Have your kids got cabin fever? Your kitchen might hold the cure. I learned this lesson one rainy day when our dishwasher was mistakenly loaded with hand soap instead of dishwashing detergent. As waves of bubbles poured out of the machine and onto the floor, the three young children who had been bored and whiny all afternoon suddenly perked up. Handing them towels and a mop, I invited them to play in the foamy suds-which they were only too happy to do. Their moods improved, the floor got cleaned and we created a memory that we all still laugh over.

Finding Fun on the Fly

Kid-friendly websites and magazines constantly feature boredom-busting craft projects and recipes, but most require pre-planning and close supervision, and seem more likely to add to a parent's stress level rather than lowering it. As holiday seasons approach, with neither the time nor the energy to channel our inner Martha Stewarts, most parents are looking for simpler ways to help kids amuse themselves, using only what we happen to have on hand, and with minimal effort or mess. Fortunately, any reasonably well-stocked kitchen can be converted into a playroom.

Water Play in the Kitchen Sink

Water is a natural de-stressor, and playing in a tub of water is a great way to dial down pent-up energy and emotions. That makes the kitchen sink one of the most important play areas in your house. It can accommodate a variety of fun activities that also provide training in household chores and self-care. (Little ones will need to stand on a stool or chair, with the back facing the cabinet for greater stability, and some adult supervision to prevent falls.)

Stop up the sink and encourage your kids to squirt a generous dollop of liquid soap under the water taps. Few children can resist the temptation to dip their fingers into the foaming water and pop the bubbles that rise into the air. They will also enjoy some of the following activities:

  • Arm your child with culinary tools such as a whisk, turkey baster, sieve or measuring cups and invite him to "cook." Equip him with a sponge, scrubber or bottle brush and turn the chore of washing dishes into a game.

  • Fish some plastic bottles out of the recycling bin and let your child practice his motor skills by filling, pouring, squeezing, squirting and shaking the foamy water into the sink. Add food coloring or water-soluble paint and create a science experiment. What happens when you mix blue and yellow? Red and blue?

  • Hand your child a washcloth and declare bath time for action figures and dolls. Chat about the importance of scrubbing G.I. Joe's elbows and washing Barbie's hair. Your child will absorb lessons on how to bathe himself without feeling lectured to, and his hands and fingernails will end up squeaky clean.

  • Toss a few grimy toys into the water and trigger your child's imagination. "Let's pretend that's an island. This can be a boat. Is that a dolphin or a mermaid?" Ask curiosity questions: Why do balls and boats float? Why do marbles sink?

Keeping It Clean

Don't worry if some of this exuberant water play spills onto the floor. Kids will be happy to go with the flow, sopping up the water with rags, paper towels or a mop. For even more fun, kids can become human mops with oversized athletic socks on their feet and hands and T-shirts over their clothes.

Young children love spray bottles, so cleaning cabinets and countertops is fun-not work. You can use a child-friendly commercial product or fill a bottle with water and instruct them in spraying and wiping away messes. When they're finished, be sure to notice the pleasure of the process as well as the end product. "Wow-that was fun, and look how shiny you made the floor/countertops!"

Children are fascinated by household appliances, and a wintry day provides an ideal opportunity to practice maneuvering a vacuum cleaner, using the blender or loading and operating the dishwasher. Adopting a playful attitude toward these activities helps children think of the kitchen as a welcoming place where they get to pitch in and try their hand at a variety of tasks.

Home Science Lab

Rummaging through your refrigerator and cabinets, you are likely to find all the ingredients for a kid-sized science experiment or magic potion. Soy sauce packets, perfume samples, hotel shampoo or lotion, the last dregs of the mustard jar or oil bottle-these and many other odds and ends can become raw materials for your child's original creation. My son and his friends used to spend hours mixing jars of elixirs, assigning them special names and properties. Child-based experimentation in combining different liquids lays the groundwork for cooking, as well as chemistry, and has the added advantage of clearing out your storage space.

Other items in your refrigerator and cabinets provide science lessons your child can eat. The most interesting are those that change states, such as eggs that can be boiled, cracked, scrambled, separated, whipped into a meringue or added to pancakes to make them fluffy. Kids can see how cornstarch "magically" thickens puddings and stir-fries, and how green beans, carrots and asparagus change color and flavor when steamed. While sharing these kitchen miracles with your kids, you will be nourishing their bodies, as well as their minds and teaching them useful life skills. When it's time to stop, open the door to future experimentation. "That was fun. Let's do it again soon."

It's All About the Process, Not the Product

Young children live in the moment and are less interested in goal-oriented projects than in having fun right now. The activities described above provide the immediate gratification kids crave while also building valuable life skills.

Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting Preschoolers" classes. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children age 2½ to 18. PEPparent.org