By Jennifer Pitterle
Today, I want to talk to the grandmas, nanas, meemaws, poppys, grampys, and boppas. We love you! What a gift it is for grandchildren and grandparents to spend time together—and what a gift for harried moms and dads who rely on family elders for help with childcare and support.
Being an involved, engaged grandma or grandpa isn’t always easy. When you’re trying to cherish every minute with those little munchkins, the pressure to create picture-perfect memories can feel high! But I speak from experience when I say that the tiny moments—making everyday food in the kitchen, reading stories, and having one-on-one conversations—really are the stuff of indelible memories. When I think about my own grandparents, the big events barely register. Instead, I feel the warmth of their undivided attention while I staged a living-room musical revue; their button-bursting pride when I won a writing contest; their wrinkled hands around mine; their voices singing hymns at church.
Multi-generational families can offer kids a sense of belonging, rootedness, and unconditional acceptance. All I ever needed from my own grandparents was their big, big love.
To Grandmother’s House We Go
Even the most creative grandmas and grandpas sometimes need a little inspiration for play, especially if your grandkids are occasionally hard to entertain (thanks, technology). Let’s talk about four of my favorite ideas you can keep in your pocket that are easy to set up, inexpensive (or free), and winter-friendly (not requiring outdoor space or warm weather).
Out and About: Zoos, Arboretums, and Botanical Gardens
I know what you’re thinking: “The zoo? But it’s February!” Before you write off this idea, do a quick check with your local zoological and horticultural organizations. Many zoos, arboretums, and gardens around the country feature at least some indoor spaces—and those can be absolute hidden gems during the colder months. One of our local zoos has a conservatory where grandparents and kids can explore tropical plants; the other has an indoor “trail” where you can visit warm-climate animals, and a big aquarium that’s home to sharks, jellyfish, sea turtles, and other saltwater friends.
And talk about a hidden gem: There’s a small horticultural library at our arboretum that hosts garden-focused storytimes for tots (!) in its peaceful reading room.
For grandparents and kids who are animal lovers, check out the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ zoo-finder tool. For budding farmers and veteran green thumbs alike, the American Horticultural Society has a similar tool.
After the initial fee, membership to your local zoo or gardens can give you a cost-effective, reliable place to explore when you and your grandkids need an outing. Visiting frequently means you won’t feel pressured to explore the whole area in one go, which can be exhausting and overwhelming!
For additional cost-savings, many zoos and gardens have reciprocal memberships, meaning that your membership at your local site also gets you free admission to other “network” sites around the country—a great perk!
Out and About: Public Libraries
We’ll keep this one short and sweet: public libraries! They have all kinds of free programming, including storytimes for babies and toddlers; music classes; and other classes, often in partnership with local parks and recreation departments. Call your local library or check online to find current schedules.
At Home: Sensory Bins
If your grandkids are visiting for a few days, or if you provide regular childcare, you might occasionally look around the house and wonder if the playtime options need a little freshening up. (Now, to be fair, my brother and I played with the same broken typewriter and 1960s Parcheesi board that lived in my grandparents’ basement for the entirety of our childhoods, and loved every minute—kids don’t need fancy toys or elaborate playrooms to make their own fun!)
Setting up an easy-peasy sensory bin is no- or low-cost; offers open-ended play for any age; and doesn’t require direct adult involvement, which is perfect for the moments when your knees need a break from sitting on the carpet and you’d like to sip your coffee in peace.
Teachers have used sensory bins or sensory tables for decades; more recently, influencers on social media have shown parents and grandparents how to set them up at home, too.
How to make sensory bins:
1. Find a large, shallow plastic bin
Think of an under-bed storage bin that’s only a few inches deep.
2. Set the bin on a towel
This is to catch drips. It could be on the floor or on a kid-height, sturdy table.
3. Fill the bin with your sensory material of choice.
Try something you already have at home! My favorites include:
- Water. Endlessly absorbing and versatile for little ones.
- Uncooked rice, lentils, pasta, or popcorn. These materials are fun to scoop and pour, and have a pleasantly bumpy texture on little hands.
- Pom pom craft balls.
- Uncooked oatmeal (especially great to make a taste-safe bin for babies and young toddlers who might try to sample the contents.)
4. Add a few tools.
Depending on your sensory material, you might choose:
- Kitchen utensils like measuring cups, spoons, ladles, funnels, and whisks.
- Small plastic toys that can be easily rinsed off, like farm or zoo animal figurines, matchbox cars, or even puzzle pieces that can be excavated from the bin and put together.
- For water bins, a few drops of food coloring to practice color mixing, or a small bottle of dish soap and a sponge (that can turn the sensory bin into a car wash for matchbox cars or a spa for animal figurines).
- Set a few ground rules. We say, “The sensory material stays in the bin. Hands are gentle, not throwing or splashing. The sensory material is not for eating.” (Customize these for your family.)
Let kids find their own exploration with the bin. Add or remove tools as needed. Watch the learning—and that peaceful flow state—unfold.
At Home: Bringing Books to Life
There is no simpler—or better—way to connect with kids than reading together. You probably already share plenty of storytimes with your grandchildren. To expand on what you’re reading together, make the story come alive for a whole hour (or a whole day, if you’re feeling ambitious!) of themed activities. Keep them simple, and use supplies you already have.
To get those brainstorms going, here are a few of my favorite, easy-access ideas:
With materials you already have, or a quick jaunt in the car, your grandparent-grandchild days can open up with new possibilities for play and togetherness. Happy memory-making!
Jennifer Pitterle is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Pre-parenthood, she was a longtime editor for a lifestyle magazine group. She writes about parenting, nature, children's literacy, and more. She's always working with her children to bring a sense of natural enchantment to their suburban home and backyard.