I am frequently asked about how I entertain my kids, and there has been a huge surge in these questions since I announced our most recent pregnancy. How do I handle morning sickness with other kids? How am I entertaining them?
This title is a bit of a trick because the answer really is this: I don’t.
I don’t entertain my kids
Welcome To Bored!
I am not a cruise director.
One of the best things I discovered while a new parent was this article called “Stop Entertaining Your Toddler” by Janet Lansbury. If you’re struggling with this right now, I highly recommend checking this article out. Also, I reference her books on my parenting resources page. (A disclaimer that I give over there as well – I do not agree with Janet 100% on everything – I have found a lot of help in understanding children and building a relationship with them, but I do not fully endorse everything I’ve seen her post.)
The more we plan out every moment with educational activities, structured learning, and constantly engaging our little people in their play, the more they rely on us to create play and fun.
This doesn’t mean I never have an actual activity planned or times I sit and play with my children. I play pretend with them sometimes, we read many books daily, and I really enjoy kinetic sand time together almost every afternoon.
This does mean that I have built up routines in our home of giving my children the space to flex the muscle of using their imagination and playing themselves, without me constantly directing the play and engaging them.
Like I mentioned in my post of giving the girls the gift of a slow childhood… I welcome them being bored sometimes and filling that bored space with whatever they come up with!
When Philomena was a baby playing on the floor I would give her space for a second and go do my own thing. “I’m going to go potty, see you in a minute.”
When she was a teensy toddler the phrase that naturally developed in our home was “Time to play self!”
If I was going to go switch out the laundry or some other quick task, I wouldn’t automatically have her do every last thing with me. “Philomena, it’s time to play self while I change the laundry out. I’ll be back in 2 minutes.”
Following Janet’s lead I was always calm and confident that she would be fine, and most of the time Philomena didn’t protest! I always followed through being back in a minute or two when she was little, so she got used to me leaving but always coming right back. As she got older, the time I could go away naturally got longer.
I made sure she had access to her open-ended toys and books, but I didn’t “direct” what she needed to do while I was gone. She just came up with things on her own because I gave her the space to do so.
An invaluable tool I learned from Janet Lansbury was the idea of a “yes space”. This is a totally safe area of your home where your child can be free to play and explore without constantly being told “no!” because there are dangerous areas or objects in the way.
In our little 2 bedroom duplex in Cleveland we cut off about 1/3 of our living room with this extra long baby gate. All Philomena had access to in that area were safe, open ended toys and board books.
Sometimes I see people say they don’t like baby gates because they find them disrespectful of kids, like caging them. I don’t agree with this assessment – we have lots of precautionary things in most homes to keep children safe, like locks on cupboards with hazardous materials, fences around back yards, or dead bolts on front doors. It’s not developmentally appropriate for little children not to explore their surroundings. Since it isn’t physically possible to always be with them literally every waking moment of the day and retain one’s sanity, using a baby gate gives them a safe boundary of where they can be, just like locking that front door keeps them safe inside.
When I was morning sick with Zelie, having a safe space for Philomena in the living room was invaluable. I could race to the bathroom to get sick without worrying about what she was getting in to.
Following sister’s birth, we could play and do chores around the house together for a bit and then I could tell Philomena she needed to play self in her space for a bit while I nursed the baby down.
It is sanity giving! I could safely meet both of my kids’ needs, and Philomena learned in the process how to flex her independent play muscles.
My girls are currently 4.5 and 2.5 and they do very well in the house when it comes to not getting into things, but there is always this extra tall baby gate across their bedroom door. That is their yes space in this small condo. The gate is open 95% of the time, but if I need to make an important phone call or take a shower, or go get sick in the bathroom with this baby, I can close the gate and know they’re okay in there.
The gate also works to keep them with me. I can use the gate to keep us all safely in their room while I rest when feeling poorly, and them play around me or bring me books to look at together while I lay there.
Try Ditching the Screens
Seriously, screens are the enemy of free play. I have a post here all about why we don’t use screens.
When I shared our horrible experience of backsliding into some super minimal screen usage watching Nutcracker videos at Christmas, so many people reached out to me that they have had identical situations, and detoxing from screens with their little children was so important!
If you feel totally stuck with kids hanging off of you 24/7, I realize suggesting giving a screen ban a try sounds crazy. But remember, things aren’t working for you right now anyway, even with the screens. Give a 2 week screen detox a try. I bet after getting past the initial pain of the t.v. stimulation withdrawals and developing some routines of kids playing themselves, you’ll find so much more peace in your family!
Because we developed routines of playing together/doing chores together and then me going and doing something, my girls naturally do things with me for a bit, and then go off to their room or the kitchen table which usually has kinetic sand or play doh and they do their own thing.
Their imaginations are so strong and vivid! They’re constantly playing grocery shopping, going to Mass, and other similar games with their baby dolls.
We do have some favorite toys like our Mega Blocks, kinetic sand, play doh cookie kit, shaker eggs, and silk scarves. However it is interesting to note that these are almost always used in conjunction with some imaginative game of pretend! (Oh, and don’t forget books! We have so many books and my girls love “reading” them aloud and looking and the pictures!)
My children are human – sometimes they’ll just be whiney and clingy because of some developmental leap or growth spurt or bad mood.
My girls always have a hard time running off to play if I have company over for a cup of coffee – they’re social little people like me, and sometimes that’s frustrating.
When we have family come visit and the girls have constant interaction and play with Grandma or Auntie for a week, there’s always a painful process of them getting that independent play muscle strengthened again when our guests are gone.
When we go through a time the girls are struggling I try to give them some really good focused attention for a while and then firmly set a boundary that I need to go work on X for 10 minutes. I’ll come back when I said I would, and usually before I know it they’re back in the swing of their own play.
As parting words, I’m going to leave you with this quote from this fantastic article from Screen Free Parenting:
Naturally, a child’s capacity for entertaining themselves and engaging in independent play builds on itself. The more you allow a child to do it, the more comfortable he or she becomes with it and the more confidence he or she gains. Therefore, when a caregiver nurtures this from the beginning, a child is able to do it “better,” meaning for longer periods of time and without much emotional upset. However, if a child is prevented from entertaining themselves either by a well-meaning caregiver or by a screen, they will be less comfortable with their ability to entertain themselves.
One of the best things a parent can do is to regularly get out a child’s way and allow them to play.