I cannot stress this enough to parents who have suddenly found themselves trying to hold down work and full-time child care - you do not need to buy any new toys. Use the toys that you already have, and either display them differently (you'll be amazed at how exciting an old dolls house suddenly appearing in a different room can be) or re-purpose them. I bet that many households across the world have a tub of threading beads and string similar to the picture above, but how many actually play with it? Most likely the tub is gathering dust, long forgotten at the back of a cupboard. Let's face it, there are many, many pieces in a threading kit and it is tedious having to pick them all up repeatedly, isn't it? So, how can you reignite interest in existing toys? All I have done above is simply presented the exact same kit differently. This will give it novelty value and immediately make it more inviting and interesting. I don't for a second imagine that many people have a tinker-tray like this one, nor do you need one. Recently I saw somebody using an egg box to the same effect, or you could also use an empty biscuit tray - you know the type, with indentations and sections. If you have one of those in the recycling, I urge you to dig it out! You can pair it with anything that you already have to hand: pompoms, building blocks like Lego or Duplo, peg dolls, balls of playdough or pieces of pasta. Your child will enjoy sorting and organising, adding and removing, tipping and tidying (hopefully) to their hearts content.
When I am planning a play set up, I like to begin with an idea, or a source of inspiration, such as a book, picture or household item. The picture above shows an Usbourne book 'That's Not My Robot'. It was a book that we have had for ages, but hadn't received much attention. I thought for a while about how I could make this irresistible to little hands... For Tiny, looking at the tactile pages was enough, but I wanted the older boys to have an activity too. I wondered: what is it about robots that kids love? Is it the interaction, or the buttons and switches? Could it be both?! Novelty factor is worth it's weight in gold with kids. My children aren't usually allowed to fiddle around in the tool box because obviously it is potentially dangerous, but how about I removed the danger element and provided them with child-safe parts? I grabbed a selection of nuts, bolts, washers and screws, scattered them around the open book, with a lump of playdough and walked away. Novelty wins again! They played side by side with each other for a good while, sharing ideas and using the parts and playdough to model their own robots. There's a huge added bonus in this activity too - the nuts and bolts are small and fiddly, requiring precision, it's a brilliant work out for honing those fine motor skills! Fine motor play demands focus and attention, which usually means it's a reliable type of play for when you need some quiet time to get some work done, or have a moments peace with a hot cup of tea!
For the idea in the picture above, I'm assuming that you don't usually have stickers on your floor... It doesn't get more novel than this! I love setting this one up for my kids as it's always such a surprise to them! I've used road tape here, but you can just as easily use masking tape to create a road - it easily comes off carpets, flooring, stairs and sofas (should you fancy providing a multi terrain adventure) without leaving a mark or sticky residue. Unlike most of my other activities, this one does take a little time to set up, so it's a good one to do the night before, or during nap time. You don't need to make numbers or letters, that's just the teacher in me being extra.
My final piece of advice to you is to have two or three set ups ready, in different parts of the room, so that you're not pinning all your hopes for an uninterrupted conference call on one thing. It would be typical that your previously vehicle-obsessed child was suddenly not at all interested in your roads, no matter how cool you think they are! Don't despair, these set ups can stay in place for a day or more, young children love repetitive play. Best of luck - it's an impossible gig, to do it all! You've got this!