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Emily Henderson

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by Emily Henderson

Having two toddlers is both exhilarating and mind-numbingly exhausting. How is it possible to feel so young and so old at the same time? I’ve never laughed and cried so much (everyday!) in my life. Entertaining them in a way that is actually fun for me/us, is so, so hard. Now many of you might be thinking ‘uh, parenting is not supposed to be fun for you’ and while you may be right, I for one need to make it more fun than it has been to ensure that they are getting a better version of me than I’ve been giving them. I love them so much, I’m so dedicated to giving them a good childhood, and helping them turn into good people, but lately every day I felt like I’m not that good at it.

Let’s review – we have Charlie (formerly known as ‘The Gentle Giant’ now known as ‘Occasional Sociopath/comedian’) who is 3 1/2 and Elliot, (formerly known as ‘the happiest baby on the planet’, now known as ‘Charlie’s mirror and, well, still the happiest toddler’). She does whatever he does which is both adorable and terrifying (again, because he is 3). They get along SO WELL, considering the fact that she destroys everything he builds and he bosses her around like a lecturing cartoon character.


We have a happy enough family, and things are fine, but there have been so many more nights lately where I’m not enjoying it, which brings me to tears with shame, knowing that they’ll only be this young once. Nothing makes you feel like a worse mom, when in those moments you fantasize them being older, when you wish the time away. Tears, again. I’m hoping some of you can relate.

Elliot’s favorite activities include unloading my purse, taking apart my wallet, “reorganizing” the tupperware drawer, eating crayons or reading and cuddling (obviously my favorite of them all). It’s enjoyable but relatively mellow and while in a way it is boring, it’s also pretty easy and fun until she finds her way into the litter box and cat food.

Charlie, on the other hand wants to play alien-robot-destruction-monster-GET-THE-BAD-GUY imagination games all night, every night. For a while the imagination games were ‘doctor checkup’ or ‘ice cream shop’ (worm ice cream, EWE), which were fun. But this whole boy imagination game is wildly more exhausting than I had predicted (especially after working for 9 hours and being starving) and frankly I am not that good at it. I get it wrong all the time and Charlie gets annoyed that I’m sitting on/smashing the space station (chair), and frankly I don’t like ‘getting the bad guy’. Sure, I played ‘war’ when I was a kid but it was with my other siblings, not imaginary rhinos (from Robin Hood).

Since we’ve had the yard finished (one week) it’s been WILDLY better, plus having it light longer certainly helps. But I also don’t want to just say ‘go and play’ every night (which rarely works anyway) because I want to engage with them and play with them and feel like a mom that is really fun and entertaining (like their dad – why are dads so much more fun???)

Don’t worry, I understand the need for teaching them independence and I’ve read all about how good it is for kids to be bored, but when we all engage in something we love to do together, it feels so incredibly good.


Meanwhile, enter the curveball – right now Brian is acting in a play (that you should see – it premieres May 6th in Pasadena) which means that he is gone Tuesday – Friday, 5-10pm and Saturdays and Sundays 10-6 – for rehearsal. For those of you moms gasping right now in shock and pity, know that of course we talked about it, and I insisted he do it (it’s a really interesting/challenging role that he was so excited about and theater acting truly is his passion – a word you know I never use but is the only way to describe).

I agreed, with terms (of course). Our deal was that I wouldn’t resent him or make him feel guilty if he REALLY made me feel acknowledged and appreciated. Like REALLY made me feel like a really good mom and wife. Additionally the play had to make him happy. Parenting two alone is so hard and making that sacrifice for 2 1/2 months was going to be, well, not sure there is a word to describe it, so I really needed this play to make him really happy. (It does, by the way)

For the most part we’ve stuck to this deal, with one setback that we worked through (he quickly forgot HOW much work it was and his small ‘ah, thanks for taking the kids’ weren’t enough for me). We are back on track, but I need some help.

Some nights are ok, some terrible and some good. Charlie is tantrum-ing less than he was 2 months ago (although you should have seen his meltdown this morning about how he couldn’t seem to stab his own pancake with a fork – I’m talking 20 minutes of crying and frustration before he was able to work through it). Elliot is pretty much a dream to put to bed (so much easier than Charlie who needs an hour and a half of unwinding). Individually they are such great kids with no alarming challenges. But collectively, my god, they are just so much work and I look forward to 8:15pm (when both are down) way more than I’d like to admit.


So here is my question – what can we do as activities that we can ALL enjoy without leaving our house? Here is what we are doing so far:

  1. Fort making
  2. Hide and seek
  3. Bug hunting/bird feeding
  4. Obstacle courses – jumping over, ducking under, avoiding lava, etc.
  5. We dance to the Moana soundtrack.

Birdie is a bit young for arts and crafts or helping to cook (even though she loves helping me organize and clean) and while we can certainly just play randomly in the backyard and I know that it’s really good for them, it’s more MY boredom that I’m trying to combat. When we find something that we all like (like those above 4 things) we all thrive and I feel like the mom that I always wanted to be.

This weekend I’m going to buy an old computer or stereo from a thrift store and together we’ll take it apart with tools. It sounds weird but I loved doing that as a kid.Β Elliot can’t participate in as much, but she gets excited to try – it’s the 3 year old activity thing that I’m needing help with. He’s physical. He’s super active at night (especially when we get home, he just wants to PLAY!!!).

Now I have a million activities planned for when they are 3 and 5 but this 18 months and 3 1/2 ages are really hard to have one activity that we all enjoy.

I’m obsessed with these kids. They are both pretty much the best people on the planet (despite this bout of ‘three year old’ that we are going through). But I need some more tools to be a better mom so that I’m having more fun, and they are getting a happy mom, not an exhausted and totally drained one. Is that possible??? I figured I’d crowd-source some parenting ideas from you.

So you toddler-experienced moms, what can you do casually with two toddlers that is also fun for parents?

I brought it up to my girlfriends (naturally) before posting and they already had good ideas that I hadn’t totally thought of …. so let er rip!

  1. My kids always enjoyed building roads out of blocks and driving matchbox cars around on them. You could find some more baby friendly cars for Birdie that don’t have as small wheels. That’s something they could do on the floor in the dining area while you make dinner too. Boys are a challenge because they are so energetic. I have two, one is 5 and one is 9.

    1. My mom use to bring home end rolls of newsprint from the local newspaper printing plant. I would roll it out on the galley kitchen floor and GO TO TOWN with crayons and matchbook cars. The best memory of my childhood, hands down.

      1. My mom did something similar. She always had a GIANT roll of butcher paper and we colored all the time in it. It’s more fun than a coloring book because it feels HUGE to kids and is basically a giant mural. My friends loved coming over and coloring in our giant mural.

      2. We did the same thing! In the summer my mom would hang the paper on the garage and we used washable paint to make a mural.

    2. In this vein, I’ve used painters tape to make a driving course on the kitchen floor. It was fun to make and simple to clean up.

  2. Create an activity mat to contain the “space” world. Cut down a drop cloth to 4 x 4′, paint it blue and add some planets. This will give Charlie his space to add or build on but will contain it to one area that you can be right next to. Get a bunch of spice containers and various other smalls and fill a purse with them. Add things that Birdie can sort into the jars. Could be as simple as a cut-out picture of a puppy from a magazine or Target ad.

    There are bunch of other things you can do but the basic idea is to have two different structured and contained activities that you can do at the same time, in the same space, that speak to what each of the kids like to be doing.

    You can get a toddler-sized backpack for the space mat and other toys that belong with it. That way both kids have everything paired together. They will look forward to getting down their special bags at a set time each night and it will contain the chaos.

    1. OMG. i LOVE this. Thank you!!!

      1. Hope it helps! Ours are 22 months apart and both girls but getting one very active older kid and one very contemplative younger kid to stay in the same general area was always a challenge!

      2. did you see the Carry Home Rocket Ship from The Land of Nod? http://www.landofnod.com/carry-home-rocket-ship/s174295

        1. People are sharing some awesome suggestions on here! Thank you to everyone! I have 4 year old son and an almost 2 year old daughter. My son is not at all into art, but loves to build. My daughter i loves art and playing with anything that makes noise, so despite them not having many activities in common, these are the things that I have enjoyed doing with them. (Husband and I both work full time, so we/I get about an hour each night for play time before its time to start getting ready for dinner etc.)

          – we have a Radio Flyer wagon that has seats facing each other. I put them in and take a walk around the neighborhood. The wagon has seat belts so I know the kids aren’t going to hop out anytime soon. We’ll sing along to music, talk about different things we see, etc. I have cheap magnifying glasses they can examine bugs/flowers with. They are just happy to go on an outside adventure. Bonus – I get a little bit of exercise and fresh air.
          – box races. I sit both kids in one Amazon box and push/pull them around as fast as I can. They think it is hilarious, and again, I get a little bit of exercise.
          – get one of those city carpets/playmats and let the kids go to town driving on all the different roads.
          – Duplo legos are safe for Elliot and can help to further develop hand/eye coordination and you guys can all build some awesome things together (robots, rockets, aliens) and destroy them as well.
          – Dance party? I pick some of my favorite songs and we dance and sing in the kitchen, backyard, wherever we want.
          – Kitchen drawer. Someone else mentioned this, but I saved one of our lowest kitchen drawers and have it stocked with bowls, mixing spoons, measuring spoons, etc. All things that I actually need but don’t care if the kids play with it. Then I threw in some other random things like empty spice containers with screw top lids and put in a random object (a quarter, bobby pin) and they turn into little shakers/maracas. Keeps the young one entertained for hours pulling everything out and exploring it all.
          – Water table. Perfect for afternoons and you can use it 9 months out of the year in California!

          Thanks for your honesty (so refreshing and real) and I think you can see from the responses here – you are definitely not alone! Good luck to you and good luck to all the other mamas out there.

  3. I really appreciate your honesty! I only have one kid (age 4) but I had definitely had my share of days like you described. And I did gasp to see how much your husband is gone! But totally understandable when it’s an opportunity like that. Anyway, all that said, let’s be real, you need to give them some screen time. Make a big deal of it, pick a new movie and pop popcorn and sit together on the couch and watch a movie. You can mess around on your phone while they watch the movie. There is nothing wrong with some good screen time!!

    Other things we do that entertains us and him are memberships to the zoo and children’s museum. Now that we’ve been so many times, it’s easy to pack quickly and head out, spend about 2 hours in and out and hit all the things we like to see the most. It’s a great and easy way to spend a couple hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I’m sure it’s easier for me with only one child, but it’s the best money we’ve ever spent having those memberships.

    Last is art time. I’m not a big craft planner mom, but if I spread out washable markers or paints and lots of good plain paper, or even crayons and coloring books, we can paint and color together for a while and sometimes I can even get up and do something else and leave him to it.

    1. Ha. thank you:) I’m VERY much looking forward to family movie night tonight. and I tried the zoo with two on the weekend and have never regretted anything more πŸ™‚ But I need more simple arts and crafts supplies … gonna head to target today. xx

      1. Lots of paper. New markers. Mine are 5 and 2.5 and they will draw (or “draw”) for a looong time.

      2. My not-quite-two year old is all about the bingo dabbers! I find that it is the best craft for that age, as far as it being something she can do independently.
        My just-barely-four year old also loves them, and uses them to draw and write simple words. As a side bonus, the pictures they create with them are always cute and fun, perfect for hanging up on the wall.

      3. Kidspace is pretty doable with two! Especially since Charlie can still go in the early childhood room with Elliott (3 and under). And it’s so nice and shady up in the Arroyo area where they can walk in the little creek and get wet!

  4. Watch them play together while sipping a glass of wine – you need to UNWIND my friend. RELAX!!! 2 nights/week recommended. Other two nights – by all means drop to the ground and get down and dirty with them. They are happy with your PRESENCE – but don’t require your constant attention. It’s all too much effort. I have a 21 and 18 year old and enjoyed parenting – although its THE HARDEST JOB on the planet, but you are over-thinking it in a 21st century kind of way.

    1. I agree with Sherrie. Yes, savor these days, they grow so fast, they’ll only be young once, yada yada yada, but teaching children to self-soothe, entertain themselves, and be independent is something society will thank you for later;-)

      1. I agree guys, and don’t worry – big on independence which is why we bought a house with the safest backyard ever and put in a couple activities so that they can just do their thing without us. But sometimes I want to be with them … πŸ˜‰ No nightly agenda here, just looking for some ideas. xx

        1. Ok – my kiddos were babies/toddler/grade school in Dallas and at that age – do not laugh – this is TRUE – in hot weather – they played for hours outside with a giant tupperware of ice cubes in their diapers/pull-ups. The were mesmerized by the melting capacity of ice – it s was hard one minute and then dripping down their tummies the next.

          Oh and PLAY-DOH – outside for sure!

        2. I second a previous comment–thanks for your honesty. I needed this post! I’m a working mama of a 2 YO and a newborn. Like your kiddos, the 2 YO wants to be with us at night, and we want to be with him. He’s so active but not old enough to easily/safely entertain himself. Thanks for crowdsourcing suggestions. I’m getting some great ideas myself.

    2. I agree! I only have one daughter, so my situation is different (for now), but to be honest in the U.S. parents have never spent more time with their kids or been less happy (see “All Joy and No Fun”). If you look cross-culturally (my job is partly to research child-rearing and education globally), Americans expect parents to do a lot more entertaining and instructing. I’d recommend creating some type of rhythm to help with the long nights. If you have a lot of energy on Tuesdays and Thursdays, make those nights when you do fun things together. On other nights, just let your kiddos run wild in the yard and ooh an ahh appropriately when they bring things for you to see. Our family rhythm is this: Monday and Tuesday night games and family fun (so going to the park, playing hide and go seek, building with blocks), Wednesday nights my husband works late so my daughter and I head to my parents for dinner (and she usually convinces Papa to let her watch something), Thursday nights we get together with friends (who have kids), and on Friday nights we always do pizza and a movie and it’s amazing because that’s usually all I have energy for.

      1. I love this idea of a rhythm. As someone who needs a lot of structure and routine myself, and is raising a toddler who’s similar, this would really work for us. Thank you for sharing!

    3. Along the same lines, maybe set a timer for a half hour in which you follow their lead for play and give them your undivided attention. The rest of the time you can kind of hang out and let them know you’re there, but you don’t need to be their focus or directing the activity. It’s tough to make it through a whole evening being fantastic-magical-playmate-camp-activity-director mom!

      1. I got a similar piece of advice from my Mom (who had five kids) and it has worked beautifully for me (I have four kids).

    4. I am a total overthinker, and this is not overthinking. I just want to add, playing imagination with little kids is BORING! So much better when they let you sit on the sofa and just add your voice. Keeping it real here. xox.

      1. Hahah this brings back so many memories from babysitting/spending time with my little brother 15 years my junior. I always invented imagination games that involved me lying down or sitting – doctor, sleeping princess, bed fort, etc and would kind of zone out/reply when necessary while they played with/around me. Worked like a charm πŸ˜‰

        1. Hahaha! “Bed Fort”! Love that one πŸ™‚

    5. Love this comment! Some time for you some time for them.

  5. Okay YES to everything you said. Yes.

    It requires some prep work, but scavenger hunts are like Disneyland and it helps engage them and get so much energy out.

    I usually draw pictures instead of clues so they can do it more independently. And I spread the clues OUT. Like front door to back of the backyard to upstairs to downstairs to side yard to bathroom. Get that energy out, kids. And I leave a small prize at the end, like rally small. But they LOVE IT. It doesn’t last for hours but they feel very excited and satisfied by it so they live on that high for a while.

    I also make a list for them: find three things in the house that are green. Draw a picture of them. Find something in the house that is tall. Draw a picture of them. Then you can enjoy their drawings and celebrate their brilliant artistry but it’s still an activity they can do somewhat on their own.

    To your point though, boredom is very real. I don’t know of a solution, except that I divide activities into two categories: parallel play except for grown ups (do you want to draw next to mom while I read?), what do you want to do? And then actually doing it. For me, there are no toddler activities I will ever LOVE doing. It’s just about balancing it with things that fuel you that you can do around your kids.

    Thanks for sharing this and risking the judgment of the internet trolls. We have literally ALL had these questions and thoughts.

    1. LOVE these ideas. thank you!

    2. The scavenger hunt / drawing missions are brilliant!

    3. No Time for Flash Cards has given me some really great activities and just recently, she posted about a scavenger hunt in front and backyard, using photographs of the permanent features. It’s a great newsletter for year round!


    4. I have to brag that I was somewhat famous for treasure hunts with my 4 kids and friends, now ranging from 15 to 25 years old. They loved hiding in the house (try a short video with windows open for little guys) while I placed clues and final treasurers outside (and maybe snuck in some weeding or other chores too!) Older siblings or I read clues for non-readers. I love thinking of them racing from clue to clue, getting progressively harder as they got older. Prizes ranged from re-cycled treat bag stuff to dollar bills to a box of Popsicles in the garage refrigerator….can’t wait for grandkids to arrive!

  6. I know that Easter has passed, but I have been having the same struggle with my almost 2 year old! So this last week, I have been giving him a basket filled with eggs. Then we go around the house and he hides them. Once he has hidden them all, I tell him to go find them again. He usually does great until about halfway where he has to really think to remember. Might be dull for your 3 year old, but you can always add a timer. Keeping time always make things more fun for kids.

    1. Haha! We have been playing Easter egg hunt in stop at our house too. And the candy is long gone, just eggs now. And getting the littles to hide AND find the eggs–brilliant!

  7. If you can be outside with them, water and/or sand will entertain them for hours. Your younger one would be thrilled to be given a hose with the water at a trickle and some plastic containers or given a bucket of water and a paintbrush to “paint” the driveway or sidewalk. As long as you are present (and not engrossed in your phone) to say “Wow!” and “I love it!” frequently, they can entertain themselves.

    1. I second this! Painting with water is somehow so entertaining. Also–sidewalk chalk is amazing. My 3 year old will color a bench for an hour while I drink La Croix (it’d be wine if I weren’t pregnant) on the porch swing.

      Teaching Charlie to play and create independently is one of the best tools you can give him as a parent. I think there is so much pressure to create incredible immersive activities ALLTHETIME when really sometimes they just need to be bored and entertain themselves!

      1. Yah, after I wrote this post I gave them the ‘watering the potted plants’ job every morning and it is sooooooo cute and keeps them busy for 1/2 and hour. It’s super messy and i’m sure we are killing the plants but its a win-win for us.

        1. Yes to the above….cause and effect type toys for water/sand. Add bubbles and it doesn’t get any better. A glass of vino and good music while you “play” beside them makes it even better. Get a book on tape that will engage a 5 year old…b/c you can listen above your level. That may help engage part of his brain while he is playing other games/with other toys and make him overall, calmer. On rainy days, water paints inside on the sliding glass doors are great. Easy to clean up and good lesson in, “This is okay b/c I am here with you and it is on this door, but never okay on the hall walls.” etc. Everything you wrote is normal, says this mom of 7. Good to challenge ourselves to be better parents, but also good to sit and let your busy man be busy around you while you say, “Mom is tired. Love you and I am here, but you play and I will watch.” Your exhausted/overwhelmed stage is real. You just change it for a different issue in the next stage and that will also be real so don’t beat yourself up. I let my toddlers fold all my rags/kitchen towels. I just pull them out and show them how and usually they would do it. Sometimes I would need to help. Sometimes I would *accidentally* spill something and we would pick it all up together…lots of items like a huge jar of buttons. Sometimes, OUTSIDE, I would open a bag of flour and start swinging it around and we would be covered and sit and play in it – like sand -for those of us stuck a thousand miles from the nearest beach. When it would get ugly, I would put them in a bath to play together. Water balloons toss/fight, water (hose) fights, bake together, science experiments (like the erupting volcano b/c of soda and vinegar), take a walk with a stroller so they can hitch a ride as needed…visit a nursing home together (take fingernail polish to polish ladies nails or coloring books and a few pencils and join in…great on so many levels. Maybe it would be after dinner and your kids can help you help the staff push wheelchairs back to rooms.) Make mud pies. I don’t know…just brainstorming for you, but it is kind of a blur…those years! You can do it and you already are doing better than you think you are.

          1. I love the picture you paint – so free and fun. 7 kids!!! Unbelievable. But flour in the backyard – that is a kid’s dream come true. My brother and I once had a butter fight (for some reason, butter was never refrigerated in our house- even in July) and I will never forget it – we laughed/screamed our heads off for an hour and had to have showers with dish soap to de-grease.. so good.

        2. Have them water with ice cubes. Much neater and equally fun!

        3. I would even go a step further than watering plants… I remember being given a bucket of water and a paintbrush and being told to “paint the fence” (or the driveway, patio, etc). And for some crazy reason, I’d love it. We’d also fill the sink with water and then add food coloring to it too see how it would change, then drain it and start again.
          …also, I freaking hate to play pretend. I KNOW children need to pretend, but I just suck at it. Can we please do a craft or a puzzle or literally anything else instead? Because I do not know all the star wars guys and I always get their battles wrong. haha.

        4. My daughter is just a little younger than yours and one of her favorite things to do is grab the empty watering can and go around to water the plants. Much less messy without the water and keeps her occupied for a long time! Target had some cheap watering cans great for little hands.

  8. Outdoor activity that is always a hit–paint with water! Paint the concrete, paint the side of the house, paint the furniture. They love it.
    Indoor activity: Search and find the hidden treasure. Have a magic box, or 2 or 3–fill it with one of their toys and hide in closets, laundry basket–you name it. This can also lead to frustration if its too hard, if they are hungry or too tired. Just a couple of tried and true that always worked for me.
    In my neighborhood I was lucky, there were 3 of us that could gather across our front yards and watch as they “painted” for at least 30-60 minutes. Then we were off to the next thing….

    1. That sounds amazing. We are going to fence in our front yard soon then we’ll have a place to paint but maybe I can come up with a solution for now….. thank you!

      1. What about the part of your house adjacent to your patio? Or the rock path in your yard, or the play castle? Give them a bucket of water and some brushes and have them paint while you sit at your patio table. Also, my son loved playing with play doh, which I thought I’d never allow in my house. But, then I realized that I could just let the crumbs dry where they fell and brush them away. This would be a perfect patio activity. Also, bubbles and sidewalk chalk. I have one 5 year-old son and am a single parent. I find it excruciating to have to “play” with him at times. I love him, of course, and want him to be happy. But, I am not necessarily the best “player” after a long day at work. Don’t beat yourself up for having the feelings you’ve expressed in this post. It is a season that will pass, I promise.

      2. Ah, I just remembered, sidewalk chalk!

      3. I used to use sidewalk chalk to draw the alphabet on the driveway and then give the kids a spray bottle of water (or squirt gun). I would call out a letter and they would have to find it and go squirt it. We also did numbers and then they had to spell out words or do easy math problems. Educational, water play, and you can just sit there and call out things for them to do!

    2. my mom had us do this all the time! we “painted” our fence about 642287562875 times every summer.

  9. 1 small trampoline with net. Ours fits in our Rec room. We bought it from Amazon and it is awesome.
    2. Mama says. We combine silly things (wriggle on the floor like a snake, downward dog), with the practical (pick up 2 red blocks and put them away.).
    3. Plasma car. The guidelines say 3 and up. Our 2 year old has been riding it successfully for over a year. And we can fit both kids and one small adults which is great for group rides. We use ours in the hallway. It is an excellent vehicle for fighting bad guys.

    Also, if it’s just been one of those days – extended bath time. With music, or stories or tub paint or glow sticks.

    1. OOH, looking up ‘plasma car’ right now! And yes, mama says is a great idea. i haven’t done that yet!

      1. I have a 2 year old daughter and a just turned 5 year old son, and they race round and round our house on plasma cars. We take them inside and out and even the adults get on them after too many cocktails. =) I was shocked that my youngest figured it out so quickly.

  10. oh my gosh I literally just spit out my coffee laughing when I read “occasional sociopath”, Emily foreal lol, I am so with you on that!

  11. From a mom of two whose kids (also boy then girl) are a year older than yours:

    1. Invest in toys: MagnaTiles, wooden train tracks with cars, maybe a kitchen set. Next year Charlie will be old enough for Lego sets and that’s an AMAZING way to keep kids busy for an hour or more.

    2. Do projects: PlayDoh, bingo markers, Crayola markers, cut/paste, coloring books, stickers. Kids love making stuff.

    1. Yes to magna tiles!!! They are captivating to ages! Get at least a set of 100. And then add to it for gifts each year. My.kids love them and all the kids that come thru our home do to! All ages!!

    2. Yes! Magna tiles! One of our best parenting decisions!

    3. Magnatiles! It is the only toy that gets played with every single day going on 2 years. We just got a light table that adds so much to the fun.
      Look up The Artful Parent. She has so many great ideas on her blog for process type art (even for toddlers). I hate playing imaginary games but I can sit and make art for hours with my kiddos.
      Also, Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube. My kids LOVE it.

    4. Millionth person to say yes to the magnatiles! You need a ton for them to really be engaging, and they cost the earth, but my kiddo has been playing with them from age 2 to (currently) 6 and shows no signs of stopping. Plus they are gender-neutral so when kiddos of all ages come over for playdates, they are the can’t fail toy.

      Also water beads (though you will really have to keep a close eye on Eliot b/c they can’t be swallowed. And food coloring and some clear glasses for doing “science” (i.e., mixing colored water together). Food coloring is also great for paper towel painting. If you fold the paper towel into a triangle, the way you do to cut a snowflake from paper, the painting comes out all symmetrical and the “reveal” is very fun for everyone.

      “bowling” with plastic water bottles and any old ball. Also instruments (wooden spoon & metal mixing bowl) or fill a bottle with beans or rice to make a shaker. Put some rubber bands around an empty tissue box for a guitar (we use the plastic holder from the end of a package of bread as a pick).

      And don’t underestimate the entertainment value of a huge cardboard box. Best toy ever.

      1. My kids are 10 and 12 yr old still play with magnatiles!

      2. Something that made my life easier was setting up a “play stations” for the next morning or for after the kids got up from a nap. For example, I would set up some stuffed animals with some stuff from the play kitchen so it suggested that maybe they were having a picnic. It worked every time! The kids would wake up and want to be entertained, and I would say, “I think the teddy bears are getting ready for a party” (or something to engage their imagination) and they would head over and check it out and next thing you know, they are playing with the bears for the next 30 minutes.

        Play doh and the markers that only work on crayola paper are also fun for toddlers (just make sure each kid has their own set!!)

      3. I like the paper towel painting idea. It sounds like a version of shibori dye techniques. You could look us shibori and try other types of folds.

        You could also do something similar using food coloring or kool-aid without sugar to make something more permanent, like presents for family members. If you soak wool yarn or silk fabric (you can get silk scarves at Dharma Trading dye supply house for less than $2 apiece) in vinegar, then dip or dot with your color, then microwave to set the color. The heat combined with the acid on protein (animal-based) fibers makes the dye permanent, just like a professional dye. Open it up, rinse & wash out excess dye, and you’ve got something you or they, or their grandma, whatever, can wear.

        Ice or snow dye is awesome, too, but I don’t think there are edible options.

  12. We have two kids 18 months apart so I remember those days…outdoor play for a while and then inside after dinner always helped us break it up.

    1. Sidewalk chalk
    2. Containers to put things in and out of for the little one (cotton balls, blocks, scarves, etc.)
    3. Wooden puzzles
    4. “Art invitations” – google it. Changed my downtime with kids tremendously.
    5. Piles of board books to read together
    6. Loooooong baths with wine for me (fun time, bonding time, creative and I felt like I could relax a liiiiiitle bit)
    7. Kids yoga video (my two did this almost every day-sometimes I did too and sometimes I used it as 22 min to lie down on the sofa next to them!)

    This is a beautiful and totally physically exhausting time of parenting. The guilt of needing bestime (i.e. Quiet and Alone) is ok. No one can do it all for the entire day. Solidarity, mama.

    1. OOH, kids yoga video? I’m listening … and i’m going to google art invitations now. Many of you are recomending the longer bath thing and we did that last night and it was pretty awesome…

      1. When I am with my nephews, I draw a “city” on the driveway. He rides his bike through the city and his little brother pushes a truck through the city. Sometimes we pretend the little monster is Godzilla destroying the city. It is fun and gets out a lot of energy! Thank you for your honesty. I don’t have kids but sometimes feel this way about my nephews and wonder if this means I shouldn’t have kids.

      2. My kids have really enjoyed Cosmic Kids yoga. We stream it through YouTube. The yoga is always based on a narrative and the yoga moves are part of the story (kind of like they are acting it out, but doing yoga at the same time). Lots of good kid yoga resources out there, but my little girl loves this one the most. They have videos of different lengths and many different types of stories for a variety of interests. My 16 month old can’t do the yoga, but loves to toddle around her sister (4) as she does it.

      3. Cosmic kids yoga on youtube is a great series that keeps their attention!

      4. My 6 year old still loves yoga videos and I don’t mind doing them with her. My fave: YogaKids Silly to Calm. It’s a great wind down tool!

      5. I am a mom of twins and a teacher of thirteen kindergartners with special needs (so they play more like toddlers, not 5 or 6 yr. olds). The more independent you make play, the better it is for both kids and adults. Here are some links to things I use in my class everyday: ( yoga, meditation to help calm down, reason for play, etc)




        I also use Pinterest for art ideas ( paint with water on a chalkboard, etc-see my teaching boards here: https://www.pinterest.com/susanstargirl/

        I also used a flexible but dedicated schedule with my kids when they were small-we did music/dancing ( NO kiddie music! My kids know all the good rock/pop/classical stuff b/c we would listen to what I liked lol) reading time (read to your stuffed animal/baby doll/etc) and art.

        I’d let them watch Sesame Street or parts of a Broadway musical video (it was the 80s lol) while I made dinner. After dinner was baseball/soccer/water play (tire them out!) and bikes etc.

        You will be bored at times. They will want the SAME. DAMN. BOOK a hundred times over. Preschool is always a good idea, too-just so you get some time alone with one kid at a time. It’s NEVER too early for music and a second language, IMHO.

        I also hired a teen to come over and play with us or go with us to the library etc when it got too much dragging around with two toddlers. That was $$$ very well spent.

        My two grew up to be a dancer/choreographer who also does web/graphic design and a musician/artist programmer. I’d like to think that SOME of that early exposure to art and music fueled their passions 

        No matter what know that it changes all the time, lol, and whatever you do for a while will morph as needed. What they really want is your time and attention, no matter what you all do. Enjoy all the ages and stages to come with those two adorable kiddos.

      6. There’s a kids yoga card deck out there too, by Annie Buckley. Our three year old has used hers almost daily since she learned to walk, and the fun pictures of poses are exciting for kids to try to replicate…while mom sits back on the couch, perhaps.
        Also, Duplo! Like Lego, but bigger for smaller hands. It is the toy that, more than any other by far, has encouraged our little one to play on her own, imaginatively, for long stretches.

      7. Cosmic Kids Yoga is the best youtube kid yoga channel! She is british and has kids doing yoga while storytelling. There is everything from Star Wars to Hungry Catepillar to Penguin episodes. My five year old has loved them since he was 3!

      8. The Cosmic Kids Yoga videos (all can be found online) are fantastic! Each video takes the kids through a story (dinosaurs! space! under the sea!) and instructs the kids to do yoga poses that correlate with what is happening. My 5 and 1.5 year old both enjoy it and it means I get some yoga in too!

        P.S. Thank you for this post, wonderful to read all these ideas. I too struggle with floor play πŸ™‚ Doing a car wash is one of our favourites that entertains both ages equally (lentils or beans for the trucks/cars to play in, then into the tub of soapy water, tub of clean water, towels. Repeat)

      9. I buy a can of shaving cream for the kids to play with in the bath. They love it!

    2. Can you give us more info on the art invitations??? I googled it but am not sure I’m finding the magic. Thanks!!!

      1. I was curious about this too so I googled “art invitations kids activity” and found this…guessing this is what she meant?


  13. First-thanks! I felt like my 3.5 year old boy was the only one that liked to milk bed time for a 90m procrastination project-EVERY NIGHT!! I keep saying-its a phase. Anyway-something that my little one will play with almost every night are these big sand/rock beds we put together almost 6 months ago. Ours are in the garage-because it was cold when we came up with the idea. They are simply play sand and little rocks in containers that look like plastic under the bed things-but the containers are heavy duty. If I could have found a plastic baby pool in November I would have used that. He can play with his trucks, with his shovels moving those silly rocks around for hours. My husband teased me when I put it together but it has been a GODSEND!! Seriously- dump trucks and sand/rocks. Works like a charm. He will play by himself very often but he would NEVER refuse a chance to play with me in that sand bin. Its low energy for me-very exciting for him,

    1. YES! We put in a pebble pit in the backyard and they LOVE IT. We’ve only had it for two weeks but man, i’m so happy that we did it.

  14. Oh my gosh Emily, so much yes to this!! I feel like a terrible mother, not overall, but because I really dread “playing”. Especially the imaginary games. I wish I enjoyed it but I just don’t and feel terribly guilty that I’m forever looking for ways to get out of it, put it off and hope I can distract my 5 year old with something else until she forgets I said I’d play My Little Pony slumber party (for the zillionth time)! My other two are school age and I hate that I’m sort of looking forward to my youngest going to school this August. She’s my littlest and I feel like I’m wishing my time away!! Don’t get me wrong, of course I play with her-a lot! It’s not terrible or anything, it’s just not something I enjoy. Wish I had some great suggestions for you, but I don’t. Just want to thank you for voicing what I’m sure most mothers of young children feel and feel like they shouldn’t. Yay, we’re normal and not awful:) I always tell my husband “I know I’m going to miss these days, but not today!” Hang in there lady! The days are long but the years are short!

  15. Oh how I was comforted by this post. I have felt all of those emotions. Why shouldn’t it be fun for us too? It is not easy to put your best self forward – 24 hours a day – especially when most days you can’t even find that person :). It’s somehow about being in the moment – and you often don’t even realize you are there, until you feel your cheeks naturally smiling, an odd sensation – when your not putting on the mom show. Hang in there.

    1. That made my eyes glassy. Thank you. xx

  16. We have a *very* busy four-and-a-half year-old. Here are some things that we do when I am at my wits’ end and cannot play one more round of “Good Guy-Bad Guy” (sounds like “Get the Bad Guy” to me): timed races (Okay, I’ve got my stopwatch, and let’s see how fast you can run around the house! Run to the living room and back! Okay, let’s see if you can beat that last time!), indoor camping (with the beach tent that just pops up), washing my car (with super soakers), and writing letters to all our grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles (with lots of stickers). A few times I have given him a couple of skeins of cheap yarn and told him to build a Spiderman web by winding it all over the playroom (where there is nothing breakable). Then he plays Spiderman in it, then I give him kids’ scissors, and he gets to cut the whole thing up and throw it away, which he also bizarrely loves to do.

    Also, with Brian busy at rehearsals/performances, maybe a couple of nights a week you can have super casual dinners and playtimes with other families? Or even single folks for whom another round of “Get the Bad Guy” would be a novelty?

    Believe me, as much as I love our little one, every single day is a countdown to 8:30!

    1. Oh i’m definitely doing night time/happy hour playdates. THANK goodness for friends with kids πŸ™‚ It’s totally helping and my friends without kids are fairly entertained, and at the same time pretty horrified by the amount of work it is, which is strangely satisfying for them to see πŸ™‚

  17. Get a bucket or bowl of water and give the kids a variety of paintbrushes (small, large), sponge brushes or shaped sponges and let them “paint” the deck or the fort. That was hours of fun for my boys. Coloring or fingerpainting inside, side-walk chalk outside, mini soccer balls with a mini goal–buy way more balls than they need–it adds to the fun. Buy a water table and set it in the shade–again, hours of fun. Take a “nature walk” with the specific intention of having no intention or destination. Bring a bag and let them collect and bring home whatever they want. Get out of the house and go to a park and plan to stay (bring snacks/drinks) so they can burn off a ton of energy and come home tired. Set up a sprinkler and/or a baby pool (not sure if it’s warm enough by you.) Again, my kids would play in a wading pool forever. Invite other toddler friends and their mamas over. (And open a bottle of wine–it’s always easier to live in chaos with a friend and a glass of wine….) Hang in there–it will get better. I remember those days. Mine are 10 and 14 and it seems so long ago…..

  18. Oh man. my girls are 18 mo apart (they are 3 & 5 now), and as you alluded to… it does get a lot easier (they play together w/o adults for hours at a time now!). I think I blocked out the 18 mo/3 year old part from my mind. Haha. But I will say, we have always done walks together every night that weather/daylight hours permit. We walk to the playground, we walk to get ice cream, we walk around the block. It’s part of our routine. Dinner, then walk, then bath, then books. Sometimes I’ll give them a Popsicle on the walk, which is always a hit. We also try to gather outside with neighbors. Other kids are the best way to keep your own entertained.

    All that said, I don’t think it’s bad to be more than ready for 8:15 to roll around. I’m also a working mom and so I feel some guilt since I’m not with my kids all day. But I’m exhausted, and bed time is not easy! You don’t have to enjoy it all the time. Sometimes I am just happy I made it through without losing my mind!

    1. Love your walk routine. I need to add that to our evenings now that the weather is getting better.

    2. Amen.

  19. Mostly, my kid would want to play alone, but near me. So pushing a little cart around the dining table while talking on a shoe-phone or digging in the allocated drawer that was (and still is, years later) full of wooden spoons and measuring cups.
    Otherwise, during those mama-play-with-me moments, I always tried to do whatever my child wanted, not to direct the activity. It takes a lot of going with the flow. Sometimes it was pretend, sometimes it was drawing, sometimes it was some game that I didn’t quite understand, but I would just try to go along. It’s like what you said about parental boredom being the hitch. Not easy, but so worth the effort to let them direct.

  20. Two words: bounce house. My son has a lot of energy and this has been a lifesaver for us. We got it on Amazon, it’s little tykes brand and it cost about $120. I sit and watch- and he loves to show me his bouncing and tricks. i throw balls into it as well. The bounce house has come out at every play date and is a big hit.

    Other thing we do now which I enjoy is act out his books. I was getting very tired of reading the same old books so now we use our small animals and playmobil people to recreate the action in the books while we read along. It’s a nice quiet activity that is engaging for both of us.

    Good luck!!! Oh and get a babysitter for some of those times!! We have about 10 babysitters and my son loves them and even a couple hours away allows me to recharge.

    1. Yep! Was going to say the same thing… Little Tykes Bounce House is amazing πŸ™‚ I am also loving all these other tips… painting with water is brilliant!!!
      And THANK YOU… I always love your honesty and could not agree more. I have so many of the same feelings, especially the one about dads being so much better at playing.

  21. My son loved Thomas the Tank Engine at that age — he could build and rebuild for hours. I was so sad when he grew out of that phase.

    Hang in there, Emily. I think this is one if the toughest stages, even with both parents at home minding the store.

    1. We miss Thomas, too! Still talk about it with our now 16 year old son. He carried little trains everywhere.

  22. I have kids the exact same age. I know your pain. The old stereo/computer idea is genius. Things we love: koala crate subscription (darling arts and crafts delivered to our door-even our 20 month old likes and can somewhat participate), a big roll of butcher paper that I spread across the dining table or floor – trace their body and they can color it in, a small bucket of water on the back patio with some toys in it for them to scoop and splash water, evening walks and bike rides, make use of sidewalk chalk before you tile your patio, pipe cleaners in a colander, buy a little tikes bounce house (seriously best $200 we’ve ever spent and you can store it in a closet), also I really enjoy playing with magnatiles with my kids and both of them can do that.

  23. Dirt. Before you say no, let me just tell you that it has revolutionized our evenings and here is a great article about why it’s good: https://wellnessmama.com/12908/kids-need-dirt/
    We have garden beds (one they can help grow veggies and destroy) but you could do a temporary portable raised bed since you have that new gorgeous backyard! Yes they get filthy but we do baths every night anyway, so it’s not a big deal. I am NOT a dirt person, but my partner has helped me realize that it all washes off and it seems so good for my kids’ mental health (and mine!) Best of luck and know that you are not alone!!!

  24. First – kudos to you for being honest. I have a 12y boy and twin girls – 9y – and I always tell people that 18m – 4 y was the hardest time of my life. (Even more so than newborn twins.) I get you and reading this gives me flash backs. You are majorly in the deep parenting trenches – don’t let guilt and shame come to the party. It IS hard! As an older Mom and being years removed, I totally agree with Sherrie. Don’t overthink it. Grab a glass of wine and relax. Don’t buy into the pressure that “good moms” make playtime a perfect circus o’ fun. The one regret I have with my kids is that I didn’t encourage them to learn to play independently like I should have. I thought I had to be the cruise director, and that my friend, is an exhausting role to carry. Press on…you’re a great Mom, Emily!

  25. You are putting way too much pressure on yourself! Of course it is not fun all the time. Before you had kids, you didn’t seek out the company of toddlers for entertainment, because little kid pretend games are only fun for little kids! There is a reason you eventually stopped playing them as a child!
    Hang in there. Very soon, Birdie will actually start playing with Charlie. I will never forget the day when I was in the kitchen tidying up and my two little boys (nearly 4 and just 2, at the time) started pretending that a bed was a boat. They played this game for nearly 45 minutes, without any involvement from me!!! It was the first time they had ever really played together. It was life changing.
    The reason Charlie is so hard is because he wants your attention, but you don’t know how to give him attention in the way he wants it (you sit on the spaceship). I read a book called Parenting the Strong-Willed Child (or something like that) and I learned about “attending.” Also life-changing. My youngest (the third and the odd-man out) became so much happier and relaxed once we starting attending. Of course, when he is happier and more relaxed, so am I!
    Good luck, and don’t feel back about not being 100% happy with small children. That is impossible! Have you read the Momastery article Don’t Carpe Diem Me? You should!
    PS You are a very good wife for supporting Brian!

    1. Thank you thank you. We’ve had moments of the two of them playing together and I saw the future and almost wanted to cry. I know that my future self will be so glad that I had them so close. xx

  26. Two words: Play Dates!!!!

    We are lucky enough to live in a cul de sac with lots of children and my 20 month old adores the local kids. Added bonus: The neighborhood kids range in age so they all get exposed to different stages of development. I have a newborn and will be right there with you (2 toddlers) soon. I was so comforted to hear that I’m not the only bored mom. And, I appreciate all of the responses (great ideas!).

    1. We do!! But maybe I should branch out ….

  27. Check out The Toddler Busy Book by Trish Kuffner. It is chock full of easy ideas for engaging 1-3-year-olds. So great to have on hand!

    And don’t forget about sensory play – make a huge batch of play dough, get a bunch of Kinetic Sand (really easy to clean up), or fill a big pan up with dry beans or rice. Add miscellaneous kitchen utensils, containers, and action figures, like little aliens and robots! You can sit at the table, playing (mini) action games with Charlie, helping Elliot explore her one-year-old fascination with putting things inside of other things and then taking them out, and drinking that glass of wine all at the same time. When my kids were this age, I found the key was quantity – make or buy A LOT of whatever material you want to use. Hang in there!

    1. I’m expecting my first and taking notes like crazy! I am nervous with babies and think I might not grow into motherhood until about the arts and crafts age… even though of course I’m very excited. One thing I remember my aunt doing when I was little was bringing a bucket of snow inside and putting it in a container (walls just tall enough to catch the melt) for us to play with. While I haven’t seen a lot of snow in your photos, maybe the concept can translate – bringing outdoor things inside or looking at everyday items in unexpected ways. I hated being outside in the cold but loved playing with that snow!

      1. I just want to tell you that I felt the same way before I had my daughter, now 17 months. As it turned out, I really ended up loving that blobby, useless baby phase. All I was required to do was cuddle and watch all the Harry Potter movies, and she was immobile and let me stare at her all day. You will be great!

  28. In the misery loves company department: When my kids were little, I commuted to the city as a stockbroker, and my husband worked nights as a cop. I was a single parent almost every night!
    There were tears…

  29. First time comment because whoa, I totally get what you’re saying. When my four year old says, “Mom, pretend I’m—” (which is every five minutes all day long) I hate to say but I get chills of dread. Pretend I’m one! Pretend I’m a cat! Pretend means play a game with rules and outcomes only she knows and I often get it wrong: cue wailing tantrum when I should be getting a pat on the back for going along with it at all.

    It took months but finally she realized and understood an imagination game means another brain, not only hers. Now she realizes I have my own ideas and that’s ok. If she wants it to go a certain way, she needs to tell me. She also learned that only Mom will play this way and that friends expect way more give and take. This took about a year all together. Three and four have been incredibly changing/growing years and require so much patience from parents. They just can’t regulate those emotions! It’s not fun at all and yet you can’t not experience it or distract your way out. The meltdown over pancakes is real.

    Mine goes to preschool six hours a week so we spend a ton of time together. I play with her a lot but we also have a lot of “field trips.” Play doh, an art easel, Duplo blocks and a long bubble bath help the night hours pass.

    Overall, to enjoy her I have to focus on her good qualities and celebrate them and when she’s being, well, four, I have a Happy Place I retreat to on Patience Island where nothing matters, it’s all going to be okay and my little mental patient will surely grow into a perfectly normal and happy adult.
    Good luck and enjoy it, which refers to the process of serving those we love. Because sometimes as a mom, there are whole chunks of time that just aren’t our idea of fun. Hugs!

    1. Hahaha that Patience Islad sure gave me a laugh. I’m right there with you!

    2. AH, thank you. Imagination games before I had kids sounded SO FUN. But in reality …. and I can’t write this in the post without some sort of backlash, but i’m just secretly praying that Elliot likes to play doll house … πŸ™‚

  30. I use to send the kids on scavenger hunts. I would draw pictures of items that the kids were familiar with, instead of listing them.

  31. I second the paint with water, chalk, kiddie yoga or exercise video, treasure hunt, or hiding a toy with verbal clues to find, or using “you’re getting hotter” clue. Also blow up a ballon or use a soft beach ball and play that you can’t let it hit the ground or floor. Puzzles (lots of different ones) play dough (get a vinyl table cloth) with all the cookie cutters and accessories. Outside don’t forget some of the classics like ring around the Rosie (make up some fun new variations-we all hop on one foot) and red light green light.

  32. I second the magnatiles. They are a pricey toy but all three of my kids play with them daily and I can get into making creative towers for them to smash. I also don’t mind playdoh time. We put down a plastic tablecloth to contain the mess and I’ll mix colors and create cool swirly balls or cubes (which again, they will smash) but the color mixing keeps me happy ;). We also do washable painting (on the same plastic tablecloth in just diapers) followed by a nice long glow stick bath.

  33. 6. go for a walk
    7. meet the neighbors
    8. meet the neighbors’ dogs
    9. clean up the house (there’s even free songs for it online)
    10. costumes (superhero costumes preferred)
    11. play w/ doctor playset (have C give B “checkups”)
    12. play w/ slice and play playset (Velcro fruits cut w/ a plastic knife)
    13. movie night
    14. sleepover night (in your bed, or in a random room of the house – it’s like camping)
    15. Play Doh
    16. bubbles (best for outdoors)
    17. coloring
    18. castle building (use wood blocks)
    19. make milkshakes (it’s just the right amount of cooking)
    20. decorate cookies
    21. painting (get two easels and two smocks)
    22. make cakepops (you can cheat and start by demolishing a store-bought cake)
    23. sandbox
    24. planting flowers
    25. read stories
    26. go through design catalogs and pick out the rooms you would like to live in (my 3-year-old digs this)
    27. vacuum (my 1-year-old has a toy one)
    28. make gifts for someone else (e.g. a card for Grandma)
    29. watch toy reviews on YouTube (in moderation)

  34. The sink or float game: get a clear tub and fill with water. Then find things around the house that are fine to get wet. The kids have to guess if the item will sink or float. It’s fun and a little messy and splashy and educational. Amazing to see their minds boggled by what can float.

    If they like little cars, get about 30 feet of Hot Wheels straight track. Attach one end somewhere raised, like the top of a step ladder, then let the cars fly down the track to see which goes the farthest.

    1. Sink or float is my best suggestion too! My kids are 4 years apart so I didn’t have to keep two toddlers simultaneously entertained very often, but the older one was emotionally INTENSE until he hit 7 or so, and water always helped him wind down/mellow out a bit. Playing with water outside if the weather was good, and indoor sink-or-float or extended dance mix baths with all the bath toys and his fingers were super prune-y when it wasn’t.

      Other things that were fun for me too and good for a long play without anyone getting bored: playing with a parachute (either hiding under, or bouncing stuffed animals on the surface… and you could probably incorporate some bad guy hunting with it for Charlie), playdoh, making homemade playdoh (add in koolaid for scent along with the colour), and, when Birdie’s old enough for it to be safe, rocket balloons (it says 6 & up at http://www.mastermindtoys.com/Rocket-Balloons-with-Pump-Fun.aspx , but I think we got them as a gift for our then 3-year-old and with careful parent supervision it was so much fun, making them screech around the room and trying to guess where they’d end up and maybe catch them).

      Also, a friend of a friend has a monthly box program that my kids are sadly a bit too big for but your kids might love: https://www.facebook.com/thelilboxco/ There’s an interview with Rebecca Upton, the owner, here and she’s a lovely person who is great with kids: https://www.kelownanow.com/good_stuff/good_people/news/In_Focus/17/04/05/In_Focus_Rebecca_Upton/

    2. I’m doing the sink or float game tonight. I LOVE that and I don’t have time to go shop for more arts and crafts (and all the rest of your suggestions) but I do have a bucket!!! And amazon-ing hot wheels straight track, too. our kids loves cars.

      1. The hotwheels tracks are in heavy rotation ay my house. My almost-five-year-old daughter loves them and in their own way, I feel like they’re stealthily teaching her about physics, engineering and cause and effect relationships, which I’m a huge fan of. And she loves to put her Elsa doll on/under the track to make epic jumps πŸ˜‰

        I’ve REALLY loved reading some of the ideas on this comment thread. I am the type of mom who is at her best within structured activities (crafting, playing a game, art, baking). It’s the freestyle imaginative play that is so completely mind-numbing for me and makes me look at the clock whilst announcing that it’s time to make lunch, only to discover that it’s 9:37 a.m.

        I am so with you. I don’t want to be bored mom, sneaking glances at my phone while she’s putting on her 7th costume. I want to be happy, fully engaged mom, playing records while we are elbows-deep in bread dough. It’s taken me years to even start to realize that I don’t have to be everything to her all the time, I just have to try be my best self whenever I’m with her. I want her imagination to thrive, but I can’t be solely responsible for making it happen. Luckily my husband is amazing at all of that “playing pretend.” But I’m happy to teach her to read, to bake, to color and paint with her, to play marathons of Guess Who and Go Fish, and to belt out “How Far I’ll Go” with her, but please just don’t make me give a voice to a doll and make it do something.

  35. Emily – firstly know you are not alone. Young kids are exhausting and you’re doing a great job.

    I’m reading this late, so I think you’ll have loads of creative replies to the question you asked already. I want to comment on the thing that jumps out at me, from your post. You mention wanting ideas for evenings (you don’t mention time but I’m guessing after a typical work day), Charlie wanting to play and it taking him hours to wind down ready for sleep.

    I can’t help but wonder about the rest of Charlie’s day specifically. Is it active enough? Evenings are time to wind down. I have teenagers now, but when they were younger, the goal was to have them in bed by 7pm (I was exhausted!) In order to do this, we started calming down from 5.30pm latest, with a filling dinner, a long bubble bath with toys and bedtime stories/cuddles. I know lots of kids who watch a calming 1/2 hour show before bed too. I’ve read articles about puzzles being a brilliant activity to assist calming down ready for sleeping. And colouring or play dough would also be good (nothing active!)

    So personally, I would resist the urge to play active games within 1.5-2 hours before bedtime, because I think this isn’t helping. I know you want to feel like a fun and engaged parent, but there is plenty of time for activity at weekends, and I’m sure earlier, more relaxed bedtimes will make you parent better, so I’d opt for calm options done sitting down. Good bedtime habits are great to learn young! Just my two cents. xxx

    1. I second this. I have no children of my own, but i worked as a nanny for a long time. Kids have to go home tired from a long day of play, in order for the parents to relax. Does Charlie go to a pre-school? They usually come back quite tired from playing with their friends…

    2. My comments are similar. My kids are now 24, 22, and 15, so it’s been a while, but I remember how hard those early years are. However, my first thought was to ask if Charlie has enough active, tiring, physical time during the day. He shouldn’t be so wired in the evening, and if he is, he either hasn’t done enough earlier or is now OVER tired and therefore revving up. Try to make his DAY really physical and active, then segue into dinner, bath, and lots of lovely book time before bed. If it is taking an hour and a half, something is off.

      Also, be kind to yourself! It’s hard. I was home with mine all of the time, and some days I thought I’d lose my mind! However, I also think you should let go of the expectation that you will play together so much in the evening, or at all! Most of the time I tried to carry on doing “mom” stuff as my kids played NEAR me, with me available to comment, smile, cuddle, correct, etc., but then going back to my adult stuff (even if I was pretending to do something so that I could extend the time they entertained themselves). Sometimes I would read a bit, or do the bills, or just daydream while looking busy, because as soon as I looked idle, they would think they needed me. Sometimes they do need you, and you will attend to them, but often they just need a moment or two to regroup and find their own resources within themselves.

      You are doing a great job! They don’t need so much attention. They need your loving presence, but not your continual attention. And it will get easier!

      1. Caroline – good point – I forgot about the other option of Charlie potentially being over tired in the evening. Our eldest was like that, but only as a baby.

        I remember reading that you need to have kids in bed before the third yawn – totally works for anyone ‘struggling’ with hyper behaviour in the run up to bedtime.

        The more I think about this Emily the more I wonder why you don’t just opt for cuddles and books in pjs, with wine and milk: chillax time!

        1. Hmmm. Yes I’ve thought about not enough activity but he goes to a park for 2 hours in the morning the preschool from 2-5 in the afternoon where I think they play the majority of the time. So that kid should be tired. But maybe he is overly tired? But good idea – i’ll try just doing mellow nighttime activity and see if that helps? Honestly its not that he goes nuts, he just gets so excited to see us and wants us to play with him, and so he’s not crazy high energy, just higher energy than we are. Then to him dinner means bed is soon so that is when the resistance starts. We’ve tried pushing off dinner or doing it earlier and having a play break before bath … all mixed results. also of course Birdie wants to go to bed at 7:30 but he needs til 8:15 so bath can be tricky and my fantasies of reading to both of them are never happening

          1. I wondered about the over tired thing too! Arch is 2 so a lot younger but I thought 8:30 sounded so late but then I thought well if he wakes up at 8/8:30 then maybe that is just way better all around. Arch is asleep by 7:30 so we do dinner at 5:30/6 then bath then books and cuddles prayers and bed. Basically his winding down for the day starts after dinner. Then he wakes up at 7/7:30 in the morning. If his sleep schedule goes off at all he’s a totally different and way more rambunctious kid.
            Anyway, you know I’m right there with you and am taking notes at all these activities. Toddlers are so hard and I wish I felt fulfilled by 10,000 rounds of hide and seek.

          2. I remember that stage. My three boys are older now, but I thought I would LOVE the get-down-on-the-floor imagination play. I did—for 3 minutes, but not much more.

            I applaud you for thinking of how to make it fun for you! Reggio, an Italian education model, has the motto Nothing without Joy.

            My big a-ha’s:
            1. How much a schedule helped. It helped me not just default to what was easy or an escape. Once I had it posted, it would give me the momentum to get out the paintbrushes, or whatever was that evening’s activity.

            2. Mama coming home always revs up a 3 yr old. And sometimes you save up your worst for that person who loves you most. But focused attention is ❀️ And honestly, after 10 minutes of my full attention, they would move on themselves.

            3. Be honest about what you like, can tolerate, or hate. My son loved to play pet store at age 3 and 4, setting up his stuffed animals and having me pretend to come pick one out and he would tell me the background story on each animal. I loved it too—but playdough, I hate it—so messy and just yuck.

            4. Kids love to work and feel useful, don’t we all? It is more work at times for you to set them up, but give them chores to help, yes, even at 18 months. Kid sized brooms or swiffers with a fuzzy sock. Peeling ears of corn for dinner—my son loved that at age 2.

            5. How you frame it makes a difference. On Tuesdays we would go in an “adventure”–we get a few supplies (camera/phone, notebook for scribbles, magnifying glass, little basket, whatever) and go for a walk—more like meandering—sometimes just in our yard. We’d collect rollypollies or leaves. Let nature entertain them—it is always turning out something if we just model the habit of looking.

            Finally, yes to the water and paintbrush. Also, follow Elise Cripe onnInstagram who has kids the same age and does lots of art with them. I had a big Buddha board for the boys to paint on while I made dinner.

  36. Those ages are tough! We have a 4.5 year old, 3 year old and 16 month old and I’m pregnant with twins right now. 7 pm bedtime can’t come soon enough. πŸ˜‰ I almost always take them outside to run off their crazy. Can you do a walk around the block? I know that sounds ridiculous but I let my big kids ride their balance bikes while I push the baby in the stroller. Sometimes I’ll let her out to walk. Basically, a 2 block walk ends up eating up an hour of time and energy. I’ve also drawn giant chalk paths that say “hop like a frog”, “stomp like a rhino”, etc. They love that. Last ditch effort, give them a giant empty box. They can color or paint (1.5 year olds love this!). Our boxes have been forts, spaceships, and all sorts of stuff. I know that isn’t directly interacting with them but you’ll get outside time (and possibly a glass of wine?!).

    1. UGH. we don’t have sidewalks on our street but I think when they are a TINY bit older and will listen to me better it will be fine. I want to walk!

  37. Hang in there mama. I have three kids (7,4 and 2). This is the hard stage. The whining and need for constant interaction. I had only sisters so the little boy energy and rough play is a mystery to me too!

    1) magnatiles!!! Game changer. All of them will play with them and they are so creative when they do! Worth the investment. Serious. I need more.

    2) get Charlie a balance bike. My little guy is 2 and this is his fav thing in the world. He rides all over the place and is getting really good at it!

    3) mini trampoline. They jump and jump and bedtime is easier as a result. Ha!

    4) those long blue racetracks for matchbox cars. He loves crashing them everywhere.

    5) buttons (if you know he won’t put them in his mouth). My kids love sorting them, pretending they are money, dumping and filling, etc. just a big ole jar of buttons from a vintage shop.

    6) water table – it’s a daily thing for us since we live in CA. Buckets and squirt guns and the water table. Or sometimes my large canning pot and some ladels. That works too.

  38. It’s so hard! I Incorporate yoga for myself into their play. I do planks and downward dogs and it becomes a bridge for their toys. Three legged dog is “blast off pose” when playing super heros. In standing forward bend, I move my arms back and forth and it’s the car wash for my son’s matchbox cars. This gives me the chance to get some much needed stretching in, and the deep breathing helps me relax. It’s not the most ideal yoga setting, but it helps me!

  39. Way to go, Em! I don’t have too many ideas, but I agree with those saying grab a glass of wine and relax some evenings. I think it is good for kids to learn to play alone and together with siblings. Maybe also on the weekends try and get a group of mothers together to either have over, meet somewhere outside, or switch off days to have play dates. When friends come to play moms can relax and catch up together. If you have it at your place just each mom to bring one thing, wine, drinks for kids, cut up veggies, cut up fruit. Give one of the moms the afternoon/ morning off and switch it up every week. I also like mini- frozen quiche or chicken/fish sticks and have them out for kids to nibble on. Or just have water and juice if in the middle of the afternoon.

    Also, on Mondays when Brian isn’t at the play maybe he take the kids and you have a night to do WHATEVER you want! Gym, massage, girls night, something you can look forward too each week. Maybe get a babysitter for some time when you’re home alone and for one evening on the weekend when Brian gets back so you both can reconnect. Date nights are awesome and it’s important to keep that connection. You can always each surprise the other every other weekend and one person plan the outing. Even if it’s only for a couple hours, make sure to take care of yourself.

    A friend of mine moved to Europe for an incredible job opportunity and her husband decided to stay home and take care of their child. Once she came home from her grueling days, he was so tired he passed their son off to her, but she was already exhausted from her long day at work and resented that she felt like she was doing both jobs of breadwinner and mom. She felt like she never had a break. They communicated and realized they both needed time to themselves. Now their son goes to a fun daycare a few days a week to give the dad a break during the day, but when mom comes home she knows she can be involved, but dad won’t up and leave the kid with her either. She also takes one of those nights when he is at school during the day to do whatever she wants. Sometimes it means coming home, others it is going to get her hair done or going out with friends. They also got a cleaner and a sitter for an evening on the weekend so they could date and reconnect. They had to cut costs in other areas, but it works out for them and everyone is happier. It has really helped their entire family!

    You’re a great mom and good luck to Brian on the play. Kudos to you both, I don’t think I would have been able to make the same sacrifice with my spouse being gone that much with two children and a hectic work schedule.

    1. HA. we do a one night away a week for sure. this monday I had a massage and dinner with my best friend. He’s actually insistent of it. I didn’t really feel like it but he made me, thank goodness. and I hired a sitter on tuesday night for an event. I get out and I don’t feel like I’m doing it all, but just not as happy doing it as I want to be (on some days – today is a much better day and I’m looking forward to tonight because I have so many new ideas!!).

  40. I have a clear memory of my mom looking me in the eye and gently saying, “I am your mother, not your playmate.” Maybe that sounds harsh to you, but honestly, it wasn’t hurtful. It was just the truth. She did play with us SOMETIMES, but generally she was busy cooking dinner, etc. and play was left to the kids. We spent time together in other ways and that was just normal in our house. My mom and I are super close and in my book, she’s the best mom I’ve ever met. Just saying this because I think we’re living in this strange new era where adults playing with/like children everyday is expected. Too much pressure!

    1. My mother told me that as well.

    2. Yes, this, what Sarah said. Mine are almost-12 and 10 now and they (usually) play really well together *without us being involved.* At the younger ages, I supervised (sandbox, cars, trains, dinosaurs, basically any small-ish toy) or did something in parallel (love the idea of them coloring while you read! Or blog…) or took them out to the park. I really only played when it was something interactive like rolling/throwing a ball. Part of it was because mine are so close together (19 months) that when the older one was at the crazy toddler stage, I was still deep in the baby stage with his brother.

      My kids loved containers and putting anything into and out of something else. As others have suggested, painting with water was always a huge hit. If you want to get fancy, a Buddha board is nice, but my kids loved painting the patio or the fence with super cheap paint brushes.


      Giant trucks (Bruder) were a HUGE hit – especially the firetruck that had a reservoir and could actually squirt water. I still see them all the time at Marshalls/TJ Maxx – I never ever paid full price! We used to have a truck garage lined up under our dining room credenza (tiny house).


      Building block towers with wooden blocks & knocking them down. Over and over. And over.

      But in general, I think American moms put way too much pressure on themselves to play with their kids. Let the kids play by themselves near you!

    3. Ditto.

    4. Amen. I love my kids but hate kids games. I support their kids games but I will not play them. That is why I had two and believe strongly in play dates.

      1. HA. I am also a big fan of parallel play and am very glad that its so well supported. I just dont’ want to come home from work all day and then not engage all night, so that’s the balance i’m struggling with. Thanks guys!

  41. Check out candokiddo.com. Rachel, who runs the site, is a pediatric occupational therapist and has two kids almost the exact ages of yours. She posts tons of easy, new activities that are age appropriate that I would never have thought of!

  42. Buy a cheap baby pool and let them go to town! It is fun and feels special to them, and requires very little effort if you plan on giving a pre-bed bath anyway. We have a veggie garden too, so the combo of these two things will keep them busy for ages.

    Also, I’m sure you have a ton of cardboard boxes with all your renovations and purchases….let them build a fort with them, and color it! I have put my 2 year old inside a large box with a pile of crayons, and she loves it, and my 4 year old son does too. You can also use the flat boxes to draw a map with roads etc for cars, or other toys (like we have Daniel Tiger toys, and you can draw his Neighborhood on the box), which is really exciting for them. We also made Daniel Tiger trolleys out of boxes once, and that was super fun.

    And my kids have been cooking since they could stand up reliably. I’ve been inspired by the Montessori approach in this area – teach them skills through practical tasks. We have the Stokke trip trap stools, and they pull them up to our island and help with chopping, washing, stirring etc. Both my kids (2 & 4) have their own cutting board and a kid-safe knife, and they chop easier foods like strawberries. They help with measuring and pouring, they have a small pitcher they fill with water and then use to fill glasses for meals, and they fetch ingredients from the pantry and fridge. They also have kid-size tongs to help serve dinner (like put green beans from the pan to the plates). I also have some cooking things for fun, like a contraption for making butter (add cream in it and just shake for a few minutes). Elliot could definitely do some of these tasks! Of course, cooking takes a little longer, but they really love learning the cooking process and feel so proud that they helped…we even have a kid cookbook with lots of pictures, and they pick things to make. So I guess my point is just involve them in the tasks you’re already doing, it really is fun for them! (This goes for cleaning too…they help sort their own laundry from the mountainous laundry pile, wipe down counters, etc).

    1. I second helping with cooking! My judt-two year old helps with everything from chipping mushrooms to cracking eggs. I honestly was inspired there by Jessica’s Alba of all people… I heard her on some show taking about having her kids help her crack eggs, and she said she would just fish out the shells when they were done. For some reason it was kind of a revelation to me… That they could help even if they while do things messily offer “badly.” My five year old now sometimes scrambles eggs from start to finish all on her own, and she has a little cookbook of simple recipes she can follow her self

      1. Ok, fine. i’ll learn to cook. Ha. honestly the weeknights I don’t want to but we could certainly bake something tomorrow …. good idea!

        1. I don’t like to cook either! But I got my boys a Learning Tower (there are more stylish options now, I’m sure) so that they could safely hang with me and cut fruits and veggies, put peanut butter and jelly on sandwiches, etc.

  43. I really feel this post! I have an 18 month old, and my oldest just turned four, both boys, and it is rough! I’ll admit that I’m not enjoying being a parent as much as I thought I would. I love my kids, but they’re just so hard and require constant entertainment from us or they either destroy everything or try to kill each other. It’s exhausting and my kids don’t sleep great so I feel like I never get a break. Then there’s the mom guilt! Why am I not enjoying this more? I suck at being a fun mom like I thought I would be. Etc etc. I’m in no place to give any advice since I’m struggling with this too, but some things we do together are puzzles-jigsaw for the 4 yo, chunky for the baby. And the big duplo Lego’s have been a hit for both of them. We got a hot wheels race track loader thing recently and we all enjoy loading it and seeing which car is the fastest. And honestly, sometimes I turn my children’s brains to mush while we watch movies together and hope I’m not screwing them up too bad. Good luck!!

  44. I haven’t read all the comments so sorry if these suggestions have already been made. A couple of things I did that helped me on those crazy nights: 1) Candle time. I would light several candles and have the fire in the fireplace going and turn off all the lights. We would snuggle on the couch and I would tell them stories from my childhood. All of us would get sleepy. I think the key was to make “candle time” a special treat as opposed to an every night ritual. 2) shaving cream baths. Take a can of shaving cream and spray it on the dry bathtub. Kids can slip and slide on it as well as write with it. It’s a lot of fun for them plus it cleans the bathtub in addition to the kids – Win Win! Of course, you have to be careful that they don’t get too carried away with sliding around since they can bonk their heads…maybe just do that alone with Charlie. It can be his special bath! Good luck! This stage of parenting is such a marathon…

  45. I feel for you Emily! I can’t relate to the weekday evening s&*t show that is manning 2 kids and making dinner after a long day (i’m a mom/no other jobs & my hubs goes to work early/comes home early), but my daughter is the same age as Charlie, and my motto these days is “safety in numbers.” Could you invite another family over to grill and let the kids play in the backyard while you enjoy some adult time/cooking with your friends? We are on our way to a playdate this morning, and honestly, its just way more fun for everyone…the moms get to relax & chat and the kids play all their crazy games with each other. Even just doing this once a week might help your sanity =) You could even order pizza or takeout and make it REALLY easy and fun! Also, what about taking a long walk to a (casual) restaurant and just eating there once a week? Then taking an equally long walk home, maybe even stopping at a playground? I LOVE being home, but sometimes at this stage in life, its easier to get out of the house. Good luck to you and Brian in his play!!

  46. I have 3 boys (10, 7 and 3) to say it is ACTIVE is an over statement. It is also super tough to find things we all enjoy when my energy level is 0. I can relate to every word you said because my husband travels Tuesday-Thursday every week and it is TOUGH to make it to Friday. Here are a few go my (lazy) suggestions:
    1. Kids love water. This involves me sitting in a chair and watching them play with or in water. If I am crazy tired this means the tub and me sitting on the floor with a glass of wine. If i have energy, this means a sprinkler, water table, water balloons or water guns (not sure how you feel about that one)

    2. Kids love getting dirty. I hate mud. I got a huge roll of white kraft paper off amazon. I give them finger paints and they are naked and they make art. While I sit in my chair and drink wine. They love it. If you don’t like the naked thing (save on laundry) then buy washable finger paints. I just roll up the art and hose the crew off and off to bed.

    3. get capes. personalized with a C and E for both of them. Charlie is starting pretend play and Elliot will just copy him. I am the director, I set the stage and if they get off track I scream the bad guy is there, get him! or something similar like he is around the corner, under the chair! all while sitting in my chair pretending I am tied up and can’t move and need their help.. (my husband has his own cape as well and it is a huge hit). Etsy has the cutest options that are custom. My ten year old still pulls his out to play with my three year old. He pretends its all in the name of being a big brother but he secretly loves it as he now sets the stage and directs.

    And its ok not to enjoy it, be tired or phone it in some nights. Don’t feel guilty you are a GREAT mom. You work super hard and your kids are happy.

  47. First of all – THANK YOU FOR YOUR HONESTY. I never comment, though I read religiously and happily, but I loved this post. I have a 2.5 year old and another one coming in July and especially being 6.5 months pregnant i’m just TIRED in the evenings. And I want to have special time with my daughter before she has to share me. I think about what she loves at school/daycare – flubber! playdough! kinetic sand! make homemade pizza with them or applesauce muffins (so easy). I know Birdie won’t get the cooking aspect – but she can stir/taste/sit on the counter/etc. I find art projects to be the easiest cause you can sit and play, and contain them. Maybe one night a week could be a cooking project and one could be a sensory one like the above mentioned…also really long baths with washable soap/fingerpaint (crayola makes a good one). The tub looks gross after but it keeps them entertained.

  48. Magnatiles. Both my two yr old and five yr old love them. Matchbox cars have also worked really well. I just hang around and monitor. Both will color, paint, and do playdoh with limited eating of these items πŸ˜‰ haha. Puzzles also work.

  49. You need a solid routine at those ages. I would say snack, walk around the block, (those plasma cars would be great for your boy for this) dinner, play in the backyard and baths, read books and bedtime.

    Boys need lots of time outside, so if he’s not getting that during the day, make that a priority in the evenings. Water tables, bounce houses, or trampolines, stuff to dig in the dirt…. All great.

    Also sounds like you need to have some meals/hearty snacks on hand if you’re starving. No one parents well when they’re hungry!

  50. The magna-tiles are awesome – as everyone is saying – buy lots. I also like Playmobil’s 123 toys (trains, dollhouses, animals, etc.) – they are very sturdy. I’ve bought most of mine from ebay. As Nicole Balch has mentioned on her instagram, it’s satisfying as a parent to get a nice train layout.
    My kids also really like reconfigurable marble mazes, and I like helping them build them. You can get a lot of play time from those. The Mindware one is great.
    Playdoh is a mess but it’s a super fun mess. I make playdoh pizzas.
    I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the $1 sticker books from AC moore. Stickers are great for plane rides, restaurants, and church too.

  51. sand/water table in the driveway. paint with water on driveway or rocks. LOOONG bath time, playing 80s music while i watched them play. have another mom with toddlers over once a week to let kids entertain each other while moms laugh/cry over the fact that we’re all in this together. put them to bed earlier helps, also. happy kids = rested kiddos! good luck- been there πŸ™‚

  52. Baths are really good time killers- especially with the three year old- I’ve let my three year old have a small container of washable paint and a brush and let her go to town in the tub- it occupies her for half an hour at least, and I can sit and read a book, and then when she’s bored I can just wash everything off super quickly. I would also totally recommend evening Mom dates- have a friend come over with their kids, order pizza and let everyone exhaust themselves playing. I spend a fair amount of evenings single parenting and company always helps- distracting for the kids and a visit from a friend cheers me up as well. Good luck!

  53. Try a bubble machine for the backyard. Our one year old loves just running through the bubbles and our 5 year old attacks the bubbles with a sword/stick/weapon of the day. Also, turning on some non-children’s music helps.

    A family member told me once, “Parenthood is 90% being bored out of your mind and 10% moments of pure heart-filling bliss”. We all are in it for those precious moments of bliss!

  54. I know you said not leaving the house – but what about a walk/bike ride after dinner? Charlie can get out some energy. You get out of the house. Birdie is contained to a stroller or bike trailer. I’ll have my high energy daughter run to the next corner and then back to meet me and the baby wherever we are. So she gets mini sprints.

    Also I think it helps to remind ourselves that not everyone loves ever phase – I am really enjoying the grade schooler phase so much more than the toddler years. Inbasically only survived the toddler years with constant outings. I was so bored at home.

  55. Oh man, that sounds so hard and there is no way I could not be resentful (but I am home with the kids by myself 50 hours a week while also carrying a full-time online course load). I hope Saturdays are very hands-off for you when it comes to kiddo labor. If I tried to actively engage my children with meaningful play all day, I would lose my ever-loving mind. To be honest, I already lose my ever-loving mind without adding that layer of engagement. Why don’t you downshift on the active parent-child play expectations? Like maybe each night, choose two Mommy & Me activities like playing an imaginative game or reading books together (not including bedtime stories, of course). How I make it through those long stretches of solo-parenting is by creating activity zones in different areas of the house (might not be too appealing to a designer). We’ve got a painting/coloring/playdough area for my three-year-old, a bunch of toys and puzzles in the living room, basement, oldest child’s bedroom and outside. We move through those different areas as the day goes on, so the kids get a change of scenery and activities and don’t get bored as easily. I am not sitting down with them, directing and participating in their play all day. For one, they enjoy playing with their toys with each other and by themselves with me there to occasionally comment on their play or read a book. I don’t think it make sense for an adult to enjoy extending amounts of toddler playtime because you’re an adult. When I do have focused Mom+toddler playtime a couple of times a day, it’s not overwhelming or boring because it’s such a small piece of our time together. Quality time with your kids doesn’t have to be active engagement all the time. I definitely see that pressure out there, especially in terms of “soaking up every moment,” but that a hard pass from me. Kids are play-machines, and developmentally, they should be. Let them do their thing out in the yard while you hang on the patio supervising. So one vote for that lazy parenting lyfe!

  56. Although I sympathize with your fatigue and trials, I have to say it always bugs me when you call Charlie a toddler. At his age he’s more of a ‘preschooler.’ Certainly not a toddler at 3 1/2.
    Also many mothers permanently care for 2 or more children without dad’s help for much of the day or night (my husband worked at night). It is exhausting, but you should stop the whining. you have a full-time nanny! Consider putting the kids to bed before 8 for sure. (Read ‘The 7 o’clock Bedtime”). Wear them out with some outdoor play, then have some quite floor time. Baths, dinner, books, bed.

    1. this makes me so sad that you would say these things to her that you surely would not say if she were standing in front of you!

      1. Don’t say anything if you don’t have anything nice to say. A lesson I teach my 3.5 yr old “toddler” every day.

    2. True. I had no support whatsoever nearly 24.7 for the last 26 years of being a Mom. (All with and oppositional-defiant child who never cooperated ever.) I had my husband’s help just a few hours a day when he was home and then I fled to Wal-Mart!!

    3. I also have to agree that having never experienced a full time job yourself, you have no idea what Emily’s life is like. How can you say that being a stay at home mom is harder than working a long day and then coming home to young children? The truth is, you don’t. neither do I because I am a stay at home mom with a traveling husband, but I would never try to say that what I am doing is harder. I don’t know. So i choose to be supportive. We all struggle. SUPPORT is what she was asking for, not your judgement.

      1. Who are you talking to? No one said they didn’t have a full-time job. I’ve worked all my life.
        But it reeks of privilege when one lives in a million-dollar home and has a full-time nanny and engaged husband to complain. Sure, ask for tips, games, whatever. But act as though it’s a burden to care for one’s own two children for a few hours every night? Tell that part to close friends, not the readers interested in design.

        1. 1) When you work full time, you need some sort of full time childcare. Everyone does. A nanny is one way to solve that problem.
          2) Living in a million dollar home has no impact on parenting still being parenting.

          That said, it sounds like you’re envious, and that’s hard and I’m sorry.

    4. wow…I’m hopeful that you were having a very bad moment when you wrote this.
      I also hope that Emily (and anyone else that you’ve tried to shame with this sort of comment), remembers that your comment is about you, your stuff, your own issues. It isn’t about her. At all.
      *This comment is not about you, Emily.*

      1. I agree with you, Jennifer.
        Nancy, parenting is hard. no matter your circumstances. Rich, poor, married, divorced, working or not, with one or 10 children. Emily didn’t say it was a burden. She was looking for ways to actually play with her kids when she is exhausted. If that isn’t selfless, then I don’t know what is…

        1. Well, obviously we interpret this stuff differently (sacrifice for 2 1/2 months):

          “Our deal was that I wouldn’t resent him or make him feel guilty if he REALLY made me feel acknowledged and appreciated. Like REALLY made me feel like a really good mom and wife. Additionally the play had to make him happy. Parenting two alone is so hard and making that sacrifice for 2 1/2 months was going to be, well, not sure there is a word to describe it, so I really needed this play to make him really happy.”

          1. Nancy, that was obviously about her marriage and not about her parenting. They are an equal team. She is being clear about what she needs and is asking for it in a clear and direct manner to her husband. That clear, honest discussion between spouses is what will keep Emily from experiencing what you are experiencing. Resentment can eat you alive. She is being selfless by acknowledging she wants her husband to reach his dreams, but not at the sacrifice of her own happiness. She is clearly laying out what she needs in order to maintain a happy household in his absence. She then asked all of us ways to engage her children while being exhausted from an intensely demanding job.
            I applaud you, Emily. You know what you need to be happy. That can obviously be a very elusive thing for many people (including me sometimes!). Keep your light sunny happy demeanor, fight for it with all you’ve got. Its part of what makes you special and its important for raising happy fulfilled children. It what we all strive for…

  57. All of the thoughts and emotions you are feeling are completely NORMAL. I am in the same boat, my husband is a fancy pants chef who works tons of nights and weekends, so I’m on my own a lot. To avoid feeling sad about him working on a Friday night, I would do some things to make myself feel better. Movie night and camping in the living room, get sushi and eat it on the beach while the kids play in the sand, picnic in the backyard (super easy foods and low key expectations), take them to a local splash pad and ice cream afterwards. One time I drew a huge race track on a huge pad of paper, and they played for hours, blessed hours. I drew places like the park and the ocean and recognizable buildings. You could do this with painters tape around the whole living room, too. Please post ideas of what works if you get a good list together.

  58. This may sound weird, but it has been great for my 4 year old and it even still works for his 7yo bro sometimes. I hide something (anything, say, a wooden spoon) and say, “Calling all superheroes! I need help! I’ve lost the wooden scepter of my planet, Kitchina! Please help me find it!” He immediately puts on a superhero costume and is very serious in his quest. It can last for as long as you want because you can keep throwing in hints or more struggles. I usually just sit there while he seeks the item, in my planet, Kitchina. It’s hilarious. The planet changes, and sometimes I’m like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels, giving an assignment to stop the world from being destroyed! Costs nothing, takes time, wears them out. Win win win.

    Another idea. Have you seen road tape? It’s masking tape-like but looks like a road. You can make tracks anywhere and make them different every time.

    And finally, and this may only work because we have an older kid, but I give my kids q tips and tell them to make a maze on the coffee table. They are often pretty impressive!

    1. These are great ideas!! Thanks for these!

  59. My husband traveled frequently when my boys were roughly those ages and we had Mommy, Max, and John nights. We would make pizza (I strongly agree with teaching them to cook, I did at this age) and then we would have popcorn in Mommy’s bed and watch a special movie. Obviously this doesn’t work for every night but is a great treat and my sons continued to do this until they were in middle school and still talk about it.

    1. We do this too April! My 3 year old was so proud when he was finally old enough to join mommy movie night.

  60. Some thoughts:
    – What you are doing is really tough! It’s normal that it’s hard and that doesn’t mean that you’re not doing enough/a good job.
    – Get out of the house!!! Seriously. On weekends, pick a destination, get up, do breakfast, and go! I like parks, museums, galleries, kid-friendly attractions like aquariums, whatever. You need to be out by 10 or you will hit a very hard wall shortly thereafter no matter how cute and cooperative the kids are being at 9:45. Friends’ houses are also good here. Packing a picnic lunch is handy for being able to come home and put them straight down for nap after. This holds until at least age 4 depending on the kid in my experience.
    – Have friends over for the morning/brunch. Same effect as going out.
    – Save the backyard for after nap when they are refreshed and you are nearing the end of your rope. It will be more exciting if they haven’t already spent part of the day there and you might get a minute to form full, coherent thoughts (or just cook or have a glass of wine).
    – For bedtime, Charlie should be on the verge of gaining more independence, so don’t despair. Maybe settle him in bed so he can “read” or play quietly while you put down Birdie to see if that shaves some time off your end?
    – You’re doing great, hang in there! It gets easier. It’s the situation that’s hard, and it has no bearing on how good a parent you are.

  61. Hi Emily,

    We have four children ages 9, 6, 3 and 6 months. The first thing I’d like to add to this conversation is that all of my children were sweet, happy and lovely toddlers who changed dramatically when they turned three. It was always intense and frustrating! The “terrible threes” lasted longer than we would have liked and we always try not to scare our friends who complain about the “terrible twos” because in our house three year olds have always been more difficult. Eventually it passes and they relearn how to be loving, kind and obedient (most of the time).

    As for boredom, I would say being bored for adults is okay too! If your husband is more “fun” for now, I would let him be. You can be the “fun” one later. My husband and I have very different skill sets. For example, I have been taking care of little ones and going to toddler activity groups for almost a decade (which is a very scary thought). My husband would not have been interested in or ever able to switch places with me.

    I think that one of the best things about being married is sharing the workload and doing the things you feel more comfortable doing.
    My husband is the smartest person I know, and now that the older kids have homework and school projects to do, he is so excited to help them. I am much less enthusiastic about school work and very thankful that he cares so much about it. Things works out eventually, it’s waiting for them to pass (so you can realize it) that is the hard part.

    One last thing, I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this idea in the “water play” category or not… Playing with warm soapy water. We do this in the kitchen sink or in a shallow plastic tub outside. My kids clean their plastic toys and give their stuffies baths. Sometimes we add food coloring (not with the stuffies) and they love mixing the colors. It can make a big mess but it’s easy to clean.

  62. Three suggestions:
    1. Barnes and Noble has a great educational toy selection – my almost-two-year old absolutely loves putting together (more our responsibility) and taking apart (more her responsibility) the radio we got from there (https://www.instagram.com/p/BQvmxicjzcm/?taken-by=thimblecollection)

    2. Starting at 18 months, she’s been a master Disney movie watcher and it’s been so fun to snuggle up together and watch a movie a week (usually over the course of two sittings). It gives me a much needed break while still having time close together. And it makes our dance parties to Disney music way more enthusiastic. (As an aside, I’m so proud that her favorites are Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Moana – nothing that includes a damsel-in-distress).

    3. Setting the table and meal prep. I know you mentioned that Elliot is still young, but we let our daughter rip apart herbs and take the stickers off fruits and vegetables shortly after one and she loved it. Getting a montessori stool was a total game-changer for us because it made her an autonomous participant in so many activities she had previously been left out of (or that required us to hold her).

    Love your honesty and that you’re sharing for all of our benefit – I’ve gotten so many great ideas for our family reading through the comments here!

  63. Playdough, if you’re brave. I hated the mess so I saved it just for rainy days to make it something special which we all ended up loving.

    Water always wins. Whether you fill the tub just for some water fun (no actual washing required sort of fun) or lay down a bunch of towels in the kitchen and let them go at it with several pots filled with water. One of my favorite pictures of my eldest daughter was when she was three and sitting as well as she could in a large spaghetti pot filled with water in the middle of the kitchen floor; I was pregnant with her little sister, had been horribly sick, and that was the most fun thing I could come up with for her to do that week.

    Hang up a giant canvas or sheet and let them go at it with spray bottles filled with watered down paint.

    I’m not sure if they’d really get into it but with it being spring maybe a little garden they could call their own. Whether that would be a few vegetables y’all could attempt to grow or one of those cute fairy gardens that I see everywhere; it would provide something that y’all would have to ‘play’ with several times a week.

  64. oh I totally get this! why is imaginitave play so painful as an adult?? I can play games, color, read, you name it, until they ask me to pretend play. I will usually give them 20 minutes of that kind of play before suggesting something else because it is all my brain can handle.
    at that age my kids loved games! some fun games even for the young ones are Hulabaloo and Zingo. your youngest won’t necessarily get Zingo yet but she will love playing along!
    Also, my little loves this activity. put baking soda on a cookie sheet and put vinegar in the holes of the cupcake pan with food coloring inside. then give each kid a dropper and let them put droplets of vinegar on the baking soda. kids LOVE this.
    and have you tried kinetic sand? It can be messy but oh.so.fun and hours of entertainment-even for adults!
    and don’t worry! We can all relate to the degree of happiness you are feeling when kids are in bed.

  65. Hi Emily! I have a 4yo and 1 yo, and understand the struggle. Take heart, though! 4 is so much better than 3. Its coming! So hold on. One of our favorite activities that both kids can participate in is getting multiple tupperware containers/bowls, filling them with water and a handful of other containers (small cups, measuring cups, spoons) to pour water back and forth in. Sometimes we do it outside, sometimes we just put a towel down and do it in the kitchen. Good work on fine motor skills and good sensory play, too.

    Another thing to help the 4yo wind down – if he’s being crazy, and needs some more focused proprioception I sit on the couch and hold a pillow and let him run into it, full speed.

    Don’t beat yourself up about looking forward to bedtime. Parenting is no joke, and you seem to be doing a great job. Happy to read an experience through your transparent lens. Hang in there!

    1. Oh yes, we did this with the water in the containers – we also put two different food colours in each so the water changes colour with every pour. Or big coloured blocks of ice, to slow down that process!

  66. I feel for you!! I only had one (a boy) but he was high energy and wore me out. I will tell you that 3 was his absolute worst age! He was so bad and so difficult at 3 that my husband and I used to talk about how we were worried that he would end up in prison and maybe we weren’t cut out for this parenting thing! ha. I will say, once he turned four he got SO much better and now at 13 , could not be a better kid. But it’s hard, you are at a hard stage. At 3 my son went to preschool at our church twice a week which really helped and they did all the arts and crafts with him that I could never seem to do enough of. And we went to a weekly play group at that age. So 3 days a week we had weekly plans. I also took him to our toddler library time a lot which he loved. Then the other day or two we would try and find fun things to do. But I will admit, many days I counted down the hours until naptime and bedtime. The whole raising of little people is so exhausting with the diaper changing and potty training and feeding and cleaning up and bathing and bedtime routine. My son never wanted to go to bed so it was a struggle for a long time. Hang in there mama! It gets better.

  67. My four are 13 months to 8.
    Water table. With water, dish soap, ice cubes, ice cubes you froze things in (sprinkle with salt to help melt).
    Water colour painting outside. Poster board is strong enough to use right on the grass. And you can enjoy it too. With messy swimsuits this turns into body painting nicely.
    Water painting. Water and a paint brush. On the fort, the deck, the fence.
    Picnic. Why have dinner when you can have cheese, crackers, carrots, and hummus.
    Don’t underestimate them playing independently or together with you physically present and doing something like reading.
    I also worked at modeling being fun to play with, and only being played with respectively. I don’t play with people who tell me I am wrong. Which made a big difference about how my kids negotiate their play with their peers.

  68. We have a 3.5 year old boy and twin 18m old girls. Totally have the same struggle especially when dad works evenings (OR nurse). They play really well together in the sandbox and water table. Just make sure everyone has a cup and shovel.

  69. Right there with you. I love being a parent, but week nights are so hard. Throw in a tantrum and, ugh, just ugh. My 18 month old is super into water play right now. Spending $40 on a water table was an investment in my sanity. Can’t wait to read all the other great suggestions I know you’ll get.

  70. Not sure if this was already suggested, SO many great ideas!
    Puppets – my twins (now 7) used to LOVE putting on puppet ‘shows’ (they are HUGE hams and LOVE to perform). They would simply duck down behind the couch or chair and pop up and the ‘show’ would start. They would make NO sense, which made them crack up and laugh uncontrollably, which was contagious.
    And taking photos and making movies of these shows – which the kids HAD to watch, ALL kids LOVE watching themselves – was fun for all of us, and great memories.
    We had puppets from everywhere and in all sizes, shapes, characters…

    Also, don’t underestimate the joy of being dragged around in a laundry basket!!!

    And PLASMA CAR is awesome – our twins would get on one together and they thought they were the coolest and SO independent – chance for mom to sit back but of course watch bcs the kids think mom wants to watch EVERYTHING they do;)

    Also, a simple scavenger hunt – describe the items and have Charlie guess what it is he needs to find, and show Birdie a drawing or picture of what she needs to find – and some fun reward when hunt is completed.

    Lastly, ‘airplane’ – great workout for mom and fun for kids – lie on floor, legs in air, kid resting horizontally on your feet, holding hands, they are ‘flying’…


  71. I’m not going to give you entertainment tips, cause frankly, the kids already know what they like to do – you listed them out, they do them and that will continue to be what they favor until they don’t anymore and things will shift. I’ve got some coping advice instead. I have a 3.5 year old too and her imagination WILL NOT STOP. I am instructed to be one of about 12 characters at any given moment – Baby Unicorn, Bad Witch, Madame Gazelle, Evil Stepmother, Mr. MacGregor, Parasarolophus, Applejack (the hick pony), etc. This has been going on for months – the characters require accents, special voices, and I make constant mistakes, such as, not knowing that I’m talking to a stepsister instead of Cinderella or she’s a kitten or she’s Princess T-Rex; so I’m always getting in trouble for doing it wrong. The worst period is when I started to resist and tell her that I wanted to play later or “Mommy just wants to be mommy.” I was starting to lose it, resent it, and not want to play with my kid. So, I gave myself permission to follow her instructions and just pivot to the changes without resistance. It is still a challenge sometimes and I do ask for no more on occasion, but just deciding to give in made a huge difference in my outlook and enjoyment of my kid. Also, she’s a lot happier and more cooperative – I mean who wouldn’t be happy when your mom says, “I need to wash under your tail, kitten.” to get your kid clean? Ha. Ok, now for the controversial bit – melatonin. Brian’s out? You’re exhausted? It’s been an hour and Charlie’s still not going to bed or settling down? Girl, cut yourself a break and bust out the children’s melly. Gentle, effective sleep aid saving mom’s everywhere. Her doc said it’s fine for occasional use. Lastly, all mom’s look forward to bed time. Try not to feel bad about it. It doesn’t mean you’re not enjoying your kids, it just means you need to recharge for a bit. It’s as simple as that. For Elliot, since she enjoys kitchen work, you should look into getting her a “learning tower”, it’s a Montessori concept, but basically it would put her at counter level and allow her to work in the kitchen with you. I had my kiddo slicing bananas at her age (kids knife), using an egg slicer, peeling eggs, stirring sauces, pouring and much more. Google “Montessori Activities” with their ages and loads of ideas will pop up. It’s a fun avenue to explore. Enjoy!

    1. I second the melatonin for a kid who takes 90 minutes to go to sleep! My now 4 year old was SOOO difficult to get to bed between ages 2 and 3.. It was just a terrible year for all of us (I have two older kids who were easy to get to sleep). He just could not turn his mind off. Could not relax, was bouncing off of the walls…and he wanted to sleep…he just couldn’t do it. I talked to his pediatrician many times, and we tried everything. Earlier bedtimes, long baths, no screen time, super active days, absolutely nothing worked and he was exhausted all of the time because he wasn’t falling asleep until 9 or 10. Finally she suggested melatonin and it was the most amazing thing in the world. I would give him the smallest dose–I think it was .3 ml, and he was asleep in 15 minutes. An absolute sanity saver. His behavior and attitude improved dramatically in the first few weeks, because he was finally getting enough sleep! We did it every night for about 3 months, and then weaned him off. That was enough time to be able to “reset” his sleeping clock, and then he was able to fall asleep himself at bedtime with little drama. We still have occasional nights where he has a hard time falling asleep, but for the most part it was kind of a miracle and I’m so happy we did it.

    2. When my sons were young (a long time ago) they would ask soooo many questions, want to know what I was doing or just talk. One day I told them “mommies ears are tired”–it was a miracle! They understood at their level and I got a bit of quiet. Shhh mommies ears are tired I would say and point to my ears.

      Funny part is they totally thought my ears were tired and it wasn’t until they were in their teens that they realized ears can’t get tired! We still laugh about it and now that my oldest has a ten month old, I suspect he will use the same technique for some quiet time.

  72. We have plasma cars — get helmets!!! πŸ™‚

    Bubbles entertain kids endlessly, but they can be hard for the little ones to blow. These bubble fan toys were a huge hit with my two kids. Fill up the little dish with suds, and they can go to town all by themselves. Put on music and it becomes a bubble dance party.

  73. so many great ideas here! but i have to take issue with all the moms who say “i have boys and they are uniquely energetic” – my 2 girls ages 6 and 1 are right up there, it’s not just a boy thing! we just finished repairing the wall from them ripping out the curtain rod playing hide and seek in the curtains, and no furniture is safe from the climbing, jumping, leaping…maybe there are some quiet and still girls out there but i ain’t got ’em!

    here are my ideas:
    1. mom boredom is real! don’t beat yourself up.
    2. try committing to a certain activity for 15 minutes and letting them know after 15 mins it’s independent play time. Birdie is too young but Charlie should be almost ready for the concept. I’ve used Time Timer (a big visual stopwatch) to help my kids understand timing.
    3. busy boxes – plastic shoe boxes with toys that only come out in the evening…make 7 and rotate. pinterest has tons of ideas for age specific toys.
    4. sensory boxes. again use plastic shoe boxes or a bigger underbed box from container store…fill with sand, rice, anything, glass beads. bury toy cars, dinosaurs etc.
    5. mud, water, finger paints, shaving cream, if you can stand the mess they will love it.
    6. moon sand…for indoors with slightly less mess
    7. felt boards
    8. for birdie – any sorting activity – use muffin tins and sort different color wooden beads pom poms or whatever
    9. literally just make a list of activities, post it on the wall or put slips in a jar. make the process of picking one part of your time together and take some pressure off your ‘evening mom brain’ (actual medical diagnosis, or it should be) to be creative
    10. once my daughter got old enough for playground games (mother may i), kicking and throwing a ball, etc – those were much more engaging for me. again though…15 minutes starts to feel like a long time!

    good luck! i think you will turn a major corner something in the 4’s with Charlie and Birdie will follow his lead. you can enjoy the h3ll out of your kids but not love every minute of playing super ninja dragon astronaut or whatever!

    1. I totally agree with the boy/girl thing. My son is 11 and has always been quieter and calm, happy to read or do art. My daughter is 9 and is a bundle of energy, on the go all day.

  74. Hello Emily, when we were at the park or in the back yard I used to play Nature Quest with my kids and their friends. It is so simple. You ask the kids to bring you (as quickly as they can) a big green leaf – they run off and find one and run back to you (as you recline and relax in your chair/on your blanket etc.) they lay it down in their own “treasure pile” and wait eagerly for the next “quest”. And you keep on going…find me a small twig, a feather, five blades of grass, a flower petal, a seed – you can go on for hours. They love it, they run, they explore nature, they learn new names and you are participating but still sitting. I loved this and so did my kids and their friends. Good luck and remember, it gets easier.

  75. I so relate! Of course you know that it gets easier bit by bit everyday, so just keep going!

    A trick I use a lot which seems to make me and my just-turned-four-year-old happy, is to find a real chore I need to do, and figure out a way to get him involved and make it fun for him. He loves helping mop the floor, wash the windows, dust baseboards, clean out a closet, etc. It takes four times as long as it would by myself, but I actually feel good about getting something accomplished, and he feels great about “helping!”

    1. My boys had their own little broom & dustpan sets! I had forgotten about this now that they are huge tweens, ha.

  76. Emily,

    Remember you have it all ( a career you love, a wonderful nanny, a happy husband, a gorgeous home) and the kids are adorable. And, your kids are healthy! You’ve got this.

    Can you feed them when your hubbie is first away for the play and then take them swimming? The swimming will wear them out. You need to put a life jacket on both of them. Buy some water toys (a plastic watering can) and a football for your guy to throw to you. Do you have a Y near you? I live in Iowa and have an incredible Y. Charlie could even take lessons and you could give special time to Birdie?? If you can manage a quick shower then they are all clean and you can put them in their pajamas. Make sure to have a snack for you and them. Swimming makes you hungry. Also, my little ones liked taking shaving cream and spraying it on a cookie sheet. And, then raced cars on the sheet. They also liked drawing, pre – writing, etc. Get the dinosaurs in there, too. You could then have them take a bath later. You could even have them do the shaving cream in the bath when they are in their undies, and then wash the shaving cream down the tub. Then have them take a bath. Too much shaving cream may be too hard to shampoo, etc. Can you manage both of them in the bath? My kids had so much fun in the bath. And, the bathroom would smell so yummy. I miss those times of having the boys’ pick out bubble bath scents and singing with them, etc They are now 17 and 12 and take showers. (One is a competitive butterflyer and a great diver from all of those visits to the Y). And, then a clean snack, and maybe a short Scholastic video and off to bed. The Scholastic videos are wonderful. I bought a ton at TJMaxx. The routine of all of this is great for kids. You might actually get some time for yourself and by the time your hubby is home you’ll be all happy and want to hear about his night or maybe you’ll just be trashed and asleep. You can still do this.

    P.S. I remember feeling so good about getting my boys to bed when my husband was out of town on business, etc. I felt guilty, too, but there is a real joy knowing you’ve taken good care of them and they are safe and sound getting good sleep. And, remembering how good their room and bath would smell. Makes we want to cry.

    1. Yes, those scholastic books-on-video are fabulous! Calming and not too stimulating. I think they are on Netflix, too.

  77. This is one my father-in-law did with my husband was little and my husband has repeated for our 3 boys. Stack up banker boxes or other empty boxes into a giant pyramid or wall and let them run into it with full force – Hulk Smash style. My kids absolutely love it. Even my youngest (18 months) has fun.

  78. Well, I have not been schooled by the internet momon how to parent….not a co-sleeper, not generally child-centered. I am more family centered, as in we are all happiest when we are all happy. Like not just trying to appease two people to make four people happy. So there is that. I am a Mom of 5, now 15-26 so been there done that. Like your Mommy. I am sure she has wonderful advise. Take it long before you take the internets’ advice! That said, all I can tell you is how I survived while my husband BOTH worked and went to school/grad school with NO grandparent or aunt/uncle support. No babysitters. Too poor, obv. I did read to them A LOT. I am a big advocate of my kids playing at my feet so they are doing what they want and I am doing what I have to do: as in I am cooking/washing dishes and they are playing play-do, scribbling, doing puzzles at the table. They are rearranging the pot cupboard, their very own toy drawer (full of pez dispensers as characters, matchbox cars etc) or playing for up to an hour with dessert as characters (mini marshmallows and chocolate chips or fruit gummies are a hit!). Your husband is into drama….everything can be characters…themselves, the pez dispensers, the chocolate chips, large packages of tiny dinosaurs or animals. All hours of fun while you work and chat with them and look at them when they say, “Look, Mommy!!” I didn’t play with my kids much. I am not wired that way and I don’t feel guilty. I was def raised in the “Go outside and play” generation and feel that is lacking in this “entertain me” generation. Find something they love….my kids it was art at the table, the characters I described, and for ages dinosaurs of any kind, legos/duplos/blocks for building and also a set of flip tracks that could be roads or train tracks to design. Hours and hours of fun if you find the right thing. And you knit, cook, clean, whatever it is you do…. and comment and watch. You can also go for walks. You are already doing bugs and birds which were big here. Educational videos when they get there…..like NOVA etc Bath time lasted forever with the toys. Do you have something like space for a trampoline you could set in ground (ground level) so Charlie can get his energy out? Did you say you dance to music….that is one thing I will do!

    I layed in bed many nights very discouraged and in tears and asking God for help. When my oldest was 3 and my little was 1, my Dad went missing. We finally got a TV just so I could look for my Dad via phone and fax (He went missing in Sandpoint, ID while I was in Reno, NV). Then we moved to Tulsa and I had to cope with my 2 with my Dad still AWOL and my husband working and going to school. The TV had to do more than I ever intended because of the circumstances, but they watched dinosaur movies and Billy Nye the Science Guy and Magic School Bus till the cows came home….Bill Nye led to them pouring water in measuring cups etc in the sink in the kitchen pretending to do his experiments, so that was beneficial. All of this to say, take one day at a time, know that most if not all women beat themselves up for being a “bad” Mom and Jesus will help you if you ask Him. He doesn’t magic the trials away, just walks you through them. One friend once told me that all the mothers she knew were waaaay too hard on themselves. The one’s who care anyway. She felt like the best gift you can give them is NOT playing on the floor for hours with them and certainly not giving yourself no grace. The best gift is a happy Mom which means giving yourself grace and mercy and receiving it from God and not living under the pressure to be Mom of the Year.

    1. If there was a like button, I would give this comment a big fat pink heart!

  79. My guys like mixing things like cornstarch and water, flour and water. A couple of bowls of water, spoons, a ladle, a funnel, maybe some supervised food coloring, etc…usually keeps them engaged for as long as anything does at this stage!

  80. Don’t worry! We all feel that way. πŸ™‚
    Things that help keep me sane:
    Does your gym have a kids club? We schedule playdates there, so I can see my friends, and the kids have a playdate with their buddies. You get to exercise, and have 60 minutes to yourself to return to your best self. Win/win.
    A Bouncy house is gold. The kids think it’s a special treat and then they exhaust themselves.
    Bubbles. You blow them, they pop them. πŸ™‚

    Mostly, just know that you’re not alone. πŸ™‚

  81. Aw Emily this is refreshing to hear! And you are not alone! I also have a 3 1/2 year old boy (and a baby on the way) and I find myself thinking more and more how tough 3 has been! I find myself yelling at him – really yelling! Which I never ever had to do before. It did scare me and I have since worked on it (a lot!). But this is tough!

    Our son is in preschool all day (8:30-5:30) as we both work. So we are exhausted when we get home. The good thing is, he is pretty tired too – I mean not really, not like we are! But he has been engaged all day with friends – which honestly helps so much! When we get home we make dinner and some fun things we have done with him is pulling out toys he hasn’t seen in a while in his room (like all his legos) and he walks in and is like ‘whoa cool!’ and plays for 30 minutes while we cook. Or we have been letting him play in the bathroom sink (which we can see from the kitchen) he LOVES playing with water and he pretends he is also making dinner. It sometimes makes a mess – but its only water. After dinner we try and wind down, go on a walk, maybe watch a little show – its the only time he does all day – or play some pretend games. We also let him take a long bath to play. Lets us relax and interact with him – but he is also having fun.

    Mind you this does not always work! And we have some BAD days! But it has seemed to help. The worst part for us is bedtime. He is in a toddler bed and the getting in and out of bed part is THE WORST THING EVER! We used to cherish 8pm when we closed the door and knew the rest of the night was ours. Not so much anymore. The other night I fell asleep on the couch (pregnancy!) and he woke my up at 9:45 asking for water! The kid takes forever to wind down. Most nights he sits in his room and ‘reads’/sings/plays for at least an hour. Which is honestly fine AS LONG AS HE STAYS IN HIS ROOM. But that has been the challenge – hence the yelling. πŸ™

    Some days are better than others – as you said – and I really do believe that this too shall pass. Everything with kids is a phase – but man is it tough!!! Hang in there momma and thank you for being so honest – so nice to remember we are all in this together!

    PS – we play bad guy a lot – seems like the kids are obsessed with that! But I’m with you – not a hugs fan!

    1. Thank you for this post! I also struggle with evening time. I’m so tired and suffer from boredom of playing the same games. I am also home a couple nights a week without my husband, who is a firefighter. I have a 3 year old girl and a 11 month old boy. Magnitiles are awesome! They are fun for me and fun for the kids. My 11 month old will chew on them while my 3 year old and I build together. We usually use animals or figurines with them and build a zoo, or a castle or boats or cars.

      Sidewalk chalk is fun. We aren’t quite ready for hopscotch but I made a couple of paths of different shapes and different colors. My 3 year old jumped from shape to shape and yelled out what it was and what color it was until she jumped on a dead end or “stop sign.”

      The $15 easel and $5 butcher paper at IKEA are fun. We can use chalk on one side or whiteboard markers on the other side. (until I have to leave for 2 minutes and my 3 year old draws stripes on her cheeks and becomes a tiger).

      I also bought one of those big black plastic bins with the yellow lid at costco and filled it with 2 bags of “play sand” we have a bunch of sand toys in it and a watering can. My 3 year old can get in the “sand box”. Its perfect for us because we have a tiny back yard. I can pull the bin out of the garage whenever we want to be outside in the evenings. And the lid is nice in case we leave it out so the neighborhood kitties dont mistake it for a litter box.

      I also have a Yuba cargo bike with two Yepp maxi seats mounted on it. So I can take both kids for a bike ride in the evenings. They love it. We have an underpass a couple of blocks away so we just go back and forth through there and scream our heads off or make funny animal sounds.

      I also am a big fan of going to a park for a picnic dinner. You can pack up a T-ball & bat and a soccer ball. It is sometimes a lot more relaxing than trying to have dinner at home at the table and then you don’t have a ton of dishes to do.

      cardboard boxes can make great “houses, spaceships, etc”

      glow in the dark stars?

      I love the kids yoga idea!

  82. This probably isn’t what you want to hear but… get a dog. An adult rescue, not a puppy (save yourself the work!) My toddler throws the ball for the dog for an hour every night, not kidding. It keeps everyone happy, it’s active, it’s fun. Dog is a better built in playmate for the active stuff and my younger one (baby) cheers them on.

  83. I know I shouldn’t…but secretly I’m relieved. My children are nearly the exact ages as yours – my Isaac was 3 in January, and my younger is 21months – and it’s hard. Just. Plain. Hard. Yeah, it’s also awesome and adorable and funny, but this stay-at-home-parent business is no joke. I just recently decided to go back to school, which is also kind of an insane choice for our lives right now, but I just couldn’t do the SAHP thing anymore. Some days I’ll think – ‘let’s just play at home and relax!’ and then it’s screaming chaos. So we get out of the house…and sometimes endure screaming chaos at music class and story times around other (zombified?) placid 2 and 3 year-olds who just sit there on the carpet listening to the grownup tell a story like it’s the most natural thing in the world while my feral beasts are investigating the library carts in the employee-only section or soaking themselves with water from the drinking fountain. I have no suggestions. Just commiseration. πŸ™‚

    1. “Some days I’ll think – β€˜let’s just play at home and relax!’ and then it’s screaming chaos. So we get out of the house…and sometimes endure screaming chaos at music class and story times around other (zombified?) placid 2 and 3 year-olds who just sit there on the carpet listening to the grownup tell a story like it’s the most natural thing in the world while my feral beasts are investigating the library carts in the employee-only section or soaking themselves with water from the drinking fountain.”


  84. So ironic that you wrote this. I’m in the same boat. My husband works evenings at FedEx with a not so great salary and is going to school full time during the day to finish his bachelors. When he started his schooling the goal was for him to get a degree and get a day job so we could be together at night. Ya know, I didn’t get married to be a single parent. πŸ™‚ I know he’s working hard to finish his degree, and your husband chasing his dreams to do the play. I keep telling myself not to be the martyr. That it’s ok to be pissed that I’m alone at night. That we’re both doing what we have to right now to get to where we want to go. It is, however, important that when he is around, that you get some time to yourself. I’m constantly working on that. I don’t want to be the burnt out mom who is always frustrated with her kids. As far as activities, I find that the more I hover, the more my kids want/need me more or look to me to start/create their activities. I have tried to back off a little bit more and let them create. Put out play doh (it’s non toxic) and/or crayons and a bunch of paper. And let them create. (ie, you get to sit down and sip wine/coffee while they’re somewhat stationery). Just let them play in the back yard. You can start to give Charley some distance in the backyard if you sit up on the deck or patio. Let him explore. Print out pictures for him to do a scavenger hunt. When he finds it, he circles it or x’s it out. For Elliott, I would just let her explore. Maybe find a local park (not a bouncy house cuz that equals crying babies and stressed moms), and just let them explore wide open spaces. I personally think less structure is more. This will help as they get older too. Good luck! You’re not alone!!!!!!!!

  85. I totally feel you, I have an almost 3 and almost 5 yo girls, and I work full time. I also think I blocked out the years when my kids were your kids ages! It’s so hard!

    If you can find the game Cranium Hullabaloo, get it. It’s so much fun and even your youngest can play it. Also we do a lot of picnic dinners, inside or outside. Spray paint some rocks gold and hide them in your rock box or sand box, my kids love this, it’s like a treasure hunt for gold. You can reuse them. Long bath is a lifesaver, I buy the crayola bath paints from target dollar spot to make it extra special. Play doh! Adding extras like googly eyes, buttons, toothpicks, is always fun. If you can cook with Charlie give Elliot a bowl with flour, some spoons and some measuring cups. It makes a mess but would keep my kids occupied for a long time when they were that young just pouring it back and forth. And maybe just put a little less pressure on yourself!!

  86. A fun, lasting toy are the “Magna Tiles”. Seriously, hours and years of fun! We have the translucent and opaque ones, about 200 of them. Not cheap, but well worth it. We built skyscrapers, homes for their buddies, forts, towns with their cars and trucks, you name it. Try not to stress, we all go through the same thing….guilt….it is part of being a mother. Your kiddos are blessed to have you as a mom. <3

  87. Love your honesty! Definitely been there! My kids are a bit older now (5 and 8) and life is just easier).
    One thing that is fun that I actually loved doing with them is building blocks. You can get some super pretty colorful ones like they have at land of nod (or somewhere less expensive) that appeals to you (because of how pretty they are) and build cool structures like bridges that a train can go under, etc. Or even use them to play dominos. It’s a good way for them to learn a tad of patience and once they see how cool the dominos are they will want to!

  88. THANK YOU for posting real emotions – I’ve had this feeling with my 17 month old more than I too care to admit. So THANK YOU.

    Additionally, here are some fun activities that we do to keep entertained in no particular order.

    – Water table outside – adds for lots of fun, and the clean up is easy. If you want to get adventurous, add in water balloons.

    – Dress up cabinet, but do it with a theme. Tonight we’re all dressing up as knights and we’re going on a quest to save X. They get dressed up, and then you actually hunt through the house/yard to save whatever object you’ve hidden. Could be a favorite lovey or stuffie.

    – Scooters and big wheels, or a family bike ride. If you have a park nearby you could let Charlie ride on his own bike, and put Birdie in a seat on your bike and take a family stroll. Bonus points if you bring along snacks or a picnic for dinner.

  89. not a crafty or spend-all-day-playing with the kids kind of mom, but I still get what you are saying.

    3 things that have been our savior: magna-tiles, crazy fort kits and play dough. Magna-tiles are pricey, but worth it. we started with a big kit as a gift and added on (clear ones = windows!) multiple sets over the years. Can build anything, impossible to break, imagination builders, multi-generation (husband and 9 y.o. love them, too). Crazy fort kits — you would have to help with the build at your ages (my 9 y.o. does it for our youngest now), so you get to play, then watch them play act and imagine by themselves. and play dough is universal. and for outside, the bucket of water and lots of paintbrushes for a hard surface is lots of fun.

  90. Your kids are at the hardest ages, in my opinion. Toddlers are tough and you have two! I think you are doing an awesome job already. I have three kids, ages 10, 7 and 4, and I am thankful every day that we are out of the toddler stage completely. It gets much better!

    You have so many great ideas from commenters already, I really don’t have much more to add, except that I feel your pain. I work full time, with a 45 minute commute, and when I get home the last thing I have ever in my life wanted to do is to play imagination games. Like, the very last. Once I realized this (pretty much with my first kid), I stopped doing it. It wasn’t fun for me, and I don’t think it was much fun for him either, because I was so bad at it. So don’t feel bad about that–it just isn’t your thing. I’m 100% sure you are great at playing with them in other ways, and you should focus on those activities.

    Pretty soon the two of them will be playing together all of the time and you won’t have to do much except maybe suggest the activity, or set something up. This age is the most intense for mom being the playmate–but it truly doesn’t last forever. Hang in there!

  91. My kids are slightly younger 2.5 and 11 months but I totally understand you on the wishing away the years and then feel super guilty.

    Here are some of the things my girls are loving lately….

    -they can play with blocks for hours
    -gardening in the backyard, my 2 year old has her own gardening tool bag loves it
    – taking them to feed the ducks (or crows/pigeons/whatever birds we can find)
    -butterfly or bug catchers
    -attaching a large sheet on paper to the fence and letting her go crazy with chalk/markers/paint and when she was younger edible yogurt paint

  92. So heart-warming to read all these comments from loving moms everywhere. Emily, you are a wonderful mom and wife and partner. Could Sylvia feed the kids a kid-friendly dinner before you get home? When you walk in the door, put on your comfy clothes, pour a glass of wine, open your to-go meal that you picked up on your way home and sit outside with the kids while they play. Lie on the grass and let Charlie roll his cars and small trucks over you (mountains). Start your own imagination game and play “massage studio”. They can take turns giving you treatments. They won’t remember any of this in detail…what they’re getting from this time is the feeling of security and love which you and Brian and Sylvia are more than amply providing.

  93. I recommend that you casually get a neighborhood pre-teen to come and play with them for an hour so you can regroup before diving in;). Alternatively, a table outside for goopy play like making slime or playdoh or whatever and then an outdoor hosedown to sub for bath time, as the evenings extend and are warmer.

    Alternatively, find a BFF mom down the street with two of similar age and do it together. That’s what I did. 25+ years and 3000 miles later she is still my best friend.

    Also, as one who was home alone at night two a lot when they were little, all the hugs.

  94. A few things my nieces and nephews liked at those ages: 1) Freeze-dancing–you control the music and the kids dance, then must stop moving each time you hit mute (bonus: you can sit!) 2) for Elliott, sorting small items that go into various containers (colorful poker chips were fun and made a good sound!) assuming she’s past the in-the-mouth phase (3) blocks to build a city or to stack and knock down with Nerf balls. 4) for Charlie, pretend games at that age. We would lay a blanket on the floor, call it “the boat” and make a big scene about not getting “wet” in the water when u step off. Tell him to gather what he needs for the boat since he’s the captain. Elliott will want to help. Emily, you sound like a GREAT mom to me!

  95. I have 3 kids, 2 boys (9 and 5) and a girl (3). Lots of good ideas on here already. We do a lot of Uno, which is great for when they’re a little older.

    One thing you may want to consider is going ahead and working in some chores. They can put laundry in machines, Swifter the floor, take out trash, feed/water pets or plants, lots of things. You can even start a chore chart in which they can check off finished tasks. Get them while they’re young and think it’s a game.

  96. First of all, I so so so so so relate to this. My kids are 24 months apart and when they were smaller my husband’s father had cancer and my husband was gone so much between his job and care giving in another state. It was a really brutal time. Even now that my kids are 5 and 3 I laugh a lot, but still cry at least once a week.

    The hands down best way I can entertain my kids is by giving them a gigantic box and some crayons. They will play for hours. Another no-fail tip is to turn off the lights in the bathroom and give them a bubble bath with glow sticks. Elliot is at such a hard age, they are so busy and their attention span is so short, but the Montessori method has a thing called “basket of treasures” and it’s great for little ones. It’s basically a basket full of junk from around your house that they can play with and it’s usually a big hit! As for Charlie, my three year old is also into full-body imaginary play and it really is exhausting. My best tip there is to play the bad guy and die pretty early in the game so you can lie down for a bit. Ha.

    Other biggest hits: nail painting, giant floor puzzles, Lego Duplo, and chores. Yes, chores. Feeding the cat is actually fun when you’re a toddler.

    I’m excited to read through the other comments for suggestions!

  97. This is my other passion besides design! I raised my 2 brothers since I was 11, I was a nanny for a few years and a preschool teacher for a while so I have had my share of pull-your-hair-out-i-just-need-you-to- stop-bouncing-off-the-walls moments despite the fact that i’m only 20.
    One thing that always kept kids occupied was sensory stimuli. Sand with objects in it, shaving cream (it smells really good to them, you just need to watch out for them eating it), corn starch and water, and other generally gooey things. This is one I as an adult actually like doing too πŸ˜‰
    More important than whatever physical activities you could do, (i’m sure you’ll get plenty of suggestions and i can’t pretend to be the queen of activities, so i’ll leave that to others), is remembering to strongly verbalize when you transition from one activity to another. For example: “Charlie, we’re going to build a fort for 20 mins and then its time to brush your teeth, okay?” and make sure he acknowledges the limit. “Yes, mommy.” Then (and this is the important part) STICK TO IT. Don’t give them any reason to doubt that play will be over in 20 mins. Don’t be fooled by “just one more minute mommy?” that puts them in charge- and It wont kill them to loose that one last minute in exchange for some consistency. Its also helpful to say things like “only two more obstacle courses and then brush teeth. okay?” and make sure they acknowledge. This puts less stress on everyone because they know they have healthy limits that are set by an adult they trust.
    Sorry for being one of those people who give unsolicited advice, i know you just asked for activities but I have experienced how the above limits can make even an activity you dislike more restful.
    Hope all goes well! Good on ya for self-sacrificing for your husbands passion btw! I hope that grows you together even though its keeping you apart.

  98. This was life-changing for me! http://www.janetlansbury.com/2013/05/stop-entertaining-your-toddler-in-3-steps-2/

    It’s a slightly different answer to the question, but encouraging self-directed play has been super rewarding and it makes it easier for me to be the best parent/human I can be.

    Thanks for doing what you do – I love the blog/instagram/glimpses into your life (and of course the eye-candy design).

  99. I love, love your honesty, Emily. And I completely agree with all of those feelings you have on a daily basis! These are just a couple of really basic suggestions that came to mind right away, but ones that have helped entertain my almost-3 year old for a while, so I think they would work for Elliot too:

    -Just a general expansion of your #5, but evening dance parties! We turn off the lights and bust out our glow in the dark items like wands, flashlights, etc and put on music and dance around the room! This works great right before starting bedtime wind-down routine to get out some energy!

    -A cardboard box. Endless possibilities with large empty boxes that always seem to accumulate from Amazon orders- they can color all over them, you can cut windows for them and it can be a house, they can pile tons of toys in (and out and in again)- the list goes on!

    Hope this helps, and I’ll definitely be reading everyone else’s ideas too- this is a great way to exchange ideas from other parents! Thanks!

  100. Didn’t take all the time to read through all comments, so these may have already been metioned, but
    1. large bubble wands — easy for small hands and super relaxing for Mom! My kids are 2 and 4 and will play with bubbles for at least 20+ minutes
    2. Sidewalk chalk! Fun for all ages and who cares that it’s so messy because they are outside!

    Nice to see a public post about how hard parenting young’in is! Mine are 2 and 4 and the hardest and most amazing part of my life.

  101. PSA for the unfamiliar: If you take apart computers or other electronics, be very careful with the power supply. You can receive a shock from stored energy, so they should be considered charged unless proven otherwise. CRTs (including tube TVs) are famously dangerous, but I imagine you’d skip those anyway since they are heavy and less interesting to disassemble. πŸ™‚

  102. My older two were spaced 23 months apart, too, and I feel this pain–I’m a SAHM and boy was it exhausting, basically until…well, they’re 4.5 and 6.5 now and it’s way better but still tiring. (We also have a 2.5 week old newborn so I am weary.)

    I understand the need to engage with them, especially since you’re working during the day, but I always did find that they played best when I was pretty passive. Now that the backyard is done, if you can bear the mess/handle baths before bed (my least favorite task), consider a dirt patch where they can dig, along with some gravel and a couple buckets. I hate sandboxes and find dirt way more satisfying for the kids as well as easier to clean up. My guys dig under a big rhododendron in our front yard and it’s always kept them happy for ages while I sit and watch and we chat about whatever they’re imagining. A water table and bubbles in the yard are also alsways popular, but keep the water table away from the digging dirt!

    In general know that 3.5 is a really hard age. Boys have a big testosterone spike around then, which tends to lead to more aggressive physical play. Do you roughhouse with Charlie? My son really benefited from some pretty serious wrestling matches w my husband starting at 3; they still wrestle most nights (my daughter joins in though with less aggression) and I can’t even watch; it’s so fierce! But my son is so much happier with an outlet for that energy.

    If you’ve read those old (dated) classic Louise Ames Bates books (Your 2-year-old: Terrible or Tender, etc), she talks about equilibrium/disequilibrium–periods of disequilibrium at these ages are usually at the half years, which makes the 2-year split extra hard. Cut yourself some slack and don’t feel guilty about making it work however you can.

  103. Bubble gun/ machine!!! Cosmic kid yoga and sidewalk chalk

  104. Boxes. Growing up my dad would bring home different sized boxes all the time. We had many toys but I’d so often look forward to what size he’d bring home. Refridgerator boxes were the best. My mom would put a blanket over the top then cut out a door. Made flowers out of dixie cups. All so 80s. But man those play houses were the best.

    I now do airplanes out of boxes and you can find flight simulators on youtube and set up a path for Charlie to fly with his co- pilot.

  105. Not a real recommendation, but one that many parents may relate to. Ha!


  106. Some of my fondest memories as a child growing up were the simple things my German mom created for me to play with: homemade wooden sandbox, hula hoops, roller skates , jar with vintage buttons which I would sort and put on strings , foreign and US coins which I would collect and sort , finger painting , swing set, puzzles , planting sunflower seeds , dollhouse and most creative was my mom found an old console tv in the alley and removed the back, wires, glass and created a “stage” for me to act out puppet shoes with hand and finger puppets. All my friends would come over and play in the garden and act out little plays in the TV – still have memories of this

  107. So looking forward to reading all these comments because I feel like the world’s most boring and not creative mom every day! On long weekend afternoons sometimes I let my daughter play in the bath, though that is not an activity you can do together. She is also obsessed with flash cards and talking about what we see on each. Gosh, beyond the activities you listed, I can’t think of any more that I actually enjoy playing. Imagination play is hard!

  108. Emily, you are my favourite. This is EXACTLY how I feel. I have 3 boys, the oldest is 3 and the youngest are twins, age 2. They are lovely boys and I love them so much but all they want to do when my husband and I get home from work is pretend to be Avengers. I am so tired of Avengers! Reading all these comments!! We do have a lot of fun dancing to soundtracks. “Trolls” and “Sing” are both great.

  109. You are awesome! Thank you so much for posting this … love your ideas and love the creative comments I’ve read … so much inspiration! My son is 2.5 and I’m due to give birth in 3 weeks to his little brother.
    If Charlie’s all about imagination games, do you think he’d be willing to act out his imagined scenarios/pretend play with stuffed animals as a performance for his sister? I’ve been doing this with my son and his stuffed animals, similar to the way my sister and I used to play with our Barbies when we were kids, and he seems to think it’s hilarious.
    In addition to movement (yes!), what about making music? You can find all sorts of noisemakers (instruments, household items, etc.), sing and make up your own songs, etc. As a music teacher, I thought it was hilarious that my son insisted the Easter eggs were “egg shakers.” πŸ™‚

    1. Hide and seek (specifically indoors) has always been a favorite and the kids never tire of it. Birdie could stick with you.

  110. I have so much to say (this is why people wrote paretig books there’s so much to say on the topic!). But, I’ll give you my phone typing 2 cents.
    1. Focus on making sure they know you’re authority and when you say no that you mean it. (I.e. no tantrums, stay in bed, do not touch the cat litter etc. This will pay DIVIDENDS IN THE END!) that’s it for my unsolicited advice. Now, ideas:

    1. Playdough
    2. Baths with lots of toys.
    3. Thomas the train set. Along with movies to help enhance the imagination.
    4 mighty machines (movies) along with a Zillion toy trucks that don’t make sounds (so he can make his own.)
    We aren’t movie crazy, but those two – Thomas and mighty machines – taught my son so much and gave him so much material for playing. Plus you get to sit down with trucks and trains. πŸ™‚ And out don’t have to ‘get’ anyone. (skip Thomas the train day of the diesel if you want to keep it completely tame.(
    5. Corn. Kiddie pool filled with corn kernels. Sounds crazy but add some scoops and toys and they will play for HOURS. better than sand and very sensory…Even for grown ups!
    6. I don’t think we ever will go to bed without guilt bc we want what’s best for them. But just remember to give YOURSELF as much grace as you would give a friend in your exact shoes. You’d give them a LOT. RIGHT?
    7. Sticking to a hard and fast (early!) Bedtime has been my solace. Even with older kids I look forward to it.

    Oh! And watch videos and look at photos of them at night when they sleep. Remind you how wonderful they are and give you just enough to get through the next day.

    1. Oh! And the whole thing I intended to say in the first place is that age three is when my son started LOVING to play memory and shocked me with his ability. I love that game so we played it ALOT. it was enjoyable to both of us. I only play games with them that I actually like so I can stay sane. Candy land went out the door eons ago.

  111. Get a large cardboard box. Pretty sure you have those, right?! Get some Tupperware with different temperatures of water and paintbrushes. Do this outside on a sunny day, you have those in LA! And “paint” away. Charlie can do designs or pictures and Birdie can just slop it on. The pictures disappear as they dry! No mess. No pictures of”beautiful” masterpieces to hang up. Mess free. Fun.

    Also Pom poms. They are soft. They can be put into containers with a spoon. Sorted by color. Thrown on the rug and have a race to see who can clean up more. Seriously. Get some.

    Hope that helps. Enjoy your kiddos.

  112. Thank you for sharing all of this, it’s so true all of it and every patent is similarly challenged. I also find your self advocacy with getting your husband to show genuine appreciation inspiring. Suggestions: what about outdoor activities in the backyard you’ll all enjoy, lawn games like, bocce ball, lawn bowling etc? It also helps reinforce general play concepts like taking turns and good sportsmanship. Ever think about starting a kids gardening patch? Pinterest for inspiration. Work with Elliot’s natural fascination with organizing, go thrifting for a purse and some items to organize in it. My six years old still likes those character imagination games and yes they can be so boringly formulaic. Perhaps play dates would help alleviate some of that burden? What I try to do with those is focus on actionable plot points, like : let’s make a potion to make the dragon fall asleep, then we collect ingredients around the yard and mix them up for a half hour with lots of last minute additions πŸ™‚

  113. I love so many of these ideas. When my husband is out of town for awhile (we have 4 kids) I throw in some scheduled outings. You could say two nights a week you are going to go out. Park, library (our library has so many fun activities/storytimes, walk in nature reserve (do they have those in LA?), Target for them to pick out art supplies and then home to play with them, local rec center open gym, pool, community events… It’s tiring to get them in the car and out, but when you get home it’s time for bed! Our library had an event where they read a bunch of books with “box” themes. Like where a boy pretended a box was a spaceship…and then they filled a big room with all different sizes of boxes and markers and other supplies for the kids to create and imagine. I’m sure you have access to lots of boxes to use occasionally. My kids can make fun with a big box for days!

  114. I truly empathize, my babes are 4.5 and 1.5, and I struggle sometimes engaging them but also getting all the nightly tasks done. Sometimes as a special treat for them, I fill a baby pool with soapy, sudsy water, dump all kinds of Tupperware, balls, and toys in it, and start a bubble machine in the backyard. Voila! I market it to them as a SUPER ADVENTURE OUTSIDE BATH. They can play in and out of the pool in the backyard while I sit beside them and play. It’s a good twofer because bath time is checked off the list.

  115. Two words: mini trampoline. Also, water seems to make everything better so you can either buy a cheap outdoor mini pool or whenever it feels the night ahead of you is soooooo loooooong put em in the bath early and let them stay in there for as long as they want. Music, candles, frozen colored ice cubes, paint brushes, glow sticks can all make it special. Also, they might not be old enough but my kids are obsessed with books on tape (ie kindle) particularly the magic tree house series. It seems to kind of stimulate the brain and center them a bit and they can listen while they eat or play or take a bath. It’s a great, guilt free alternative to tv that seems to satisfy that same need

  116. If you are in a walk-able neighborhood just go for an evening walk with them. Does your 3 old have a bike or tricycle??

  117. I’m at college orientation day with my 3rd born (out of 6), so, 1) toddler years were long long ago, and 2) I can’t read through all the comments, so don’t know if this has been mentioned. Brio or Thomas the Tank Engine trains and tracks? From toddler-hood on! Hours of entertainment and something I never minded doing with them. And they’re still the favorite toys in our church nursery. Also agree with the comments I read about not putting so much pressure on yourself. Save it for the years they actually remember! πŸ™‚

  118. My 3 1/2 year old loves to “garden.” We eat dinner outside every night now that it is lighter and after he is done, he mows the lawn, uses the “blower” and digs in his section of the dirt. After I’m done, I pull up weeds and he takes them and throw them in the trash cash on the side of the house which is very exciting for some reason. He also likes taking care of me. I got him a toy razor and he shaves his face in the bath and then does my legs. He is also really getting into floor puzzles and simple games, although that doesn’t help much with your daughter. I do, however, have to spend more time than I would like in a dark closet playing darth vader. sigh.

  119. oh man. i totally relate. my kids were five years apart, though, so finding something that entertained them both was SO hard. add to that my youngest didn’t nap, sleep, eat, or ride in a car without screaming for the first five years of her life, and my husband was gone 3-5 days every week for years, and i was working and writing a book, and we have no family in the state … there are days you want to literally get in a car and leave it all behind. then you look at how adorable your kids are, you sigh, and you buck the hell up because there is no other option. (and yes, you wish for five years from now, when things will be easier. *hint: it doesn’t get easier, just different.)

    things we did to pass the time: made endless batches of playdoh and used plastic utensils and cookie cutters. whenever we had a big enough box, i would let the kids go at it with crayons and markers. stripped them down to their underpants, stuck them in the tub, and gave them a palette of watercolor paints, a paintbrush, and a cup of water so they could paint themselves and each other. (bonus: afterward, they’d both get a bath, which killed another half an hour.) lots of trips to the park. lots of backyard stuff … inflatable pool, balloons, bubbles, playing with the hose (never underestimate the power of filling a bucket and then sitting in it), and so forth. building with blocks and train tracks. quieter things like story time … trips to the library sometimes worked. it was also a lifesaver to find a once-a-week class through community ed so that i could commiserate with other moms while the kids were off playing and singing those mind numbering little songs. and there is no shame in movie/tv time now and then. i would have gone insane without an hour of nick jr or pbs kids each day.

    i’m not lying when i say there are many moments that outright suck when kids are little. i’m also not lying when i say it will be over in a blink. my oldest graduates in a year, and then he’ll be gone, and i would give anything to spend just one more day with them as little kiddos. it’s exhausting and overwhelming, but it’s also so worth it.

  120. With three girls who are only having fun if it’s super duper exciting I find that they enjoy long baths with new and interesting toys, play dough with forks and knives, hunts(hide one thing over and over and over…), chemistry(water or even more fun colored water pored from one cup to another, back and forth) and such. I have found they like things messy and for a mom who doesn’t like messy I have hard days quite frequently. Grace upon grace.

  121. I’m a single mom and I feel you pain! My son is a teenager now, but when he was 3 I just referred to him (fondly) as “The Dictator”, wanting everything to be his way even though he didn’t know what that was from one second to the next. Of course, I’m finding the teenage years are somewhat similar! I stole some ideas from his daycare – shaving cream painting or just playing in it on a table was a big hit, photo scavenger hunt (give them pics of objects to find hidden in the house or yard). Mine also loved his art easel with paper on one side and chalkboard on the other. It was messy, but he usually did that outside. As for cooking with them, we made a lot of popsicles since it didn’t require heat and it taught some patience. Bedtime routines are so tough. With mine, I let him pick out 3 books, we got to sing 1 song and that was it. Easy for him to understand and it worked about 60% of the time after a rough week of him realizing that was the new bedtime rule. Also, cut yourself a little slack, we’ve all been there. You are a good mom to just be this concerned about it. Not every night has to be magical!

  122. I read a lot of the comments; there are some great ones! Here are a few more:
    1. If it’s a warm late afternoon, put a sprinkler in the back yard, or a plastic pool you can empty later, and have a “bath” outside. Let them get wet and soapy and play bubbles. Spray them down, hurry into jammies, eat a quick supper, then do something quiet and relaxing like a Wonder Pets video or some reading together. Then off to bed.
    2. Open up a brown paper grocery bag so it’s flat. Draw a city grid on it, then tape to the floor with blue tape. Tiny cars and block buildings work great on it. You can do the same thing with a jungle theme, or a space theme, or a circus theme….
    3. Put the tupperware in a bottom drawer and then put child guards on cabinet doors and upper drawers so Elliot can’t open them. She can play with the tupperware all she wants and it’s easy to clean up and QUIET (not like pots and pans).
    4. Watch the snacks — make sure no caffeine is present or they’ll be jacked up and unable to sleep. Sadly, caffeine is in chocolate.
    5. You don’t need to buy a fancy play kitchen — old boxes with “burners” drawn on top will work just fine. Also old boxes make great forts, tunnels, etc. A big refrigerator or appliance box will be a joy for a long time, becoming a space ship, a fort or castle…whatever that day’s play needs.
    6. Ikea makes a fabric tunnel that kids love to crawl through and chase each other through.
    7. They make giant-size lego-like toys that even little kids can manipulate. They’re a pain to clean up, but not nearly as much of a pain as the regular, tiny legos.
    8. Speaking of tiny legos, once Charlie starts playing with them, insist that he does so on a rimmed cookie sheet. Contains the mess and makes cleanup SO MUCH EASIER. The cookie sheet can live under the sofa where no one will notice it. (I’m talking a big sheet….the kind sold in commercial restaurant supply houses as a half-sheet or full-sheet pan.)
    9. Buy a child-friendly cd player and invest in a bunch of kids’ music cds. Even Elliott will be able to turn it on and off and adjust the volume. Use the batteries not the plug as you don’t want to get into having them plus the thing into a socket quite yet.
    10. Lastly, I am a big fan of the bean box. You get an under the bed plastic storage box (with a lid) and pour in about 30 pounds of beans. Kids can pour beans, drive cars through beans, etc. They love it. Put the lid on when done. This will require some education before-hand as to not throwing and not placing beans in orifices where they have no business going. But once you get that straightened out, the beans are great. They also live under the sofa, or out on the deck, or wherever. If they’re covered, they won’t get wet or spill if the box is nudged.

  123. So, Em…you’re just so adorable and real and full of heart and honesty, and I adore you! I have no advice, since I have no kids. But I’m totally reading the comments so I can be the best/funnest aunt to my 1.5 year old nephew (he topples over in laughter when I juggle for him, but that will totally not entertain Charlie for more than two seconds).

  124. Totally relate 1,000%. I have three girls (6, 2, and 1) – my husband is an actor (we used to live in Chicago where I worked full time and he was always in plays leaving me to be a theatre widow with my children every night) – now we live here in LA and he is back and forth to Vancouver at the moment working on a show so lately I am often with my 3 kids by myself. SIGH. I had a night the other night when the husband was out of town and both my older girls were awake and in my bed from 3:38am (you always remember the exact time) – 5:15am and after an hour of this I had tears streaming down my face and was literally thinking that I was being tortured. So, anyway, I relate and dream so often of when the littlest is 6 and we are all at least SLEEPING.

    Now, for my advice. There is a book called “Playful Parenting” that has helped me SO MUCH understand how to play with my kids. Other games we play: “following the leader” – when they don’t want to go where you need them to go. “freeze dance” …..and that’s all I can think of because I got like 4 hours of sleep last night. From one exhausted mama to another – mwah!

  125. Big fan of independent play! The gift that keeps on giving. Sit back and let them lead. It is best for them and you. πŸ™‚ http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/10/your-presence-is-enough/

  126. Do you own a water table? It’s how I survived those ages with my two. You can fill it with different kinds of grains and seeds. In the summer, simple water works well. And when you really feel like winning at parenting, shaving cream πŸ˜„. Seriously, hours of entertainment for both ages. My kids are just growing out of it now at 5 and 7. And you can sit back with a cocktail in the evening and feel like your kids are having the most enriching, Montessori moment. Loved it!

    For the boy pretend play, you need to enlist other boys. Do you have friends with slightly older boys (4or5) PLAYDATE! And you get time to chat with another mommy.
    Good luck!

  127. I have a 3.5 yr old girl and 14 month old boy who I’m alone with at least 50hrs a week … So I feel you on this topic! Favorite toys are Magna tiles, Fort Magic kit (check their insta for ideas), plan toys fantasy blocks, library books ( they’re special and temporary and you always have new books), and simple art that has high impact.

    We recently did printmaking with bubble wrap and simple Crayola paints on large mix media paper. It was a hit. Or grab a disposable cake pan with a lid, put a piece of thick paper inside, squeeze,a few different paint colors in, throw a super ball or marble in, put the clear lid on and let the kids roll the ball around, shake it, and voila. Masterpiece, it’s clean, both kids can do it and you have art gifts for everyone. Always use good paper for kids art!

    For calming down we do a yoga DVD called Once Upon a Mat. It’s good!

  128. No kids yet, but my dad was gone A LOT when we were kids. Some fun memories:
    1) Dinner by candlelight (I don’t know why this is so exciting, but turning off the lights and having a couple of candles lighting dinner was a blast–it made things feel more special). We also used to occasionally get our milk in wine glasses and we felt *very* fancy.
    2) Pick a random object and see if you can come up with 5-10 uses for it that aren’t what it’s intended for (they might be a little young for this.)
    3) Baking is a good one. Specifically, cake batter cookies are super-easy and basically instant gratification (box of cake mix, two eggs, stick some Andes mints in the middle, bake—Elliot can unwrap the mints!). Also, frosting graham cracker cookies? We would do homemade icing, but you could do the can and have them break the crackers in two and spread it on there. A little messy but fun.
    4) Any time you can get them invested in a “project” I think that’s good. Kids really like to feel like they’re accomplishing something. Even if the project is “how tall can you make the block tower?” it’s still a goal to work towards!

  129. You already have so many good comments/suggestions on here! Can’t wait to go through them all. I would suggest making a schedule for your own sanity. Like Tuesday night is movie night, Wednesday is the park, etc.

    I would suggest getting a water table. Kids can spend a lot of time pouring water into containers and it is great for both ages. Add a bit of colours to the water so they can mix them together.

    We do science experiments quite often. There are a ton of easy ones that both kids can enjoy you can find on the internet. A really good one is get a large flat pan and pour milk to cover the bottom, then drop different colours of food colouring in. Get a q-tip, and cover the end with dish soap. The milk and colours react to the dish soap and swirl around. I just did it with my four year old, and my two year old niece. My niece kept whispering “I love this” πŸ™‚

    I totally appreciate your honesty of boredom. It can be so tedious to play make believe when you don’t get to be the make believer!

  130. I tried to read all the comments so I wouldn’t duplicate but I couldn’t make it through all of them. I hope this isn’t a duplicate! Hang in there – it gets better. 4 is my favorite age πŸ™‚ Here’s a few things that worked with my kids (and still do).

    – A pop up nerf baseball pitcher or a t-ball stand with a nerf bat and ball. My older son loves hitting the ball and my younger daughter loves retrieving the ball. And I loved playing with them but could also sit down and let them do it.

    – Montessori type trays with very simple materials out on a shelf that they can do themselves. My kids started this at age 2 and still love this type of stuff. You can rotate materials every month or so. There are a ton of links online but here’s an idea. Something about how simple the materials are kept my kids both really entertained and also didn’t make it like nails on a chalkboard for me to sit and do it with them here and there. http://danaspinkribbon.blogspot.com/2013/02/50-montessori-activities-for-2-year-olds.html

    http://www.gonoodle.com – they love this still and it’s great for rainy days and getting energy out

    – This thing is awesome and good for kids of all ages and fun for adults. Do it in the house or garage with the lights off – glow in the dark soccer games kill many minutes in a very fun way. https://www.amazon.com/Can-You-Imagine-Ultraglow-Soccer/dp/B00KAA176G

    Good luck! You’re not alone and you’re an awesome mom.

  131. My kids used to love taking a bucket of water and a real paintbrush and “painting” the deck and fence in the backyard. They would seriously be at it for hours and often we could just work around them getting the real chores done. You could foster their love of renovation early πŸ™‚

  132. I have three children: 3.5, 2, and 5 months old, so i feel you! And I’ve tried to Pinterest fun ideas but they always seem like a crazy amount of set up for little pay off. So scrap that and following two amazing moms on Instagram: BusyToddler and ImaginationTree – the both have fab feeds full of really fun ideas (BusyToddler also has three kids with a super small age gap so she understands appealing to different age groups – plus mom! – at the same time.

  133. An art project you can do with both of them is make “paint” with frosting color and water in a mini popsicle mold and even if she eats it a little it’s safe. The art looks like watercolors, I love how they turn out!

    I also love felt story boards. You can make them or buy them and they can be ready to pull out as a little kit they only get to use with you in the evening so it is extra special.

    Playing is actually hard work in a lot of ways. Especially when you’ve already used your brain that day! No shame in an occasional movie to take a break πŸ˜‰

  134. My best success has been first making a fort in front of the TV, watching a cartoon episode, discussing it, dressing up, and then playing pretend based on the show. It works shockingly well with Scooby Doo since playing pretend is basically hide and go seek. With lunch and snack breaks it ate up most of the day and was also entertaining for me.

  135. I periodically stumble upon one of those classic kid entertainment activities, and then–even though it is completely unoriginal–I feel like the MOST GENIUS BEST MOTHER EVER! This week’s is “Washing the Things.” My about-to-turn-3 year old loves it, and I think it would be age-appropriate for both of your kids. A few nights ago, she decided to wash her father’s lawn mower; last night, I gave her a bucket of water and a dish towel, and she spent a happy half hour in the middle of the kitchen floor washing her collection of shells. We’ve been using this activity more as a self-entertainment one, but hey, it never hurts to have one more of those in your back pocket, right? And it could definitely work for all three of you. She’s honestly looking forward to the weather getting a littler warmer so she can wash our cars. πŸ™‚

    1. love this idea – “washing” is a favorite activity for us too!

  136. Water play – strip them down, stick them in the bath with shaving cream, whipped cream, finger paints, washable markers, cups, scoops, spoons, pitchers, etc. They can be sooooo messy and it is sooo fun! Then finish with bath and call it good.

    My 3 year old loves to help. No matter what it is I am doing if I can have him “help” (even if it is more work for me) he thinks it is the best ever – so have them help you around the house! Some of H’s favorites are putting clothes from washer into dryer and from dryer into a basket – pushing the basket from the laundry room to the living room, “folding” (I use that word loosely ha!) towels, putting away cloth napkins and dish towels (I give them to him one at a time so he has to make lots of trips), pushing the Swiffer, “cleaning the walls” (wiping them with a dry cloth or Clorox wipe as I clean the bathroom), etc. Nothing life changing but he LOVES it and feels like he is big stuff – plus we are getting stuff done!

  137. We really enoyed these videos then the twins were little.


  138. I am not a parent myself, so my experience is quite different, but I have helped raise and entertain two dozen siblings/cousins/nephews in the last 15 years. A game that we all love and is HILARIOUS is coming up with 10-15 second “dance” routines that everyone has to copy. They get sillier and sillier as time goes on. If you’re not opposed to including a camera, taking and watching videos of yourselves doing these crazy dances adds to the fun.

  139. I think the expectations that moms should enjoy every day with their kids and feel guilty if they’re not soaking up every minute or watching the clock for bedtime is unrealistic, gender-biased (dads def don’t have as much of this cultural pressure) and sets mothers up to feel like failures. Kids, especially babies and toddlers, are EXHAUSTING. Playing with them can be mind-numbingly boring. Isolating. And while I love all the activities suggested and think there is such value and joy to be had on the floor with your kids, I think we also need to recognize that not all moments are going to be cherished (or cherishable), let alone enjoyable or even tolerable. I hate that amazing women and mothers are feeling ashamed or sad because of this completely unrealistic expectation that we’re not all just feeling heart explosions that override the tiredness, the boredom, the loneliness that can come with parenting. You’re the best mama you can be, don’t discount that!

    1. YES TO THIS.

    2. YES^. THANK YOU

  140. I can’t find my comment from before (I typed it on my phone, but am now on my computer, and on my phone it says there are 180 comments, on computer it says 145. Just a heads up. I don’t know what that’s all about. But that’s not my point.)

    My point is that in my first comment I said I could write a book about this, but I’ll just keep it short, and when I reread it, it came across as me telling you that you NEED to read a parenting book. So, just to be clear. My point in saying I could write a book is that I love parenting and am passionate about it and I could talk for days and days and days about the topic b/c I love it so much and that’s all I meant.

  141. Oh boy, this post resonated with me! I have an almost three year old boy and an 11 month old girl. I handle daycare pick up, commute, dinner, and one, if not two, bedtimes on my own each night before my husband gets home. Most days, it’s a disaster! Especially with the new, special form of three-year old tantruming we’ve been experiencing lately (comforting to know, others have the same thing going on). Some things that buy me a few minutes every night are: letting the three year old use the handheld vacuum, letting him “wash” the dishes on a step stool, and helping water the flowers. Last night, I tried to teach him hopscotch, which has some promise. Also, sometimes we build a fort with blankets and bring in flashlights and talk. We also sit on the front stoop a lot and any neighbor or dog walking by entertains them for a few minutes and gets me through to bedtime.

  142. There is a spray paint called NeverWet (by Rustoleum) that makes surfaces waterproof and is invisible until it gets wet. You can use a stencil to create some art on your driveway or patio. Your kids can spray the spray the area with a hose and see the art come to life! It lasts 2-4 months but you can clean it off whenever you want to.

  143. Just wanted to add that this particular part of the exhausting nature of kids will hopefully ease off soon. It is so magical and so boring at the same time, isn’t it? My two youngest are spaced age-wise about the same as yours, and when the older one was four she started taking the lead with the imagination games and playing them with her little sister, (especially after the littlest could talk). You still get to be a part of it, but you will no longer have to come up with stuff CONSTANTLY.

    *Also, you need one of those little LED disco lights in your life. They dial the Moana dance parties up to 11.

  144. I say this as both a mom (my younger two are your kids’ ages; I also have a 5-year-old) and developmental psychologist: everything you’re feeling is completely normal and we’ve all been there. I may end up on the business end of some virtual tomatoes for this one, but in my professional and personal opinion, you do *not* need to be the principal force of play and fun in your kids’ lives. So I’m not going to suggest activities! But I’ll suggest a brief article that gives a bit of perspective on why this phase can become difficult for parents (pasted at the end of my comment). The punchline is this: kids are naturally motivated to imitate and learn from older members of their family as they go about *their* activities. I have found that, when I am engaged in things that *I* want to do and give the kids an opportunity to participate in them (as developmentally appropriate/safe), they are much calmer and happier. For example, this morning I worked on organizing my closet. My 18-month-old *helped* by putting unwanted items in a bag (and repeating the process–you now how they do), my 3-year-old helped me install a sock divider, and my 5-year-old organized my shirts by color. Mind you, the whole thing took a lot longer than it would have without them, but 1) we were doing something that I found fun/meaningful/appropriate to *my* developmental stage (this matters for you as much as it does for your kids!), 2) they learned things, and 3) we spent time together. At some point, the younger two got bored and went off on their own to play. They don’t ask me to come play with them. They see me moving on to the next activity that I want to do and they participate how they can. Repeat.

    A second point that is driven by my cultural background (African American on one end and Appalachian Scottish/English on the other): the best medicine for fussy kids and weary moms is having a tribe. Open your home and surround yourself with people who get you. (*Many* mothers can attest to this–single moms, military moms, and stay-at-home moms come to mind). The point here is for you to interact with adults while your kids play and intermittently look up and see how happy you are. This is not the time to fuss about entertaining your guests! Just get some warm bodies in your house (preferably where one is from an older generation–they just make everything better), ask them to bring something to eat/drink, and peacefully exist. It’s even better if you’re all working on something together–baking, crafting, whatever.

    OK! That’s enough from me. Thanks for teaching us so much about design and for being so open & thoughtful about your experiences as a working mom.

    Link to the article below–


    1. Love this, thank you!

      1. ME TOO!!!!

  145. I totally get it. I’m not a mom, but I was a mini-mom at 14 when my parents had kid number 2 (you think two toddlers is bad, my mom could tell you how having an emotional teenage girl and a toddler boy is equally exhausting in totally different ways). Dad travelled a lot for work, and mom is a corporate executive, so there were also lot of days that ended with mom and I exhausted laying on the living room floor letting Gage crawl all over us and poke us in the face with foam swords. That imaginary play is just easier for dad’s and brothers.

    My favorite fixes for boredom were having Gage help me plant flowers and then help me water and take care of them all year or going to the library to checkout books. While he’s looking for kid books, I’d browse adult books and even ask him which book I should pick based on the cover (he had no clue but it made him feel like he was helping).

    Another favorite – Gage would tell me stories and I would try to draw them (using his boy imagination while also keeping me interested).

    I hope the abundance of ideas you’re getting here is helpful! And I KNOW you’re not the only one in this situation.

  146. Two words: Bubble Machine.
    Either set it up outside, or put an old blanket on the floor and do it inside. They will LOVE “bubble time” (and order a second bubble machine for when the first one breaks). At this age DO NOT get them bubbles to blow–they are too young and the frustruation will drive them (and you) crazy.

  147. Please, please, please read this column by Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery) – http://momastery.com/blog/2012/01/04/2011-lesson-2-dont-carpe-diem/ It absolutely saved me when I was in the trenches with tiny kids and overwhelmed with guilt for not enjoying every moment. It is the best thing I’ve ever read about parenting small children, and captured my experience of parenting little people perfectly.

    As far as the pretend games go, I was never great at them, either (especially not for long periods) but occasionally when pretending with my kids I got to be “sleeping big sister” – which, just as described, meant that I got to pretend to sleep. I was great at that one. Maybe yours will go for it?

    1. This is awesome and such a good reminder. As much as I love my littles, I am seriously looking forward to the time when I can say “OK kids, time to get ready for bed. You know what to do”. Some day. πŸ˜‰

  148. Oh wow, this brings back memories. My boys are 2.5 years apart, and those days of “getting the bad guys” nearly killed me. Hang in there, mama! You’re doing awesome.

    Activities my boys loved:

    * Get a piece of baseboard, about 6 feet long. The back side of baseboard has a very shallow groove, about 1.5 inches wide, that is perfect for small cars. Prop one end of the baseboard up on a chair and roll the cars down. If needed, have contests to see which car will go the farthest. Bonus: baseboard stores easily under a sofa or bed. My nieces still ask to do this activity when they visit.

    * Playing with water from a hose outside. This is very fun until it’s suddenly not, but my boys could kill a lot of time in between.

    * You’re already doing obstacle courses, which is admirable. Have you tried timing Charlie while he runs them? This will give you a break, since your role is to sit and watch the timer. Timing in general is a good trick.

    * If you’re not against toy guns, the simplest Nerf guns are really sturdy and last forever. The ceiling fan or ceiling is a good target: we would lay on the floor for a long time trying to get those suction foam darts to stick to the ceiling. Bonus: laying down on the floor. Buy extra bullets. (Apologies to those who don’t like toy guns.)

    * Anything with tape. Put tape on things. Put tape on your clothes. Put tape on paper. Put tape on the furniture. Put tape on your nose.

    Good luck!

    1. Yes!! Rolling cars down stuff! A slide! A ramp made out of cardboard! We have a giant tube I found on Amazon. So good.

  149. My 5 month old and I hit up the library every week! There is a story time for kids it wipes him out (2 hour nap yahoo). The parks will have free summer classes (soccer baseball, painting) coming up soon too.

  150. This might sound awful, but stick with me:
    When our dog was in puppy training, our trainer told us to not encourage any behaviour in our puppy that we wouldn’t want in our dog. (For example, a little puppy hopping up on your lap is cute, a 55lbs dog is not.)

    Obviously, you can’t treat your toddlers like they’re grown kids, but you may want to be more okay with sending them outside (as long as no one gets hurt!). I was so into spending quality, engaged time with my toddlers (26 months apart in age) that I felt like when they got older they carried those expectations with them and we had to wean them. It’s okay for your kids to be bored. It’s okay for you not to be their cruise director or preschool teacher. If they’re safe, you’re good. There are a lot of things that make up happy childhoods, and not every minute has to be quality time. Creating independence and SPACE for your children is giving them a gift that fewer and fewer kids get these days.

    Good luck!

  151. I know it might be a total cop out, but going for a walk around the neighborhood always feels like a fun family activity. Added bonus of tiring the little ones out a bit before bedtime.
    Our little guy is 13 months old, and I totally get the feeling of gratefulness for bedtime to roll around. I love our little guy with all I have and he is such a blast, but I do love the feeling of sinking into the couch at 7:30 and enjoying the peace and quiet.
    Thank you for your totally refreshing and honest posts about raising kids and maintaining a marriage. I look forward to them as much as I do the decorating/styling posts. And, it is really good to know that I’m not the only mom out there who feels that way sometimes.

  152. My kids LOVE imaginery play and IT IS SO FUN to watch and participate in the role playing. Library, Grocery, and School are their favourites.

    Library – Use old credit cards as the library card, they each take turns being the “librarian”, picking out books/ recommending books, story times, etc.

    Grocery Store – We have an old laptop and cell phone that don’t work and that is their cash register and scanner. Keep old food boxes, containers, etc. and have them set up “shop”, ring them through, bag them, etc. SO FUN!

    School – Everyone takes turns playing “teacher”, I have little antique school desks and a wall chalk board.

    We also love crafts – especially colouring and painting non traditional things like shells and rocks!

  153. I look forward to reading the suggestionsfrom your readers. We have 3 little kids and the 2 year old is sooooo hard. I totally get what you’re saying. I’m not that much fun after a day at work. The nights are very rough and doing things that suit the older ones like even homework is tough with destructo baby around. Plus I hate to play :). That’s a problem. Have you thought about engaging your kids in work around the house? We do this out of necessity bec we both work and no one is home to cook and clean and so on. So family time does involve a lot of shared chores and house projects. It’s ordinary life most days and we make family play special.

  154. My kids are about the same age. Going outside is always a win. ALWAYS. Do you have a t-ball set? Super easy and so much fun, even for adults. Something about whacking a ball really hard … We also like to go outside, get down to diapers/bathing suits and paint. IKEA has great easels and paints.

  155. Hi! I have a three and 1/2 year old daughter and two year old son.
    Here are some things we do together:
    Plant and take care of mini garden( egg carton with seeds at Target)
    Wooden train set
    Play kitchen
    Play library
    Play grocery store with grocery cart and cashier
    Play camp out in tent (Target)
    Tricycle and scuttlebug races
    Bake cookies or make jam together
    Nature scavenger hunt/walk

  156. Lots of people already said it but MORE SIMPLE ART SUPPLIES. My daughter has a pack of self inking stamps and GOOD LORD they’re her favorite thing. She also loves stamping herself, which is fine, and then gives us a “mission” at bathtime (remove the stamps).

    My other thought was “OMG 8:15?!” I realize all kids are different but do you think you’d have any lucky skooching bedtime a little bit earlier? Those last 15 minute increments (all of them) can be endless.

  157. I have two boys: 4.5 and 1.5 yrs old.
    My husband travels 90% of the year and I know how you feel. That -blessed but defeated, successful but failing, lonely yet never alone – feeling.

    When I feel like nothing is working, we take walks. The youngest rides in a stroller taking in the surrounding, the oldest enters a crazy imagination land pretending to be a predator or collecting items from nature.

    It’s hard to come up with constant activities that work for both and I think you are on the right track.

  158. I love this post! I feel you! My husband was in grad school while also working full time in a job where he had to travel 3-4x a month and my daughter was 3 and I had a newborn. Now my kids are 5 & 2.
    Sensory activities are where it’s at!
    Water beads
    Kinetic sand
    We hide cute/fun buttons in there and my older one tries to find them all while my little guy just plays with scoops. Any of these things can be made into pretend ice cream or tea party supplies (the sturdy tea sets from green toys are maybe the best toys we own)
    As for making sure I’m not bored, I find that turning on good music makes me (and everyone) really happy. Add a glass of wine and it’s all more fun. Good luck mama. I’m right there with you.

  159. My two boys, 20 months apart are older now at ages 10 and 12 but I remember those days, both fondly and exhaustedly! We did a lot of fort building, car racing, and general destructive play but we also did a ton of sometimes messy sensory activities which they both loved. We used a shallow storage tub and would fill it with things like rice, water, shaving cream, gak or oobleck, dry noodles, etc and we’d put different things in there to play with, changing them out from time to time. Cars, little people, plastic bugs, animals, small blocks, whatever. We also played “chef” a lot and just mixed things. They had a low drawer of their own cups, utensils, etc that they could get out. I’d often cut a plastic garbage bag and line the kitchen table for easier clean up. My boys are still crazy and active but it has gotten easier!

  160. I only have one boy who is almost 5 years old, but it is the feelings you are describing that got me to take a step back and let him play on his own every once in a while. And I mean really play on his own. To my surprise, I actually saw him get more creative and grow in a way I never expected. Something about being a working mom makes you really focus on the time you have with your kids. I think its a good thing as I feel like most days are really great days. But I think I over do-it sometimes.

    As women, we have really great intuitions and need to follow them. If your feelings are that you are overwhelmed – you are! Its okay. Your kids can sense that too. There are some really awesome ideas in these comments – I am going to use them too – but when I have a moment when I need to take a breath and just watch from afar – I am going to do that too. And, of course, gaze at that baby-boy who is the love of my life!

  161. Playdough. Plus, preschool (my son brings home a lot of what he’s learned).

  162. There are lots of ideas here for after work/before bed times. On the weekends, let me make a plug for your local botanical garden. It’s my favorite destination to take my 1- and 5-year olds. They can romp around and be outside and see and experience new sights and smells. I get art, a cultured environment, sight lines and a pleasing landscape around every corner. Win-win.

  163. I have two boys, ages 5 1/2 and 2 1/2. I literally try to run them into the ground every night. They NEED to physically burn energy. Get some soft soccer balls and a little goal, Balance bike (and helmet). A sandbox with digging stuff and trucks. Anything to keep them constantly moving. Oh and being excited for bedtime… that is every parent on the planet. Don’t feel bad, guilty and definitely don’t feel ashamed. We are all in it together!

  164. I totally agree with not being able to do the 3 year old imaginary play thing. As a preschool teacher of 2 and 3 year olds here are some of my go-tos for activities we can all enjoy:
    – Play-Doh when I need to unwind while keeping them entertained and engaging with them. If the kids can handle it plastic kid knives from Ikea are always a hit so they can practice cutting.
    – Anything on a toddler easel. Bonus that the art always turns out so cute and frameable (and big!). I change it up to keep it fresh and entertaining for all of us. Watercolors, paint dots, use painters tape to make a design and let them finger paint over it, remove the tape to reveal the design.
    – Bikes / baby sit-and-rides. I squeeze on to a sit and ride and race alongside the kids or I “run” next to them while they ride. It’s fun for me (in moderation) and I find if I help get the party started they can entertain themselves for a good 30 minutes.
    – Pop up play tunnels. Very little clean up and easy to store but always entertaining.
    – This is more of an independent activity, but if I need some class prep time hot wheels and ramps work every year. The bigger and tackier the ramp the better. I don’t particularly like playing cars but the kids love it and they’re contained in a small area while I get work done.

  165. I’m a nanny for four kids (ages 5, twin 3 year olds, and a two year old). I love to play legos with the kids. We have the duplo legos that even the youngest can play with. The oldest loves barbies and I hate playing barbies. She tells me I’m never doing it right or tells me exactly what to say πŸ™„πŸ˜‚ so I tell her we can play for 10 minutes set a timer and then we are done. I also do lots of crafts. I try to keep it simple for the youngest so a lot of times it’s just stickers and paper which keeps them entertained for awhile and I can color along with them. We also play play dough. The youngest has finally figured out how not to put the play dough in her mouth. We live in Michigan so now that it’s finally getting warmer we spend lots of time outside riding bikes and scooters and the youngest just got an amazing bubble machine that makes so many bubbles that we all run through.

  166. My son LOVED to play in the kitchen sink. Either filled with water and some soap suds (and then he’d go to town with cups and spoons), or filled with water and then I’d give him a can of shaving cream. He could spend 45 minutes there keeping himself occupied. I guess it was like bathtub time but more fun because he was in the kitchen, standing on a chair, using real utensils. There was always some cleanup for me afterwards, but it was worth it. I either joined in or wandered around the room doing this and that as he played.

  167. I know people really like the yoga videos, but we have lots of success with this book:


    My kids are 5 and 3 but this book has been a favorite for years. These days my five year old loves to play yoga teacher and mix up the different moves. We change into “yoga clothes,” get the mats out, turn down the lights, music, etc. It’s actually really fun for me because I feel like I benefit from the unwinding too.

    And new for us this year is a garden. We go out every night and water (kids have small watering cans) and check on all our plants. It’s along the lines of the bug hunt, but feels productive. You could go even further and get chickens πŸ™‚ My brother and sister-in-law have them and say they are an excellent source of after dinner/before bed entertainment.

  168. Bath time. We had bath time for an hour last night. It wasn’t even needed. Mama just needed a good chunk of time without whining. Ha!

  169. Oh may I TOTALLY sympathize – and get/have experienced ALL the above feelings you have.

    The hub and I also own our own very busy business and most days he’s gone before everyone is awake and just getting home after bedtime or dinner so it’s solo parenting A LOT. It can be hard not to be grudge him even tho mentally I know he’s busting his butt for us – I am also very involved in the business and do all the HR/Office/AR/AP/paperwork…behind the scenes stuff to keep the wheels turning. All of which I squeeze in during naps, after bedtime, in the AM or on the two days a week daycare happens while also keeping everything in the house running – cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc…

    Do yourself a favor and buy Charlie one of these quick!! It will really help him burn some of that energy off, I promise! You can make a game of it to see how long he can jump with a little stop watch, he’ll love it. Birdie (love that nickname BTW!) can sit in your lap and help. This will give you a moment to sit when you first get home. http://www.target.com/p/little-tikes-trampoline-3-foot/-/A-15432405

    Next zone an area for playtime, use a certain rug in the house or a play mat/drop cloth/pretty blanket or fabric works better and you can zone areas for both of them with this. Make a false purse for Birdie with lots of stuff to open or close, lids to take on or off and things to shake or whatever she’s into exploring at the moment. For Charlie’s age give him sorting/arranging/memory tasks to do on the mat. He’s probably really into the order of things right now and tactile smaller objects so a set of these (https://www.amazon.com/Kid-Advance-SE003-Montessori-Cylinder/dp/B003KWKT3S) might be good for him for mat play.

    If you want to really do some activities you can gather a few random household things and blindfold Charlie – make him try to guess what it might be. Birdie can be in charge of the basket of items gathered and changing them out when he’s guessed. (think out of the box dryer ball, orange peel, lint, blocks, toy car, paint brush, banana, stuff that feels different in texture/temperature or that makes a noise when you squeeze it. Make a game out of it to gather items together and then put them back away around the house. It gives you a chance to sit while he guesses (maybe eat something too so you’re not starving at bedtime and can be happier about the sometimes dreaded bedtime task) and I bet he will laugh and get a kick out of guessing while it tests his memory for items gathered. Sneak in one or two as well to guess that he didn’t see.

    Books, Books, Books

    Not the most exciting but you can do household tasks together:
    Water the plants with small ice cubes; it’s less messy, probably won’t over water the plants and kills some time to walk around.
    Do laundry together – my guy loves to start the washer or dryer or sort and fold socks.
    Have a helper stand (we just did an Ikea hack but you can buy them as well, just google it) COMPLETELY changed the way I’m able to cook/clean while also keeping little hands occupied and their bodies contained in an area. Birdie should be good as well to use it or share one with Charlie.
    Have them wash some grapes, carrots or whatever is on the menu, put things in the recycle bin or collect an item from the pantry that is needed, scramble an egg for you. This is a good activity for them to help with even if they’ve already eaten bc it can give you a chance to make a small meal or snack for yourself.
    Give them a small spray bottle with water and a drop or two of lavender or citrus oil with a soft cleaning cloth and they can “clean” the surfaces they can reach like the coffee table or shelves.

    Make bath time longer, you can do sorting or coloring activities in the bath, sing songs together, turn on the bubble machine, turn off the lights and bring in glow sticks or whatever but a longer bath sometimes helps on those days when you are burnt out and tantrums are more frequent.

    We use this book and do yoga together but there are lots of videos or other books for kids yoga as well. A bonus it also gets you a little stretch so you feel a bit more centered after working all day. https://www.amazon.com/Good-Night-Yoga-Pose-Pose/dp/162203466X

    Collect stuff by color or size or texture – you can do this with stuff around the house.

    I also keep a few “busy boxes” – it’s just a clear plastic 16qt bin with a lid that I have some different toys, books, craft stuff or musical instruments and when things get a little stagnate for everyone we select one together and play on our mat with the fresh stuff. It certainly helps to rotate toys this way so I don’t get a bored as well as them.

    Coloring, lots of coloring. Give Birdie fat colored pencils to use, it’s easier than crayons and won’t matter as much if she sticks them in her mouth.

    Bubble machine – always fun and less messy than blowing them yourself

    Simple low to the ground balance beam for kids – both Birdie and Charlie can do this one with a little help from you I’m sure

    Fly a kite =”s energy burned running back and forth in the yard

    What about a child safe (big with a plastic needle) needle point for Charlie to do? There are lots of kids versions that might be fun for him?

    This book helped me and it was a short read (so bonus for time crunched parents) https://www.amazon.com/Sitting-Still-Like-Frog-Mindfulness/dp/1611800587

    Also this book was given to me by my MIL and helped with finding activities I might not have thought of. They have a few different versions for toddlers, pre-k, crafts etc. https://www.amazon.com/Toddlers-Busy-Book-Activities-3-Year-Old/dp/0671317741/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492796729&sr=1-2&keywords=busy+books+for+toddlers

    For tantrums and moments when Charlie or Birdie are just having too many feelings to understand (aka sociopath toddler version) look into a calm bottle. We made one our of some galaxy glitter and a plastic bottle glued shut. It takes a little time but with lots of reintroduction of it during stressful moments helps. http://montessoritraining.blogspot.com/2013/12/encouraging-peace-in-montessori-peace-basket.html

    Lastly just remember that even asking these questions shows that you care, YOU’RE DOING GREAT and we are all human sometimes we don’t have our best version to give. What matters is how we handle those moments and teaching our kids the language of those moments to better understand it for themselves. It’s okay to have an off day, no one can have a perfect sparkly day everyday and they need to see that too, you’re preparing them for their life as well so teaching them how to express and handle stress/anger/sadness/boredom is just as important. Plus sometimes parenting is boring, it is stressful, or daunting, it’s okay to feel all that. It’s crazy when people say that they LOVE EVERY MINUTE of being a parent, these people are lying! Ask them that when they have a child crying for no apparent reason getting into something they aren’t supposed to while you’re also elbow deep in poo with a toddler that’s having a meltdown and won’t cooperate. Hey life happens and not every moment is great. Every single person should tell someone today, male or female that they are a great parent. Encouragement and support helps! It takes a village truly.

  170. That is a lot of alone parenting time! I have a 4 year old and 2 year old and just went part-time after working full-time, and I think it takes some time to get into the rhythm of being with kids. I usually play with them a little bit and then do chores near them, which they can get involved in too (e.g. folding laundry, washing vegetables, etc.). They love any kind of play with water or ice. And, we try to get out of the house, even for a quick walk or to the library, just to break up the time. good luck!

  171. Emily – look at all this amazing advice you have collected! Can you have someone on your staff summarize all the good ideas! Jk, but wow I am saving these comments to refer to whenever I get bored with my two young boys.

    So my tip is to keep a list of 20 things that HAVE WORKED for you and the kids in the past posted somewhere that you look everyday and just look at it in those desperate moments when you need an idea.

  172. My youngest of 3 children is now a sophomore in college. It all eventually ends (sort of!), but until then, it CONSUMES you. Hardest job on the planet, bar none. Several things we loved when my children were small: outside play all of the time, water play with the hose and jumping through the sprinkler (my son loved filling a bucket with water from the hose), letting them pull a wagon around the yard or driveway (then, put both of them in the wagon and walk them through the neighborhood in it), swinging, sliding, small basketball hoop (buy one that can be raised and lowered according to their height), playing in the rain (no lightning, though!). Swimming and swimming lessons ~ wears them out. Outside toys that have to be powered by their own legs ~ cozy coupes, trikes, bikes with training wheels, Big Wheels.

  173. Oh, and Red Light, Green Light and Mother May I? Old-fashioned games that children love since you must be involved.

  174. This really hits home. Working full time and trying keep a house clean and functioning with little kids is exhausting..and bedtime can be totally mind numbing. I think my husband is more fun because he doesn’t have a constant to-do list running through his head. The laundry does not register as a crisis with him like it does for me, so he’s carefree!

    Some things that work for my 5 year old son and 2 year old daughter… When we get a big box in the mail my kids turn it into a car by decorating it with crayons my daughter on the inside and son the outside usually. My husband and I cut windows and stuff and then push them around. The decorating takes hours and they love doing it together.

    My kids love making a mess outside. Water or sand sensory tables, chalk, planting plants in the dirt, watering plants, etc. We usually end a good play session with a bath and I often give them shaving cream to “paint” the bathtub with. Easy cleanup and makes the bath a fun part of the night.

    I have noticed that my kids moods are better when we get out of the house. We walk to the park in our hood and spend nights discovering downtown (our kids climb every bike rack and that’s super exciting to them for some reason). I realize that’s probably hard with how young Elliot is, but you will get there eventually. Good luck to you. Will raise a glass of wine in solidarity when I countdown to bedtime tonight. Lol. Love these littles like no other, but they are the challenge of our lives!

  175. I discovered this at the tail- end of toddlerhood but my girls LOVED it- instead of play dough, buy colored sugar paste or marzipan (at grocery store in cake decorations although I found mine at a art/craft store). They can make little things to decorate cupcakes for a holiday or party or seriously just like playdoh. It’s not pricey and then they can eat it!

  176. For our oldest (3.5) I set a timer or “count” how many times she does something. How many times she can run around the ottoman, how many times she can run from the laundry room to the kitchen, how many times she can hop on one foot, etc. My youngest is 6 weeks so this is less involved for you than you might like but that’s what works for us. Also, Target has a Kid Made Modern craft kit that’s just wooden beads and pipe cleaners. Our kid does it every day. Water painting (literally just paint brushes and water on cement outside). Super easy and no clean up like using paints. OH! ANd Playdough. E might be too young but that’s one I enjoy, too. Good luck! My husband is a nurse and doesn’t get home until after bedtime, so I feel you, girl! Some nights we survive until bedtime and some nights are fun.

  177. I love this post! My boys are 2 and almost 5, and it’s a constant challenge to find the balance between engaging with them myself and letting them do their thing. The boredom/guilt is real! Thanks for being so honest! Anyway, after scrolling through lots of great suggestions, one thing I thought I’d add is getting a couple sets of magnetic numbers and letters. For those times when you want to have a quieter and focused activity, those sets are great to get out with a magnetic cookie sheet (also our dishwasher is magnetic, but not all are anymore). My older one has a blast making up words. Sometimes he asks me how to spell certain words and I write them down in a little notebook and he uses that to spell with the magnets, which he loves. With the numbers he does “math” (some sets come with pluses and minuses and such) or just creates a crazy long number and asks me to say it! My younger one just loves to sort the letters/numbers apart and he puts them on and takes them off repeatedly. It’s not always a sure thing, but sometimes I’m shocked at how engaged it keeps them for a little bit.

  178. I have a almost 4 year old and almost 2 year old. Some of the things we do for fun: dance outside to music and play basketball, go for walks in the wagon, try new parks out, do art projects (she uses crayons) he uses markers and we make projects based on upcoming events/holidays. Play dough is good for both of them, in fact you could make play dough! Go to the library and find new books to read at bedtime, We build forts too – what about tenting it indoors and camp overnight and have a little sleepover? I’m getting my 4 year old more involved in the kitchen with stiring, dumping and shaking items to help with dinner. We also have a soccer net set up in the backyard to play with in the evenings.

  179. I have a 4 kids 7,5,3, 1 and I’m pregnant. And my husband works out of state from April to September. So basically, I totally get this! I think you’ve gotten some great ideas but honestly, at the end of the day, I’m freaking tired. I don’t want to plan crafts and make huge messes all the time. So here is my lazy (but fun) mom’s guide, ha:

    1. Teach Charlie games like “I Spy”, “Red Light, Green Light” “Simon Says” and “Beat your fastest time at x”. So you’re engaging, he’s having a blast but basically it’s really easy for you. If you’ve got some energy, you can join in. Birdie will totally just copy and do what he’s doing.
    2. Color. Like you color or sketch or whatever, if you’re into that sort of thing. Both Birdie and Charlie can do it too. And the more you do it, the longer they’ll want to do it. They don’t always do it for long at first.
    3. Read books. I mean this is a duh, but again, the more you do it, the more they’ll be into it. I like reading kids books so I like this one. I also always love the little preschool books called “Brain Games”. They have little pictures with questions you ask like “What is the a picture of?” “Can you find all the blue birds”, etc.
    4. Extended Bath. Glow Sticks in the tub, bubbles, bath paint, etc.
    5. Movie Night. It’s been mentioned but movie + popcorn (with M&M’s obviously).
    6. Play Airplane. Lay on the floor and have them lay or sit on your feet and do airplane type stuff. Bonus: you can do some leg presses with them and count it as exercise
    7. “Sportscast” or be an “Audience Member”. This is something I learned from Janet Lansbury. But when we play with our kids and they’re using their imaginations we often interject our own thoughts and ideas in, which can sort of thwart their little imaginations. And they often get frustrated because we aren’t doing it “right”. So instead of actually playing, I just quietly observe by sitting and watching. They know they are holding my attention (which they love) but I’m not getting in the way of the game. I may say things here and there like “Oh I see you’re using that car as a spaceship now” or “You were stacking blocks and they fell over”. Basically just a reserved “sportscaster”, if you will. They have my attention, which is really all they care about, but I don’t need to put on a show. And I enjoy just watching how their minds work.

    And then, throw in some big fun every once in awhile. Epic crafts, dance parties under the disco ball (we got the Ikea one), run around in the warm summer rain, dig in the dirt, make a huge fort. But really, I don’t put too much pressure on myself to be epic all the time. I have some fond memories of doing some fun things with my Mom, but honestly, we played on our own most of the time and she is/was such a great mom. Just giving them 15 min. of pure undivided attention a day even, does wonders. You’re doing great! High fives and hugs to all the moms of tiny humans!

  180. My little kids love seeing themselves in videos on my phone…it’s a great time-filler and it’s hilarious!!! My kids will put on short “shows” of various kinds (dance to fun music; tell jokes; sing; play musical instruments (read: bang on pots and pans) or I’ll just ask ’em silly questions and video their answers) and then I’ll play the video back for them. My kids howl and laugh and so loooove seeing their “shows.”

  181. Water table … basically a tub of water with all sorts of things they can dunk or dip or squish. My daughter in law tipped me off to the fun of matchbox cars, a ramp of some sort (cardboard?) to roll the cars down into “snow” (shaving cream) then they wash them up.

    bucket of plastic animals to hide and find.

    here’s some from my secret pinterest stash…

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/236227942931620117/ plastic laundry basket (or something with lots of holes. thread yarn back and forth to make a “spider web” and put some toys on the bottom. they have to figure out how to get them out.

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/236227942931602357/ fishing in a kiddie pool with nets and rubber duckies or anything that floats. Get nets at a pet store Bigger one for Birdie and smaller (more challenging) for Charlie

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/236227942931620106/ shaving foam and food coloring “paint” they can paint on freezer paper or themselves… or the sidewalk..

    http://happyhooligans.ca/cloud-dough/ mix baby oil and flour to make cloud flour they can mold with cups

    Basically hunt on pinterest for toddler friendly stuff… the mommy blogs have lots of ideas.

  182. Reading your post today made me remember some of the simple activities I use to do with my kids. They’re in their 30’s now…..didn’t have all the electronics available kids have today, so we had to get creative.
    Balloons: make a game out of bopping one to each other but keeping it in the air. Sometimes we’d count aloud to see how many times the balloon would get hit & see how high our number could get.
    Colorful wooden blocks in different shapes & sizes (does Brio still exist?) for building towers, cities, racetracks, castles, etc. My kids would love to destroy or knockdown these structures, which I always pretended to be very sad or surprised about.
    Dolls or small stuffed animals: do different voices with each one and just create a story as you go along. Kids love pretending & making up stories.
    Cardboard boxes: they love getting in them & being pushed around while inside, too. Maybe have them decorate with stickers, ribbons, streamers, or washable markers, too.
    Hide and seek in the house.
    Making forts or tents using sheets /blankets & clothesline/ safety pins was always a hit.

    1. I agree with the balloon. Kids love balloons and will play with them for hours. It’s surprisingly fun to bop around a balloon with them and you can usually do it while sitting down.

      I always like doing puzzles or playing duplo (and later Lego) with the kids. They would eventually lose interest and I’d still want to be putting the sets together.

  183. Can I just say–this brought me to tears because of how well you capture all the conflicting feelings we have as parents–exhaustion, boredom with imaginative play, yet the most profound love imaginable. I work long hours and feel awful about not spending more time with my son, and then feel awful if every moment I do have with him doesn’t feel “intentional” or “quality.” Reading this, I wanted to say “I love you Emily!” for being brave enough to write so honestly.

  184. Growing up my mother was so amazing at thinking up creative ways for us to play…

    A simple game was literally just using shaving cream to play/smear all over a surface that wouldn’t be damaged…..maybe like a craft table? We would do this for so long and loved how messy it was πŸ™‚

    We would also make puppets out of brown lunch sacks with different outfits/decorations cut from old wallpaper books. Then of course put on shows.

  185. 1. Duplos / legos — lots of imaginative play.

    2. Outdoor chalk, a little hit or miss, but when they are in the mood, it’s a success.

    3. Bubbles!!! They love bubbles

    It’s always easier for me to spend time outdoors with them. Any nearby playgrounds? Parks? You could do picnic dinners in the fort. Let them explore nature.

    Hugs from Copenhagen πŸ€—

  186. Oh man, it’s all about throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. For me one of the hardest parts of parenting is when I try some new idea or activity that I am jazzed about and the kids couldn’t be more unimpressed. Here’s one thing recently that was a huge hit with my kids: my intern was going back to school and gave us all the contents of her spice cabinet. Lots of bottles from the dollar store. We spent a whole day playing with them outside, opening each and smelling, talking about our favorites. Then they just spent an hour combining them in bowls, making a big mess. It was true experimentation. Now they have their own spice rack outside of they want to do it again.

  187. Wow- already 222 comments!
    I don’t feel like I need to add any ideas, but I wanted to let you know that the year my boys were 1 and 2.5 years old, my husband and I lived in different states (MA and MO) and let me tell you, I sometimes thought I was the worst mother. They were not yet in preschool and I was working full time, so I worked round the clock.
    At the time I thought -woof, this is hard, but looking back it was the ultimate s##t show. It was ugly. BUT, we all got through it. I thought I had to be creating fun activities and lasting memories and encouraging intellectual growth every minute of everyday. But it was those times I stepped back and allowed them to set the tone and pace that has built their ever lasting friendship. If I could do it again, I would be less involved. They know that I am there and available to them even when I am not on the floor. Yes, I would have still made them tracing pages, obstacle courses, read to them all the time, but I could have taken a couple of minutes for myself to regroup.
    Also, and most importantly, now looking back, it is just a memory. A small phase of my life and their lives. And an added benefit? Nothing will ever feel as hard again. Even now with three kids, life is a breeze in comparison.
    Good luck, and GO BRIAN!

  188. I read some comments, but not all, so I’ll try not to repeat.

    For some reason, putting PJs on early can revitalize a night for me.

    -There’s the component of “we’re doing this sort of interesting thing IN YOUR PJS!”
    -You are less likely to get stuck doing that step after everyone is tired.
    -they look so darn cute in PJs that I see them with new eyes for a few minutes at the end of the day!

    Movie night in PJs, drive around and listen to audiobooks in PJs, evening play date where all kids put on PJs at the same time, etc etc.

  189. Car wash! We recently did this in the driveway once our toddler and the neighbor’s two toddlers were bored with “driving” their cars and bikes around. Set up stations with buckets of soapy water, sponges, rags, towels to dry. It was so fun!

  190. A shot of whiskey and a bedtime story.

  191. I have a 4 and 5 year old and consider myself a pretty kick ass mom. There are some things that are exhausting for me too and my solution is to largely avoid doing them. Pretend play is just not my strong point. You are not alone. Some people can really get into that and that’s great but I will never be super satisfying of a playmate for those games. We spend a lot of time reading, playing outside, coloring/painting, playing board and card games (there are a bunch of games kids as young as 3 can do). Also I think its very important that kids see you doing things you enjoy. Find ways to incorporate them into household chores and cooking. It will definitely feel like more work than just doing them alone but it is the biggest self esteem boost for kids these ages to learn those skills.

  192. My kids are almost the same age difference, but they are 3 & 5 now. First, let me say that 15-18 months from now, things will be (mostly) easier. Elliot will probably be sassier (and you’ll love it) and Charlie will be getting into his know-it-all phase (either he wants to know it all or thinks he already does). But, yes, now is hard. My heart goes out to you.

    Mostly I find that my kids like to create things with their little hands. Playdoh, Duplos, blocks, trains….it’s all fun for them. Duplos in particular have been a lifesaver for me. Both kids could play with them safely and they both loved building things. My son has mostly moved onto regular Legos now, but I have a large bin full of Duplos that I dump onto the living room floor whenever things get to crazy and tell them it time to build. Still works.

    For arts & crafts, I think you can find things that will work for Elliot. Even around 18 months, my daughter would sit at a table for half an hour and just stamp and paste stickers on a large sheet of butcher paper that I would use to cover the table. The end result wasn’t important–it was all about the process. Just keep the stickers coming (I get lots at the dollar stores and in bulk). Markers and crayons, are of course, always a great addition.

    We also hoard our cardboard boxes and tubes from paper rolls/toilet paper/foil/etc. Cardboard plus colored masking tape & stickers can pretty much become anything they could imagine. We’ve built cars, spaceships, houses, castles and, even a movie theater (we sat in front of a “screen” filled with stickers as characters and they narrated the action to me. I loved every moment of it). It isn’t going to be the neatest, most aesthetically pleasing playtime debris, but my kids can’t stay away from those cardboard boxes.

    For outside, they love colored chalk, which is much more fun now that summer is coming around. Also, water playtime outside! We get a few of these soaker toys from Target every summer. They’re easy enough for toddlers to use with a little help.
    With a large tub full of water, it’s a good 30 minutes of fun outside. My kids love to spray them up into the air and let the water rain down on them.

    Good luck!

  193. Janet Lansbury is the best. Her site really helped me to understand it’s not our job to entertain our kids. Total sanity saving shift of my helicopter mom thinking.


  194. I get ya. I’m pregnant with our 4th and our oldest is 4. So, yeah…

    I started staying at home full time two years ago when my husband finished medical school, and his residency schedule is NO JOKE. We’re talking 14 hour shifts every day this past week. And I have WEEKS in a row when I am barely making it through the days and in a total funk. But the awesome thing is, I also have weeks (hell, even months!) in a row when the kiddos and I are having the time of our lives, creativity is literally oozing out of our home and I feel like I’m rocking the mom thing. The insane shifts are normal, and rather than trying to force the fun and novelty experiences when things are rough, just wait until that (probably short) season has past and it will come SO much more naturally. It’s really healthy for our kids to see us respecting ourselves and our needs and prioritizing rest. And it will make it even more exciting for them when you bounce back and “fun” mom is firing on all cylinders again. 😊

  195. Magna Tiles
    Stomp Rockets – easy fun for all ages outside
    Melissa & Doug Water Wow books
    Educational Insights Magic Moves Electronic Wand

    Also this is a great resource for age appropriate toys and activities: https://modernparentsmessykids.com/mpmk-toy-gift-guides/

  196. I feel you! My kids are 18 months apart and I felt like that for a long time. A couple of things my kids (girl and boy) loved. Straws and Connectors, do you know them? goo.gl/A6zLGm
    we also use crazy fort sticks which can really up the fort building game.
    Marble runs, unless Birdie eats marbles?
    How about puppet theater? did you see the Land of Nod one that hangs in a hallway/doorway? LON has a ton of fun stuff that my kids enjoyed. We also like chalk spray paint, it’s really cool and washes off. Super bright colours.
    If you want to venture out on the weekend try the Home Depot workshops for kids. And on a rainy day we also painted super large canvases with washable paint.
    Lastly, my kids are really into spy games and there are several kits that can support that play at different ages.

  197. Boys love dirt! I had 4 boys six and under (no twins). We had a teeny tiny yard and I tore out the grass in a section and left it dirt. They would spend hours and hours driving their matchbox cars and small tractors in it, finding bugs, making mud with the hose. Yes, it’s messy but I would let them play in their swimsuits and just hose them down after. Before we sold our house I had to landscape that section and it was the saddest day for everyone. But now we live on 2 acres in the hills and there is plenty of dirt to go around!

  198. If you have old (but not gross) things to clear out of your pantry (spices, flour, beans, etc.), drag them out into the backyard with some big bowls and a couple of wooden spoons and let your kids go to town stirring, sifting, making “potions.” Messy but fun. For some odd but fortunate reason, my toddler likes yard work. We all weed, we all win!

    LOVED your honesty because I feel the same way some days. I’m just a smidge behind you with a two-year-old boy and 8-month-old girl. I’m struggling with the baby-toddler combo because the baby always seems to be getting the short shrift. Even though she’s happy to play with (read: chew on) whatever is nearby, I feel so bad plopping her down in a random spot or wearing her all the time. Any advice? It sounds dumb, but what do people do with their babies at the park?

  199. There is a seller on etsy who makes packable, wipeable play mats with all the streets of your neighborhood–great for trains and matchbox cars. At those ages my kids looooved a train table (yes it eats up space–but hours of fun making new layouts, trains with sound effects etc.), and something both of mine loved to do together (2 1/2 yrs. apart). Also, if it’s warm outside–fill a shallow rubbermaid container with an inch or 2 of water, and give them rocks, little rubber animals, and they “make habitats”. My son loved that and would spend hours adding grass, dirt, etc….of course supervision because of the water. They are at a great age for scooters, and a ride-on toy for your daughter. Nothing beats burning the physical energy then a bath—little boys need to be run “like dogs”…..meaning all that energy needs to be spent everyday….Good Luck, and enjoy them! It is normal to dread and wish time away–wouldn’t be a Mom if you didn’t (then of course load self with some guilt πŸ™‚

  200. I am a stay-at-home mom to 3 and 1 year old boys (and also nanny a 18 month old) and sometimes the days definitely drag! It really helps us to have a schedule we loosely stick to- independent play while I clean up breakfast, snack at 10, outside play (fill a bin with water and throw in cups and paintbrushes and bowls and cups with holes and funnels), sidewalk chalk, digging in the dirt or gravel, and then lunch at noon. Once the kids are down from 1-3, I feel like the day is more manageable and not so LONG since we break it up. After nap, we usually venture to a park or the library, but if we are home, my kids ALL enjoy classic toys- blocks, big leggos, wooden puzzles, pom pom pickup with tweezers, digging in a bin full of beans with foam letter puzzle pieces in there that they can match to the puzzle board, drawing on their chalkboard table (thrift store kids able I painted the top with chalkboard paint- so so much play happens there!!!), or rolling cars down a ramp. My boys like to sort and put things in containers- small blocks, pompoms, little animals, or even Easter eggs into larger containers or a shoe box with holes cut out. I also recommend the big paper (packing paper works great!) taped to the floor with stickers and crayons- lots of fun for you to practice your art skills πŸ™‚

    I sympathize for sure- it is hard to keep small children busy, but I have found that the more I teach them to entertain themselves and then step back, the longer they are able to keep themselves busy, even if it means following me around, helping me with the laundry or cleaning the kitchen. My 3 year old LOVES to be a gopher- grabbing things for me or putting things away in the proper rooms- super helpful and active too! Good luck and you are doing great!!!

  201. Maybe a baking lesson? I am new to your blog and maybe you hate baking… but in French culture kids learn to cook/bake on weekends as an activity. Your youngest may need to “help” with a spoon and an empty pot but at least she’ll be involved!
    Also, as kids we always did body outlines on rolls of craft paper and then filled in our “self portrait”.
    Have fun!

  202. honestly – we loved homemade playdough. there was nothing more relaxing than kneading warm dough. we coloured and scented it with spices or koolaid if we wanted. i always made the batch white and then they could add colours to several balls.
    We almost did it weekly.
    this is what we made:

    you are doing fine. i hated imagination games and still managed to raise extremely creative and artistic kids (3).

  203. I’ve bookmarked this post and plan to refer back FREQUENTLY. I have a 22 month old and a 5 month old and I’m already grasping at straws… how many pictures can we color before I go insane?! Thank you so much for posting this and I’m loving all of the suggestions from your readers! πŸ™‚

  204. They might like a small water table. Outdoor. Free pla for hours. Also huckle buckle beanstalk. You had a small object and they look. Hot or cold. You can cook or relax while playing.

  205. This really resonated with me. I am a stay at home mom of two girls (aged almost two and just-turned-four) who never expected to be one. One of the many things that has shocked me about myself as a parent is how little I enjoy actually playing a lot of the time. They are fierce, and funny, and amazing, but their games are boring and tedious, and I JUST DONT WANT TO PLAY THEM! And I am terrible at them. I hate play dough! And then I feel ashamed about that, and I cry. A lot. All the moms of toddlers and preschoolers I know do.

    That said, here are some of our recent hits: Cheep calcultors, the Ikea cash register, really long baths, painting rocks (yes really), making volcanos out of baking soda and vinegar. Also, the Pai ring the fence/deck with water thing that someone else mentioned. We also cook together a lot. I let them help and taste but also kind​ of narrate as if I am on a cooking show. There is a lot even an 18 month old can do.

    But also, (and I know I am going to get slammed here by some people, but I am ok with that) TV! I love TV! It saves me from some of the longest, hardest hours (pre-7 am wake-up, the period between nap and dinner). There is a lot of garbage kids’ tv, but there is also some great stuff that is education and empowering. We love Daniel Tiger, Peg Plus Cat, the Odd Squad, Dot, Mr. Roger’s, Story Bots, Julie’s Greenroom, and The Magic School Bus.

    Hang in there! Solo parenting at bed time is no joke, so go easy on yourself!

  206. There are so many great ideas, that I haven’t read them all yet, so I hope I am not repeating.
    With the warm weather, a water table is your friend. There are lots of great options out there. I would pass on the sand table/water table ones, as it all just ends up being dirty, wet sand.
    Kids love to put anything and everything in the water and play with it.
    Also, if you have smallish toys (dinos, whatever) and place each one in an ice cube tray compartment, fill and freeze. Then pop a few out at a time when they are playing with the water table, and let them have fun watching it melt and the toy (flower, whatever) appear.
    I also applaud you for putting this out there. Everyone feels this way, but no one voices it. You are helping a lot of people with this today!

  207. I haven’t read all the responses but the things that work the best with my kids (3 and 1) are:

    – go for a walk. Sometimes I call it a “nature walk” and we collect rocks, sticks, leaves, etc. that we find out the ground. Being outside keeps everyone from getting crazy.

    – hide some toys for a week or two so that when you take them out again, they are new to the kids and it keeps them much more engaged.

    – water play. take off their clothes, lay out a towel on the kitchen floor (or go outside) and fill up some pots with water and get out some spoons and measuring cups.

    – have a picnic, inside or out. My three year old thinks it is such a treat to eat dinner on a blanket in the living room.

    – I don’t have time to plan complicated, Pinterest-y arti projects, but two of my favorite art activities are 1. cuting shapes out of construction paper and giving my three year old a glue stick to glue shapes on, and 2. painting rocks.

  208. – Pull a couple chairs to the kitchen sink, fill it with bubble bath, kitchen utensils, cups, bowls, etc and let them play- this was my favorite thing to do.
    – Make home made play dough together on your kitchen island or counter.
    – buy mini sugar coated donuts, take them in the back yard and have a contest to see who will have the messiest face after eating.

  209. Play doh should be something they both can do together right now! That and modelling clay should provide some entertainment! My 3.5 year old is in love with a glue gun and he is constantly constructing things with cardboard, popsicle sticks and pretty much anything he can find… good thing they started making cold hot glue guns…. weird but it works!

    PS. Great post, don’t feel bad parenting is challenging no matter how much we truly love doing it and being parents. On another note where are the nesting live edge side tables from??? I neeeeeeed them : )

    Have a great weekend!

  210. Emily, I have no new ideas to add…your readers have said all the ones I recall and more. All your feelings are echoed by me. It is such a trying time for many reasons, but you will have great memories of these times, even if so much of the time is exhausting and boring. Our boy was a wild maniac who also wore me out. He soon turned into a sweet, sensitive boy and I can’t believe it’s the same kid.

  211. Having a friend with similar aged kids is a game changer. Casual visits where the kids roam and you have an adult to chat with is amazing, and trading kids is great when you need to run out but don’t want to take the circus. Outdoor things my girls enjoyed when they were younger were walks around the neighborhood, spray bottles (they’d spritz things around the yard), “painting” with water and watching it dry, “painting” with succulent leaves (we had a healthy plant). Libraries can be a great outing if your kids don’t fall asleep on the way home.

  212. We loved letting our granddaughter (as soon as she could stand in a chair at the kitchen sink) make “Old Things Soup”. We saved any out-of-date foods – canned and packaged goods, cereal, spices, anything – and let her dump them into the “soup”. As she got older we let her go through the cabinets and check the package dates. Yes, she made a mess but was totally engaged in the process and got to serve it up as we gagged appropriately! She’s 13 now and remembers it fondly.

    1. Oh, I had forgotten that we did that too! (Without the cute name.) My son loved it! Great one!

    2. This type of thing is fun! I would mix together the ingredients I thought you basically needed to bake stuff (flour, salt, milk, eggs…) plus whatever else in order to make a “cake” or “cookies”. Definitely inedible, but it was a good time, and it was actually a good trial-and-error lesson in terms of what has what effect when cooking. Let them put weird stuff in it that seems totally nonsensical (to you) and they can call their creations whatever they want. (I just called mine “poison” because I knew it was too gross for human consumption, lol.)

      On that note, my mom would make up the kind of clay that you do with flour and then we would mould it into whatever we wanted and then bake it. http://allrecipes.com/recipe/11125/bakers-clay/ It was cheap and fun to see our creations come to life! It could be painted after, too.

      The dress-up box was a constantly evolving fixture in our house. New things would occasionally “appear” in there to play with. There was a fischer-price doctor’s bag with a little thermometer, bandaids, stethoscope etc. Wigs, dresses, shirts, lab coats, goggles, just random stuff from the thrift store that felt super glam or special to a kid.

      Making “soap” can be fun – you basically take pre-existing bars of soap and melt them down, then put them into molds and add in whatever you want then let it solidify again. Sparkles, army men, confetti, or nothing at all cause you feel like a mad scientist for “making” your own soap in the first place.

      One last suggestion that might be interesting since you’re in California is playing “winter”. We would pull all the duvets/comforters out of the closet and line the staircase with them so it was a smooth ramp with a lot of pillows at the bottom. Ta-da, you have a tobogganing hill! I would slide down on a pillow (slowly) and pretend like it was a ski hill. (Part of the fun was going thump, thump, thump down each step.) Clear out a room with smooth floors and put on some socks and ice skate around, or play a hockey game (although you have a lot of beautiful things in your house, so extra caution is needed). Build an “igloo”, which is basically a regular fort with a new name. Let it “snow” with styrofoam peanuts or tissue paper or whatever substance you have available and you can tolerate the clean-up for. Snowball fights with balled-up socks. You can make smores over an oven burner and have hot chocolate/warmed up chocolate milk. The weirdness of having a winter fun day in hot weather makes it special.

      Hang in there! Like others have said, you are a great mom. Asking for help just shows how much you care. Thankfully you have a lot of readers with amazing advice – someone should compile this comment section into a printable resource!

  213. Our two girls are the exact same ages and very, very, very active, and we live in Seattle, so we’ve had a lot of time to work on inside activities. Other than the ones you listed, we like building cities/houses for dinosaurs or other small toys and then telling stories about them, coloring, setting up a pretend microphone and having a sing-off, jumping off the couch onto a massive pile of pillows, chasing each other, and having a picnic with every stuffed animal in the house. But possibly my greatest parenting hack: go on Amazon and buy yourself a small moonbounce for under $150. Ours is the My Bouncer Little Castle (no ball pit, no slide); it’s 6’X6′, inflates and deflates in about a minute, is indestructible, stores easily, and can also be used outside. Can definitely become a space ship – ours is frequently a submarine. People looked at me like I was a crazy indulgent parent when I told them I bought it… and then looked at me like I was a crazy brilliant parent in the indoor doldrums of January as their kids were happily bouncing away.

  214. Gosh, you wrote this and its like exactly how I felt everyday for years. Now, I’m a bit ahead of you (mom to 8, 6, 4 year old) and I will be honest, it does get easier. Those toddler years are so challenging. And honestly I’m not sure if I ever found an activity that i liked doing. I just did it. Actually, taking them to those kiddie splash pads were my favorite, because they didn’t need me too much and I could sit in the sun. Oh, and those giant red bricks, I guess I liked those too. But being a mom is really hard and the guilt is terrible. I think my kids more than anything just wanted me around to sit on my lap and watch a show or eat a snack. When I got really busy with work and wasn’t around as much, they really missed those simple things. Hang in there Emily. We all feel your pain. Thanks for verbalizing it so well.

  215. this book is a hundred years old. boys haven’t changed that much and there are 400 million ideas here for boys (exploring, survival, building) little girls will find fun too, that can totally be toddlerized.
    one thing it doesn’t have that you’ve picked up on is taking stuff apart. can i also suggest getting an old typewriter? i played on one throughout my childhood and learned to read early so i could do it.
    here’s the girls’ version, highly recommended.

    what’s the best about both of these books is that it’s engaging kids with real stuff (like taking a computer apart) which is all they care about. toys are BS. you’re on the right track.

    would a trampoline or other jungle gym help?

  216. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I’ve never read ALL the comments in a post before, but this one was highly informative. I have a 2.5 year old and I think we’ve tried many of these activities. However, our go-to is always books. My top recommendations are:

    1. The Preschool Color & Activity Book (maybe one for each child)
    2. Midnight Creatures (a book you use with a flashlight!)
    3. Disappearing Acts (a gorgeous seek-and-find book).
    4. Paper Zoo (a collage book that really just involves ripping up and pasting paper)
    5.Undercover (another clever and design centric seek-and-find book)

    Lastly, popsicles in the bath are always a hit.

  217. My kids loved riding in the stroller while I went for a walk/run. We’d stop and smell the flowers (dandelions), keep track of all the bunnies we saw, and they would make up stories while we went along. Do you have a double jogger stroller? Kids love the outdoors

  218. I love Kiwi Crate, wwwkiwicrate.com. I swear it was invited to address the burnout that we sometimes get from being creative moms. And Emily, it’s just as fun for the adults. This is why adult coloring books are so popular, just because we’ve grown up doesn’t mean we’ve given up on play. I have tried the kiwi crates and the tinker creates. I get more excited than the kids when the crate arrives, cute packaging and it includes everything you need. And no, I in no way work for them!!! I love it that much. I hope you get the chance to love it too.

  219. Oh mah gah, I cannot even fathom having those two delicious creatures to entertain every night after working a full day, while starving . . . by yourself. AH-MAZING. Like you, I simultaneously loved every second of those ages and also prayed to the gods that 8:15 would come sooner. In fact, if my son skipped his nap at that age, I MADE it come sooner by drawing the blackout shades in his room and beginning our extensive bath, pjs, book reading bedtime ritual early. (He could not tell time, after all. Sometimes 4 p.m. was good enough.) It really is impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it just how much you love and miss those little beings every single second you’re not with them and, at the same time, want them to pleeeeeease GO. TO. BED. P.S. I’m sad to report that after living through the SWEET, SWEET SPOT (when they are more independent and less demanding but still want to please the pants off you) I am experiencing the same “this isn’t as fun as I want it to be” feeling with my 13-year-old now. Boo! ANYONE with tips for that age, I beg of you to comment.

    Meanwhile . . . here are two probably sort of weird ideas that always worked for me with toddlers!

    1) I often used a playstructure at a park or playground for this. But, any open space will do. Just use your imagination (and theirs) to take them on a wild trip. Say excitedly, “GUYS! Put on your explorer hats and grab your binoculars because WE ARE GOING ON AN SAFARI!!!!!” They will probably react like they CANNOT WAIT based solely on the excitement in your voice and without even needing to know what the heck a safari is. Once they are “in” you RUN LIKE THE WIND to another corner of the yard or house or park and pretend you’re all getting in your jeep, buckling your seatbelt and heading out. Sit down. They will too. Put your seatbelt on. They will too. Start up the jeep and drive a bumpy road. Then GASP IN SHOCK when you see a giraffe! Narrowly avoid a near fatal mishap with a lion! All you do is point and gasp A LOT. And narrate the whole thing for them. Like DO YOU SEE IT? It’s a scary lion! Hear it roar? I promise, they will totally fill in the blanks and you can start to coast through it after a while. I worked in daycares when I was in college and big groups of kids would follow me pretty much any crazy place I said we were going. The playstructures on a playground are particularly awesome because they have steering wheels and windows and the kids immediately just get how to pretend they’re on some kind of boat saling the mighty seas or wherever your adventure takes them. I remember that I had to do a lot of shouting. But otherwise I basically got to stand around on the playstructure while they conjured amazing things in their minds.

    2) Head to Staples. Purchase a giant moving box. (Unless you have some laying around.) Yes, I was desperate and I would pay good money for moving boxes that I didn’t need. My son went through a phase where he could kill a whole day making a fire truck or an office or an igloo or a drive-through (my personal favorite because HE all by himself thought to put his cash register which had a working microphone on it inside and take peoples’ orders). So cute in retrospect.

    NOTE: My son didn’t like to spend a lot of time decorating the box, much to my disappointment at the time. But he LOVED coming up with the idea, rough cutting doors or windows or steering wheels, etc., and then playing (in a cardboard box) to his heart’s content. My husband thought I had lost my mind and could not stand the cardboard phase of our life. Cardboard boxes EVERYWHERE. But like everything else with kids . . . it was fleeting.

    GOOD LUCK and GODSPEED to 8:15.

  220. I swear, this is like Christmas morning for me. My kids are the exact ages as yours and I’m frantically writing down all these incredible ideas from your commenters– this is great.
    I’m so inspired by your drive to enjoy what is such (SUCH!) a hard stage of life, and will carry it with me. As for me, the things that get me through are baths/water play, playdates/shared dinner with friends, dishtowel superhero quests and Daniel Tiger.

  221. We recently bought a cheap colourful dance party light. Paired with music, a couple of balloons and a dark playroom we have ‘discos’ and dance it out. The music helps lift my mood and makes it fun.

  222. First of all. Yes. It these ages are exhausting and painful! I think scheduling short 20 minute playtimes with open-ended self-directed play after is helpful.

    Reading piles of books on the couch; make play dough and use various things in it- animals, sticks, plastic things; water tubs outside with cups and boats and such; make “loose parts” bins (google it). I find open ended things to work the best and just following the child’s idea/ lead works well.

  223. Playdough. The first time my very energetic second ever sat still for an extended period was when he was introduced to play dough.

    If the younger one wants to eat the dough, try a white bread smash and let them play with a piece of squishy bread.

    A sink full of water and some tin foil works pretty well, too, but maybe not for the younger one just yet.

    Bubbles. You sit and blow. They chase and pop.

  224. I haven’t read all the comments (so many great ideas) but as a mom of 8 I have to agree, by that time of night my kids are TIRED. We homeschool, and l expect them to get outside and play several (for the 5+kids, 3) hours a day. The older the boy, the more he needs that fresh air and exertion. We live in CA too so it’s easy. Even though I am with them all day I don’t ‘play’ with them a lot during the day because they have each other, but for my 6 and unders, after dinner time is for reading together, baths and sometimes simple card games. Being a mom takes a lot out of you and it’s connection with them that makes me happy, and when I’m happy, they are too. Don’t make it complicated, just be there with them!

  225. I love this post and completely related though I only have one. I feel horribly guilty that most nights after working a 8-9 hour day, i can’t wait until my daughter goes to bed. She’s my world, and I am so excited to see her, but it can be such a grind. I don’t know how stay at home moms do it bc it can be so mindnumbling boring but yet exhausting to keep a child entertained even just for a few hours. Don’t get me wrong, for me personally, working makes me a better mom bc I appreciate the moments we have together so much more, but I do struggle with what to do with her play-wise or I’m tempted to be on my phone – horrible right?! I don’t have any suggestions but thanks for this honest post that allows me to vent! I look forward to a follow up post with the best responses!

  226. Things that my kids love are letter of the week – we pick a letter and then do all things that relate e.g. B bubbles, board game, bus ride bees(craft), bread ( cooking), books ……. other things they love is Friday night dance party turn the lights down music up loud and dance……. hunting for new playgrounds we drive around until we find one we haven’t played at……. water paints are the best indoor craft and for the littlest ones you get aquadoole from target painting with water no mess at all……. another thing mine allways request is running races set up some cones and time them allways a winner…… gardening is good too we plant bulbs, herbs, cherry tomatoes and strawberries all around the garden and they love checking them….. fairy garden and little concrete rabbits and ducks hidden in the plants occupy them for hours…… a mailbox for them to write letters and post…… Pinterest is full of ideas

  227. Longtime reader here, infrequent commenter. THANK YOU. I have no children yet but am so worried about burning out and growing resentful of how much attention and energy it will require. I teach 150+ kids all day long, so when I go home, I love my quiet time to myself, and I’m so worried to give that up when we have a family.

    My point is, thank you, so much, for so often being real and giving us such an intimate glance into real human issues. I absolutely love and follow your blog religiously for home style advice, but I also love posts like this.

    Also, you have the most creative and loyal followers. I love reading your posts but also people’s feedback to them. You’ve built an incredible community here on EHD. Thank you and keep it up πŸ™‚

  228. Solidarity, sister! Thanks for your honesty. It’s helpful for all us moms to hear that we all struggle, we all are human, trying our best, and of course, all because we love our kids.

    Hang in there! You’re doing great.

  229. As a grandmother of 5, the best investment I have made for my grandchildren has been the purchase of Magna-Tiles. They are a little pricey, but you have to get the true Magna-Tiles – not the knockoffs. They have different quantities available in sets. They are magnetic shapes that are soooo easy to build with. My grandkids at the age of 1 1/2 were using them. My grandson likes to build garages and put his matchbox cars in them. Once 2 of them built towers and put our mini-flashlights (on of course) inside so the lights shined through. Sometimes they put mini dinosaurs in them. Both of your kids would enjoy these. I prefer to purchase toys that are more hands on than electronics, and my grandchildren love them! Each of them now has them and I have some at my house also. http://www.magnatiles.com/products/ Another idea: Paint!! Kids love to paint. I just did handprint canvases with my grandkids for Mother’s Day gifts for their Moms. They first rolled paint on the canvas with sparkles of course. Let them dry overnight and then did their handprints. They loved it and it will make a great Mother’s Day gift. You’ve got some great ideas from people. Enjoy!!

  230. Exercise. A tired boy, who then sleeps well, is a happy boy.
    Toss a small wading pool in the backyard, fill it with dirt (the kids can do this, it will take hours), and plant some starts. Then water them in an abstract random child way from time to time. This is done before bath time.
    Lots of walks, do them in a place you like (scenery, beach, whatever.)
    Dinner at noisy busy locations.. A taco truck at a park? Mc(gasp)Donalds? Distraction is the plan here.
    Personally, I loved watching the old Muppet show that was filmed in England ages ago. Plenty of snarky and smart dialogue for the parents. Plenty of jolly skits and songs for the kids. My babies, who are older than you, still sing “The Cat Came Back” and “Gno, gno, gno I’m a Gnu.”
    Story time at the library. Only Charlie will track it, but it will give you a little time to focus on your girl. Then reverse it, do something that engages Eliot while Charlie gets Mommy time.
    Call Grandma! My kids could talk to Grandma for ages on the phone. Charlie is old enough.
    Lower expectations, until Daddy is back at night and things are more normal.

  231. My children were 17 months apart, and many days I would look at the clock and it would only be 5:00, and I would think, “Bedtime, I can’t wait!” They were best friends, playmates, and creative partners in the business of play. Most of us parents, if we are honest, will admit those toddler days were some of the most challenging.
    I haven’t read the other suggestions and this might be a repeat, but one of the most entertaining activities, and the simplest was to give my children the huge cardboard box that our new dishwasher came in! They used that box for everything you can imagine, a house, a car, a spaceship, a manger, a nap place, a snack area, a schoolroom, a place to snuggle in a bean bag together when it was time for the bedtime story, a doghouse for all the stuffed animals…you get the idea. A simple suggestion of what the box could be used for that day, and they were off!
    My children have grown up to be the two most creative people I know, that fueled their imaginations in that simple cardboard box, and were encouraged to make something out of nothing.
    Enjoy these years, and jot down the cuteness frequently in words and photos. You will be glad you did, and your children will too!

  232. My husband is away for work every other week, for a week at a time…I can relate to everything you wrote!! First off, be gentle on yourself. This is HARD work! Some days, you’ll feel like a rockstar. Other days, you’ll want to crawl under a rock πŸ™‚ And they are both ok.

    Activities that helped while solo parenting my littles…puzzles, making “roads” with painters tape all over the house and rolling cars or bouncy balls along, lots of playdough creations, a really long bath (like, really really long) with special treats like bath beads or bubbles, let the kids fill flower pots with dirt and have them plant seeds (digging in dirt alone was thrilling), running through the sprinkler when it’s warm, outside painting (i buy tons of canvases at michaels when they’re on sale, put an old sheet on the grass, strip down the kids and let them go to town…a LONG bath will follow, and you get some pretty cool art out of the deal πŸ™‚

  233. Hi Emily! I’m in my mid-twenties now but have the most wonderful memories of going on walks with my mom. We would make faces out of pinecones, twigs, flowers, whatever was around–pine needles for hair, cones for eyes, twigs for a mouth for example–on the ground and just make as many as we wanted. We had a great walking path to do this on, but I imagine you could do it in your back yard. These are some of my fondest memories with my mother–and I think it’s something that both of your kids could do, though you might need to help little girl! I love how it makes the mind looks at the world and nature in a different way, and being outside/running to pick up the pinecones etc is always good! Good luck!!

  234. We have been doing a lot of ‘Easter egg hunts’ with empty Easter eggs. Basically I just take 15 seconds to hide them around the room, then watch for 5 min, while my 2 year old finds them. I am amazed how entertaining he finds this, because they are empty… Gives me 5 min to watch and just sit on the couch.

  235. I like to refer to this:
    Be creative
    Outside play
    Read something
    Done something helpful?

    We also liked to watch kids nature and science shows, which then can kick off lots of activities like drawing or imaginative play.


    At Easter I do a treasure hunt for my older kids which got me to thinking about scavenger hunts. A teacher friend was telling me how some kids have difficulty translating worksheets to real life so a simple sheet of pictures for them to find around the house will help them. Line dawning of a shape and they find something else that shape.

  236. I would put out things on the table that they had not played with in a while. (You could put it on the floor). Perhaps it’s 5 different puzzles, perhaps it’s all the small cars, a felt board with figures (from Michaels) then me and the 2 boys would start playing. You might line up all the cars, start making puzzles etc. Just get started and they will dig in and start playing independently, especially as they get older. Let them lead the play. We sometimes make a duplo city. Each working on a separate building. My boys are now 3 and 6, this works well to get them started and usually I can walk away, grab the laundry etc. Today we did crafts where we stuck spaghetti into playdooh and then added cheerios. Great for fine motor skills and they love anything they can taste. Just watch your little so she does not eat the playdooh.evenings are tough because they can get tired and cranky. I would make an evening routine of taking a walk. Perhaps Charlie walks and Elliott is in the stroller. Or he rides a tricycle or similar. Let the walk be interesting, stop for bugs and flowers, neighbors and cars that are interesting. It will help them the get tired and easier to put down. Kids also likes routines. Perhaps this is before bathtime! You can do it! Lower your expectations and grab a glass of wine.

  237. This might sound crazy because charlie appears to have so much energy to burn, but you might actually be able to put him down to sleep earlier… kids run themselves around like banshees to keep themselves awake when they start to tire. Kind of like if you’re tired while driving, you do what you can to keep yourself stimulated and awake – windows down, sing at the top of your lungs, etc… give him the sensory input he craves, then let him crash sooner πŸ™‚

    Some of my favorite warm weather activities include filling a water table and letting them play. same with a plastic sand box you can let them be explorers in or create a desert world for plastic animals or make mud or whatever they please. ‘Painting’ with water outside is always such a hit, too, and no mess!

  238. I have 4 kids ( 8,7, 4, 6m) and my husband works in agriculture, so I have about a two month period during harvest when he is never home while they are awake. I have found water to be a magical time filler. They love having a”car wash” for all of the toy cars. Letting the use kitchen tools like funnels, measuring cups, whisk… with bubbly water, in the tub or with a water table outside. Even just paint brushes and water and let them “paint” the fence or outside walls.

  239. A big shallow storage bin filled with kinetic sand plus matchbox cars or toy trucks/tractors. Google or look up
    Sensory activities on pinterest. Lots of fun activities that both kids would enjoy. Our trampoline is our saving grace, although I think your back yard is full. Love the castle by the way. We had four babies in three years (one set of twins in the mix), and so I feel ya. One thing we’ve done with all of them is get them on a scooter at around Birdie’s age and then on the balance bike next. Our older three were riding bikes without training wheels in no time after mastering the balance bike. Our youngest isn’t there yet, but if you could take the kids to a paved path of some sort and scoot/bike, it’s so much fun. We’re so close to family bike rides, and I cannot wait! Oh, and one last idea – fairy tear hunts in the backyard. We buy those little colored glass flat beads from craft stores and throw them everywhere – the kids love finding fairy tears. It never gets old!

    1. Fairy tears, that’s genius! I could even do that with my older kids. Although do you have problems with losing some in the lawn mower if they’re are not found?

      1. Hey DP,
        We have our lawn mowed once a week, and our lawn service has never complained. But honestly, our kids have probably picked up the majority of them before our grass gets cut.

  240. Oh, and I’m sure they’ve been mentioned already but Magna-Tiles are our favorite toy. Pricey, but worth every penny. they are amazing, and you will not believe the structures kids can build with them. You’ll swear you have architectural geniuses! πŸ™‚

  241. So many ideas for activities, all good. How to keep mom sane? That’s harder. A timer. It helps to put a limit on everything, and small children don’t equate you and the timer as being the same entity. You can tell them you’re willing to do an activity for 15 minutes and set the timer for 8. They don’t know the difference, all they hear is the beep. Another suggestion is to take about half of the toys they have and store them away. Every two months or so swap them out with the current toys and put those in storage. It seems like amazing new toys just arrived and they will be so excited when they see the stored toys in a few months! And my favorite pretend game involved laying out magazines around the house as “stepping stones” like a trail. I would lay on the couch and read or close my eyes while I sent someone off to find a necessary item, but they could only step on the magazines. I couldn’t leave the couch because it was my boat that I lived on, and was our rescue vehicle. And finally, someone else mentioned mom’s ears. Mine didn’t work if I heard whining or yelling or mean words. I would literally say, “Is that yelling or whining? Because my ears can’t hear that and I can’t answer or help you if it is.” And I never responded other than to repeat that. It didn’t take long until I never heard whining or yelling or yelling again. I also recommend the Love and Logic book series. Good luck, and be kind to yourself.

  242. For Charlie, play-dough! I had hours of entertainment for my kids over age 2. My kids needed to develop hand strength for cutting and writing. We would keep it in the kitchen on the table. You probably will need some kind of protection for your table (shower curtain?). We also used to love to build wooden Thomas train track configurations.

  243. I have felt this way many times! Especially since all of my kids are high energy/spirited/strong willed. It does get better. It does. Personally I prefer a bit older kids (preschool up) & so the baby/toddler stage is tough.
    For your two, you could try the Melissa and Doug Water Wow “coloring” pads. My 2 & 4 year olds love them.
    You’re doing a great job. Keep on going!

  244. Hi Emily, I have a 2 1/2 year old boy and a husband that is a theatrical scenic designer. I, too, know the pain of being a theatre widow. I am lucky enough to have a dear friend with kids near my son’s age whose husband also works out of town a lot, so we joke that we are ‘co-mommies!’ My Nate loves his bouncy ball (basically a big exercise ball with a handle which you sit upon and bounce) and little bike. I also give him a big piece of foam core board and some paints outside and let him create beautiful masterpieces for my dining room! Finally, we have him a designed-for-kids digital camera for Christmas and he loves taking pictures of his Thomas trains, tool box, our garden, everything! We have a bulletin board on which we rotate his artwork and pictures as we go. And cooking is messy but loads of fun! Nate’s specialty is muffins! Break a leg to your husband, and know that you’re not alone. It takes a village!

  245. Bubbles are magic when all else has failed. Hugs.

  246. I just spent 30 minutes reading all these comments with so many amazing suggestions, and I still haven’t made it through all of them… Any chance you would do a follow up to this post summarizing the best ideas? This is pure gold in this mama’s opinion! Thanks for opening the discussion… we all struggle with this, as hard as it is to admit!

  247. A few quick ideas from a single, childless woman- numbered for your convenience. πŸ™‚ 1. Consider putting them to bed earlier. My sister has hers in bed by 7:00. Might help with the exhaustion a bit. 2. To get through the next few challenging months cut yourself some slack and let them do a little more of the easy stuff like watching videos, etc. 3. Have them call/facetime or “write” letters and draw pictures for their out of town family (or any friends and family). The love single aunts have for their nieces and nephews is fierce.
    Okay, one more. Be kind to yourself. You are clearly raising happy, loving, and adorable kids.

  248. I had 3 little boys very close together–they’re teens now but it’s been fun to think back to those days reading your post. First of all, I used bins and rotated toys so they didn’t get bored of seeing the same old thing every day.
    Second, I suggest theme days. Dress-up day with superhero costumes, animal costumes– they don’t have to be full costumes– a headband with fox ears and a fox tail to attach to their belt loop is one example. I’m sure thrift shops would carry costumes, and Pinterest is a great place to get ideas for easy costumes. Another theme day– set up a little grocery store. I bought a bunch of plastic fruit and then kept empty cereal boxes, mac & cheese boxes, etc. and set up a store for my kids. They each got a wallet with play money and had baskets to carry their food. I set up a cash box and check-out table– I was never able to find a good cash register! If you’ve got a play kitchen that they can use to cook afterward, all the better! Set up a pillow slide on a staircase. Baking together– I started out with a roll of store bought cookie dough that my kids got to cut up with butter knives and put on a cookie sheet. After that we moved on to making homemade cookies and pigs in a blanket, stuff like that. Transportation day– I’d set up my kid’s train set, or set up a big train using dining room chairs and the kids could take my ticket and serve me snacks. Or they got to push each other around using a flat furniture dolly. If you’ve got even a slight incline in your backyard, put down a smooth tarp, turn the hose on and let your kids slide! Oops–sorry for the long message, I could go on forever πŸ™‚

  249. I really love how authentic you are and I seriously could have written this post myself. After work frankly I just want to zone out in front of some bad TV and mustering up the strength to play with my kids feels more like a chore than I would like to admit. I unfortunately have ZERO ideas but am writing to tell you that you are 100% not alone in this and just caring and striving to find fun activities shows you are doing things right. I will however read the long list of comments for my own valuable insights πŸ™‚

  250. I have five kids (7,6,4,2,and nearly 1) and I looooove all these ideas! so great! We got a “magic moves” electronic wand. (educationalinsights.com) It keeps them entertained and moving by giving a command like, “slither, like a snake” or “leap, like a dolphin” and plays fun music while they run around slithering, or galloping, or bouncing, or swaying…. It is a really fun toy! We also just got some chickens, and that’s fun too. We sit outside on a picnic blanket and watch the chickens… it’s the little things.

  251. Oh man! These are all so good now I feel like I have to contribute! One of our all time favorite things to do in the summer is fill up a kiddie pool with bubbly water, throw in a bunch of plastic sea animals, and my son will find them and rescue them one by one. For a littler one you can toss in a basket of blueberries and they love pulling them out and eating them.

    We also recently bought a bow and arrow set that has felt balls at the end instead of an arrow head and I don’t know if we have ever had more fun.

    Lastly, I too am a creative and I like to build things. We often play trains, marble track, and plan city. He likes driving the cars around and I like making different tracks, setting up the towns, etc. win win!

  252. I have two that are 20 months apart. At that age they loved pretend cooking with a kitchen set and lots of wooden/plastic foods, plates, bowls, pots, drinks that they would “cook” for me. Sidewalk chalk. Bubbles. Wooden puzzles. Puppet shows.

  253. I have a boy and a girl the same distance apart but they are 5 and 3 now. I found 1 and 3 the hardest ages too. So many needs! My advice is to make sure you recharge first by eating/drinking sth so you don’t feel like death, the do sth sensory with them to help ground their crazy afternoon energy! So play dough, shallow buckets of dry beans/dry pasta with measuring spoons and cups or dinosaurs/animals (on the floor on a rug or blanket so the beans don’t fall and fly everywhere!), pots with lids with a bit of water inside and wooden spoons, pompoms and muffin tins. Literally just give them random stuff to manipulate! It’s “fun” bc it’s interesting to see what they do and say as they explore. Minimal direction from you, but easy to be present. Even when my little guy had too much energy to sit still, he’d settle into exploring sth with his hands. Especially kinetic sand! Totally kinetic sand http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00IG4YB5W/ref=mp_s_a_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1492837113&sr=8-3&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&keywords=kinetic+sand&dpPl=1&dpID=51jDi60zoHL&ref=plSrch
    I throw some in a baking dish and give them rocks or animal figures, or cookie cutters and they can play for a long time.
    And if my guy had too much energy to settle in to play, I’d offer to “time him” as he ran laps around the yard πŸ˜‰ good luck!

  254. I stay at home with my kids and I am loving all of these suggestions.

    I try to rotate some toys. Playmobil don’t come out until everything is cleaned up and then my oldest plays with those for a while (although the little one is not so delicate now, but she loves being a part of it all and is learning fast). I have separate buckets for Legos, watercolor paints, stamps, stickers, play-doh. I find that if I keep the toys up out of reach, organized in see-through buckets, my daughters have a feeling of novelty and play a little longer. But she can still plan what she wants to do (since she can see it all)

    I know you said Elliot was too young to cook, but Pretend Soup is a fun kids cookbook. My daughter LOVED to cook when she was little. Now she feels high and mighty that she can stir the pan when it’s cooking while the little one can rip up kale or whatever.

    Last thing. I got the easel from IKEA. Super cheap, great. I got some little paint cups that close so you don’t have to refill the paint every time. It is fun and my daughter loves it but, be warned, if I knew how much artwork I was going to have to secretly take out to the recycling I might have never bought it. Just kidding, sort of.

  255. Yard Games: like Mother May I, Simon Says, Ring Around the Rosie (even in the sprinkler when it’s hot) for active, get out the wiggles play. And then for quieting down, simple coloring with crayons in coloring books (kids one for them, adult ones for you with nice pencils) and lots and lots and lots of reading!!! Take them to the library in the evening and find some fun books together ❀️ You’re
    doing great, mama!

  256. I have to say what I wish I would have done when my now 8 and 10 year old were that age was to stop trying to find things we both enjoyed, stop expecting myself to enjoy it. I now also have a 3 year old and get a 3rd chance and what I have found most meaningful to me is to take what I call “mindful parenting” moments or blocks of time. I may have made this term up (or just hoping it is my revolutionary idea) and I’m working on a blog post about it (I’ll try to finish it and post to http://www.luanncoliver.com/blog, I’m a therapist) but basically you can figure it out by reading http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-groneman/mindfulness-tips_b_3484380.html that article about “mindful dishwashing” and apply it to playing with your kids. Focus on them, be present, notice them, their sounds, movements, skin, hair, interactions and follow the flow with your responsiveness. It’s really all I can do to make it enjoyable because I just find all his activities and conversation mind numbing otherwise. When I’ve taken some time each day to be “mindful” I feel less guilt when I’m annoyed or just trying to get through the day/hour/minute.

    1. What do you know that post was nearly complete so it’s posted. http://luanncoliver.com/for-parents-a-mindful-moment-with-your-2-year-old/ If only I had lovely photos like yours! It is what it is hope it helps.

  257. Another way to make a familiar dish. I think it will be very attractive. I will do it for my family’s dinner. Thanks for your guidance a lot!

  258. These activities might not be age-appropriate, but could be something to keep in mind.

    I help in a Transitional Kindergarten classroom and they do “centers” between their play time (i.e. math centers, art centers, literacy centers). You could replicate this with them! Centers last for 15 minutes with breaks in-between (“breaks” meaning play time, having stories read to them, dancing to music like Slippery Fish, 10 Little Fingers, Days of the Week song, Months of the Year song, etc). For each song there are actions to do for each part, so the kids love getting up and following along! May I suggest creating a Youtube Playlist filled with these types of songs (Count to 20 by Pick Pride and Alphabet Song by Have Fun Teaching are great). You can find the “choreography” online for these types of songs. For literacy centers, they listen to a story being read on tape and follow along with a copy of their own book (you could also use YouTube to find the songs). Libraries are great for renting tapes of kids’ books. Another group of kiddos will do “re-telling.” They re-tell a story they’ve read with the teacher a lot (5 Little Monkeys, 5 Little Ducks, Pete the Cat, etc). All the stories should have a song attributed to it. The way they re-tell the story is by using a magnetic board and laminated cut-outs of characters/objects from the story that have magnets attached (of course, you don’t need magnets and the lamination is because a group of 24 4-year-olds would wreck a simple cut-out) and they use them to re-tell the story on their boards (singing the song or nursery rhyme while acting it out). Math centers revolve around manipulatives, so Magnatiles, blocks, stacking cubes; things they can count and organize and build. They also use an iPad for math apps as well. Art centers are using things like Do-A-Dots and coloring books (a popular one), good old fashioned painting using an easel (the kids just finished paining the rabbit from “Old Mister Rabbit” along with googly eyes and cotton puff tails), practice cutting out shapes with safety scissors, etc.

    TK and Kindergarten resources online as well as Youtube are filled with such good ideas! Also, now that it’s getting hot out, a cheap little blow up pool is GOLD.

  259. My kids (2&4) LOVE to play in the sprinkler outside! Also playing chalk is fun – we draw solar systems, write all the ABCs, etc. I find chalk fun for me if I commit to a big work of art!

  260. READ lots and lots of stories. Look at books – Richard Scarry, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dr. Suess. The more the better. The cuddles and fun they have now will help them learn to love reading and that’s a big step up in both their educations AND the enriching their lives for their entire lives..

  261. Oh Emily. I have two that are two years apart, (now 5 and 7) and I feel that the ages your kids are now was the toughest phase for me. The guilt…I had so much guilt then. You want to be a good mom and person but it is so hard when you are tired, burnt out and surrounded by illogical humans just trying to learn how to live and react to the world. Walks around the neighborhood and bike rides saved my sanity. Good luck. Don’t worry about being perfect or the best version of you. Your kids love you and that feeling is what they will remember. Please know it gets better. Much better. ((Hugs))

    1. I’m not Emily, but I’m in the same boat and this makes me feel so much better.

  262. I love your honesty. No mom loves playing 24/7 with her kids, but we all want to feel connected to them so we make ourselves do it. I have a three and five year old now. Looking back I wish I had given myself permission to stop the guilt trips that I’d have every night when I got in bed. I would nitpick my mothering that day and of course it was rarely the 95% positive that I’d remember, only the 5% negative. Anyway, looking back I can see that it was TOUGH when they were 18 months and 3! Here are some suggestions for evening activities that mom and kids love:
    Walk around the neighborhood with Charlie walking and Birdie in a stroller. This leads to lots of conversations with the older kid since walking always seems to relax them and let them express themselves as they think things.

    Let them play in a sandbox at night. This keeps them occupied for hours and building in sand is fun for parents too. So is sitting next to the sandbox catching up on emails and celebrity news. They won’t care as long as you’re outside with them. I would strip mine down outside
    and then put them straight into the tub for a looooong bath time. I used to feed my kids dinner in the tub since they ate anything while they were distracted by the fun of the water. (And who says family dinner needs to be around a table?) Plus cleanup was so easy. Lush has bath clay that will dye the water and it smells amazing. We used a water wheel https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B01ARN9JMY/ref=mp_s_a_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1492862256&sr=8-4&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=sand+wheel&dpPl=1&dpID=41cRc3KbP4L&ref=plSrchset
    on a plastic stool in the tub between the kids. I also used a foam alphabet set to teach them all their letters and numbers while they soaked. You can move the foam letters around to start teaching basic words as they get to the point of sounding letter out. We would read stacks of books while they were in the tub too.
    Tub time was over an hour every night but it let me relax and more importantly it let them relax. It’s such a calm space that they would be totally ready for bed by the time they were out and in pjs. The key is to go straight from bath to bed, with no running around in between.

    I also second the comments that tons of toys are necessary. I was a minimalist when I started parenting and I thought we didn’t need a lot of toys. It took years for me to realize that not enough toys equals desire for more screen time.
    Magnatiles are AWESOME. So is the Hape marble run. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00BJEYLOC/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492863054&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=hape+marble+run&dpPl=1&dpID=51t7QIpMaCL&ref=plSrch
    You may need to build it for them, but it’s fun for moms and kids.
    I highly recommend a train table. My kids only used it for trains half the time, but there was just something about having a table with sides on it, at their height, that led to way longer concentration on whatever they were playing with on it. (You know how it is, good design leads to a happier life. Train tables are really good design for kids.) They can do trains of course, but also roll marbles, build duplo, jump off of it, and build the hape marble runs on it.
    I hope some of these ideas help!

  263. Do you have a water table? Great for outside play, just add measuring cups, spoons, anything really. Also playdoh had kept my daughter busy for a long time since she was 18ish mo. You can even use small dinos/monsters, etc to make foot prints. My little one will also do bubbles for a while and a bubble machine makes it easy.

  264. First of all, thank you for your honesty!!! We have kids around the same age and I feel everything you are feeling. Love all these ideas and look forward to employing them.

    Also, sometimes you do just need a break from all the playing, so I just bought them a water/sand table that can be used indoor or out.


    (As I am writing this, my son is begging me to play with him outside, even though we’ve been playing since 7am this morning!!! Hence the need for the water table!!! )

  265. Hi Emily!

    Thanks for sharing. I can relate to this post big time. Being a parent is one of the most physically and emotionally exhausting jobs there is. Parenting toddlers comes with a whirlwind of emotions, and you can go from feeling the lowest of lows to the highest of highs all within a matter of minutes!

    It’s obvious that you love your kids so much and care about trying to do the best for them, so you should be really proud of yourself for that!

    I have a 23 month-old and a 4 year old, and here are some of their favourite activities (they do all of these things together):

    -Bubbles! They are obsessed. We have a battery powered machine, and it keeps them entertained for a long time! My 4-year old uses her butterfly net to pretend that the bubbles are butterflies, and my little guy just runs around laughing – it’s pretty cute.
    -Slow walks around the neighbourhood. I let both kids walk on their own, and we stop to look at anything they are interested in. After dinner is a great time for this, because it gets everyone out of the house for a change of scenery, the pressure is off of you to ‘entertain them’, and it tuckers them out for bedtime!
    -Sidewalk chalk. My little guy loves to walk around the yard and colour different rocks, and my daughter has just gotten into hopscotch.
    -Making smoothies. I don’t know if you follow Weelicious on Instagram, but she has something called ‘The Smoothie Project’, and the kids love it! I let them sit on the counter, and they both help add the ingredients to the blender. They like to taste everything before it goes in the blender, too, so they’re experiencing new textures and tastes.

    Remember that you need time to yourself to de-stress, too, so if you have anyone who can help out for even an hour so that you can do something where you feel re-energized, do it! Your happiness is important, too 😊

    Good luck, and maybe when Brian’s play is wrapped up, you need a weekend getaway with some girlfriends!

  266. We play a lot of ball games inside and out. Inside “ball on steps” is very popular. Our staircase is fairly enclosed so they toss the ball up the stairs and catch it when it bounces back down. It’s pretty fun for grown ups too. πŸ˜‰ they know it can’t get too crazy or the ball gets put away. Gertie balls are our favorite for inside play. We all enjoy roll the ball to each other.


  267. Boys are very physical and tons of energy! I have two, and for years I had such envy for my friend’s who had docile little girls. It seemed like the hours between dinner and bedtime were so hard to manage —-I just needed to sit for a bit but my boys really wanted to play. I developed a few games that kept us connected and allowed me to rest(-ish). Our house had a circular floor plan, so I would put on some fun music (Casper Babypants . . .), I’d find a comfortable seat on the floor (with wine!) and the boys would run the circuit while I tried to tag them with a big, squishy ball (nothing that would hurt them or do damage in the house). They LOVED this game and it really wore them out.

    We played endless games with balloons —- trying to keep them from touching the ground, pulling the end and making them touch the ceiling . . .

    Another idea: Pull the sofa cushions off the sofa, blast the music and let them jump from the sofa to the pillows below. Yes, I know you just invested in TWO new sofas and this might sound crazy to you, but it can be just an occasional thing and their tiny bodies aren’t going to damage the springs. They will get such a kick out of it.

    Fill a sink with a bit of water and lots of dish soap, then add food coloring to the bubbles. It’s beautiful to look at and might soothe/entertain them both for a long stretch. You could also do this outside with a bucket.

    Let them run through the sprinkler!

    Use your phone to video tape them doing silly things in slomo. It will crack them up!

    You might want to get yourself a BluTrack (www.blutrack.com). My boys weren’t super obsessed with cars but they still loves this and use it to this day (they are 8 and 11). It’s the best ROI of any toy I ever bought. It’s a flexible track with a suction cup that allows you to attach it to a window. The kids can make jumps by putting things (pillows, blocks, etc) under the track. They can try to make the car land in a basket, etc. Birdie can roll balls down the track, etc.

    Now that you have a backyard, the kids might enjoy a stomp rocket (www.stomprocket.com).

    In general, my kids still love balls of any kind. Big , beach balls that we can invent silly games with.

    Also, I designated a drawer in the kitchen as theirs. It was low to the ground and I filled it with lots of silly toys, empty tubberware, wind-up things that hopped, toys that nest, etc. They could play with it in the kitchen while I cooked. Add or subtract items now and then to keep it interesting.

    Someone else here mentioned getting down on the floor with them, in any way you can. I totally agree. Sometimes I would hang out in their room on the floor organizing toys or sorting clothes that no longer fit (things I really needed to get to) but because I was on the floor and their stuff was all around it was fun for them to look at a book they hadn’t seen in a while or whatever.

    Music, music, music. To me this was the glue that tied together every single one of these things I have mentioned. Make it fun music that YOU enjoy and let loose a little bit with them.

    The slog is real Emily, but not forever. You got this!

    xoxo Deb

  268. Hi! I’m not sure how many hours each night you have to “fill” with activities. We never get home from kindergarten/school with our three children (2,5, 4,5 and 6,5 years old) before 4.30 in the afternoon, which means we never have more than 2-3 hours together on the week days. We usually just let them play on their own (together og next to each other) until dinner time, then half an hour TV, then we read to them and they go to bed. Sometimes we play in the garden (climbing, bicycling, football, putting pebbles in a bucket, building things with sticks and stones), and they all love it when we read to them all times of the day. When the two oldest want to play with LEGO, the youngest usually is really happy just to be allowed to sit at the same table with her DUPLO, as long as one of us parents sit at the table and talk to them and help them out a bit. Also, they are always thrilled when I let them build forts under the table or by hanging throws over chairs. Sometimes, if I need to relax a bit but still want to be with them, I just let them have a really long bath (like an hour), while I sit and smalltalk or sing with them. But very often, they are happy to just play by themselves, as long as one of us is in the room with them and available (aka not staring on the phone/IPad). Good luck!

  269. I hear you! We have a four-year-old who loves to play a pretend game where he is a cheetah in the zoo and the adult on hand has to be the zookeeper and talk to an imaginary group of zoo visitors about this amazing animal. After about 10 minutes, the adult (me) is so tired of the game (and bored). (It’s become a joke at our house; if I’m a bit irritated at my husband or him at me, the irritated party will whisper, “Cheetah and zookeeper,” as a threat that means, “If you continue to frustrate me, I’m going to suggest to our kiddo that you two play the cheetah and zookeeper game.” πŸ™‚

    Now for actually helpful things. We also have a seven-year-old, so we’ve been through this stage twice, and here are ideas that worked for us (and still do)

    –Water play. A water table STILL entertains our four-year-old, two years after we got it. Sometimes we just fill it up, and he scoops the water out with his watering can and waters the plants. He loves this and will do it for a long time. Sprinklers, or just various (non-breakable) containers that he can pour water into/out of are very satisfying and captivating for him. We can chat about the plants or he bends over to look at bugs or flowers, etc., so we chat about what he sees without me having to direct all the playtime. πŸ™‚

    –Activities that are sensory-satisfying, like shaving cream in a large jelly pan. He can draw with his fingers and then “wipe” clean to start over. It’s messy (outside activity) but it can be very fun.

    –Bike rides/scooter rides. If the kids have the wiggles at days’ end, we often eat dinner a bit early and take them on a walk/bike ride/scooter ride. You could push Birdie in the stroller. Let Charlie lead the way. Say “yes” to whatever direction he wants to go (within reason). Saying yes to simple requests makes it easier when you have to say no to other things. πŸ™‚

    –Magna-tiles. Basically, the best toy we’ve ever bought. Amazon sells them, but I think I saw that Target carries them, too. Our four-year-old began playing with them when he was 2.5, and I think he’s played with them 6 out of 7 days of every week since! Ha! You can play, too!

  270. Hi Emily –
    You are a very good mom….wanting to “play” with them – sometimes.
    I was not a good player-wither. I wanted my kids to entertain themselves or play with other kids. I’m sure I did spend some time with them but I liked that they learned to play by themselves too.

    My time with them was probably more in the learning about the world mode: field trips to ethnic grocery stores, off the beaten path touristy places, any kind of animal shop/sanctuary/park, etc., beaches, forests, rivers… Any random Big Adventure!

    I would definitely vote for *water* – in any way shape or form. And the best thing ever was always More Kids! When you have other kids at your house, they aren’t very interested in you. I also had a huge tub filled with dry beans – much the same as water – filling, pouring, measuring, pretend cooking… AND an easily swept mess. Of course, you could give them a container and see who could fill theirs with the most scattered beans…

    Another piece of advice I’d give is to be careful about routines and know that it only takes a few “sure you cans” before something that *you* thought was an exception becomes *their* rule. They will expect things to always be some way if you let them get away with/ do it too often.

    You are such a good mom. Pat yourself on the back!

    1. I forgot about the beans! I would make them a sensory tub in a big plastic container and filled it with beans. Sometimes I added in other things like green objects or “gold” for St. Patty’s Day or little Easter objects, etc. The kids had lots of fun pouring and measuring and sorting (get different types of beans and put them in muffin tins), searching for the treasure, teach them how to make patterns by lining up the beans in different ways. This is great for days with bad weather too. I did it inside on a sheet for easy clean up.

  271. I didn’t read all the way through your comments to see if these were there but, we bought a piece of plexiglass and hung it in the backyard to be the outdoor easel. Kids could paint on it and leave it to be the art installation for the yard. Then you just hose and scrub it off, which is also an activity. We also gave the kids big, fat paint brushes and sand pails of water and they could ‘paint’ the house and deck. The happily painted everything with water. We bought a folding tumbling mat, which was kind of awkward to schlep around but burned off energy. Scavenger hunts are fun. Little ones can hunt for big things, and you can use pictures to show them what to hunt for. They could have different things to find (table, leaf, fence, toy truck, etc) and you get to sit still while they run and point.

  272. I love this post! I really like your thoughts and how your framed them, that the activities are more for you. I remember when my youngest (at the time) was 11 mo. old and the older was almost 3 I went to the store to find some things we could do together that I enjoyed and didn’t drive me crazy. I bought some play dough sets and we had a great time. I know the little ones sometimes eat play dough, but I didn’t care much. (Or you could make your own.) I just put my almost one year old in the high chair next to the table and sat at the table with my older son and we’d play. Maybe Charlie could build space stuff, or you could do space stuff with him? There are some fun and simple kits: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dtoys-and-games&field-keywords=dough+tools

    I have five kids now, the youngest is 5 1/2, and we’ll still do play dough as a family. I have all kinds of things I’ve added to our play dough toys. Golf tees are cheap and work great as birthday candles when they make you a cake (and sing to you and help you blow out the candles). A garlic press is seriously a super fun play dough toy! It makes spaghetti, or hair, or whatever you want. One day we had so much fun making hair and putting it on the dinosaurs and my kids would use the play dough scissors that we have to give them a hair cut. When the weather is nice, if you have an outside table that is fun as clean up is easier. And I find my kids like doing play dough for longer if I’m doing it with them.

    The second thing I’d say, is Birdie might be too young for arts and crafts in general, but most kids LOVE tactile stuff. So, she might enjoy messing around with finger paints. My rule for something is I want them to enjoy it for at least double the time that it takes to clean up. so you’d have to see on that one. If they like bath time, you can just make long bath times at night and that can be fun to play with them there. (I’ve heard of giving glowsticks and having them bathe in the dark or mostly dark room.)

    Kudos to you for wanting to enjoy the time with them and knowing that not every second will be fabulous. I think every mom looks forward to their bedtime, I know I still do. It’s so exhausting with pockets of such joy and fun. Good luck!

  273. GIRL. Girl. I have no damn idea but I am just so here for you. Mine are slightly more spaced out, but so similar. The boy is almost 4.5 and the girl is almost 2. The former WANTS ALL THE ATTENTION IN HIS FACE RIGHT NOW, also the dramaz. The latter does everything he does PLUS far more climbing and jumping off things.

    I think it’s…. fine…. to enjoy 8:30 as much as we do. I think it’s…. fine…. so sometimes want to not be there. And still love them tons and enjoy it (at least in abstract most of the time) and give them a happy loved childhood. At least I hope.

    I’ll tune in to see if other people have better ideas than like OMG NETFLIX I NEED A BREAK, but I think having two this little this close together plus careers in full swing just means we’re… TIRED AF.

  274. This is a huge fear of mine about having kids (one of many). SO glad to hear that someone who actually wanted and likes having kids also feels this way. THANK YOU EMILY!! I have a feeling if we do have kids, I will be doing a lot of arts and crafts -type activities – that’s what I enjoyed doing as kid and something I still like doing with my nieces and nephews. Playing ponies or ‘imagination’ games … not so much :\

    xo Jules

  275. I totally relate as I have a 3.5 year old and a 6.5 year old. Both, boys which as you know, means non-stop until they pass out. I cook dinner around 5 and my oldest helps while the little one watched Umi Zoomi (at least it is teaching him math). This may sound nuts. I would have laughed at someone if they told me this 5 years ago. After dinner is usually a little tv or a game/puzzle and then we run them. It sounds counter intuitive before bedtime but from 6:45-7:15 we do obstabcle courses and race from room to room chasing each other. We also can run in circles around islands, tables, etc. We tickle, wrestle, tag, all to get that last bit of energy out. Then we wall sit, butt up against a wall and legs straight up supported by the wall for a few minutes. Then teeth and jammies and books. I also do mindful meditation if they seem not quite calm yet. Another great trick is the bath. Give them bubbles to blow and non-bath stuff to play with and you can wash your face and change while they play. I use epsom salt with essential oils in their baths since the magnesium absorbs best this way and is super helpful for a restful sleep. Sounds like a lot but I do whatever gets them in bed so I can crawl into my own shortly thereafter πŸ™‚ P.S. learn to make flubber, google it for a recipe. this is one of their fave things to play with while i cook.

  276. There’s a book you can get on Amazon called 150 screen free activities to do with kids. I have it but haven’t really done anything in it because I’m too tired to read it because my toddler is a 2 year old sociopath/comedian… it’s supposed to be organized by ages, so that might be another thing to go along with Sarah’s idea about the space play mat (genius!).

  277. I always HATED imaginative play! I know it’s good for them but I tried to avoid having to do it with them. Let them do it at school or with Daddy or with the nanny who is getting paid to play with them!

    We used to do book picnics . We would eat outside on a blanket and bring out a ton of books. I would read to them as they ate and they loved it. Also, I always read to them during lunch and dinner (if I had time) and it helped them sit still long enough to finish eating and really instilled a love of reading. I got tired of reading the same books over and over so we went to the library almost every week and would check out literally about 50 books every time.

    Also, I made them foam play sets for sticking on the wall in the bathtub. I used the thin colorful foam sheets from Michaels and cut them up into different shapes. I made a beach set with things like palm tree parts, ocean animals, sailboats, etc and a monster set with different monster parts. When the kids were older I wrote one word on each piece with a sharpie and then they could rearrange the words into sentences (like those magnetic sets they have). The nice thing about making them yourself is you can always cut out more pieces if the kids request something. Also you can personalize the word set with their names, etc. They would play in the bath for an hour and have tons of fun.

  278. Create anything with cardboard boxes. It’s basically free, very fun, high on creativity and imagination and then the kids will play with them for hours. Plus once they tire of them you can throw them away and start over.

  279. Check out hand in hand parenting blog. They have great insight and techniques for helping kids with meltdowns and crying over seemingly tiny things. They’ve been a godsend for me and my kids!

  280. Love reading through all these great suggestions. I don’t think I saw I spy books suggested, as a kid my parents and I would do those for hours. We also loved marble works, as long as Birdie isn’t a marble eater.

  281. Thank you for this post. It’s human, relatable, and real! I listen to podasts/NPR while I play to just to feel like I have some sort of sanity outside of the playtime.

  282. Get a sensory table! Kids that age love them and you can fill with different things weekly – water, sand, things you find on walks, etc. Might not be the most aesthetically pleasing kids toy but I’m sure you could find a cute one!

  283. Don’t worry Emily…. every mum everywhere on the planets looks forward to bed time!!!! Xx

  284. You just described my exact life. I’m not the only one!!!

  285. As a professional nanny, I imagine you have someone during the day while you’re working? If they’re harassing you right as you come in the door they aren’t doing their job well!

  286. I love taking my little girl to the park. She runs around and plays, and I often sit and read. We also like to play chalk on the ground together, or sit and play in the sand box. She is a bit older than your boy (She’s four). We love reading books together at the library. We also like going to new places that often are engaging to both of us (the exploratorium, the science museum, any local or holiday fairs,) etc to keep our normal routine fresh!

  287. I have a two year old and a 3.5 year old, 16 months apart.

    Outside, water play is the most reliable thing for us. They are happy with a bucket and scoops for an hour. Inside, when other play isn’t working, we do playdough, drawing, stickers. (My kids LOVE to have me draw or make playdough with them, although they also do it independently.)

    My husband’s go to is music: dance parties, listening to songs, and he also plays instruments with them.

    Also, have you ever read Janet Lansbury? One thing that I have really liked from her writing is the idea of giving my children the gift of my presence. For me that means being with them and giving them my attention even if I am not directly engaging with them. It makes my kids so happy, and it’s much more sustainable for me.

  288. What a fabulous topic to crowdsource. I’m screen shotting comments galore to remember later.

    3 things we love:
    1. Bath dinners – solo parenting night strategy. Kids eat dinner in the bath tub, they think it’s awesome, clean up is easy peasy.
    2. Art Hub – simple drawing tutorial videos that we love doing as a family.
    3. Chopping vegetables. My littlest one uses a simple plastic knife or tears things like pepper slices. But we can slice up a bunch of tasty veggies to roast and they feel so proud!

  289. Thank you for posting this! I dont have any ideas, but have been asking the same question lately! But I will be following closely to all the comments and ideas! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the 3 year old boy, out of ideas, exhaustion stage!

  290. Not sure if someone mentioned this already, but I buy a bag or two of dry beans. Pour them on a rimmed baking sheet. My kids uses construction vehicles, spoons, cups, cars and dinosaurs while playing with the beans. Keeps them busy for at least an hour on a good day.

  291. My daughter designed a high tech game of hide and seek for her nephews to play when they visit. It requires a little work upfront, but it is something they look forward to playing when they visit. They don’t seem to mind that it is the same every time. Part of the game is they have to work together (something your older one could help the younger with and still have fun). With the game, you watch together to see the visual clue and then send them off into the house to find the toy. Here’s a link on how she put it together and a video of the boys playing. http://www.motherdaughterprojects.com/blog/personalized-game-for-every-kid Something I like to do with the boys is to attach a Tile ( https://www.thetileapp.com/?opt=SEM&gclid=CPLNitq5udMCFdgKgQodiR8Oig&gclsrc=aw.ds&dclid=CPiFltq5udMCFcsLgQodMwcHOw) to a stuffed animal and play hide and seek with it. They take turns hiding it, and also take turn pushing the button on the phone app to make the Tile turn on. They follow the sound to find the toy and then run back to me to push the button to turn off the sound. Lot’s of fun for all.

  292. I am sure this has been mentioned, but since my son was 3 we’ve created with cardboard boxes weekly and sometimes daily. I save as many boxes as I can and pull one out and ask, what is it? Usually a space ship. Sometimes a plane. Right now it’s a transformer. He does most of the creating independently but it’s fun to watch and make up the story as we go. It’s easier for me to make up interesting stories and adventures when I don’t actually have to act them out! Lately he LOVES masking tape. Masking tape, a box, and some crayons will keep us occupied for at least an hour, usually longer. When it’s warm we take it outside with some paint. I usually hang on to it for about 24 hours before it goes in the recycling unless it’s a really stellar creation that he keeps going back to. It’s creative and low key, but still imaginative and exciting.

  293. My husband is a pilot so he travels a lot, and I have chronic fatigue syndrome, so I got you. I understand blinding love for your children and the overwhelming desire for a nap, no matter what.
    1. Set up routines. If you all are wondering what to do every evening, it makes everybody anxious.
    2. They don’t necessarily need to engage with you 100%. Kids that age do parallel play with each other, so you can do that too. You do your thing (make dinner, answer a quick email), they do their thing (smash towed if blocks), you chat the whole while, you’re good. They honestly just want to be near you.
    3. Walks are good for everybody! Go slow, look at bugs, talk about leaves, and if they’re not in the house they’re not making messes. :c)
    You’re doing great! Hang in there!

  294. My son is a bit younger than Charlie. He’s hugely into monster trucks and I find one way I can make that slightly fun for me is to buy cheap ones at the dollar store + paints and roll them in the paint to do some printmaking.

    Generally my favorite participatory thing to do with him is cooking.

  295. chiming in on a rainy brooklyn evening, after being home alone with my 3.5 y/o and 1 y/o while dad was out all afternoon…. here are some of our favs:

    -water beads, no idea why these are so entertaining but they are. just put them in my biggest salad bowl with some mixing cups. too small for the 1 y/o rn but so long as birdie gets they aren’t food you should be good…
    – we always called it goobly goop growing up, but basically just a mixture of cornstarch and water that is solid and liquid at the same time
    -introducing new art materials works for us. Last week we did oil crayons with water colors on top. I love to write down the stories of what she’s drawing. Yesterday was a spooky halloween drawing that involved multiple jars of jam….we also have this amazing store in union square, that just opened in brooklyn this week, called flying tiger. it’s basically an ikea of paper goods/stationary/fun kids games and toys. They had pads of paper to make masks (could make his own good guy/bad guy masks?), storytelling dice, where you roll the dice and make up a story, amazing googley eyes, fun roll up crayons, so much…
    -we got a teepee as a gift from our babysitter and love playing in there or building a blanket fort
    -melissa and doug makes this giant magnifying glass that looks like a snake- its like $3. Sending them out on a quest to find stuff
    -beauty shop is always fun where they get to do your hair
    -i know birdie is small to ‘cook’ but if you have time to do the mise en place, and prep everything, so she’s basically dumping into larger bowls, mixers, etc, baking can be great. Mine loves doing ‘surprise muffins’ where the surprise is some kind of berry shoved in the middle…also banana bread is fun cause they can smash the bananas with their hands. Make your own pizza party is also awesome…just put out tons of toppings/veggies and let them go wild…
    -and lastly, my girlfriends and i love baby dinner parties sans husbands…keep it easy even and order in…bring jammies and throw all the kids in the bath together…and then make it a fun adventure going home in your pjs. Living in Brooklyn, away from family, it makes it feel like growing up with millions of cousins, etc…

  296. I have no advice…but I am literally in shock right now with how you just described our situations to a T! My kids have the same temperaments and my husband and I look at eachother every night in disbelief with how wonderful and FREAKING hard it is every day. Hang in there!

  297. The large baskets of dress up clothes, old nightgowns, dresses, sheets, blankets etc. we’re the entertainment. My 3 daughters and cousins would construct forts tied off with ribbons, rubber bands and stacked books. I let them have the entire lower level in our first home for this activity. These little designer girlies came up with the most amazing creations. I will never forget the joy and amusement I felt back then. They are grown now. My best idea was allowing them to create these forts of fun free from my discerning eyeπŸ‘ 

  298. Okay so now I’m crying because I’m completely relating to feeling guilty when I wish time away. Ugh. That being said. I have one toddler who will be two in July, and my newest thing is washable paint in the bathtub! (No water needed). I get some wooden toys or foam numbers and letters and she goes to TOWN. Then I hose her off like the family dog. πŸ˜‰ both of your kiddos will love it and can do it together, and you can join or just laugh at the hilarity of unbridled finger paints. Crayola washable crayons and finger paints both wipe easily off my tub! (Don’t let them sit though, be sure to wipe it all down after they’re done or during nap/bed).

  299. My kids have always loved what we call “chalk city”. I help them draw road, houses, a post office, a grocery store etc on our driveway and they drive around it on their scooters or those Little tykes cars.

    And I just try and take notice of the moments when I am enjoying it, those moments when they do or say something so adorable it makes your heart squeeze, and try not to guilt myself too much about the times it’s a chore.

  300. I haven’t read the other comments, but someone told me once to let my son use his washable paints in the bathtub (strip him down to a diaper). Just let him go to town painting the walls of the tub. When he’s done, it cleans easily and you can immediately bathe him!
    I also give him “tub popsicles”. Which is what it sounds like. I strip him down, stick him in a dry tub, and give him a popsicle. When he’s done, immediate bath.

  301. I’m a day late commenting on this post (first time mom with a 5 month old so my internet perusing isn’t as frequent). I have had lots of these types of moments and feelings and some of the best things fellow moms have told me are:

    ” every phase/age is really good AND really bad”

    “every parent is really good at different ages. Some rock the toddler age while others suck at it. Some parents can’t relate to their teens at all while others are besties with theirs.”

    “there were times when I just didn’t like my kids. Flat out, didn’t like ’em.”

    And my own personal experience with my baby thus far: having a kid is like being on an all expenses paid, beautiful tropical vacation but you have a bad sunburn the entire time. Like, its so amazing and you’re so grateful but also, you’re kind of annoyed constantly.

    Oh, motherhood, that stormy, stormy sea of emotions. Hugs to you!

  302. My man works every evening right when I get home from work, so I feel your pain. Knowing it’s temporary is sometimes the only thing that gets me through a rough day. When I get home my daughter (almost 4) knows to put on her outdoor clothes and we either walk to the park or putz around the backyard… I find spots for her to dig and she just goes to town looking for worms and stuff and I can work on the garden. Also, Birdie isn’t too young for art projects… you just need to find the right ones. I’ve had my daughter painting or drawing since she was 1. Just make sure you have a contained area (when we paint I had a drop cloth out or had her in a high chair covered in garbage bags). she paints over the same canvas and has fun playing. The sooner you expose them to the things you love, the more they’ll be into it and love it themselves.

  303. I’m sure it’s been mentioned but long bath time! Stock up on bath toys, bring a comfortable chair into the bathroom (for you) and put-on their favorite soundtrack or, if they can engage, a kids audiobook. Seriously, audiobooks and kids podcasts save my life. My kids are a bit older now, but when they get rambunctious I pop-on a podcast that catches their attention and they stop in their tracks!

  304. play doh

  305. My heart goes out to you! I felt what you are feeling and still feel it now at times even though I have kids the same age and one slightly older. Some things I have learned/been advised and that have helped – eat something you like on your way home or at work before you head home. Listen to something relaxing or an inspiring/intellectual podcast or better yet a good comedy sketch while you are eating and driving home. It’s those few minutes you have to help yourself change gears and prep for being “best mommy”. I was a serious doubter of these suggestions when they were first given to me, but after years of pushing myself to run on ’empty’ I am just a happier, better person when I am fed. 😁
    Activity ideas – A BUBBLE MACHINE! Best things ever! Fill it up and set it outside. It will distract a toddler from crying/tantrums too! They run around the backyard chasing them, seeing how many we can pop, etc.
    Did you end up with a sandbox or do you have an area of dirt? My boys easily spend the longest time with vehicles, animals/dinosaurs playing in the dirt. We made rivers and lakes when warm enough to add water. It’s messy, but afterwards you can bring them in for a soothing, warm bath before bed.
    Also, we do simple science projects like volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar. I place the baking soda in one kid bowl for each child, then hand them a kids cup with a bit of vinegar. They can pour/dump in the vinegar and see the fiz, then you can give them a bit more vinegar and do it again and again.
    Kids art projects can be easily contained in the bath of you don’t want to go outside. You can give them child watercolors and a brush and they can paint your bathtub. Same idea with bath crayons, or bath paint, but they don’t wash off quite as easily.
    Bring home some boxes from your work. I assume you have access to large boxes and they will LOVE playing in those!
    I have learned that I can usually start and activity with them, and then once they get involved, can sit back and watch, cheering them on. When it comes to imagination games, I have been told I am not very good at them, so I act like a ‘stage hand’ of sorts. I build towers the bad guys can break, draw scenery for the background, or roads along a large roll of butcher paper for hi-speed chases, make prisons and hide-outs for the good guys to use out of dulpo legos etc..
    Best of luck! Thanks, as always, for your candid honesty. It is freshing to know others feel as we do.

  306. My mom would’ve make chocolate pudding and let us draw with it like finger paint on butcher paper, so fun and nontoxic, if you don’t mind a little sugar intake… or take them to the park or beach to make sand castles. I take the kids I nanny out on long walks and we have scavenger hints. You put a piece of duct tape with the sticky side out around their wrist and they stick leaves, flowers, sticks to it while you people watch and smell the neighbor’s roses πŸ™‚

  307. Well my husband is a chef so he’s hardly ever home. Lots of mornings but that is truly the easiest/happiest part of the kid day. I am the one who is is home for the sometimes challenging afternoon play (thank goodness we love love love our backyard! Bubble are always a hit outdoors) dinner, baths, bed all me… my favorite activity for when I prepare dinner is playdoh at the kitchen table or rainy dayz window crayons (we have a big glass slider and they will draw forever!! Clean up is a cinch if you use a magic eraser first to get the bulk of the wax). A little washable kid paint in a zip lock freezer bag taped to the window or slider is fun too, they sort of finger paint with it. Glow sticks are cheap fun/instant dance party. Blow up balloons and see who can keep it off the floor the longest. I have a 5yo girl and 2yo boy they are adorable and exhausting!! After baths I read them each a simple book of their choosing (usually from the library stack) and then I read a few chapters from a classic, 60% of the time the 2yo falls asleep during this story which makes bedtime an easier event πŸ‘

  308. Love all these ideas! I think they’d make a great e-book!

    My brother and I are both creative and imaginative adults—and I think of all the things we did growing up—

    My mom used to get styrofoam egg cartons, fill them with water. Then in three compartments she would use food color to dye the water red, yellow, and blue. We were given little eye droppers and we would mix the primary colors into other colors.

    Other ideas:
    —Have people over for dinner and engage them in making/coloring placemats and placecards
    —take a nature walk around the block and collect different leaves. Do leaf rubbing with crayon and paper.
    —make playdoh and then play with it.
    —have a picnic in the backyard
    —bubbles, bubbles and more bubbles.
    —sidewalk chalk

  309. That you so much for sharing and for your honesty. My husband was just outback of town for 3 day s and it was exhausting. I have a 16yr old and an almost 31/2 year old. Both challanging but 3 is freakin madness. SO emotional. I’ve learned about my son that he loves to ‘work’ and help so I actually make plans to ‘get stuff done’. PIck oranges and juice them. 45 mins of joy. Sweep the deck. Pretend work is my fave and my son feels great about himself that he’s so helpful.

  310. I love your honesty! I have never been the super, fun and engaging mom! The struggle is real! My kids are older now and they turned out just fine! When my boys were younger (they are 24 months apart) we would go in a safari hunt. We hid plastic animals (larger ones bought at toysrus) – we hid them inside in the dark otter. But also outside. Gave them a mini flashlight and little backpacks. They went in their rooms until we called them out. Once they came out they would hunt their hearts out until they found all the animals! My younger son loved the idea and didn’t always find a ton of animals but loved running around wii a flashlight searching. We did this many, many nights and they loved it every time! We would sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy watching them in their hunt!

  311. Just want to thank you for really being honest about how simultaneously hard/amazing raising kids is (and I only have one!). It’s just so refreshing to read. Anyhoo, my suggestion is a record player! We got a used crosley on Craig’s and has been the best thing ever for my 3 1/2 yr old. He can use it himself and the player and records are at his level to reach. Elliot is prob a little young so maybe make it somewhere only Charlie can reach? It’s been super fun for me too bc we get old fun records. And he’ll just sit and LISTEN. It’s awesome!

  312. First, I’ll read all the comments but all this is totally normal. You’re not the worst mom, you’re a normal mom. When I’m alone with my kids, I putter around the house redecorating and they can either follow or not, but being home with them is what made me care about decorating in the first place. Stimulating!!

    1. Ok, so a SUPER obvious, super important thing that you didn’t name was read to them. Books and books and more books! There’s also a ton of the search and find type books, when you stare at slightly complicated pictures and just talk a lot about the pictures. Everything about it is good for their brains and you don’t have to exert a crazy amount of energy.

    2. Playdates w/ your friends. Maybe not every night, but with your hubby out EVERY night, have a friend come over one or two nights with a kid. The kids play. You chat grown-up. The night will go SO MUCH FASTER!

    3. We have “expected tv time” rather than, tv whenever time, usually while we make dinner. It’s good b/c it gives the kids structure and also, gives me an out to say, you know when you can watch a show. Go do something yourself! Haha!

    4. We build blocks all day every day. First wooden blocks, then duplos, now legos. You can mix and match?! Be creative! Maybe not crazy boring?

    5. We facetime my parents. Haha! Again, getting more people in on the action.

    6. We garden as a family.

    7. Painting easels (outside). Play doh (outside).

    8. I usually hang with them while they do those things, but I usually have a magazine with me.

    9. Go on walks.

    10. It gets easier. Everyone always says that. It’s true!! πŸ™‚

  313. It’s so simple, but My kids love a cardboard box! The bigger the better, they colour them, cut “windows” out, make boats, even just climbing in and out of them..! Great for their imagination and so easy to dispose of when done (although sometimes ours last a few weeks lol)

    1. Boxes are the best. They can become what ever the kids want them to be that day. My kids were just a excited about boxes as they were toys as gifts. Take books and set them up together to make squares, which become houses or zoos or what ever. Put toys inside them. We would put stuffed animals inside like a zoo and then the animals would escape(someone takes one or more out and hides them and then you have to find them and put them back in their cages). Mainly you are building things which takes a lot of time and they decide how to play with them with their toys. It has been over 20 years since I had young kids (3 of them) but they still remember these things fondly as a way we spent time together.

  314. Obstacle course – inside or outside! We take pillows for them to jump over, chairs for them to climb over, stools to climb through, you can make it simple or crazy depending on how much energy you have at the time. Make some kind of finish line for them to run through and ‘time’ them on the course. Birdie won’t really get it but will follow Charlie and still have fun. Sometimes we video it and they love watching themselves do it in the videos. My boys are 4 and 21 months and we’ve been doing it for over a year. Also – I love how honest you are in your parenting posts!! So easy to identify with and we’ve all had the same thoughts!

  315. I’m with you in the temporarily single parenting camp right now! My husbands been working out of town for about a month, with short trips home every few weeks. I’m going insane and have also struggled with the “you don’t appreciate what i’m dealing with” feelings with working full time and parenting on my own. Single parents deserve so much respect!!

    Around 3 1/2, my son was obsessed with treasure hunts. We would take turns hiding a handful of change in various rooms of the house and finding them – you get a nice little break when it’s their turn to hunt. He got such a kick out of it and also was pretty creative with his hiding spots for a 3 yr old.

    At almost five yrs old, I can entertain him for a good 30 minutes with homemade volcanos – we don’t even have a fancy volcano set up – water bottle + cookie sheet to catch the “lava” and I keep a gallon of white vinegar and baking soda on hand. Easy peasy and we can make the explosion over and over again.

  316. My boys love to play dr. I am the patient and they give me physicals. Also, line up characters in a row and shoot them down with a little nerf gun or zing air bows. They also love to dress up in halloween costumes all year long and we all roll play. Also, spray bottles filled with water and some towels or paper towels!! Give them real cleaning duties “cleaning french doors in kitchen” with supervision. They get so excited to think they really helped me clean something.

  317. I haven’t read the comments yet (I’m sorry, I’m THAT commenter) but I just have to say how much I appreciate this post. My little boy is almost 3 and I have near-constant guilt because it seems like everybody else is having so much more *fun* with their kids than I am– I often find parenting draining at the end of a long day. As you say, my child is the light of my life– he’s funny, sweet, silly, kind, thoughtful, helpful, loving, and every other good thing and he brings so much joy to my existence– but on a day-to-day basis I struggle to enjoy endless Duplo sessions and let’s-get-the-bad-guy and mealtime-related meltdowns and potty training. One reason I’ll keep coming back to your blog daily for ever and ever is that I value your candor so much. Motherhood is incredibly rewarding and incredibly hard and it means so much to know that other mothers I admire experience the same challenges. So thanks for putting this out there!

    As for us, here are a few things we do very much enjoy doing together: family walks and hikes (we’re in the Willamette Valley, so, as you know, this involves rain gear for most of the year), those Melissa and Doug Water Wow things (both of your kids could do these, and there’s absolutely zero chance of mess so we even do them in restaurants and stuff), having a pretend picnic in the living room or the backyard, doing kid-yoga, endlessly rearranging the Brio tracks and setting up new towns on the train table (Brio makes a battery-powered engine that’s oddly captivating). I find we do best when we can sort of play independently together, if that makes sense– I set up the train tracks, he destroys them; we “paint” side-by-side; etc.

    Now off to read the rest of these comments– what a great post topic!

  318. I never comment on blogs. But. As a parent who came by children via adoption, I felt I needed to always be “on” for my kids when they were ages yours are. And I damn near wore myself out. Best thing I did was to play “spa”. I would lay on the floor for a rest and my kiddos would rub my hands, feet, back, etc. I gave them pieces of tinfoil so they could “highlight” my hair, along with other little jobs like a cool cloth over my forehead… You get the idea. This would occupy them at least long enough for me to recharge.

    Other tip: set them at a table with little cups of water, (some with food coloring) syringes, medicine droppers, spoons etc. give them small amounts of baking soda, vinegar and let them mix and play. My kids would do this for hours! Good for small motor skills and dexterity too. I used plastic trays to keep the water and messes contained.

    1. Bellylaughs! oh my my my goodness… damn I wish I had thought of the ‘spa’ game…GENIUS.

  319. My fav things for my 3 boys:
    1. Bake ready made cookies (let them help)
    2. Huge rungs of butcher paper (online) and tons of crayons.
    3. Cloud watching (make up shapes)
    4. Go to the store & everyone picks out ingredients for dinner (cereal & milk or eggs and waffles)
    5. Piggyback rides around the yard.
    6. Dance party
    7. Give them a chore to do and help them do it. Ice cream after it’s done.
    8. The laundry. Sounds nuts but my kids loved it. They sort, they load the machine, they push buttons. They LOVED it.
    9. Have a girl friend over with her kids to let them plan and talk to a friend for fun.
    10. Make food together. Kids love making pizzas, pasta, mac & cheese. Anything they can do to feel accomplished.

  320. a few things that my 3 kids love to do:
    -in a water table/tub: have a car wash with toothbrushes and toy cars. Also, have a variety of containers and have an endless tea party with many cups to fill and dump
    -playdough for days. Always a great activity…creative, fine motor and so much fun. You can make your own as well.
    -child safety scissors and a stack of flyers to cut to their heart’s content.
    -found materials (rocks, twigs, grass, etc) gathered on a walk, then a challenge/invitation of some sort. e.g.. Can you make a nest? Can you make a face?…etc
    -small spray bottles to water plants. As a bonus it’s excellent fine motor skill development as well.
    -I would freeze some of their toys in various sized containers and then we would use turkey basters or eye droppers to drip warm coloured water on it and watch it melt. Ultimately, the kids just would end up using their plastic hammers to smash it out!
    -they loved when we moved into our new house and they played with the large cardboard boxes for months. I would do the cutting, they would decorate with markers, sheets etc. It would morph from a puppet theatre and we would make little sock puppets and put on shows, to a house, to a police station, a fast food drive through window….we played with those boxes for SO long.
    I loved your post. πŸ™‚

  321. I’m late to the party and you already have so many great ideas. I will just add one – it was one my mother used to play with us when we were little (still remembered as our favorite game) and which my own children also loved when they were small.

    The game is: read poems aloud to them and have them act out the poems, while sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine. As a mother, I realized that this meant I got to do something I loved (reading aloud) while introducing my kids to poetry (which is important to me) and yet allowed them a wonderful outlet for their imaginations. It’s a total win-win.

    Just one note – I mostly read from books of poems for kids, but the poem does not have to be one you think is act-out-able. Kids find ways of acting out the most amazing things – ‘falling snow’ and ‘morns that are meeker than they were’, and sailing ‘off in a wooden shoe’ are all treasured memories.

  322. I’m a nursery school teacher and was a toddler nanny for years and my general advice is that really truly you do not need to entertain them. Kids are way better at entertaining themselves than any adult/device could ever be, even if that “entertaining” looks super destructive (like what Eliot is getting into with the tupperware, etc.).
    To help them play healthfully: 1) redirect the play–if she’s enjoying dumping everything out of a container (super developmentally appropriate play, fyi. She’ll learn about putting it back soon), find stuff and a container she CAN dump out. If Charlie is in a pattern of “bad guy” play you’re not loving, go have him chase the bear/alien/robber/gruffalo/whatever you think you maybe just saw outside! 2) set boundaries around how they can treat you, model saying “no thank you, I don’t want to play like this” or “I do not like being yelled at, please stop” so they have that language when they are playing with their peers and so they realize that mommy has feelings too and we have to be nice to her! 3) engage in some sort of simple, meaningful work of your own while they’re playing–raking the leaves (or whatever the LA equivalent is) while you’re outside, doing dishes inside, stuff that that. Things they could join you for if they wanted, and that you can stop easily if you need to deal with a toddler situation.
    Obviously it’s fun to have fun with kids, and it sounds like you three have some things you love doing together (and even more now!), which is awesome! But if it’s not fun for you, it’s incredibly therapeutic to give yourself permission to say “no.” And given simple resources and a little space, they will have SUCH a blast and you’ll feel less pressure. Strength and love to you in this difficult time!

  323. My daughter who just turned 14, is only 13 months older than my twin boys age 13. πŸ™‚ Talk about crazy times!

    One thing mine absolutely LOVED was their water table. They would all 3 stand around this table and play for hours. Little boats and figures, sand etc… BEST TOY EVER!

  324. You are so normal. I am a 74 year old gramma who was a stay at home mother. My husband traveled for years 4 nights a week, at this time I had a 4 year old, a 6 year old and new born foster preadoptive babies. We lived in neighborhoods that were safe and the kids played together all day long. When it was bedtime we would read and take long baths. Life was easier in the old days, there was not the worry about being ‘fulfilled’ as a mother or a child. You just did it! Relax and have the day time help ‘work’ the kids to exhaustion. Sorry I don’t have any new ideas but all of the commenters had excellent suggestions. You are a beautiful woman who is having a hard time right now with the husband’s schedule. Maybe some older neighborhood kids can go with you on weekend day trips? Oh, the grand kids loved egg carton picnics and all water play!

  325. I’m a few days late, but wanted to pass along the best “get the bad guy/monster” trick I’ve ever used for that 3 year old imagination. “Build” a monster/bad guy out of sofa cushions and throw pillows stacked on top of each other (the taller and fatter, the better!) while the little one waits with eyes closed. Once the pillow monster is as big as you can make it, let them at it. They can run into it, kick it, karate chop it, wrestle with it – really take on that bad guy and work out some energy. Then, when all the pillows are scattered on the ground, you do it all over again.

  326. I love this post – and all the comments! Definitely saving it for when I need some ideas for my 2 and 4 yo!
    Some things that keep us busy together (none of these are particularly long, but good if you need to distract/switch gears):
    1) painters tape on the floor. Make a odd-shaped track for matchbox cars or walking heel-to-toe, make tape lines (about 12 inches apart) to measure how far we can jump/stretch/step.
    2) a yarn maze – I make 2 lines of chairs (about 3 ft apart), then string the yarn from one side to the other with lots of different angles and heights, then we try to crawl through without touching the yarn (bonus points if you play the mission impossible theme).
    3) we like to look up youtube videos about things we’re interested in or randomly encountered and then talk about it/try it. Gymnastics, ballet, synchronized swimming, flamenco dancing, Cossack dancing (haha, this one was funny), Chinese acrobats.

  327. My husband works rotating shifts so for a week at a time every month I am also alone all weekend and night with both kids. What saved me last summer in the brutal heat we had with a 3 year old and a new born was fill up a kiddie pool with the hose. Put a large hat on both and let the 3 year old just go in his undies. Let the 3 year old just play with a bucket and some other toys in the water (newborn just hung out in a bouncy chair). I also put a mini lawn chair in the kiddie pool so he could sit in there as well. I will be doing the same thing again this summer with my 12 month old and 4 year old lol. Just dollar store buckets and even some shovels and mini dinosaur and spidermans do the job just fine. If you’re really feeling inspired you can blow bubbles at them as well lol (while holding your beer with the other of course). And you could even have them put the pebbles in and out of the water as well – and then put them back again….tons oh fun!

  328. What a perfectly timed post, I was just sharing this conundrum with my sister. Thank you! We are doing homemade (and edible) play dough; the handmade home just posted this on their blog… or something that linked to it. I’ve been letting my son “help” with gardening by giving him safe tools while I transplant things in our yard. And I just saw those big foam planes in the store that are super cheap and won’t kill you if they break it, that will be really fun in a park. Hopes this helps!

  329. Your honesty is so appreciated. I imagine there are loads of mothers out there who really appreciate the raw honesty, and that have felt and battled the same feelings so many times. Now as to activities, there are great ones mentioned here already. One thing I used to LOVE as a child was when my uncle made learning fun. So if you have some particular interest that you like to learn about yourself you can try teaching them in simple and fun ways. Children are often sooo much smarter than we acknowledge them for, and they might find it very interesting if you show excitement for the subject yourself. Also, know that your feelings are not misplaced, being a mother is the toughest job in the world. Now, you do try to interact with your children as much as possible, and I don’t think they will ever think of you as a mother who wasn’t there. We obviously only see a small part of your life through your instastories etc, but even there you show clearly that you value your children greatly, and it’s a joy to watch. I’m sure you already do this, but as you’ve said that you struggle with Charlie and putting him to sleep, so are you careful to not have him eat sugars in the afternoon? Also, one thing that parents often forget (and rightfully so, it is very hard to keep cool!), is that if you get want someone to for instance calm down, then you need to ask them to do so calmly yourself. When we ask someone to do something we project the feelings that we ourselves inhabit, so if we yell at someone to calm down, then they will likely just get more worked up. All this is of course very obvious, but I find that sometimes it is good to get a reminder! πŸ™‚ I know you mentioned it already, but it really IS good for children to be bored at times as well, because it pushes them to be creative and entertain themselves instead, and that is a great skill to have. Good luck, you are the best mother Elliot and Charlie could ever wish for πŸ˜‰

  330. when my kids were little i gave them a cabinet in the kitchen that was their stuff to play with. so i could be cooking in the kitchen and they could be in there too, playing with metal bowls and wooden spoons. not an actual “activity” but may help keep them occupied while making dinner.

    also, my girls loved it when we turned on a sprinkler and let them run around in it and also blew bubbles (blowing bubbles is very calming for moms!).

  331. You are sweet and a good mom and just super great for them.

  332. When I used to babysit more I would lay on the sidewalk/patio and let the kids outline me in sidewalk chalk. I got a little rest and they loved it. Then when the outline was complete I would sit back while they tried to fill in my face and clothes. It was always really funny to see their perception of me in chalk!

    Good luck! I remember asking my mom to play with me once and she said, “No. That’s what I gave you sisters for.” And I love my mom and had a great childhood! Don’t worry too much about it. πŸ™‚

  333. Yoga! I teach children’s yoga to kids as young as Elliot. They love it. You can start with the Yoga Pretzels deck on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Pretzels-Cards-Tara-Guber/dp/1905236042/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1493079042&sr=8-5&keywords=yoga+deck) and then continue with other decks or books. Peaceful Piggy is a good one. I use stuffed animals for all of the animal postures. I use a singing bowl for calming them ( have them keep their eyes closed until the singing bowl stops singing :). Let them interpret the postures the way they like. Don’t try to ‘help’ them unless they actually ask and even then, encourage them to interpret the postures themselves. This helped me through many years of parenting and now my 20 somethings and teens still do yoga (sometimes :). In any case, they have very fond memories of our family all doing yoga together.

  334. I am a big fan of activities, especially messy ones that clean up easily. One of my favorite sites is funathomewithkids.com. Tons of cool stuff you can make/do with basic household supplies.

  335. I have no great advice other than we walk to the park on nice nights and ride bikes outside with the neighbor kids. I’ve put down butcher paper on the floor and have them lay down on it and trace them. Then I let them color themselves. We go to the library often and usually spend 45 minutes to an hour reading before bed. It really makes for a peaceful transition to bed. I think it’s great you are looking for ways to entertain your kids. It’s all about work-life balance right? Way to go super mom!

  336. Do you have magna tiles yet? Those are the best investment we’ve ever made. When friends and family ask what to get your kids as gifts, just say magna tiles. Then your set will grow. Target sells them. My kids never get sick of them. For my older boy, he makes hot wheels garages. Chloe puts her small disney snap dolls in them. I don’t gender stereotype them, with all the toys equally available to them, this is what they pick.

    As far as cooking goes, when my kids were this age, I put a small ikea table in the kitchen. Then I gave them each one of my real stainless steel pots and real spoons. I gave them each a real big wooden stirring spoon. I got them aprons from the dollar tree. Then we “cooked.” While I cooked, they poured water back and forth and stirred. This would keep them busy for quite awhile. Granted, I did this AFTER a minor refrigerator leak that went unnoticed for goodness knows how long rotted a good chunk of my hardwood floors in the kitchen and when we had insurance money to fix it, I opted for tile in the kitchen. I am not sure you want to do this with your gorgeous hard woods. You could always put towels underneath the table. The kids liked putting ice into the concoction too.

    On to outside: a basic water table and various cups and spoons are essential for spring/summer days.

    We also had a cheap plastic t-ball set.

    Bubbles. Bubbles. Bubbles.

    Good luck!

  337. I haven’t read through all of the comments to see if anyone has suggested this yet, but my kids love, love loved doing exercise videos with me. (I’m no fitness guru by the way, just a regular mom.) Elliot is a bit young for this still– she can’t probably follow along wonderfully just yet, but she’ll get a kick out of watching you and Charlie I bet (and it sounds like he has energy to burn). Plus, have you ever seen a kid try to do a jumping jack? It’s about the funniest thing ever.

  338. Hey Emily, just wanted to say that every single feeling you are feeling I have felt, including the shame. So, let’s celebrate the fact that you want to be the best mom for your kids, because that is what really matters here!! That being said, I, as a preschool teacher, HIGHLY recommend The Busy Toddler Book. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00305CYP6/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1493131371&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_FMwebp_QL65&keywords=the+toddler+busy+book
    It’s full of activities that don’t require a trip to the store and some for the kids individually as well as along side you. Good luck, and I hope you enjoy!

  339. Thank you for posting this. Your kids are each about 3-5 months older than mine, and I so appreciate reading some honest parenting questions and answers. I now have 2 notecards of notes from the comments for ideas to use with my kiddos. Thank you!

  340. Sidewalk chalk – my son and I made roads for hot wheels cars to travel down, drew all of the relatives houses he was entertained forever.

    bean bags – We made so many games, put random baskets out on the floor made them worth different points, I would hide them around the room for him to find, we would also take them outside – made chalk targets to toss onto.

    Also on the hot wheels front – we would build a simple track (the orange ones they sell) we would do a ramp from the coffee table down to the floor by stacking books to hold the track down and once I built he would just send all of the cars down over and over. It wears them out because they put it on the track – run to get it at the end of the track and then back… you can have winners circles – my son is 7 now and still loves to do this although now we have brackets and more complicated racing. πŸ™‚

    My son also liked to paint rocks – ha ha
    We have river rocks in the back yard and I would give him a plate w/ different colors of washable paint and he would have a ball. He would paint one at a time, line them up, and then you can wash them off.

  341. Go for walks! One way I got my kids to unwind in the evening was to take “pajama walks” in the stroller after baths a few times a month (weather permitting). My kids are 11 and 13 and still like to reminisce about these walks.

  342. I do not have children—but I have helped to raise enough of them and have a mother who was a nursery school teacher (it’s cheating, I know). For this age—Magna Tiles. They will use them for years and while it is a major investment to purchase several boxes (and you should buy at least 2 boxes). Every kid in our family uses them and continues to pull them out on a weekly basis. Both kids can use them at the same time and since they are magnetic, they do not require fine motor skills for younger kids.


  343. Smoke some pot! Play time and imagination station is so much more engaging when mom is a teensy stoned!

  344. Read through oh, maybe a Third till I realized just how many posts there were. So perhaps this has all been said. Still, it took me down memory lane – in lovely ways as well as cold sweat ways. My boys are now 20 and 16 so in a way it is all so distant. But reading everyone’s great ideas brought much of it so vividly back. Make the sand and yes, dirt ‘pits’ (we call them boxes in Canada – don’t you too?), with all the construction trucks you can lay your hands on. Both of mine were gaga for this. (anyone else heard the old timer saying ‘a peck of dirt’? and yes that means it’s ‘ok’ if not Usual to have eaten a ‘peck of dirt’ in one’s lifetime.) Then I’d carry them to the bath. or hose them off in the yard. That was fun too. We had music on almost always and singing and dancing was a Big part of their lives. When they get a Bit older, a few years older? – Yes to the trampoline (with a net) outside – that was Genius. But maybe the bouncy house (that sounded good for a younger child) can keep her happy and Charlie can have the trampoline to himself – in a few years. Oh that’s no help. Sorry. But keep that on your to do list. But Now, mega blocks/thomas the tank engine they can both do too. And Yes to the ‘art’ – I had mini easels, a dropcloth (or 20 over the years) and I still find stray bits of colour on some of my furniture, but they made tons of paintings. And we always had music on and singing and dancing (in costumes – a box/chest of All Halloween stuff plus crazy odds & sods, hats, scarves, wands, you get it) was a part of most days. But this is the Easy part I think. More difficult is that balance you (and all of us I think) are after. I Still wish someone had really Really told me then, sat me down a Made me Really Hear, to Treasure It Now. Do. By 7 and 10 these days were nearly Over…. for us. And you Will Pine for them. I’m thinking something in you really Does Know this….else you wouldn’t be somewhat ‘concerned’ or ‘worried’ about it. So my advice to you is to acknowledge and accept ( as you seem to have) what your strengths are and just make sure you tick Those boxes. Do Not feel guilty that you aren’t 100% all the time, or if dressup bores you or you can Not run another inch pretending to attack the pillow fort – or whatever. I get the love of ‘reading/cuddling’ time too – that was my fave too. One thing I did you might consider – have a separate time for each. My eldest played quietly in his room while I read and got my youngest to bed, and then it was His turn. Though we Also had reading times all together too – weekends with dad, or uncle, or just because the eldest remembered the story I would be reading to youngest and come in to ‘help’. But usually they each had some of their ‘own’ time with me. I think they both needed and appreciated that one-on-one time too. As the eldest got older, more Talk happened than stories and it was, and is, I think, the best thing I did to keep those aspects of our bond strong. Believe me, in a few years you will be thankful that they will talk to you about anything because they have always done so and in fact have a built in time to ‘just chat’. But Usually for me, I was directly Involved with the singing/dancing, reading and art – most other play was self directed. I hope there are other voices here that also reassure you that you do not need, nor is it wholly good, to be directly involved in their every playing moment. They are learning to play With each other, with other kids occasionally and more often as time goes by and, on their own. That isn’t lonely or in Any way neglectful, it’s bolstering their self-reliance and self-esteem. It is as hard as it is good to step out of the picture sometimes, and let them be, who they are, without guilt. Yes they are with you and part of you always, but as I’m sure you know, they are emerging as Them and as wondrous and miraculous as that is, and as it is to be a part of, they do now, and will always to greater and greater degrees need you to be able to just let them Be. Even if they don’t know it much right about now. Now their need might often seem overwhelming and can be if you let them. I struggled with it mightily and maybe even didn’t do so well at the letting go parts later. Still working on that. Wonder if you’ll be coming back in 15 years asking us about late teen early adult years? I wish there was a friendly open wonderful group of people like your readers for me to turn to now but as yet I have not found it. Gosh Emily, you Are a Wonder to me, juggling all that you do and doing what you do so beautifully and openly and gracefully. I know its not perfect. It never ever is. but you are doing GREAT. Be Happy. Your family is glorious. And yes, I imagine you face all the yukky stuff I had to, your other internet friends have had to, too. Frayed tempers, bad timing, worse days, sulking, tears, and all the ‘whoops’ moments big and small. Add to that, I’m guessing, that you are doing ‘it’ differently than your own family did, or do, and your friends do – guessing here – and sometimes That pressure, those expectations or stresses mess with your head. Do. Not. Let. It. Just don’t. As long as you and your hubby are Usually on the same page, let all the rest of the advice, even mine!, just roll off you. You are truly unique, to me, to us I think, and just keep going with your gut and your heart and you’ll all be fine. That honesty, that unique You-ness, that spark – all of that comes through on your pages every damn day (mostly!) – it’s a Big part of why we’re all here – and I have no doubt your authenticity is felt by your children too. Lucky, lucky them and You.

  345. As a Grammie, one of my granddaughter’s favorite activities was a container of instant oatmeal that became the ‘treasure hunt’ game. I would pour it into a cake pan and hide lots of treasures in it. Sometimes it was disney figures, and other times we went with a mix of whatever I could come up with, crayons, seashells, poker chips, a diaper pin from when her mom was a baby. Anything to hide and find. The clean up time was good practice with a small broom and dustpan, an activity she still loves.

  346. My 4 year old daughter LOVES cardboard boxes. She can sit in them and draw all over them inside them. Pretend it’s a fort. Pretend it’s a spaceship. She will sit in one and eat dinner in the dining room with us. She loves getting out all the packing materials (the giant bubble wrap) and making walkways or bridges to go over lava in the living room.

    Agree that markers, stickers, etc are all good! Setting up art stations and letting them go at it. I have also bought painting books that have dots in them so when water hits them it colors them. From Melissa and Doug. So kids are playing with water instead of paint.

    Yes to water painting the sidewalk and chalk. Big time fun.

    Water table (Little Tikes Spiralin’ Seas Waterpark Play Table) is big time fun. Though watch the little one. Great to put biodegrade bubbles in it or biodegradable dish soap to make bubbles with it.

  347. I just saw this post so forgive me if someone already said this… For Birdie who is hard to engage in arts and crafts: Bingo dobbbers! Roll out the paper the ladies mentioned below, unscrew the top of the bingo dobbers (get multiple colors) and let her create art that is easy for a toddler. (In case no one knows what I’m talking about – bingo dobbers are the things that have water-based “ink” in them that the old folks use to play bingo with. Juts google “bingo dobber”. I never played bingo a day in my life but my daughter loved to create art with these as a toddler.

  348. I have a super active 15 month old. We call him a battery and he is a climber, runner, player to no end. I struggle with activities as well so I am glad you asked. The best thing for him is being outside. We live in the country and right by the beach on Lake Michigan so I take him to the beach a lot and let him play in the sand, get dirty and I just keep an eye on him while I enjoy the view or wander with him on the shore and collect rocks. We also do some gardening and things like that now that it is warmer. I plan to do things with bubbles and so on once it gets warmer. When we are stuck in the house though I like to clean and do laundry when he is awake and I try to make games out of it. His favorite thing is helping to cook. I will scoot a chair up to the counter and he stands and I give him age appropriate things to play with. I give him some food he can mash and play with. It is a huge mess, but he will do it for almost an hour while I cook dinner and do dishes. He is so entertained by it. He also loves organizing the dishes and so on. I try as often as possible to get him in a direction and spend a few minutes with him and then leave him to do something I need to do and then reengage. That way I am participating the way I want to, but also getting things done at the same time. We also are always listening to music, which he loves as well. Good luck. I am reading this and getting so many ideas so thank you! This is a tough age. I always said my favorite ages from babysitting were 3 -10 so I am looking forward to those activities, but the age range of little little – 3 is a little tough especially when you want to participate as a parent after you left them with a sitter all day.

  349. A random small thing, but have you ever tried those Melissa and Doug Water Wow things? Every kid I have ever seen is obsessed with them. Not exactly for hours of play, but they’ve been entertaining for longer that I would have guessed, for both my almost 2yo and almost 5yo. Plus they are very inexpensive. They have also become one of my go-to birthday gifts for little friends when I know parents don’t want big annoying toys they don’t have space for. Also great for travel!

  350. Okay. My favorite parenting resource is the ah-ha parenting site. It’s awesome and her stuff works!! One of the things she suggests is wrestling with your kids for like 15 minutes a day. I do it with my 4 year old and he loves the physical play. I always loved the game where you throw all the pillows on the floor and pretend they are stones to step on to get you across hot lava or away from the alligators. Hide and seek. Running through sprinklers if it’s warm but get a lead free hose.

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