A healthy supply of activity books is vital to the harmonious running of many a family. At home on rainy days, a good version can be a calm-inducing alternative to screens.
Stuffed into a rucksack, they can be deployed on car journeys, in airports, at restaurant tables when the food’s taking a while, or anywhere that a parent needs to prevent a toddler tantrum or silence a moaning big kid.
They’re relatively cheap, require no electricity and buy everyone a little head space, even if they’re of the mindless fun rather than creativity – or intelligence-building kind.
Here, we’ve endeavoured to curate a selection that includes all those genres, including some newly-published books, and those which offer something to children of most ages from toddler to tween.
After which point – with the possible noble exception of Photo Adventures (below) – you might struggle to generate much enthusiasm for the activity book’s simple merits.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
'Ada Twist’s Big Project Book for Stellar Scientists': £7.99, Wordery
The original Ada Twist story book has long been a smash hit with our junior testers, and indeed many young people we know, telling the story of a young girl who learns through curiosity, perseverance and experimentation. This companion activity book is similarly wonderful, containing a mix of experiments and activities to carry out (e.g. “observe a chemical reaction”) and inspiration such as a gallery of diverse scientific role models next to a space left blank for users to draw their own image. Absolutely not just for girls, though it does have a rich theme of female empowerment running through its pages.
'Photo Adventures': £9.95, Foyles
This is a rare beast indeed: a genuinely original kids’ activity book. It might even, if you’re lucky, encourage phone-addicted older children to do something more creative than scroll anxiously through their social media feeds. It does not contain prescriptive pre-packaged activities as such; instead, photographer Jan Von Holleben presents ideas for taking funny, imaginative or mind-bending photos with a smartphone camera and household props such as mirrors, pillows and footballs. His ingenious pictures, presented here, mean that this is a kind of art book for children as well as an activity manual.
'The Big Sticker Book of Birds': £7.99, Blackwells
This is a lovely book for nature-loving children aged about five and up, with more than 200 stickers to add to beautiful illustrations of feathered friends, as well as activities such as “design your own feather”, simple mazes and a bird-based quiz. It would be a great option to take on rural holidays, perhaps in an effort to work up some enthusiasm among your children for nature and the great outdoors. This is the latest addition to the great series of wildlife-based sticker books, others include bugs and marine life.
'Find Tom in Time': £12.99, Nosy Crow
Part of publisher Nosy Crow’s fruitful partnership with the British Museum, this superb hardback book is Where’s Wally-meets-history book for the inquisitive child. Marketed at kids of about five to eight-years-old, the aim is to spot a little boy called Tom, and his cat, in a series of double-page illustrations of life in ancient Egypt, which are also annotated with child-friendly facts about matters such as the problems that hippos caused and life in Egyptian schools. As with most books about this period, there are the usual pages about mummification and death gods, which can cause wobbles among sensitive children, but our testers were fascinated. There are plenty of extra things to spot, too.
'My Magical Unicorn Sparkly Sticker Activity Book': £5.99, Book Depository
Sparkly bits? Check. Unicorns? Check. Stickers? Check. This is precisely the kind of activity book that will keep very young children going for ages; the sort of volume that will be retrieved, half-finished, from the back of a cupboard and resurrected months after you’d forgotten it existed. There is a series of simple activities to complete – your standard spot the difference and maze-type fare – but inevitably the primary game here is adding the 400 stickers, pretty much at random, to the unicorn-based pages.
Bond 'Logic Puzzles': £4.99, Bright Minds
Much of the marketing around the Bond Brain Training for Kids series is about passing the 11-plus, but actually there is a certain kind of kid that will love doing these logic puzzles for fun. There are more than 100 in this compact and no frills black-and-white book, involving skills such as shape recognition, group sorting and coding. Despite being quite tricky in places, they come with unthreatening names such as “word sandwiches” and “riddle and rhyme”. A perfect boredom buster for kids from the age of about eight, ideal for long car journeys and airports.
'How to Tell the Time': £9.99, DK
Learning to tell the time can be curiously counter-intuitive and tricky. This sturdy hardback suitable for children from about five went down well with our tester who is currently grappling with it. It features a large clock face with moveable hands on its front and some simple explanations of units of time, as well as a host of lift-the-flap time telling challenges to make practising vaguely fun. There’s also pages on days, weeks and months; seasons and 24-hour clocks.
'Dinosaurium Activity Book: £8.99, Waterstones
This dinosaur-based tome from Big Picture Press has a stylish hipster aesthetic and invites young would-be paleontologists to complete activities such as spot-the-difference or matching the species to the region where their fossils were found. It is in the drawing challenges, however, that the lovely illustrations come into their own, as users are invited to design their own marine reptiles to complete a scene or add an opponent for the pentaceratops to fight. Individual pages are easily extracted, making a great option for sharing around a table of antsy children, although the muted palette means that it probably won’t appeal to the very youngest.
'Sticker Dolly Dressing: Cats and Kittens': £4.99, Waterstones
Our young female testers cannot get enough of this cutesy offering from Usborne’s mega-popular Sticker Dolly Dressing series. Most of the volumes in the range involve a series of scenes featuring pictures of (mostly) girls, who can be dressed up in various outfits using a set of reusable stickers in the back of the book. A potent mix already, but in this instance, those evil geniuses at Usborne have added felines into the mix, and the double page spreads are of things like visit a to the vet and cat hotel. You might be wretching, but it will almost guarantee several hours of sticker-based peace and quiet.
'Where’s Wally? Exciting Expeditions': £5.37, Amazon
This travel-sized (A5-ish) offering from everyone’s favourite bobble hat-wearing hide and seek fan features plenty of spotting challenges but also a good range of other games and activities. There are spot the difference challenges, a whodunit puzzle, space to design your own time machine and word puzzles, but the nicest features are those that prompt creative writing. The back section of the book is a travel journal to be completed by the reader, while there are stories about dragons and treasure hunts to be completed. Each of a set of small cards stored inside the front and back covers challenges the reader to invent and tell their own story featuring a specific set of items such as a mermaid, catapult and chocolate factory.