regular version.
If you are a fan of the show Project Runway, you will be quite familiar with the "unconventional materials" challenge. For those that don't watch, at least once a season the group of contestants on this reality show are asked to design clothes using materials that are not fabric. It could be items in a hardware store or only what you can buy at Hallmark cards. This is a super fun and creative way to get kids to think outside of the box - which is what engineering and new development is all about. Maybe you use wrapping paper, or plastic recycling, or only empty boxes. Give your kids a set of materials, a time limit and a challenge to make an article of clothing out of them.
Grab your bag of mini marshmallows, some toothpicks and start building. You can make any number of games using only these 2 materials. Try giving everyone the same number of marshmallows and see who can build the tallest tower. Put out a bowl of shallow water and see who can build a bridge over the bowl. Make a support structure and see how many of the same toy can stand on before it collapses. This is a great one to do kids vs kids, or parents vs kids. And you can eat your tower at the end.
Do you have at least one small hot wheels car? Any tiny balls or marbles at your home? If you answered 'yes' to one of these question then you must have kids! Collect all those toilet paper and paper towel rolls from your recycling and tape them together in ramps and tunnels.
For marbles: you can build a 'marble run' using different angles on the tubes and tape them to a wall or each other. You can also tape straws about 1cm apart to make ramps. In fact, challenge your kids to see what else they can find around the house that a marble will run on.
For cars: you can build ramps using books and other household items. Try sending a car down a tube and over a ramp to see if it can make a jump. How steep does the tube have to be for the car to be fast enough to make the ramp? How angled does the ramp need to be for the car to jump? Physics at its best. This also works really well with remote control cars.
Need inspiration? Here's a video of a marble run made entirely of paper towel rolls and tape.
For very young kids, give them a strong magnet and have them collect things around the house that are attracted to it. For older kids, you can make this more complicated by adding parameters like 'things that are smaller than a quarter' or 'things that start with the letter S'. Also try 'items that float', or 'items that light can pass through'.
You can do the same for materials that conduct electricity. You can either buy a kit or pick up a few simple things: battery, wires, and an LED (that tiny lightbulb with two wires sticking out). Attach the ends of the wire to the end of the battery and then one wire to the LED. When you put a conductive item between the LED and wire, the LED lights up. Items that don't conductive will have no light.
For those times you are done with activities and just want to turn on the TV, let Bill Nye the Science Guy teach your kids for a bit (Bill! Bill! Bill!). You can find his shows on Netflix or on video at the library. Though geared at elementary aged kids, they are super entertaining for all ages. Also on Netflix are a myriad of nature shows under the documentary section as well as the series Cosmos, with the very entertaining Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Need more? Google 'science experiments for kids' and you will find loads of great online resources including this Science Kids site.
Good luck, fellow parents ... and may you never hear the dreaded words "I'm bored."