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Ask The Audience – How to Entertain Toddlers

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 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!

Fin Mark

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Allison

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.

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.

Grace

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.

Laura

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.

Laura

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.

sarah

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.

Danielle

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… Read more »

Sherrie S

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.

Tina

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;-)

Elisabeth

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… Read more »

Amanda

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!

Lucy

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!

Jen

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).

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.

Kim

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 😉

Kelly P

Hahaha! “Bed Fort”! Love that one 🙂

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

Paige

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… Read more »

Ellie K.

The scavenger hunt / drawing missions are brilliant!

Jessica

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!

http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2013/04/15-nature-activities-for-kids.html

Ally

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!

Annie

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.

Carolyn

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!

Tricia

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.

Abbie

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!

Carmil

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….

emily

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

Krysten

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.

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!

tk

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.

Jess

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!!

Chelsea

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

Alyssa

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.

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… Read more »

teresa

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

teresa

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!!)

Molly

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.

Kristen

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.

Carolyn

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

Caitlin

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

https://artfulparent.com/2016/01/10-invitations-to-create-art.html

Cassie
Carrie

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,

Shelly

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… Read more »

Lola

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.

Hannah

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… Read more »

Karen T.

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… Read more »

Noelle

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!

Sara

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

Natalie

Amen.

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.

Katie

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.

Tiffany

Yep! Was going to say the same thing… Little Tykes Bounce House is amazing 🙂 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.

Mary

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.

Susie

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

Carly

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.

Renee

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!!!

Sara

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!

Erin

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.… Read more »

Regina Koepp

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!).

Meg

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!

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!

Anna

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!

patricia

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…

Cheryl

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… Read more »

Jody

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

lisa

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.

Lbpv

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.

Jill

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.

jessvii

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)

Ashley

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.

Christina

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,… Read more »

Carmen

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… Read more »

Antonella

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…

Caroline

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… Read more »

Carmen

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!

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. 😉 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?!).

Robin

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.

alice

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!

KB

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… Read more »

Sarah

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!

My mother told me that as well.

yasmara

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. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0010TEFFQ/ref=s9_acsd_al_bw_c_x_1_w 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… Read more »

RubberChickenGirl

Ditto.

Caitlin

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.

Elise

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!

Ashley

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… Read more »

Maya

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

Megan

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… Read more »

EBeth

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…

ellen

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… Read more »

Jody

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… Read more »

Amanda

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.

Tara

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 😉 haha. Puzzles also work.

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!

JP

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.

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