Ways to entertain children at every stage

What do you do when toys or DVDs don't entertain your baby, toddler or preschooler? You asked. We answered.

Let’s face it. We’re not all super parents. You know, the ones who can make a smiley face mask with a page from an old magazine and a piece of hair? Well, maybe they're not exactly like that, but there always seems to be that special parent who can entertain a child for hours without breaking a sweat (or their partner’s neck at the end of the day). I am not one of those parents. After playing with my son, Cole, for half an hour, I start to wonder, "What now?" 

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Newborns

First of all, you don’t need to entertain your baby every minute of the day. Whether they’re staring at their mobile or out the window, newborns are continually learning. Give your baby space to discover the world. Don’t feel as if you need to provide constant stimulation, which might make your baby fussy.

It's easy to engage your little one with quality time:

 

  • Talk to your baby and make eye contact while washing bottles.
  • Help them make noise, using rattles and plastic containers. Most of all, let them enjoy their coos and babbles.
  • Try infant massage. It’s a soothing way to share a sense of closeness and loving touch with your newborn. Sit on the floor with your legs out straight. Try to keep your back supported. Lay your undressed baby on a towel on your legs. With baby oil or lotion, gently rub your baby’s chest, all the way to the toes. Don’t forget the palms and soles of feet. Make eye contact and speak to your baby in a soft voice. (Just typing this calmed me down).
  • Introduce new scents. Use flowers, coffee beans, vanilla, peppermint, etc. Just don’t offer more than one at a time.
  • Make a plate puppet. Using a thick, black marker, draw a simple smiling face on one side of a paper plate. Draw a sad face on the other side. Hold the puppet eight to 10 inches from the baby’s eyes. Once he or she is focused on it, slowly change it from one side to the other.
  • It's no secret that babies love to look at themselves in the mirror. Whether it’s a mirror attached to the crib or a compact mirror, let your baby look at the two of you together in the mirror. Demonstrate your different facial features and point out theirs, too.
  • Babies love a variety of textures. Introduce different hair brushes, paint brushes, cotton balls, feathers, etc.

 

6-12 Months

A Thousand Scarves: I took this idea from “365 Days of Baby Love: Playing, Growing and Exploring with Babies from Birth to Age 2,” by Sheila Ellison and Susan Ferdinandi. Tie several brightly colored scarves together and stuff them in an empty tissue box. Your baby will love to watch you perform this great trick and pretty soon, they’ll want to do it, too.

Beach ball tetherball: Since before Cole could walk, his favorite toy is a beach ball. He loves any ball that he can throw and hit, but the beach ball is versatile enough to play with inside and outside. Here’s a neat way to incorporate the beach ball into your baby’s play: Tape a piece of string to a beach ball and dangle it for baby to bat with his or her hands or feet. Move it slightly out of reach so your baby has to roll or crawl to get it.

Create a crawlers’ obstacle course: Scatter cushions from the sofa on the floor to create mini obstacles for your baby to crawl over and around.

Bath Time: Whenever you move your little one to the big tub, you’ll find that bath time can be so much fun. It can also take up some time while the baby plays. Filling up and dumping cups of water is always loads of fun, as are traditional bath toys. But one suggestion that has worked for me is to take a pasta strainer and teach junior to play “go fish.” Cole loves to pour water on his head. He would play in the tub until he turned into a prune if I let him.

Play-by-play: As your baby gets older, in the 9- to 12-month range, commentate. Think of yourself as an ESPN announcer, narrating your every move, pointing out what you’re describing and saying it over and over again.

Music is a must: This is one idea my husband and I practiced early on. Experts suggest that babies who are exposed to music early on are better at math. Make everything a song. Sing your favorite nursery rhymes or lullabies or make up a song about whatever you’re doing. Cole was a pretty fussy baby due to acid reflux. The one activity that always calmed him down was singing (and a little dancing – which I’ll get to later). When we were cooking in the kitchen, it became a song. When he was getting dressed, it became a song. You get the picture.

Toddler

Washing dishes: Whether you truly let them help wash dishes or just pretend to in the sink, this was always my favorite way to “help” in the kitchen growing up.

Trash it: This is one of Cole’s favorite things to do. From your station on the couch or at your desk, give your toddler a little piece of something to put in the trash for you. They love helping you. They think they’re such big kids.

Bubble time: We all know kids love bubbles. They love chasing them, popping them and trying to eat them. When it’s raining outside, blow bubbles in your house. The clean-up isn’t too bad (at least it’s soap).

Whites and colors: Apparently, letting your toddler help sort laundry is a great activity. So far, Cole, who is 21 months old, likes to pull it all out and put it all back in the basket.

Dance, dance revolution: By far, this is my favorite activity to do with kids (especially my son). I was a dancer growing up, so it’s the best way for me to relieve stress and let loose. Apparently, I’ve passed that on to Cole, because he loves to dance. Anytime we’re in the car or he gets a little antsy, we turn on some music and dance it out.

Follow the leader: Tell your toddler that he has to do everything you do (jump up and down or march around).

Musical chairs, minus the chairs: Put on some music and tell your active little one to sit down as soon as the music stops.

Memory cards: After a birthday or holiday, take all the cards and cut them in half. Give your toddler one half and spread the other half out. Try to see if he can put them back together.

Bug hunt: Go on a nature walk. Look under rocks and trees for bugs. This is also fun with flowers and plants. Point out all of the different flowers/plants you have in your neighborhood (or at least the few homes around you).

Helping chores: Whether it’s “helping” to prepare meals or simply banging on pots and pans, little ones love being in the kitchen with mom and dad. Clear out a cabinet just for them, where they can grab plastic spoons and bowls to become a makeshift drum set or to “mix” up the batter for dessert that night.

Races/Obstacle courses: Toddlers love racing around the house, and when you count it helps them learn their numbers, too. If they start to get bored too quickly, make it a follow-the-leader event.

Theme Day or Week: Just like “Sesame Street,” have a letter theme. Find books with the letter, sing songs with words that start with the letter, eat food that starts with the letter.

I spy: This can be played inside with books or household materials, or outside with nature. I like to say "Can you find a...." This can be good for learning colors and shapes too.

Preschoolers

Make a letter box: Cover an empty cereal box in red paper. Cut a slot for letters and make pretend envelopes.

Camping in style: Make a tent inside by draping a sheet over a couple of chairs. Bring a flashlight and tell some good stories.

Keep in touch: Have your little ones draw pictures of themselves on construction paper and buy stickers to decorate. They make great “thinking of you” cards for friends and family.

Memory game: Put 20 household items on a tray and let your preschooler look at them for two minutes. Then, hide them. See how many they can remember.

Magic potions: Fill plastic bottles with water, food coloring, bubble bath, glitter, etc. Make magic potions for whatever “ails” them. Just remind them they can’t drink.

Match the photo with the real thing: Take some photos with your digital camera of things around your house. Print them out if you can. Show them to your little one and have them match it with the real thing inside the house.

Balloon catch: I remember the game of not letting the balloon touch the ground – remember how fun that was? Your preschooler will think so, too.

Another great way to use the beach ball: Let them decorate it with washable markers and then “give it a bath.” This can be done again and again.

Make photo books. Little kids love taking and looking at pictures of themselves. Create a photo album or hold an impromptu photo shoot to make a “book” that is a big hit. You can also create an “opposite” book. For example: With the theme of hot and cold, dress them in cold-weather and warm-weather clothing.