When my family moved from snowy Massachusetts to sunny Austin, Texas, I breathed a sigh of relief. No more cold, wet days cooped up indoors with a restless toddler. I'd just open the back door, pour a Texas-sized glass of iced tea, and watch my daughter frolic in the sun. As luck would have it, we were hit with a freezing winter (yes, it actually snowed) and the rainiest summer in the history of Austin.
Needless to say, it forced me to get pretty creative in terms of entertaining a young child. I can't take full credit—some crafty moms and dads added their share of ideas too. Below is a roster of activities to delight toddlers and preschoolers. All you need are a few simple, inexpensive supplies.
A bag of marshmallows and some thin pretzel sticks are all you need to build the perfect puffy pal, a 3-D house, or tepee. Your child simply skewers the marshmallows with the sticks to create his own masterpiece. Add to the fun by placing toy pigs or other animals in the house and challenging your child to be the big bad wolf and blow it down.
Improve your child's memory and help him learn who's who in your family tree with this photo game. Take nine family photos and arrange them into rows of three, then give your child nine playing cards or checkers pieces to serve as bingo chips. When someone calls out "Daddy" or "Grandma," your toddler covers the photo with the card. Whoever gets three in a row wins.
Even the most domestically challenged chef can pull off this sweet and simple project. Slice several thick cookies from a roll of refrigerated sugar-cookie dough. Gently flatten them a bit on a cookie sheet to widen them, bake, and cool for about 10 minutes. Next, your little Dominique Ansels can decorate their pies with strawberry jam or red icing for sauce, shredded coconut for cheese, and red M&M's for pepperoni.
Haul out the craft supplies and set up a home Hallmark business. First, your toddler creates the card with stickers, glitter, cut-out magazine photos, or whatever else he likes. Then you ask him what he wants to say to the recipient, and you write it inside. (I once received one of these from my then 2-year-old nephew that said, "Dear Aunt Isadora, I like to bite my piggy toy. Love, Jared." That was one card I never tossed.) The icing on the cake? When the weather clears up, let your child stamp the envelope and slide it into a nearby mailbox.
This is a trick I use at bedtime to give new life to old stories. Start reading one of your child's favorite books. When you get to a critical point in the action, challenge him to take charge of the tale and add his own twist. For example, if you're reading Cinderella and the mean stepsisters have torn up her dress, ask your child, "What would you do if someone did that to you? Should Cinderella just run away and cry, or should she do something else?" It teaches kids to think on their toes.
Remember the slimy thrill of sifting your hands through a bucket of ersatz eyeballs (aka peeled grapes) at the local haunted house? This activity offers the same thrills without the nightmares. Fill a series of bowls or washing basins full of textured objects—peeled grapes are still a good choice, as is cold cooked spaghetti, steel-wool pads, cornstarch, or dry beans. Blindfold your child, have him sift his hands through, and describe what he feels. Then challenge him to guess the object.
Small, empty water bottles and a rubber ball are all you need to transform the family room into a bowling alley—sans silly shoes, of course. Six bottles should suffice for bowling pins; if the bottles fall over too easily, fill them up with a little water or dry pasta for some extra weight.
Disco has been dead and resurrected so many times, I'm not sure if it's in or out anymore. But I do know that young kids love to dance to it, even if they think that "Bee Gees" is some sort of sugary snack you've been denying them. Dim the lights, close the blinds, hand each child a flashlight (for the full disco effect) and a small scarf to twirl around. Cue up some classic tunes like "Dancing Queen," by ABBA, and "I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor, and watch the disco magic unfold.
Grab a collection of bikini-clad Barbies, beach towels (washcloths), sunscreen (baby lotion), and perhaps a yacht or two (some Tupperware), and head for some fun in the tub. Hint: most Barbies really dig the diving board (faucet). My daughter's opinion: Sunglasses and a tropical beverage (iced juice in a sippy cup) make the experience tantamount to a holiday in St. Tropez.
Gather up your child's fleet of cars, trucks, and spaceships for a detailing job that'll put your local garage to shame. Load them all into the tub and give them a cleaning with plant sprayers and empty squeeze bottles.
Somehow, Pirates of the Caribbean fever has trickled its way down to the toddler set. Doing anything even remotely pirate-like sends many into paroxysms of joy, so give this treasure hunt a try. Wrap a bunch of wooden blocks in aluminum foil, and hide them around the house (don't get too clever—remember whom you're dealing with). Give each child a flashlight and a small paper bag, and challenge them to find the buried silver.
Who would have thought that a humble roll of masking tape could provide so much fun? Make a hopscotch pattern or mock balance beam on the living room floor. Or have your child color pieces of tape with markers and use them to "design" his own T-shirt. My personal favorite: the invisible dollhouse. Lay down a "floor plan" on the rug, and furnish the house with doll furniture.
Change things up by serving lunch outside of the kitchen. First, grab your basket (you don't need a real picnic basket—a laundry basket will do) and assemble some picnicky foods that the kids can "pack" themselves—juice boxes, water bottles, packets of raisins, string cheese, paper plates, napkins. While the kids are busy filling the basket, spread a blanket in the family room and put together some sandwiches. Then unpack your picnic and watch the lunch disappear.
At some point even, the most creative parent is going to have to resort to some good old TV time. Keep a hidden stash of DVDs that you only pull out during cruddy weather so rainy-day television is truly a treat. The same old Wiggles story is doubly boring for a child whose play options are limited.
I had long intended to build a doghouse using plans purchased on the Internet. I had the lumber waiting in my workshop. When a bad-weather day arrived, I got my son interested in the project and broke open the box. We built a doghouse in about three hours.
— Josh Gonze, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Chasing my 18-month-old around the house (especially if I do it in slow motion) and tickling her when she gets caught can keep my daughter endlessly amused.
— Daniel Feld, Brooklyn, New York
On a rainy day our 15-month-old son usually keeps himself occupied by bringing us lots of books to read to him. We also have two large dogs that go stir-crazy in the house and provide him with hours of entertainment!
— Neil Moore, Little Rock, Arkansas