Keeping a kid entertained during grown-up dinners?
August 4, 2014 2:01 PM   Subscribe

In the next few weeks, I will need to attend a series of late-running formal dinners... with a five-year-old in tow. Please recommend your most magical, engrossing, dinner-table-friendly activity books, games, small toys, etc. for the early school-aged set, so we can keep her quietly in her seat and out of everyone's hair.

The child in question can read a bit, but not for extended periods without help; she's OK with some coloring/drawing, but it doesn't particularly hold her attention. General interests, sadly, are of the standard-issue Disneyfied variety: princesses, dresses, fairies, Frozen (I know-- I tried, I really did! :(). We'll have access to a tablet and possibly a smartphone, but would like to avoid just plunking her in front of a screen; still, if you know of a quiet, non-brain-frying, somewhat cognitively enriching kids' app out there, feel free to recommend it.

I'm ideally hoping to replicate our experience with this sticker book: child says "Wow!," child opens product, child doesn't look up from it for another hour, parents can focus on wrangling the adults at the table. Any ideas, Metafilter? What self-directed activities have addictively entertained your kids at this age?
posted by Bardolph to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For exceptional events, some times you need to compromise on the educational value of your entertainment. I'd have a tablet with a few good movies loaded on it and headphones as your ace up your sleeve for the last few dinners in the series.
posted by Diddly at 2:11 PM on August 4, 2014 [15 favorites]

Yeah, tablet/smartphone, headphones and favourite TV show/game/movie.

You're dragging your 5 year old to boring late night dinners and you want them to be doing quiet boring educational things? Eh, give em a break, let them watch Frozen for the millionth time.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:14 PM on August 4, 2014 [38 favorites]

If your tablet is an iPad, the PBS Kids app has lots of good kids' TV shows.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:16 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

along the lines of your sticker book, amazon has a (seeming) ton of frozen related activity books and etc that might keep her occupied for a while. also, maybe have a reward at the end - "if you behave while mom and dad do this thing they have to do, you can be elsa/anna/a tyrannosaurus trying to make the bed for halloween, okay?".
posted by koroshiya at 2:19 PM on August 4, 2014

If you have an iPad, memail me. I would love to send you some fun kids apps to try.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:32 PM on August 4, 2014

Does she definitely need to be at the table the whole time? When I was a kid at a dinner party, I would eat my food and then get plonked down in someone's room to read, play, and fall asleep.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:33 PM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

The Usborne activity card sets are very good. Each set is a thick pile of double-sided wipe-clean cards with activities such as mazes, spot-the-difference, drawings to complete (e.g. 'draw a face for this monster'), and all kinds of other stuff. We always take a couple of packs on holidays and long trips, and have often pulled them out in restaurants when the service was a bit slow.
posted by pipeski at 2:33 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

An ipad with Toca Town. It's a city of dolls houses in app form and is artistic and delightful to boot.

All TocaBoca apps are excellent, actually, but TocaTown just mesmerises the little buggers.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:35 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're dragging your 5 year old to boring late night dinners and you want them to be doing quiet boring educational things? Eh, give em a break, let them watch Frozen for the millionth time.

Also: absolutely this, speaking as the parent of a six year old. Make it a treat for them, not a chore.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:36 PM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I used to love that little game where you had to squeeze the button and the ring in the water would float up and you had to get it on a target. Ah - here they are!

Magnetic Doodle Balls


Dry Erase Travel Pack


I think you will do best to have a lot of little activities for her to do, so when she gets bored with one thing, you can move her on to the next and so on.

Oh and I wouldn't give her all this stuff at once, save things so there is at least one new thing for each dinner.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:41 PM on August 4, 2014

Have you considered a sitter?
posted by The Blue Olly at 2:43 PM on August 4, 2014 [16 favorites]

We'll have access to a tablet and possibly a smartphone, but would like to avoid just plunking her in front of a screen

Yeah, you're going to want to save that one for your desperate moments! Don't deploy early unless you happen to have brought along an adorable puppy in your pocket or something. Remember to bring headphones. Our other emergency switch is "dessert"--even when grown ups are still having dinner.

Our six year old is newly interested in mazes, Highlights magazines, and hidden picture things, where you find objects. Also, what's the difference between picture A and picture B type things. You can get age appropriate books of mazes and hidden picture stuff from Amazon.

This would probably wow her. Especially good if it's a surprise deployment. Fancy dinners out are probably not the time to draw a hard feminist line (plus, for what it's worth, I don't actually think that stuff is all that harmful in a broader social context and life experience and role models and so on.)

Planning totally different things for each occasion is helpful, and different things within each occasion, so: drawing, then puzzle, then action figures/dolls/plastic animals/then video/then dessert, or something, the ability to go from intellectual to imaginative to creative to passive will help it be less boring and you can key it to the decreasing energy as the evening goes on.

You're feeding kiddo before, right? Like, lots? That will help. We recently started gassing up our kid before dinners out and it's improved life.

(I'm feeling your pain vicariously.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:08 PM on August 4, 2014

Eh, give em a break, let them watch Frozen for the millionth time.

Count me in on this one as well. What you're describing is a tough night -- esp. with what sounds like past bedtime hours. It's giving yourself a break too -- sounds like maybe a rough series of nights.

posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:10 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Our girl loved Where is Strawberry Moshi? at that age. It is kind of like Where's Waldo, but super cutesy Japanese adorableness. Try it, and if it is a hit, there are a couple of others like Where is Strawberry Princess Moshi? and Where is Strawberry Mermaid Moshi? When our girl was this age, these weren't available on Amazon, so I can't speak to the "activity" books I see on there now, but those might be worth looking into as well (and I'm super tempted to get them for her even though she's 10 now!).

Another hit was the Usborne "1001 Things To Spot" series, for example 1001 Things to Spot in Fairyland (and there are plenty of others themes like Pirates, Under the Sea, On Vacation, etc.). These are great because the pictures are so detailed, but also your kid doesn't have to be a reader to use it--there are pictures of each thing to find. It looks like these are out of stock on Amazon, but might be worth investigating if your local bookstore would have them or could get them for you.

As far as iPhone/iPad apps go, ours really enjoyed (and still enjoys) Bear Paint, Cookie Doodle, SpinArt, Matching Zoo, Make a Martian, Kero! and Angelina. Story Chimes is cute if she's entertained with books/stories, and can use headphones. Teach Me Kindergarten is pretty good too.

I say, don't worry about the "brain-frying" issue--if this is a short term need, then do whatever it takes. Good luck!
posted by msbubbaclees at 3:20 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does she have the dexterity for a Rainbow Loom or similar bracelet-maker thingy?
posted by peep at 3:27 PM on August 4, 2014

Nthinig letting the child watch Frozen or anything else they like. They are just out of babyhood, and cannot be expected to act like adults.

I would do everything possible for their comfort, a blankie, a small snuggly toy, comfortable clothes. After all, it is past their bed time, and kids need a lot of sleep (they are growing! Not just their bodies but their brains!). If a Disney movie soothes them and this is a short-term endeavor for which you have no choice but to take the child with you, do everything possible to soothe them, rather than stimulate them in what is already a probably over stimulating environment. If they want to crawl under the table and curl up with said blankie and tablet, let them. It's no worse than the rest of us who laid on the floor watching Wonderful World of Disney. Really, I don't get this screen time stuff nowadays, all we did was watch TV until our parents sent us outside, but it was okay at night.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:39 PM on August 4, 2014

My Style Studio: Design & Trace Your Own Fashions -- look for it on eBay maybe; not totally clear but it looks like some Amazon listings are only for the "book supplement" part. (You need the whole kit.) It is girly, suitable for 5, and very engrossing; it reads not quite as "drawing" or "colouring" (it is, but) but as "pretty outfits!"

And Nthing screen time, and also timed releases of tiny bags of candy.
posted by kmennie at 3:57 PM on August 4, 2014

I am totally with you on not wanting my kid to crack out on junk entertainment and having them engage in enriching, educational things. I really understand.

This is not the time to focus on "enriching".

These events sound like they aren't at all geared for kids, so now probably isn't the time to try to get her to learn to take part in dinner parties like a grown up. Your goal is "happy, behaving, not making a ruckus, and asleep". If you have to drag her to these late night grown up dinner parties (and do you REALLY have to?? Sitter not possible??) then just go for broke and let your kid watch Frozen and play stupid games on the ipad that kids love but offer zero in terms of skill development. Stuff like Minion Rush, pretty pretty rainbow-y drawing apps, pretty Barbie dress up apps, etc. Just let the poor thing crack out on some junk entertainment. Also, dress her in jammies, and give them someplace comfortable/warm to hang out, like a couch or a bedroom or something. Make sure she knows where you are and that you are more-or-less within ear shot, but don't expect her to stay at the table. Your ultimate goal should be to have her fall asleep, not stay awake. Once she is asleep you no longer need to worry about what time it is and if you should be getting home so that she can go to bed. So tucker her out during the day, keep the sugar to a MINIMUM, and arrive fully ready for bed (jammies, blanket, favourite toy, etc). Consider bringing some food you know she loves for her to have for supper instead of risking her hating the grown up food. Get her some pizza or something. Whatever you know you likes and will eat.

Seriously, you are just going to make your life massively harder if you try to keep this "enriching" or if you attempt to keep her awake. I have a seven year old. I speak from experience.

also, make sure the dinner hosts are okay with your bringing your child. Having a child around can really change the dynamic and tone of a party, and if these dinner parties aren't intended to be a 'bring your kid' type event... well, just make sure.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:24 PM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old and have both hosted and attended many "late-running formal dinners" and other such events that are socially understood (in the US) to be adults-only. So I know from whence I speak here: Get a sitter.

YMMV (and I'm sure you have Good Reasons for wanting to bring your 5-year-old to these formal events and all), but I know my kids and their same-aged friends will not sit in one place doing quiet, passive activities alone for 3+ hours and past 8pm. Nope, not even for all 108 minutes of Frozen. (And when the movie's over, then what?)

So you want to "avoid just plunking her in front of a screen" - and honestly, a sitter who you've instructed not to let your kid play on their smartphone or watch TV is the best solution within that parameter. If travel is an issue, Sittercity or can hook you up with background-checked sitters in a new town. Your daughter will have a blast doing fun activities and she will get to go to bed on time. Nobody will look askance at you for bringing a kid to a formal dinner event none of the adults really want her at in the first place, but are too polite to say so. Win/win!
posted by hush at 4:25 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would go for movies on an iPad, in your situation, too. But if you want something almost as entrancing as movies, but with educational value, my 6yo loves Tumblebooks. Check your public library's website, and see if they can hook you up. Many have system-wide accounts, where you click on the link from their website, and you can view for free. Tumblebooks are read-aloud, minimally animated picture books. Mezmerizing to both my kids for several years now, and good for reading comprehension, as they do the "bouncing ball under the words" style narration.
posted by instamatic at 4:30 PM on August 4, 2014

Even my kid sometimes gets sick of games and movies on her Kindle. Here are a few other suggestions:
Ultimate Frozen Sticker Book
Look and Find Frozen book
Wiki Sticks
Eye Find (This was very popular among the 5 year old set when we would go to a restaurant --maybe because of the tools it uses to find things)
posted by biscuits at 4:35 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

For this sort of time frame, I agree with some of the previous posters that you probably ought to go with the movie-watching-on-tablet-with-headphones route rather than the coloring-book-and-toy route. Give a kid six fun things to do over a three hour time span and they'll exhaust them all in 15 mins flat (a 5 year old doesn't know how to self-pace or apportion...hell, I don't, either).

You need serious time absorption with serious galvanization, and that only comes, IMO, from long-form Hollywood entertainment.
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:11 PM on August 4, 2014

I am someone who grew up well before mobile devices and with parents who regularly took me along, as an only child, to long adult dinners. I survived by quietly reading whatever book I was into at the moment and playing with my stuffed animals (and occasionally having my way with straws and packages of sugar at restaurants). But to this day I remember being so, so terribly bored. Little seeds of resentment were planted with each hour I spent at the table with the adults.

I try to believe that that sort of suffering is character building, and I think I did learn, at an earlier age than most, how to interact with adults due to this forced socialization. But you probably don't want to inflict this on your child unless it really is the only option.
posted by girl flaneur at 6:12 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

so we can keep her quietly in her seat and out of everyone's hair.

Not sure if that's a realistic expectation! I hope she can at least go sit somewhere else, as others have suggested?

My kid is younger but she got really absorbed in sticker mosaics... Or perhaps something like a small new Lego kit - the tiny ones that come in bags, nothing extravagant.

I agree you may need to relax about screen time, educational value etc. on the other hand, if you want her to fall asleep, it could be tricky if she's playing iPad games.
posted by 8k at 7:46 PM on August 4, 2014

Bendaroos. Maybe two packs of them!

Otherwise, just let her watch Frozen again. It's not the end of the world. Maybe even bring along a small travel pillow in case you're sitting in a booth and she can carve out some room to take a cat nap.
posted by Ostara at 8:00 PM on August 4, 2014

Any time that I bring my children to a nice restaurant, my first order is for the fluffiest, fanciest, most elaborate, non-alcoholic drink that they can create. I have kept 3 children from age 3 on up, pleasant in the nicest places by allowing them to start their meal with a whipped cream topped virgin daiquiri. It makes them feel extra special to be the first order.
posted by myselfasme at 8:10 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Legos! A new set, just for the evening-my girl loves the Lego Friends set. Just kept our 4 and 8 year olds entertained for an entire dinner out tonight.
posted by purenitrous at 8:34 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Water wow or invisible marker coloring are fun for quiet table activities.
posted by mgogol at 7:11 AM on August 5, 2014

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