Before I had my daughter, Sasha, I'd always assumed that entertaining a young child was a no-brainer. After all, this is the age group known for its love of crumpled paper and empty boxes.
But as the mother of a 1-year-old, I've learned that while babies may not be picky about their playthings, they have the attention span of your average housefly. They get bored and cranky fast, and if you don't have a few tricks up your sleeve, you'll never make it out of the supermarket or get through a rainy day with your sanity intact.
The following ideas will keep baby occupied in any circumstance. And you won't need to go broke in a toy store.
1. Pass the Cookie. After I spent several rainy days stuck inside with a restless baby, I understood why the Cat in the Hat wreaked so much havoc. Dreary weather and the same collection of tired old toys can send my sunshiny daughter (and me) into a real funk, so that's when I pull out all the stops and try to engage her in out-of-the-ordinary games. A game of "pass the teething biscuit or cookie" is one way I jolly a cranky kid into a giggly mood. Here's how to do it: Put one end of a biscuit in your mouth and lean toward your child. She'll take the other end in her mouth. Then lean in and take the biscuit back with your mouth. Pass it back and forth until baby gets the giggles.
2. Crawling Race. Sheila Ellison, mother of six and author of 365 Games Babies Play (Sourcebooks, 2003), is a fan of the crawling race. "Turn on a musical toy and hide it somewhere nearby," she recommends. "Then, challenge baby to a race to find it." Not only does it keep kids occupied, it gives them the physical release they need.
3. Pantry Discovery. "Your pantry is a great source for unusual playthings," says Louise Jones, mother of two and founder of Sydney's Playground, an indoor playspace in New York City. "Fill bowls with uncooked rice and dried peas," she says. "Kids love feeling all the textures." I know mine does!
4. Messy Crafts. Baby-friendly crafts are a rainy-day hit, too. I tint yogurt with food coloring, lay butcher-block paper on the floor, and let Sasha "paint" (and eat). And when we've really hit a wall, we have a bathroom beach party. For some reason, getting wet when it's not bath time is a novelty for little kids. We race bath toys in the tub, blow bubbles, or use baby bath to make lots of suds.
On the Town
Remember how much you hated schlepping around on errands when you were a kid? Well, your baby probably isn't so crazy about it either. I've accepted the fact that Sasha is never going to love the dry cleaner, but I have enough on-the-go tricks that I don't panic every time she gets restless in the stroller.
5. Free Spectacles. First and foremost, I always try to run errands in areas where there are visual distractions. Watching the pizza guy throw dough in the air or peering into the pet shop window may not seem all that exciting to you, but they're new to a baby and can buy you some time when you need it.
6. Planned Fun. We both enjoy the day more if there's some planned fun to break things up. If there's an 11 a.m. story hour at the big book store, I run errands in that area and use story time as a much-needed break.
7. Novelty Freebies. Sometimes our schedule doesn't permit so many stops. That's when I get out the new "toys": supermarket circulars, plastic spoons, etc. Never underestimate the power of novelty items, especially when they're free!
8. Junk Shops. And when all else fails, I use my secret weapon: the 99-cent store. There's so much colorful junk in these shops your child is sure to be captivated. And if Sasha must have that ugly plastic turtle, it's only 99 cents. You can't go wrong.
Music, Playgrounds, Dancing & More
9. Take a Music Class. Group music classes for little ones have sprung up everywhere. The best ones aren't about classical music and laying the groundwork for future geniuses. Mostly, they're about singing, dancing, playing with simple instruments, and having a grand old time. The bonuses are that your child learns about rhythm and counting, develops his language skills, and maybe makes a few friends to boot. And don't worry if you can't carry a tune.
"Some parents are shy about singing, even to their child," says Lee Stern, a lyricist and Music Together teacher in New York City. "The class helps adults loosen up and realize that everyone has some musical ability -- and that children love sharing music with their whole family."
Check out these three national programs.
- Music Together
10. Hit the Swings! The playground has saved the sanity of many a frustrated mother. Unfortunately, not all playgrounds are designed with kids under 3 in mind. Here's how to spot one that's baby- and toddler-friendly.
- Look for playgrounds that have separate areas for young children.
- Check out the equipment: Are there baby swings? Is there a low slide or a small hobby horse?
- Scope out the neighborhood: Is there a bathroom nearby? A place to grab a quick snack or, better yet, a drugstore if you need supplies?
- See who's at the park: If you see lots of older children tearing around areas reserved for younger kids, this is not the park for you.
11. Make It Up. "Entertaining young children is about turning everyday moments into fun experiences. For example, if you're making sandwiches for lunch, squirting a bunch of jelly into a zippered sandwich bag for baby to squish with his fingers is great fun. It's all about being in the moment," says Sheila Ellison.
12. Dancing Queen (or King). Dancing to silly songs is great fun and great exercise, says Ellison. And you don't need to buy special kids' music to find tunes you and baby will love to move to. Here are some fun CDs you may already have in your collection -- or just buy them off the Internet.
- Headquarters by The Monkees
- Grease Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
- The Beatles Greatest Hits
- The Sound of Music Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
- Thriller by Michael Jackson
13. Make a Play Gym. Sometimes the weather's bad; sometimes it's just too complicated to drag your child and his paraphernalia out of the house. Make your boring old living room a fun indoor place space with tips from Louise Jones of Sydney's Playground.
- Choose a cushioned, baby-proofed area with lots of crawling and walking space.
- Children are drawn to bright colors, so use your couch throw pillows, or cover pillows with colored cases to brighten up the area.
- Stack couch or chair cushions for baby to climb on.
- Mix things up by letting your child use an outdoor toy inside.
- Kids love playing with real things. Make the play space special by taking the batteries out of your phone or remote and letting your toddler play with them there.
- Unearth old toys your child may have forgotten about and place them in the space.
We asked our oh-so-creative readers how they keep babies of all ages happy and occupied. Here, the best of the bunch.
14. "I have a black triangle on white paper taped to the black fridge. My 9-week-old, Norah, can look at it for hours!" Kimberly Kurtz Ryan Spencerport, New York
15. "To get my son to smile, I sing "Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses," a nursery rhyme. I also sing bits from Singin' in the Rain. He stops crying and smiles for that one too." Jenny Hogan Crestwood, Illinois
16. "My 1-year-old Juliann's favorite thing is to go for a stroller ride at the park or around the block. Living in Cleveland, the weather rarely permits, so when she's tired or bored, I push her around the house in her umbrella stroller." Jeana Luberger Cleveland, Ohio
17. "To entertain my 6-month-old, Micah, I often hold him close, cheek-to-cheek, and walk up and down the stairs. I find that this gives him a chance to examine pictures on the wall that he rarely sees and the motion of taking one step slowly at a time quiets him as well." Tina Thompson Carrollton, Georgia
18. "Every night, I 'draw' pictures on my 2-1/2-year-old Nicholas' back with my finger. He loves guessing what I'm drawing." Melissa Massengill Monroe, Michigan
19. "When my 3-month-old, Josiah, is fussy or gassy, my husband has come up with a creative way to help calm him. He made up 'The Farting Game' song and sings it while gently bouncing the baby and working with his legs to help him pass the gas. It's pretty hilarious to hear and watch!" Michelle Rose Eagan, Minnesota
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2005.