Vacation with nieces & nephews - how to be entertaining?
June 22, 2017 6:16 AM   Subscribe

What are some tips on how to be fun with younger kids without getting exhausted?? I'm spending four days at the beach next week with my partner's niece and nephews.

I've known these kids all their lives, so this is also a general question in addition to this specific vacation. We're meeting up with his family down at the beach and I'd like to be better at being a fun aunt.

I'm never really 100% sure what to do with them, and what they're going to like, and what to do if they get bored and cranky.

There is a 6-year-old girl, and two boys, 4 and 2 years old. They all love me and I send them fun things throughout the year, but it's always tough for me to keep up the fun in person. I don't mean that I want to be a constant zany wacky clown aunt, but I'd like to feel more confident about what kids like to do, and what are some successful crowd-pleasers.

Luckily the beach itself is entertaining, so I'm looking more for tips on how to talk to them, topics that are usually fun, and I'm happy to just sit and listen while they prattle on.

I seem to get exhausted SO QUICKLY (no kids of my own, not used to the stimulation and all the touching, moving, running, etc) and I'd like to be better with them!

My boyfriend is similarly not in touch with his inner child and it'd be great to hear how to pull him in as well. We've had success at past Christmases with simple scavenger hunts and hide and go seek.

posted by amicamentis to Human Relations (25 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
On a recent vacation with cousins aged 5 and 9, I told a cheesy joke on a whim which became a total joke-swapping giggle fest ending in actual tears when I ran out of memorized kid-appropriate jokes. So maybe memorize some jokes?
posted by athirstforsalt at 6:21 AM on June 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

Yo, kids are exhausting. Even when they are your own and you'd think you'd be used to it by now. Those are also some pretty different ages and stages, so the answer is going to be different for all of them. You might need to divide and conquer.

The six year old you can just straight up ask "What do you like, what was your favorite thing you did yesterday, do you want to do it again? What are your favorite toys and things to do?" The two littlers may need to be drawn out more explicitly.

For sure a beach scavenger hunt is a great idea. Even just an informal, "Hey [kids], I heard there might be horseshoe crabs on the beach! Want to go see if we can find one?" (They may say no. Kids have a way of randomly raining on your most happyfuntimes parades.)

Knock Knock jokes are tops. Get a good arsenal of those. Learn some fun facts about the beach in whatever region or climate you will be beaching at and whip those out every now and again. Bonus if you can bring a magnifying glass and/or some plastic specimen jars. If you can find out ahead of time what their various current obsessions are, that can go a long way. Just ask their parents, believe me they will know.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:32 AM on June 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

This won't take very long, but it'll usually cover the time between when my own nieces & nephews get up and their parents join us: morning "cocktails" for each, made to order.

Basically, my kiddie cocktails are just different juices (orange, apple, pineapple, etc.) in the fanciest glasses available --- even better in different colored glasses --- with a dash of Grenadine in the bottom, those mini-paper cocktail umbrellas with various fruit (orange slices, red and green maraschino cherries, pineapple chunks, whatever), and of course fancy straws. Be creative, don't do exactly the same combo each morning.

I started doing this as a surprise for the kids for my own family's beach week; wasn't sure how it would go over at first, but it turns out they love it and look forward to it enough that I got an anxious call from one of them just last week ---"are you gonna make us cocktails again this year, Auntie? Please!"
posted by easily confused at 6:38 AM on June 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

I was the childless adult along on a family trip recently. One hit was eye-spy. Try challenging the six year old to a game when you're waiting in lines, walking from place to place, etc. Then get the six year old to teach it to the four year old.

For general conversation, I like the question "what's the best thing about ____" What's the best thing about your school, the best thing about your house, your parents, your dog, what you had for lunch, swimming, etc. It gets them focused on the positive, it's a good jumping off point for more conversation and the answers are usually hilarious.

Low key wacky, and maybe a way to bring in boyfriend: my friend the music teacher used to do a game with kindergardeners where he'd stick a mustache on his hand and be "Mr. Mustachio," have a whole conversation with the kids as Mr. Mustachio, and then come back as himself and pretend he had no idea what happened. The kids went bananas.
posted by prewar lemonade at 6:54 AM on June 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

We made souvenir tshirts one year, was a great afternoon activity. before you leave, buy cheap white tshirts, fabric glue, and maybe a couple of tubes of fabric puff paint. We gathered pieces of old shells from the beach, maybe some old buttons, maybe a few cheap trinkets from the souvenir shop. spread out newspapers or an old plastic tablecloth and let them make their own. The two older ones can handle it, the youngest will need some hands on help.
posted by raisingsand at 7:02 AM on June 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Traditions and routines-- kids love 'em, and they help cut down on exhaustion for adults since you're not pouring energy into planning/promoting/running novel activities all the time. You can assemble some ideas beforehand, but it's best to watch what's working early in the vacation and try to set up a few repeated daily activities based on that.

Kids enjoyed that first morning's run down to the beach before their parents woke up? Great, make it a tradition every morning, and you can have interesting conversations about what changes and stays the same day-to-day. easily confused's cocktail activity is a great daily tradition to set up. Or a group bedtime stories every night, or sitting outside and singing silly action songs after dinner every day, walking to the convenience store for a paper and a penny candy after breakfast every morning, dressing up in your clothes and jewelry after beach showers every afternoon, etc., etc. The smaller ones, especially, will really appreciate any amount of predictability you can add to the day, and assuming the thing is fun, the repetition is what helps cement it as a "cool auntie" activity you can draw on in subsequent years.
posted by Bardolph at 7:05 AM on June 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

One thing I use when I have kids at a park is to give them quests or tasks. They can be simple (bring me five pink rocks, dig me a hole that I can put a bucket of water in) or elaborate (I need a sandcastle taller than my knee; make the fanciest face out of shells and rocks that you can design). These are hard to come up with on the fly, but if you come up with a list beforehand, it's an easy thing to throw out when you need two or ten minutes by yourself to get your head back in the game. Then when they come back you can discuss their results and maybe they'll have ideas for future missions.

A suggestion for framing this is planning a scrapbook--you want to take pictures of these specific things. This can include poses, burying people, drawing a maze in the sand that you have to solve, etc. Even better if you have an older camera (I have an old digital camera that still works; I mostly use my phone so my son gets to take photos with the camera) and they can take some of the pictures!

And I don't know about those particular kids, but there is often a topic that, once they start, they never stop. With my kid it's Pokemon--what Pokemon would make the best pet? What attack would be helpful when doing your chores? What Pokemon would have the most fun at the beach? If these kids have a similar passion, that's a good approach to conversation.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:07 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

That's a whack of ages. :) You are already an awesome aunt. And just nthing that kids are exhausting and this is why new parents don't go out at night as much...they are draped on the couch.

There's awesome advice in this thread.

A few more things:

Power/cranky hour: When things get chaotic we often get up, put on a tune, and dance/jump around...if this is something that appeals to you, it can be a way to change energy when the kids are just about to get annoying. Bring your favourite dance tune on your phone and it becomes bonding time with auntie.

Naptime: If you feel like a nap, as a parent I adored having relatives that would lie with my kids at naptime.

Divide and conquer: If space/time permits, sometimes taking one child at a time makes a very special time (just plan so that at least the older two each get that experience) - you could take them each for popsicles or on a nature walk individually. Kids are often herded around, plus it's a bit easier on your senses.

At the beach: Pick something you love and make that your daily activity...for me it's beach "volleyball" (hitting a cheap beach ball around).
posted by warriorqueen at 7:21 AM on June 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

In terms of keeping conversations going, I find that kids often seem to exist in a parallel universe. Join them there! If a kid says something unrealistic or whackadoodle, respond as though it wasn't. Of course I'm having a hard time conjuring up an example off the top of my head, but for example: You point at a cloud and say it looks like a bunny. The 4 year old giggles and says, Yeah, it's hopping through the SKY! Then you ask what cloud-bunnies like to eat, debate the merits of cloud-alfalfa versus cloud-carrots, where they sleep (if you want to get really risque, you could conspiratorially whisper-ask where cloud bunnies POOP and wonder if it's going to fall on your head)

Also, making very obviously false statements is a great way to get kids laughing. Say you're fixing them juice in the morning, bring them a glass of orange juice and say, "Here, I brought your apple juice." They will laugh and protest that it's ORANGE juice; you double down and say, no, it's apple juice. On the round after that, produce an orange, insist that it's an apple. (Good grief, guys, haven't you ever seen an apple before?) They'll probably be in fits of laughter by this point. Close it out by doing something like looking up apples on your phone and being amazed.

Finally, with respect to activities, at this age, short and simple is WAY better than involved or complicated. Agreed with all who suggested simple daily routines and rituals that they just do with you. If you're up for it, and they're early risers, the walk to the beach before Mom and Dad get up could be amazing. (And if you were my kids' aunt, I'd love you forever for doing this.)
posted by telepanda at 7:51 AM on June 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm a hooper so I always bring some hula hoops when there are kids around in that sort of setting. Helps me connect with the kids and it's fun watching them learn new tricks and challenge each other. Tires them out too!

easily confused had a great suggestion with the special drinks/glasses. Some mornings when we were kids, my mom would put our orange juice in wine glasses. We freakin' loved it! Grownup glasses? Yes please!
posted by futureisunwritten at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

My cool but chill uncle was so smart - he played a game called "Betcha Can't" with us, from the comfort of his rocking chair.

Basically you grab a beer, sit on the porch, gather the kids. Say something like "Betcha can't... run around that tree three times, crawl under the picnic table, do 4 jumping jacks, hop across that puddle twice, touch that branch... and get back to me in Xminutes." And give each kid an age appropriate goal. Everyone is a winner, everyone gets a high five and a huge laugh from you (because it is legit funny!), and nobody cares about the actual time achieved.

Srsly, dude got to be so lazy, we loved it, and the parents loved it too because after about an hour we were TUCKERED.
posted by functionequalsform at 8:08 AM on June 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Red light/green light and mother may I? are always big hits with my nephews (about the same age as your niblings,) and in looking up the rules for those, I found this great page that outlines lots of games.

Not sure if it's listed there, but I have also passed time with children by playing the "can you toss a pebble at that thing" and the "guess which hand this thing is in" games.

When herding rowdy children around, I can usually distract/control them by yelling out what kind of steps to take (big steps! baby steps! sideways steps! hopping steps! fast steps! no steps!) which is helpful.
posted by punchtothehead at 8:10 AM on June 22, 2017

OH! One time my uncle hid twenty pennies in a room and had us search for them. It entertained us for a long time...mostly because he'd hidden nineteen pennies and lied to us.
posted by punchtothehead at 8:11 AM on June 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

These are all great, but what you ALSO need is a chill little craft project that all the kids can do inside and out of the sun. I'd suggest making Crayola Model Magic 'sand castles' and adorning them with some found shells. Or shell and bead necklaces. Depending on the thickness, Model magic will air dry in a day or two and voila! instant beach souvenir. Plus, everyone can be involved, everyone is relatively still and likely quiet. Put on some beachy tunes and create. Model Magic can be $$$ but check Amazon for teacher packs or use the ubiquitous 40% off coupon for Michael's (if you have one near you).
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:24 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you really need to frame this as something you can direct from the comfort of the sofa/beach chair while the kids do all the running around.

Once thing I've done, which would work with the younger two, is a post-it note treasure hunt. Since they were too young to read, I'd draw simple pictures on post-it note clues which led them to the next clue (under a barstool chair, inside a closet door, on the tv screen hidden in the armoire). Then watch them race around to find the prize at the end (blowing bubbles kit).

Hint: Don't be afraid to make the clues hard because they can find them a lot faster than the time you take to think up and draw them.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:26 AM on June 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have two nieces, aged 6 & 8, and no children myself. I just do whatever they are doing, but from a chair. If they are playing tag, I say something like "Ok, now let's play that you guys are in a race, and I'm the base, only to get off base, you have to tell me a joke and make me laugh." At those ages, it doesn't matter if it makes sense -- what matters is that you pay attention to them.

This has been my strategy with them their whole lives -- whatever they are doing, I do it too. I hope it continues to work as they get older. As for what to do when they misbehave, you kinda have to take your cues from their parents. I flat out asked my brother and his wife "what should I do when they misbehave or when I don't like what they are doing?" and then I did what they said. I also kinda watch my brother and his wife to make sure nothing has changed in between visits.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:32 AM on June 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

My older kiddo LOVES my uncle because he pays attention to him and lets him help with stuff. Mom and dad are always busy and there's a baby brother in the mix, so older kiddo gets half of our attention at best during the day while baby brother is awake.

If uncle needs to take the dog for a walk, he takes older kiddo with him, and lets him hold the leash. If he's taking the trash out, he lets kiddo pull the cans. If he has to go to the store he takes kiddo. Or they take long wandering walks on the beach to find shells. So uncle is just basically doing whatever he would normally do, he just includes kiddo and gives him focused attention. This works equally at 4yo as it does at 6yo.

For the 2yo, you can probably count on a nap midday. With sun and swimming you can probably enforce a nap/break during the afternoon too. It's okay as an adult to set some boundaries and say that you need a break or you need quiet time. If my older kidfo isn't tired at naptime/quiet time I tell him okay you can do quiet things like look at a book or color but DO NOT wake me (that works only some of the time). If really needed, we put a movie on the ipad and give kiddo headphones.

I'm going to disagree with the kid cocktails advice above. Yes it's fun for the kids but if you get tired easily you don't want to load the kids up on sugar. Especially not in the morning. You also don't want to give something to the 6yo and 4yo that the 2yo isn't allowed to have, unless you've never had the pleasure of experiencing a truly EPIC meltdown.
posted by vignettist at 8:38 AM on June 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

My (childless) aunt did this amazing wonderful thing for the huge passal of cousins on our annual family beach trip. Every year she would buy some cheap baskets of tropical shells, and then she would go out and bury them in certain spots in the sand amongst the dune grass near our rental at night when we in bed. She would mark them and some other places that she hadn't buried shells, and then in the morning go down with us to the beach and sit with us while we searched the areas she'd marked. She told us they had washed up there in the winter storms, and made up all kinds of reasons that the areas she'd marked might have them. The one I remember is that she'd been watching the direction the wind was blowing the night before, and marked the likeliest places for shells. Functionally this meant we had awesome treasure hunts while she got to sit quietly with us and seem super knowledgeable. We loved it and didn't figure it out for... kind of an embarrassingly long time. I think I was 12 by the time I put the whole thing together. This same aunt also devised an extremely elaborate real treasure hunt with postcards from mysterious figures she'd "found" in antique shops, a message in a bottle, a treasure map, a metal detector, and a treasure chest filled with doubloons, antiques, and other goodies, but that's a bit more effort than most people want to put in :)

She was odd in other ways, but man, she sure had our loyalty and respect and awe over those shells!
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 10:55 AM on June 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I thought of another fun thing - I make up stories for my nephews and let them have some control over what happens. When they were younger, it was picking names for the characters, deciding what color something was, etc. Now that they're a little older and have an idea of how stories should go, they get to tell more and more - to the point where I can start with "Once upon a time there was a big problem. What was the problem, do you think?" and they'll run from there, with occasional prodding questions from me. It's a quiet activity but it gets their attention, and the stories are a great insight into their weird/brilliant brains.
posted by punchtothehead at 12:13 PM on June 22, 2017

My suggestion is to sometimes let them lead you - they get constantly bossed around by us adults, so they freaking LOVE telling another adult what to do. Ask them to tell you how to play their game, to help you with the rules, etc. When they complain about being bored, ask them what they want to do, don't start suggesting your ideas immediately.
posted by gakiko at 12:31 PM on June 22, 2017

I spend a lot of time around kids in that age range despite not being a parent nor a caregiver and these are my go to activities in no particular order.
- Dance/exercise videos: I introduced my nieces to Michael Jackson over the holidays and it was amazing to see the three-year-old try to moonwalk. This instructional video for kids is a fave, and Mousercise is a hilarious old school option.
- Card games: Set is a neat one that can be simplified for younger children. Sleeping Queens is a big hit with many kids, I would play "open hand" with those ages since there's simple addition involved.
- Explaining random things: I talked about heat transfer one morning because I was trying to explain why the 4 year old shouldn't touch the coffee carafe. It's neat to ask why questions together.
- Reading children's books together: Public libraries have extensive ebook options that include picture books!
- Word games and rhyming games in general. These are good when you are stuck at a restaurant and need to distract small children from the lack of food. "That flat cat is on the mat!" Kids that age enjoy simple puns and wordplay in my experience.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:32 PM on June 22, 2017

We used to let my nieces and later my own daughters give "makeovers" to us. All of us, regardless of gender presentation. This makes for excellent and hilarious photos when the kids are younger. Now that both my nieces and daughters are old enough to use makeup and nail polish rather skillfully, we've been talking about bringing it back--and letting them really make us and their baby cousins look PURTY. In any case painting your grandpa's or uncle's toenails is a pretty great way to kill time if you're a small girl, and little boys can get into it too. Kids like to do stuff that is tactile, creative, and has the potential to be really silly. The six year old will probably adore to be given this great honor.

I also used to like to play a little game I called "I AM THE QUEEN [or MONARCH, as you prefer]. This involved me putting on a crown from the dress-up box at the family cabin and spending an hour or two sitting in the fanciest chair available, ordering my subjects to do increasingly ridiculous things for me. My own children never fell for this game but my nieces (older than my girls) and my cousin's kids (younger than mine) were much more malleable. I literally sat around and had them bring me things and sing to me and turn pages in my books for me because I was too royal to do it myself. Heaven.

The six year old (and maybe the four year old) will have stories from school that you can draw out. What are the names of their friends? Who's their silliest friend? What's the funniest thing that happened at school, ever? Who is their teacher? What is their school situation going to be next year? How do they get to school every day? What do they eat for lunch or snack while they're there? What is the playground like at their school? What do they do after school? What is their favorite dinner? Do they already have homework? What's the funnest homework? What's the WOOOOORST homework?

Touch base with the kids' parents so you know their current interests (books, tv, games they're into, favorite things in general) and what the latest behavioral quirks and issues are. Some kids go through phases, say, where they take everything super literally and can't handle absurdity without getting upset. Some kids will be super responsive to a very direct instruction and others need a more gentle approach. When you're spending time in close quarters, and when you're hopefully in a position to take some pressure off the parents while you're all together, it's good to know that Taylor can't take a joke these days and Harper currently doesn't want to hug anyone. At these younger ages that stuff can change really fast so they might be entirely different kids since the last time you saw them.

Also my sister-in-law has won the hearts of the family children by making a terrible cake every year that involves excavating a hole in a sheet cake, filling the hole with blue Jello, and having the kids decorate it with swedish fish and gummy bears. We call it lake cake, but you can call it beach cake. It's disgusting and you're welcome.
posted by padraigin at 9:01 PM on June 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Balloons are cool. A set of long balloon animal balloons and a small hand pump (available very cheaply) can entertain small children for hours. I forgot to take them last time I went to visit one set of friends with kids, and was informed as I left that next time, it would be better if I remembered the balloons.
posted by kjs4 at 4:45 AM on June 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Kids love it when they are taken seriously and really listened to. Especially when the conversation eventually takes a silly turn. This afternoon my 5 yo grandson was a little grumpy even though we were eating popsicles. I said I know what you are thinking. I said something silly like you are thinking of elephants dancing in pink tutus. I went on from there with silly statements. He was giggling by the time he told me what he was actually thinking of.

For play time I let grandson guide me, follow his lead. I join in witch whatever he is doing. Lots of make believe and creating characters and scenes. I let him tell me what to say as he is quite the director.
posted by goodsearch at 10:20 PM on June 23, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you all SO MUCH for your help! Our week went swimmingly (ha!) and was much more easygoing than in past years.

Our very first night we went out to eat with them and had a 45 minute wait for dinner. THIS THREAD SAVED ME!

Biggest hit - pretending that their little brother and their grandmother were partners in a gang called "The Curly Twins" and had huge appetites and would eat anything. This was a recurring joke throughout the week and managed to make them laugh like crazy.

All of these answers were wonderful :)
posted by amicamentis at 10:37 AM on July 5, 2017

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