Realize that no parent is good at all the stages of their child’s development. Some are better with babies or toddlers; some are better when their children are teenagers. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t love a certain stage, but do try to get into the spirit of it and make it work for both you and your child. Many parents turn to their smartphones or avoid playtime altogether because they find activities like make-believe or playing dolls boring. I get it! But there’s no reason you can’t find joint activities around something you enjoy. I’ve found that what parents want the most when it comes to quality time is ideas. To that end, here are loads of my favorite ideas to suit any mood:
WHEN YOU’RE TIRED
When one dad is feeling too tired to run around with his kids, he pulls out a stopwatch and times how fast or how long his kids can do something. It’s low energy for dad and high energy for the kids. Win-win!
Sit at the table and play with Play-Doh, color, or read stories.
Go someplace calm: I love taking kids to the library when I’m tired. It gets the kids out the house, but it doesn’t take a lot of energy. They’re normally excited to read new books they haven’t seen before and I get to sit and read.
Build something with Legos or building blocks. Kids love to build. And younger children love to knock things down.
WHEN THERE’S ENERGY TO BURN
Dancing! I’m a huge fan of dance parties. I put on some fun music and I get up and dance with children. Everyone rocks out and practices their dance moves. It’s a lot of fun and the kids can blow off steam.
“If it’s a nice day,” one mum told me, “my son and I will bike to school and home together. It adds a bit of time on to the day—usually meaning I’m a little late to work and early out—but he loves it and it seems like he’s more open with me about his day when we ride home together. If we have extra time, we’ll take the long way through the park and along the lake and we can get a few extra minutes together without my husband or daughter.”
Pillow fights. Feel free to set the parameters around this as you see fit!
Running. One dad I know loves to run with his four-year-old. They don’t go fast enough for Dad to get a good workout, but it’s still exercise, and as the four-year-old grows older, he’ll probably beat his dad’s best time.
Playing games. For young children, take a wind-up musical toy and listen to it, saying “Music.” Then hide the musical toy under a pillow and say, “Where is the music?” Help your child find it. Give hoorays and claps when she finds it, then hide it again across the room so she has to crawl to get it.
WHEN YOU HAVE CHORES TO DO
Have children help you make a list for the grocery store. Involve them in the shopping. Let them hold the list and help you find items on it. Let them choose one special fruit or ingredient they’d like to cook with.
If you have laundry to fold, have them hand you matching socks or things to fold. They can also sort clothes by guessing what clothes belong to which family member. One mum I know loves to make laundry time dress-up time: everyone puts on a tiara or skirt, they put on music, and they dance around as they put away clothes.
Garden together. Children love to water and dig. One mum used to give her son a bug jar and he would collect snails that had gathered in her pots, which he loved!
If you’re making the bed, have your child help pull up the sheets and fluff the pillows.
In one family, the dad likes to hold up his daughter while Mum and Dad cook, and he explains what the parents are doing. I recommend using pods, which are somewhat like kitchen stools, only safer. They allow your child to reach the counter without you constantly having to worry that he’ll fall backward. Depending on his age, he can tear lettuce, or mix ingredients into a bowl, or even measure ingredients or wash dishes.
Another mum plays a game with her seven-year-old daughter based on the television show Chopped! On the show, the contestants are given three ingredients that they have to make something delicious with, quickly. So she puts simple ingredients such as peanut butter, jelly, and graham crackers in a basket and covers it with a cloth. She has her daughter remove the cloth, then make something with the ingredients while the timer ticks down. It’s teaching the seven-year-old to love and appreciate cooking.
One mum who has two dogs loves bringing her kids along to walk them: “They each get a dog to walk and they tend to get along really well when we go on walks where they have some sort of responsibility. Usually we have some destination and then the kids can play together for a few minutes before walking home.”
One little girl loves to watch her dad fix things, and he usually lets her help. The mum says, “It’s ridiculously cute to watch their matching plumber sandwiches poking out from under the sink.”
WHEN YOU FEEL CREATIVE
There may be times when you are feeling artistic, whether it’s of the musical variety or more craft oriented! Consider these activities:
Playing music. Andrew adores music, and loves to sit with his seven-year-old son, Jack, and play records. Sometimes Andrew will play the guitar and Jack will sing or play drums. If they really get excited about the same band, Andrew will take Jack to a concert if the band/singer happens to come to town. At the time of this writing, Jack is really into the Beatles and he and Andrew are looking forward to seeing Paul McCartney when he comes to their city on tour.
Giving your baby a wooden spoon and encouraging her to bang it on the floor. Do it together and sing your favorite songs.
Making root beer. Matt loves to make and bottle root beer, and has taught his ten-year-old and eight-year-old sons how to do it with him. “Maybe when they’re adults,” he said, “they’ll get into making beer, and we can make a tradition of trying out different breweries together.”
Decorating gingerbread houses and cookies is always a hit—just be sure you have a plan to let go of all the sugar-inspired energy afterward!
One word: Play-Doh (or is that two?).
IF YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF COFFEE AND ARE EAGER TO CHALLENGE MARTHA STEWART
Yes, there may be times when you have energy and creativity running through your veins. For those times, try these activities:
Molly loves making inventions with her five-year-old son. “In our garage,” she says, “we have a huge cardboard box of crazy stuff (hooks, bungee cords, wires, sticks, pulleys, casters, cleats, binder clips, ropes, balls, buckets). We can work together to make something fun, such as hanging ropes and blankets around the garage to make a fort, making a stuffed animal ‘trap’ with a rope tied to a ruler propping up a laundry basket, etc.”
Lisa makes things out of the recycling with her preschooler all the time, using duct tape, stickers, crepe paper, and crayons. Cardboard and plastic bottles become a jellyfish, a fire hydrant, or a barn. In a few days, the creations go back in the recycling bin.
WHEN YOU WANT TO GO OUTSIDE, BUT PLEASE NOT TO THE PARK AGAIN!
Go to a plant nursery and ride around in a wagon, then sniff all the flowers.
Go to any free, outdoor concert you can find.
Bring a picnic to a construction site and watch the action.
Go on an “exploration” walk. See how many things you can spot: flowers, birds, trucks, colors—whatever interests you and your children. You can even take a book with images or print pictures to look for.
Take a bike ride. You don’t have to go far, and in fact you can even be on foot while your kids are riding. If one child is too little, he can go in a wagon while the bigger kid rides his bike.
WHEN THE WEATHER IS BEASTLY BUT YOU REALLY NEED TO GET OUT OF THE HOUSE
Embrace it! Get everyone in their wellies and raincoats and splash in puddles. Run around to avoid getting too cold. Yes, you will be muddy and sopping wet, but you can make the excursion brief, then make getting warm again part of the fun.
Lisa and her son go to a hardware store, he rides in a racecar cart, and they look at tools, some of which Lisa needs to purchase. Then they open and close every single refrigerator on display.
Kate and her kids take public transportation for the sake of taking a ride. She lives in Oakland, California, and the commuter ferry is a big hit.
Michael takes his son to a small-aircraft airport. They eat in the diner and watch the planes take off and land.