Entertaining Toddlers Without Screens
Every mom needs 10-20 minutes without a toddler clinging to her leg; Whether it be to cook a meal, use the bathroom, or whatever. But plopping kiddo in front of the TV (as much as he loves Spider Man and His Amazing Friends and K’nect Party) is not the ideal solution. It doesn’t teach him anything, and frankly, if I have to leave the room to do what I have to do I’m not comfortable with it. I can’t very well cook a meal in the TV room and with all the noise from the TV, I can’t listen to what he’s doing either.
Sometimes we don’t need to get anything done and just want to spend some one on one time with kiddo but are at a loss as to how proceed. At this age when they are so eager to be active and engaged with us, we really need to have some options before it slips away. Sometimes, I’m just stumped. So I decided to put together a list of some of my Sunshine’s favorite solo and mommy(or daddy) and me activities and share with the group.
1. Play Dough
My mom disapproves of some of the things on this list, play dough especially. “It’s too messy,” she says. My mother strongly disapproves of messes and believes that making a mess in order to clean a mess is counterproductive. But the play dough mess is contained. Sunshine knows he has to sit at the table while he’s playing with play dough and I’m never more than 10 feet away in the kitchen or living room able to step over and admire his artistic genius at a moment’s notice. When he’s done, we clean it up, sweep up all the bits on the floor and wipe off the table, put away the cookie cutters and voila, clean table, ready for dinner. Seriously, I sweep that floor and wipe that table thirty times a day. What’s one more?
Play Doh is cheap. It’s also easy to make modeling dough using common household ingredients. Here is a recipe for making your own play dough. You can make it in any color you have food dye for or no color at all. All of Sunshine’s homemade play dough is a nice, uniform shade of gray because the first thing he does is mix all the colors he has access to into one big mass (That drives his other grandma crazy). So when I make it from scratch, I don’t even bother with the food dye.
Play dough is excellent to help your child develop dexterity and creativity. It encourages imaginative play and it’s fun to do with your child. My son is always delighted when I make little animals for him out of play dough. You can add some cookie cutters and plastic knives to the mix to make things more interesting or just get a Play Doh playset with a few starter tools.
Small plastic toys are also fun to throw into the mix. My Sunshine enjoys making nests of “dinosaur eggs” with little plastic dinosaurs inside the play dough. And then they hatch and do battle. And then he does it again. He also enjoys making and serving play dough food.
Also, if you keep your homemade play dough in the fridge, it is a very refreshing hot day activity. Though the play dough is a little stiff until it warms up.
2. Surprise Eggs and Boxes
This one takes a little pre-planning on your part, but it’s totally worth it. Kids love opening up things and finding stuff inside. It doesn’t even have to be new stuff. Old toys are made new again with new packaging. Just don’t use the same toys over and over or it’ll get old.
You can get plastic Easter eggs, or make “eggs” out of Play dough or just use small boxes you have around the house. Like old jewelry boxes or shoe boxes. The boxes checkbooks and business cards come in are perfect. These are the things I salvage from my various temp jobs. You can tie the boxes with ribbons and bows to make them slightly more challenging to open and you can hide them too if you like.
You can incorporate this activity into other activities to stretch out the fun. For example, you could provide a couple of eggs with some play dough inside them and a couple of eggs with little plastic dinosaurs and maybe a box tied with a ribbon with some cookie cutters. Or fill the containers with puzzle pieces and or building set pieces. Little Lego set pieces are popular. My two-year-old is still too small for Legos and Duplos don’t fit well inside an egg, but my three-year-old niece has rejected Duplos in favor of Legos, so this works for her, though she still needs an adult’s help to put them together. Also, if you’re playing together, little plastic or even paper cut out letters that spell words are also fun.
Frankly, I don’t see the appeal of stickers, but my son has been obsessed with him since he was one. I could put him in his high chair with a sticker book and he’d just peel and stick for hours. This is great for dexterity and imaginative play as well. Now that he’s two and has rejected his high chair, I let him make sticker scenes on the big door wall window using removable vinyl stickers. (My mother suggested this.)
One product I absolutely love is Melissa and Doug’s Reusable Sticker Sets. They come with scenes so Sunshine can make a story and they will also stick to the windows. After a while they lose their clinging ability, but this can be fixed with a quick wash. There are instructions on the package.
In a perfect world, one where I had all the money for everything we needed and a bunch leftover for stuff we wanted too, my son would have a water table! But it’s not a perfect world. So what he has is a big bowl full of water and bunch of cups. He plays with this at the table or on the back deck and is closely supervised. Yes, it’s a huge mess, but it’s a water mess. (Unless the ducks get involved and then it’s chaos. We try to avoid this.) Water messes are easy to clean up and generally leave the area cleaner than when we started.
A few things I highly recommend for water play are stacking cups, this cute windup swimming penguin and also boats and things that ride on boats, like this set. If you use squeaky ducks and squirters such, be aware that mildew will grow on the inside when the water gets in the holes so they have to be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and dried after every use.
While my three-year-old niece is content to color on paper, my two-year-old son will just make a few hasty lines and look for something else to do or something else to color on. Paint, on the other hand, will absorb both their interest for some time. I usually provide a brush, which they like okay, but nothing compares to smearing paint with your bare hands. Oh yea. It’s messy. This is an activity we like to have them do in just a diaper or underwear. This can result in some very interesting body art of which I also wholeheartedly approve.
I give them paper plates with globs on paint squirted onto them and big sheets of different colored paper and then I just let them go crazy. I usually use Crayola Washable finger paints, but I have created homemade paint using cornstarch or flour and water. This is not as easily cleaned up as the washable paints, but it is delightfully squishy and it gives their painting a three-dimensional element.
Things like leaves, flowers, sponges, cotton balls and whatever else you think up will just stretch the fun further.
6. A Toy House
My son has this old hand me down Little People house and he loves it. He will spend hours having the people go to bed, eat dinner, go to the library (the library is the schoolhouse). I have even discovered that if I give it to him at the end of the day, he will replay the day with the house and the Little People. This way he can share his day with his daddy. It’s hard to get a two-year-old to tell you what they did that day. But he’ll replay it with Little People. It’s very cute.
We happened upon this hand-me-down for free, but there are lots of toy house options out there and barring that, you can make one pretty easily out of shoeboxes. You just need a bedroom and a kitchen and a doll to correspond to every member of your family (it doesn’t have to represent every member of your family, in fact, it would be a little creepy if it did).
I am thinking hard about making him a Spider Man and his Amazing Friends house for his birthday out of a shoebox with knitted Spiderman, Iceman and Firestar dolls. And of course an Aunt Mae and a Ms Lion. I think I should get a mom of the year award if I pull that off.
7. Sidewalk Chalk
Sidewalk chalk is an outdoor toy that I despaired for a few months I could not use due to lack of any paving whatsoever. But lo! I have a big wooden deck and sidewalk chalk works perfectly on my big wooden deck. And all the peasants danced.
One of his very favorite activities is an interactive activity. He likes to play a sort of Eye-Spy game where he points out something in the yard and you write the word on the deck. Then he makes a big scribble and declares it to be that thing and earns praise for his beautiful artwork before moving on to the next Eye Spy item. His favorites are ducks and trees.
He is not yet ready for solo play with sidewalk chalk, but my niece who is a year older than him will spend the whole day decorating the driveway. So, parents of 2-year-olds should consider this a group activity, while parents of three-year-olds can consider it a solo activity. Of course, it is an outside activity, so unless you’re working outside, supervision can be tricky. When I’ve got kids on the deck, I can work in the kitchen or dining room with the doorwall open (Yes, flies, come on in, they’re going to anyway.) but I can’t work in the living room. Of course, if I’m already working in the yard, it’s not a big deal.
Along the same vein of Sidewalk Chalk is the wonderful bathtub crayons. Obviously kiddo is never alone in the tub (though I will clean the bathroom or fold laundry while he’s in there) but sometimes it’s difficult to get him in the tub. Bathtub crayons are amazing for this. But do not let the artwork sit on the tub as my husband did once to show me Sunshine’s bathtub artwork when I was away. It only wipes off easily when it’s fresh. After that, it’s soap scum.
One day I dream of painting vast portions of my home in dry-erase board paint. Then let the art commence. (I considered chalkboard paint, but I am concerned about inhaling chalk dust. I am not sure which is worse. Maybe I’ll mix it up.)
When I sent my nephew a collection of hats and the book Whose Hat is This for his second birthday, I was informed that I was a genius. But I cheat; my son is just a month older so I know what that age is into. Toddlers love to pretend and just the tiniest hint of a costume can be enough. A hat, a cape, an apron, a tutu, combined with the usual jeans and tee shirt can transform them into all sorts of fantastic things and provide for hours of imaginative play. Toss in a magic wand or whatever other props you can think of, and you’ve got one entertained toddler. My son often request that I put on his white “button diapers” (Bum Genius) so that he can be Iceman! That’s it. Just a white diaper and nothing else=Iceman.
9. House Work
Mr. Rabbit often remarks that kids love to help with the housework right up to the age where they can actually be helpful. This may be true, but setting your kid up to pretend to do housework is still fun.
Sunshine likes to stand on his step stool in front of a sink full of soapy water and wash his bath toys and other safe odds and ends like measuring cups and food storage containers. Whenever I’m scrubbing the floor, I give him his own scrub brush and bucket of vinegar water and let him scrub his own section of floor too. He also enjoys his play broom, though he mostly unhelps with that.
Toddlers also love to pretend to prepare food. My niece has an elaborate kitchen set up that she goes to town on but my son will happily pour “tea” from his lowly tea set for quite a while as well. Play dough can also be made into food. Especially, it would seem, ice cream. Providing popsickle sticks to stick play dough at the end of is a real win.
I daydream about providing my little guy with his own play house and child sized picnic table to play with in the yard to take this sort of imaginative play outdoors, but that’s not likely without hand-me-downs or a lottery win. We’re accepting our limits.
10. Piles of Dirt
My mom has a sandbox on her back patio for the kids to play in and when we go to her house it is their first stop (everyone under 5, that is). They will play in that sandbox until the meal is ready and then take the briefest dinner break they can manage before running right back out there. Her set up is nice because any sand that ends up outside the sandbox is easily swept up from the stone patio and put right back in. My mother likes to be able to keep things neat. It’s also got a cover to keep the cats out.
My children’s mother does not have a sandbox. What I have for my youngest is his own “garden plot”. That is a square of dirt in the yard near where I garden. We’ve been through it for rocks and other dangerous stuff (sometimes you find wires, broken glass, pottery and railroad spikes when you dig around here) and he’s got his full set of gardening hand tools; A bucket, a little hand rake and a little trowel. This, in the shade of his favorite redbud tree, serves almost as well as the sandbox. Except of course that it is not on a patio right off the kitchen and so he can only use it when I’m out there with him. And then, more often than not, I’m doing more interesting things in other piles of dirt so he’s usually helping me instead of playing with is own dirt. I am sure that if we were all at my mother’s house playing in a bigger sandbox, the children would abandon their cute little one in favor of ours as well. One thing that he really likes to do with his garden is plant it full of pinwheels. Pinwheels cost a dollar and are everywhere, especially round the Fourth of July for some reason.
If dirt isn’t in your plan, consider filling a box with rice and hiding some toys in it. Little plastic animals, Mardi Gras beads, plastic eggs to fill up with rice and shake, are all totally fascinating when hidden in a pile of rice.