also busy work, "work done simply to keep one occupied," 1884, American English, originally in primary education, from busy (adj.) + work (n.).
How to keep little children busy while not reciting, is the despair of many a teacher. Miss Goodyear solves the problem by introducing a modification of the kindergarten occupations, which she denominates "busy work." Tablets, rings, slats, weaving, and the like, drawing, writing, all are laid under contribution. In this way the interest of the little folk is aroused and directed. ["Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Education, of the State of South Carolina," 1886]