Have you ever tried to entertain a toddler? If so, then you know it can be a practice in patience, an audition for your acting chops, and a test of your creativity. One of the most common complaints I hear from parents with toddlers is how draining it can be to entertain them all the time. I get it. Toddlers are demanding in ways that make some parents wish they were infants again. It is a wonder parents ever get anything done with toddlers around! How to entertain a toddler?
While preparing dinner this evening, I thought about all the different ways I have tried to keep my toddlers entertained long enough for me to complete a task (like cooking) at home. I started thinking this kind of post might be useful to a reader, particularly because I am talking about toddler distractions that work for a short period of time, when you need to be in a specific room of the house and cannot leave your toddler unsupervised. (If you are looking for specific ways to entertain a toddler on a plane, check out my post on traveling with twins.)
(Some affiliate links are included in this post, which means I get commissions for purchases made through links on this page. See more information on my Policies page. Thank you for supporting my blog.)
One advantage of having twins is parents are able to test toddler distraction techniques and self-guided activities against (usually) two very different personality types. This typically means we have a lot of creative ideas that evolve constantly and have been tested against a difficult audience. I hope my suggestions below will help to give you some fresh, new ideas. Please leave your own tips in the comments at the end! How to entertain a toddler?
1. Create a safe play area near you
My first tip should be obvious, but I feel the need to explain what I mean. Of course, most parents with toddlers appreciate the importance of kid-proofing, and this could be the subject for a future post. The part I want to highlight most is that the designated play area should be where your toddlers can see you. You want to be able to supervise their play just as much as your tots want to know you are close.
If you happen to have a playroom adjacent to your desired work space, lucky you. Scroll down to Tip 2.
What happens when you don’t have an ideal layout in your home and/or when you are working in a room that is unsafe for your child?
This is where you have to get creative.
When we were living in a larger, multiple-story home, I experimented with using a standard baby gate to keep my twin toddlers in their bedroom while I watched them on a monitor, but I do not recommend this. They were not able to remain entertained for very long without seeing me, and there were only so many videos on the iPad I could let them watch! (Don’t judge – yes, I rely on technology sometimes.)
If you have a way of blocking off the dangers in a room (like the stove/oven in the kitchen), then you can use the remaining space to set up a ‘new’ area for them to play in. I was also very consistent about teaching them what to stay away from, what to avoid touching, and why they should be cautious, so they are not usually prone to playing in or near those danger areas.
I used to move a height-adjustable picnic table (pictured right) around the house to use as a snack/craft/iPad-viewing table as needed. Because I could easily place it in different rooms, it felt like new seating to them each time.
Even a blanket spread out on the floor can create a ‘new’ play space for them. Like most things you introduce for the first time, you may have to ‘sell’ this space to your tots to convince them to try it out.
What happens if you need to cook and your kitchen is too small to accommodate a play area?
We used the Dream Baby safety gate with an automatic close feature to block off our small galley kitchen in Brooklyn, and I used a play zone area (pictured above) to shift their allowable exploration space throughout the day. (I think traditional play pens are quickly outgrown and are too small for twins.)
In the morning, while I was vacuuming and mopping the wood floors, I would stretch the play zone across the living room (using other pieces of furniture to keep it upright) to keep my toddlers contained near the sofas where we kept the floors padded with bright-colored foam letters like these.
When I was cooking in the evening, I made sure all the bedroom doors were closed and allowed them to run the entire length of the main living space in our small apartment. Of course, they loved to come to the kitchen gate for attention, but it was easy to address conflicts, tantrums, and cries for attention because I was not completely closed off from them.
So now that you have a safe, accessible space for them to play in, how can you keep them entertained with minimal intervention from you?
Here are my suggestions:
2. Make music, sing and dance along with them
Yes, you can rely on technology and play kid-friendly tracks. There is no shame in that. We like the radio, and my twin girls still love their Baby Superstar compilation of classical music and the songs on this “Toddler Favorites” album. What will make this activity even more enjoyable for your toddlers (if your ears and sanity can endure it) is allowing them to experiment with making their own music too.
Try letting them beat a large wooden or plastic spoon against empty Tupperware, a plastic bucket, whatever you have that won’t disturb your ear drums. (I don’t recommend using anything made of metal.)
Because these kitchen gadgets are not conventional ‘toys’ they are (presumably) used to playing with, they should find it more exciting to try out than that keyboard or tambourine in their playroom you so carefully picked out for them.
Of course, if you want them to play with their conventional and ‘boring’ instruments, all you have to do is pick one up and start using it yourself. You will probably have a volunteer offering to take it off your hands in no time.
3. Allow them to ‘help’ with your task
In case you haven’t noticed, toddlers are naturally curious and are known for attempting to try everything “all by [themselves].” The adults (and children) around them are their first muses, and they will want to try out whatever it is you are doing. You can certainly use this to your advantage when you need to complete a task.
The key to this technique is giving them a role that makes them feel like an able-bodied helper. Mine were always fascinated with the vacuum, broom, and mop, so I have certainly allowed them to ‘help’ me by holding the dustpan or sliding the Swiffer across the floor when I am cleaning the floors. One of my mom friends purchased cute mini versions like this one for her sons, and my daughters cannot stay away from them when we go over for a play date.
If I am dusting, I give them a moist paper towel and ask them to help me wipe off different surfaces around the room. (You could also just give them a dusting sheet; it’s child’s play, not child labor.)
If you are cooking, give them some pots, pans, wooden spoons with some pretend food to cook up. Large to medium blocks and rolled up socks work well as pretend food because they pose less of a choking hazard should they attempt to eat it!
As my daughters got older (and past the mouthing phase), we did acquire a few fake food kits like this one that continue to entertain them. They can now make sandwiches, cakes and cupcakes, stew, and a number of other creative toddler-initiated delicacies.
Eventually, my parents bought them a small play kitchen (pictured), which made it easier for my daughters to feel like a vital part of the cooking team. At this age, though, even a cardboard box can be fashioned into a play kitchen they will love!
For sewing projects, you can give them long shoelaces to thread through a stiff cardboard with holes in it. They do sell these, as my mother recently sent this kit to my daughters, but you can also make these yourself. Cut the cardboard into fun shapes for added kid-appeal.
If you need to make a phone call or work on the computer, you may need some props that resemble these items. My daughters used to prop open a puzzle box and pretend they were working on a laptop. If you don’t have a play telephone, you’d be surprised how many common household items make great pretend phones (e.g. cucumber, box of bar soap).
4. Master the art of introducing ‘surprise’ toys
One of the golden rules for entertaining toddlers is to keep them guessing. In this context, it means you cannot offer the same ‘bag of tricks’ each time and expect the same result. If they are asked to play with a particular toy or complete a familiar activity, they are likely to become bored and be unable to entertain themselves for long, if at all.
Unless you have the time (and inclination) to try to sell the activity, I recommend introducing a new and/or unfamiliar toy or activity. What I am suggesting is NOT to purchase a new toy or activity each time you want to get anything done with a toddler around. What I am suggesting is to make use of the toys and activities you already own.
Preserve the magic of the special bag
Remember that special bag of activities you put together for your last trip? (In case you’re not familiar, you can read about it in my post here.) Once you have carefully selected items (i.e. stickers, markers, beads) to place in your bag of assorted, age-appropriate activities for your toddler, make sure you store the bag and its contents where your toddler cannot find it.
If you want the toys and activities to remain effective as toddler distractions, you must pull this bag out selectively (like when you need to go to the DMV), and place it back in storage once your errand/task/mission is complete. In contrast, if you pull the items out and incorporate them into your toddler’s every day play activities, the items will soon lose their luster and blend in with everything else.
Practice the ‘new toy’ shuffle
If you do not have a special bag tucked away, fear not because you can still create one with the items you have at home! If you have ever attempted to go through your toddler’s collection of books and toys, you will inevitably find some they have not read or played with in some time.
As long as your toddler is not in the room when you are taking inventory, you will have a very easy time putting some of these books and toys away to be recycled into the mix later. On the other hand, if your toddler witnesses your growing collection of less familiar items, you will probably face more difficulty putting items away without some form of protest. All of a sudden, those neglected toys will become fascinating again! (“What’s that? I want to play with that!”)
As an added perk, taking inventory of your toddler’s toy box once in a while is also an effective way to identify what toys and books could stand to be donated, replaced, or otherwise eliminated from the mix. (My husband is the best at this.)
5. When all else fails, try short increments (30 minutes or less) with technology
This one is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t say much about it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend any television or screen time for children under the age of 2. At my daughters’ 3-and-a-half-year checkup, our pediatrician advised against allowing any more than one hour of television or screen time in a day.
I agree that screen time should not be a substitute for play and should never be a child’s primary source for learning. That said, I am but one person, an imperfect one at that, and sometimes, it is nice to have an easy distraction available when you need it most.
On these occasions, we resort to some of our favorite DVDs or the unlimited streaming we get from Amazon Prime where we can get multiple episodes of various popular, educational kids’ shows at any time and on any WiFi-enabled device.
♥ ♥ ♥
When it comes to entertaining toddlers, consider yourself the host of a variety show that is expected to change frequently and quickly adapt to the audience’s feedback. Sometimes, I feel like the ringleader in a circus, attempting my best to come up with new, interesting acts for my difficult audience. Other days, I am a used car salesman trying to convince them to leave the lot with a bright, shiny object in their possession.
As much as you would like for your toddlers to play on their own while you finish a task, you will have to concede from time to time, dropping whatever you are trying to accomplish to play along with them. Most days, dinner can wait.
Sometimes I am so focused on completing the task, that I begin to feel frustrated when they will not cooperate with my planned schedule. Those are the moments I have to make a conscious effort to remember what little time I have before my daughters no longer think I am that interesting. Now that will be a sad day indeed.
When you want your toddler to practice self-entertainment, what tricks do you use? It’s always great to learn more ideas – please share yours below!