Spring break: Affordable ways to keep children busy with wildlife, picnics and days out

Build an at-home escape room, teach little ones the 'clean up the house' game or use homemade bubble foam for guaranteed smiles

Sharjah Safari is home to 1,000 animals including giraffes, lions, rhinos and crocodiles. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Spring break has arrived. While savvy parents will no doubt have excursions planned and even holidays booked, there’s likely to be the odd day or two over the coming fortnight when boredom strikes and entertainment budgets begin to feel stretched.

When the inevitable happens, look no further: from simple arts and crafts activities that deliver big wins to educational projects, imagination-capturing sensory set-ups and more, you’ll find plenty of ideas below.

Set up a DIY escape room

In addition to being fun for children, creating an escape room at home offers a host of opportunities for learning and developing essential skills: lateral and logical thinking, problem-solving, strategising and working together towards a common goal.

This activity can be as simple or elaborate as you like, with the complexity of the puzzles adapted to the age of the players. Start off by setting the scene, giving your escape mission a theme and overall problem to be solved. In terms of easy-to-source activities for participants to complete, think riddles, brain teasers, jigsaws that must be finished against the clock, mini general knowledge quizzes and maths problems. Use invisible ink to leave secret messages on hidden scraps of paper, pop a clue inside a balloon before blowing it up or write an inverted mirror message.

Have a culturally enriching day out

Entry to Louvre Abu Dhabi is free for under 18s, which makes it a great cultural day out. For those with youngsters between four and 10 years old, the Emotions! The New Art Adventure exhibition at the Children’s Museum is a must-visit over the school holidays.

For the bookworms, Abu Dhabi Children’s Library is a veritable wonderland. Youngsters can get busy in the Art Workshop area, hone coding and podcast-making skills in the Studio Space, learn all about animals in the Creature Space area and more. Visit the website for information on special events and programmes and to register your child for a free library card.

Take painting to the next level

Painting with plain paper and a paint set is all well and good, but if you want to up the interest factor there are a few easy ways to do so. First up, try making taste-safe paint: spoon plain yoghurt into a paint palette tray, add mashed raspberries to one section, crushed blueberries to another, drained frozen spinach, tomato sauce and orange juice to a third, fourth and fifth. Then simply hand your little one a paintbrush or encourage a spot of finger painting.

Ice painting is another simple yet fun option. Make ice paints by filling an ice cube tray with water, adding a few drops of different coloured food dye, inserting a lolly stick into the centre and freezing. Once frozen, run the tray under cold water to release the paint blocks, then encourage children to use them as DIY "brushes" to paint with. The added bonus here is that this type of painting keeps them cool, too.

Enjoy the weather with picnics and park visits

Everyone knows that food eaten outdoors tastes better, so why not embrace the idea of a breakfast, lunch or dinner picnic with your clan this spring break? Visit Dubai’s moon and Love Lakes, instagrammable Plant Lake in Abu Dhabi or Ras Al Khaimah's aptly named Pink Lake.

At this time of year, the UAE’s parks are perfect for picnicking in and entry is either free or costs up to Dh5 a head. In Abu Dhabi, there is the centrally located Capital Gardens and Khalifa Park with its Maritime Museum and mini-train, as well as the various Corniche parks. In Dubai, head to Creek Park the zero-energy Al Khazzan Park or Zabeel Park, where the twinkling lights and interactive installations that make up Dubai Garden Glow take this park experience well beyond the ordinary.

While the entry fee at Al Barari Playground isn’t quite as wallet-friendly as the others on this list (a single entry ticket granting two hours access to the outdoor playground costs Dh25), the beautifully designed space features cargo nets for climbing, water-suspended bridges for traversing, pirate ships for playing in and more.

Break out the cardboard boxes

Turn large boxes into mini car-racing tracks. Emily Price for The National
Turn large boxes into mini car-racing tracks. Emily Price for The National

Working on the principle that at Christmas or on birthdays it’s often the cardboard boxes that little children are interested in, consider that stash of empty cardboard boxes sitting waiting to be recycled a gift to yourself (and your entertainment budget).

Turn large boxes into mini car-racing tracks by flattening them out, taping the edges together, drawing lanes, adding empty toilet roll tunnels and a finish line or creating a mini town, drawing some streets on, roundabouts and so on, using toys from around the house (mini cars, Lego figures, plastic animals, small building blocks) as props.

Alternatively, provide plenty of supplies (pens, paints, stickers, pipe cleaners, age-appropriate scissors and child-friendly glue) and task the children with turning those boxes into playhouses, castles, rocket ships, robots or fire trucks.

Embrace nature and wildlife

Who says going on a safari has to be expensive? Sharjah Safari is home to 1,000 animals and birds including lions, flamingos, rhinos and crocodiles. It is spread across 12 areas with different themes and covers eight square kilometres. Tickets cost Dh15 for ages three to 12 and Dh40 for ages 13 and over.

If aquatic animals are more to your children's liking, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project offers visitors of all ages the chance to attend a free turtle feeding session every Wednesday at 11am within the Al Muna enclosure at the Jumeirah Al Naseem hotel.

Budding bird watchers will lap up the opportunity to spot avian creatures galore including preening flamingos, reef herons, sandpipers and great egrets, wandering among the wetlands of the free-to-enter Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.

Get water involved

“If in doubt, add water,” a wise parent once said. They were right. Set up a toy washing project by filling a storage bin, water table, bathtub or sink with water, plastic toys, brushes and sponges. Add bubble bath or tear-free soap and let the little ones get busy cleaning their toys. Not only will this keep them entertained, but it’s also a great sensory experience that promotes independent play and stimulates imagination.

For toddlers, a pouring station is another winner of an activity that helps improve dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Fill a selection of bowls, tubs, jars and jugs with different amounts of water and encourage little hands to get busy scooping and pouring; a few drops of child-safe food colouring or dye adds to the appeal here.

Try a quick cooking win

Think of this no-cook baking project as a seasonal 30-minute wonder, perfect for injecting a bit of sweetness into a long afternoon.

There’s something about chocolate Easter nests that appeals to all ages, adults included; the ingredients are simple and cheap — you really only need chocolate for melting, cereal and mini eggs for decorating — and the type of cereal you use is interchangeable (shredded wheat, cornflakes, Rice Krispies and Weetabix all work. There’s barely any actual cooking involved and the results are delicious.

Make rainbow bubble foam

Homemade bubble foam is guaranteed to put smiles on faces, keep little people entertained for a good chunk of time and is a brilliant sensory activity to boot.

It also just so happens to be easy to set up: use an electric hand whisk or stand mixer to whip the liquid drained from a 400g can of chickpeas with 50g white sugar. Add food dye or colouring to create a rainbow effect, tip the foam into a large bowl, storage container or even paddling pool and the fun can begin.

A few tips: provide toy animals so that children can create their own bubble swamp or building blocks so that they can build a castle. Alternatively, make marbled wrapping paper or gift cards by laying sheets of paper lightly over the top of the bubbles and then leaving the paper to dry.

Play the tidy-up game

Picture the scene: it’s mid-afternoon and the children's bedroom/living room/nursery/playroom (delete or add to as appropriate) is far from tidy. Rather than letting it rile you, now is the time to make tidying up part of the entertainment.

Turn the music on and play a designated “clean-up” song, give everyone a specific job — one child picks up soft toys, the other puts all the Legos back in the right box and so on — or task everyone with picking up a certain number of items. If belongings are scattered all over the house, play the toy sweep game where children can be tasked with returning their own belongings to the correct place as quickly and neatly as possible, with the winner being the first person to do so.

Updated: March 28, 2023, 7:00 AM