Toss a bunch of small objects (that aren’t choking hazards) into a box for the baby to examine, dump, and gather up again. Two ways to prolong the activity: Pick novel objects (measuring spoons, shiny bangles, balls, and rattles—random is good), and use a box with a lid. Even better, use an empty diaper-wipes case with a rubber (that is, gentle) hand-trapping opening.
Give your child a fresh box of little (dentist-size) paper cups and let her stack and crash to her heart’s content.
Put him in his high chair and spread shaving cream on the tray. Let him “paint.” If he’s too young to know that shaving cream isn’t food, use vanilla pudding. (This is a clothes-free activity.)
Set up a dreamy winter landscape that she can touch and transform: Mash white Play-Doh into a small cookie sheet or pie tin. If you’re brave, mix in silver glitter. Add toy animals.
Grab two mixing bowls and a bag of large (and blissfully quiet) pom-poms. Let your child scoop them from one bowl to the other using a spoon, a soup ladle, or a measuring cup. You can also bury “treasures,” like blocks or small toys, for her to discover while digging.
All she wants to do is eat the pom-poms? Then feed her! Create a kid-friendly tapas bar with small snacks—raisins, edamame, Cheerios, apple chunks, cheese cubes, bits of ham—in the compartments of a clean ice-cube tray.
Fill a baking pan with a bit of water and a squirt of dish soap and set down a few Matchbox cars or mini trucks. Have your child clean them with a toothbrush. (Less detail-oriented toddlers can just sail boats through the sudsy flood.)
Offer a stack of colorful Post-it notes and ask for an art installation on the nearest wall.
2 of 3Andy Rementer
Activities for 3 to 4 Years Old
Give your kid a slew of similar objects and have him categorize them. Sort a box of vehicles into race cars, emergency trucks, and construction types. Or let him organize loose change. You can even offer to let him keep a few of the copper-colored ones. (Hey, peace and quiet aren’t free.)
Use sharp scissors to cut dry kitchen sponges into thin rectangles (aim for 1⁄4-inch slices), then let her stack them up (Jenga-style!) to make towers or buildings. They can also serve as floating boats for the bath.
Create an empty canvas for pretend grocery lists. Fold three or four sheets of paper in half horizontally and staple the spine. Make it fancy with a piece of card stock as an outer cover.
Pull out the dress-up box and let her put on a show. (Hmm, four minutes per costume change plus six outfits equals…) Hint: You’ll get an even more enthusiastic participant if you let her try on your shoes, scarves, bags, and T-shirts.
Give him a roll of masking tape or painter’s tape (whatever won’t destroy your walls). Let him make a web in an open doorway or zigzag strips down a narrow hallway.
Slightly painful, but worth it: Let her do your hair. Get clips, ribbons, curlers, and hair elastics and let her style while you sit very, very still.
Send your child on a colorful scavenger hunt. Have him find objects in every color of the rainbow and arrange them on the floor in the shape of an arch. If your tiny treasure seeker isn’t yet familiar with ROY G. BIV (and insists on finding “only stuff that’s green”), put down pieces of construction paper and tell him to grab objects that match each square. You can start him off with a red mitten; let him track down the orange sippy cup, the yellow rubber ducky…
Warning: You have to muster up a bit of creativity for this one. While you kick back on the couch, request different imaginary dishes—the more outrageous, the better. Doesn’t spaghetti with pickles and a blueberry sauce sound divine? Your server can take your order, “cook,” and deliver your play food. Get hungry again immediately.
3 of 3Andy Rementer
Activities for 5 Years Old and Up
Search YouTube for a tutorial, grab an inexpensive ball of yarn, and watch the snakelike creations grow from her fingers.
Paper-Airplane Test Flights
Demonstrate how to make an airplane, then hand over a ream of paper (or the recycling bin). As each plane lands, he can mark its spot with masking tape. Use a tape measure to note the distance and map patterns. All craft are veering left! Adjust wing flaps!
Mark a Map
Get a map (a state-by-state road atlas is fine) and office dots and have your child tag places that she has visited in one color. In another, she can tag destinations she would like to see. Later on, explain the cost of plane tickets.
Older kids can easily create scrapbooks, especially with those by Smash (available at most craft stores), which are designed for kids. The books have pockets for memorabilia and a double-sided pen that’s also a glue stick for doodling or attaching pictures. Store everything (photos, ticket stubs, lucky eyelashes) in a zip-top bag until it’s time to get crafty.
Unroll a big piece of brown packing paper (or wrapping paper turned upside down) and let your child draw streets, highways, and culs-de-sac for his cars to navigate. He can fill in buildings and trees.
For once, encourage snooping. Track down some spy gear (binoculars, trench coat, notepad) and await his observations on what’s really going on in the neighborhood.
Use fine-tip markers to turn hingeless wooden clothespins (a.k.a. doll pins) into tiny people. Draw faces and hair on the tops, clothes on the split shafts.