I feel lucky every day to have a place full of kind women who teach and love on my kids while I work. Honestly, these women probably don't earn enough money for what they do. But on sunny days when the kids are on the playground and the teachers are sitting and chatting when I pick them up, I feel just a little bit jealous and wish I could quit my job to hang out with my children like this. On days when the kids are trapped inside because of rainy or cold weather, I just want to hug every one of the teachers. Keeping a room full of preschoolers entertained for eight hours is more than I would ever want to tackle.
That being said, I have come up with some strategies for keeping a few kids-namely, my own-entertained and happy on stay-inside days.
Think inside the box. Find a big empty box or several. Diaper boxes are perfect for this and have endless uses: boats, cars, house or fort-building (they don't need to be empty for this one!), etc. You'll also be surprised by how long your toddler or preschooler will be happy just filling up the box with random toys, carting it around the house and then emptying it. Older kids might be trusted with glue and scissors to craft the boxes into something special.
Play with pasta. Macaroni necklaces might be cliche, but cliches come into existence because they're true! Give a kid some dry macaroni and a few crafting supplies, and they'll be happy creating. String the pasta on yarn, or if you're like me and never seem to have enough craft supplies on hand, dental floss or holiday wrapping ribbon will do. You can even glue it to construction paper. Heck, you might even be able to glue it to those boxes. Always watch out for toddlers attempting to eat the pasta.
Get crafty In general, craft supplies are a good thing to whip out on a rainy day. But be strategic about it. Start small with the usual supplies: crayons and coloring books or some plain white paper. Later, pull out or whip up some play dough or the macaroni. Save the big guns-finger paints, for example-for when the kids really start getting restless.
Read a story. Sounds pretty simple! Read aloud board and picture books to small children. Read chapters from larger novels for school-aged kids. Ask older kids to read from their books so you're not the only one straining your voice. And when you're done reading aloud, spend a few minutes with everyone enjoying their own book silently. Check out some of these titles to get you started. And if you don't have anything at home that sparks your interest, you can find some of the classics here.
Play games. Board games will pass the time, and things like Memory and Go Fish work for all but the littlest toddlers. But think back to your own childhood and how you spent indoor recess at school. Remember Heads Up-Seven Up, Simon Says, and I Spy? These classic games might seem novel to your kiddos, and depending on your kids' ages, you might not even have to get involved.
Play in the bath. My boys love bubble baths and during the regular weekly grind, we often don't have time for them to have fun in the tub. At any time of day, just pour a bubble bath, throw in the kids and some toys-I've even given them actual bubbles-and you've got happy children for at least 30 minutes. As a bonus, your kids will get squeaky clean!
Pack a bag. My kids and their friends love to pretend they're taking a trip, even if it's just something as simple as going to school. Let the kids play dress up and encourage them to pack a bag. I've seen my older son (he's 3) spend an hour with a friend just packing a bag, going to school or the store or far away, getting to their destination (obviously, this is all pretend), unpacking and then doing it all over again.
Shadow mommy. Often the days I'm trying to entertain my kids at home, I'm also trying to work from home, something that is not easily accomplished with toddlers underfoot. One way I've found to snag at least 30 minutes of productivity is to embrace their need to be right next to me, doing what I'm doing. If I'm working on the computer, I give them a toy (or a box!) to be their "computer." If I have a pen and paper, I give them a crayon and paper. If I'm trying to cook dinner, I pull out a bunch of pots and pans or, in the case of my preschooler, I give him a simple job: setting the table, shredding lettuce for salads or stirring something that doesn't really need to be stirred. Usually, they make a mess, but my to-do list is done.
Be independent. Just because everyone is inside and home doesn't mean everybody has to be together in one big pile. If your kids want to just hang out in their rooms for a little bit, let them. Encourage them to read or play independently. Arrange their toys so they don't need you to take out everything before they can play with them. Check on them occasionally, of course, but allow them to explore and learn.
Keep it simple. Sometimes, simple toys can be a big hit. Here's what works in our house: wooden blocks, Legos, shape sorters, puzzles (various levels), toy cars and play sets (with people and animals), and musical instruments. Of all the stuff my kids receive-including fancy electronic toys-these are the things that never gather dust on our shelves.