Don’t take them to the store with you if you can’t get some things they want. Do your shopping when they can stay home.
When we were without cable TV we asked friends to record things they were watching anyway and let us borrow. My sister shares our love of old, bad movies, so would send us a box of movies and a few things she recorded from television each week and we’d watch and send them back. That was fun, getting a package every week, not knowing what fun movies would be inside.
We had friends in Arkansas who would send us pretty leaves and branches with berries, and snake skins, and little dead dried up lizards, and dead bugs, and all that was very exotic and interesting since they had plants and creatures there that we never saw here.
You can get books and music and movies at the library if you’re near one. You can read to them while they play or color.
If you have a printer and some paper you can print lots of things to color. You can print mazes and foldable masks and buildings and all kinds of things.
You can make puppets and masks from paper or paper grocery bags. Make paper airplanes. Make paper mache. We used to cut paper dolls and animals and whatnot out of catalogs and magazines. Sometimes they’d get tied to the train tracks or eaten by monsters and sometimes they’d become part of a collage or a story or a home made comic book.
We cut words from junk mail and glued them to paper to make ransom or blackmail letters. When I was cleaning out my mom’s house I found a few of those that we’d sent to Grandpa. “Dear Grandpa, if you ever want to see The Beans again, be at our house Tuesday with some peanuts.”
Dylan really liked to talk into a recorder. He’d pretend he was reporting on some disaster, usually involving monsters.
Act out some of their favorite books or TV shows. Be as silly or serious as they want.
We went on adventures. We’d pack a lunch and something to drink and go to the park, or start out on a walk not knowing where we were going. I’d pull Dylan in the wagon. We did that in the wintertime too, when it wasn’t too cold, and take the sled instead.
We played lots of games. Maybe you can borrow some board games from friends. You can make up your own Mad Libs and have silly stories. You can make up your own version of Mancala with a muffin tin and little stones or marbles. If you have cards or dice you can make up lots of different games to play with those. There are lots of free games to play online.
Borrow puzzles from friends.
Clear a big space in one room and have a dance party. Play some old music your kids might have never heard. It may only last ten minutes. While you have a big space cleared you can put down some butcher paper or cut open some paper grocery bags and lay on the floor and color.
If you can spare an old bed sheet you can make something new: mummy wraps, little pillows or pouches, clothes for dolls, capes, silly hats. You can decorate the new stuff with markers.
Does your town have a community pool? A playground? Bike trails?
If you have a car and can get out, take food and go for a drive to a big open space in the country and play Frisbee or kick ball or fly homemade kites or just roam around. We used to walk by the river and collect sticks and pretty rocks and feathers. It always felt like we were coming home with treasures.
Do you have friends or family who will come visit and bring cookies? I’d ask grandparents, if they live nearby.
Dylan used to really like playing in a big dishpan of cornmeal. If you can afford that. You can put a cut open garbage bag under the pan and kids, and recycle some of what gets spilled. You can make dinosaur landscapes, bury dolls, all kinds of things. There are recipes online for home made play-doh and other goopy things, if you can manage those ingredients.
I hope some of those ideas give you a place to start. Do what your kids like to do.
There have been times when things were really tight for us. I mean no gas money and beans and rice for dinner every night. And if I had it to do it again I would use the credit card more. Not go crazy but if twenty or thirty dollars made a big difference in the life of my kid then I’d do that. If you’re justifying coffee and makeup or other adult things that aren’t strictly necessary, then make that same effort to justify some things your kids might like, too. Don’t always sacrifice kid things because they seem less important or urgent.
But don’t underestimate how wonderful your happy presence can be for your kids. Be sweet and playful and optimistic and involved. Give them lots of your time.
Freecycle and Craigslist are great. Especially if you live in a bigger town and don’t have to travel far to collect stuff. In our rural area bulletin boards at grocery stores and laundromats are used the same way.
A friend of mine got a free sewing machine for her daughter by putting an ad in the paper and asking for one.