Not my circus, temporarily my monkey
April 8, 2018 9:14 PM   Subscribe

My friend’s giving birth and I’m watching her 3 year old for… however long she’s in labor. Give me all your ideas to entertain a toddler for an indefinite period of time.

I am not a parent. The plan is that toddler will sleep at her own house, but hang out at my house during the day. Once I get a text from her dad, I’ll whisk her off to meet her new sibling. I’m one of her favorite people in the whole wide world, which is helpful, but the most time I’ve spent entertaining her solo is about three hours. Her mom’s last labor was almost 24 hours, so I’m thinking it’ll make sense to have more activities planned than my usual approach which is more like: hey, let’s read a book! let’s have my spouse show us how to juggle! let’s brush the dog! let’s empty the dishwasher!

So, give me your best ideas for entertaining a toddler for an indeterminate amount of time. TV’s okay if it’s something chill - I’d especially like suggestions of nature documentaries for the preschool set. Are there foods you've made with your toddler that were a particularly big hit (and ate up a lot of time)? Ideally I’d have a bunch of ideas and engaging activities ready to go, with a good mix of exciting and low-key stuff for what could be a long and kind of stressful day for her since she’ll be out of her normal routine. No ideas too small or too large, only too messy (since I may have to clean her up and transport her fairly quickly).
posted by deludingmyself to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As the parent of a toddler:
Puffin Rock on Netflix
The zoo
Small backpack, tote or purse to fill with items
Dress up may be popular

Might not be as long as you expect, second labors are often really short.
posted by vunder at 9:26 PM on April 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

I would set up an art table for her, like a low coffee or folding table, and cover it with butcher paper. Buy stuff with low messy disaster potential, like construction/printer paper, crayons, stickers, patterned tape, etc. You can get all this stuff at the dollar store or for cheap on Amazon.

This is a good low-key, quiet play activity for any time of day.

Also do not be afraid to check out the kids' offerings on your TV/subscription service and plop her down in front of the screen sometimes!
posted by lalex at 9:27 PM on April 8, 2018

At that age, my kids liked Microcosmos.

A pair of scissors and a lot of scrap paper can be surprisingly entertaining for a 3 year old.
posted by Redstart at 9:32 PM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Kipper, on streaming.
The park/playground/yard.
I think the ideas you’ve said sound good - just keep doing them one after the other. And then Kipper.
posted by kerf at 9:33 PM on April 8, 2018

Make cookies or cupcakes! The easy version: use boxed cake mix or pre-made dough that she can cut into rounds with a plastic knife or pinch into balls with her fingers. The more tricky version is to make it from scratch (this French Yogurt Cake is supposedly fun to make with a toddler).

Once the baked goods are made, decorate them! The easy way is to ice with white readymade frosting (you can put a few spoons of frosting into ziploc bags, colour each bag by adding a bit of food colouring, jam, or cocoa into the bag, sealing it up and then massaging to mix. Then snip off a tiny corner of the bag so it has a "tip" for doodling decorations. It won't dry as quickly as proper cookie frosting would, but that's ok. And/or decorate them with candy.

Making mini-pizza is fun too- you can use toasted English muffins or bagels as the base, then spread on pasta sauce, cheese, and a couple of toppings, then broil. She can cut up bologna, hot dogs, or ham slices, and soft veggies like zucchini and mushrooms with a plastic knife or a standard, non-sharp dining knife. Quick and fun.

Make a fruit salad! She can help by cutting soft fruit like strawberries, peeled kiwi, and bananas with a plastic knife, and she can separate clementine segments that you helped her peel.

If you live near a lake or ocean (or any area with rocks, really) you can go on a rock-finding walk and then paint them or colour them with markers.

Fill a large plastic bin with water and see what kinds of things float. Make little boats with household objects- paper, foil, wine corks, sponge, cut-open water bottles, plastic lids, meat-tray styrofoam, tape, toothpicks, paper, etc. Blow on the boats' paper sails to race them.

Head to the store and buy flowers for mom.

Make a paper bunting banner to congratulate her mom and welcome her little sibling: cut paper triangles, let her decorate them, then hole punch them and put them on a string.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:44 PM on April 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Oh man, so many great ideas already! That link to the yogurt cake reminds me that I'm especially interested in food we can make and eat when it's done, but also food that we can make and take to her family. Maybe this calls for muffins. Or maybe you have ideas.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:58 PM on April 8, 2018

I have a 3.5 year old. He looooooves Ponyo, My Neighbour Totoro, and Wallace and Gromit. You might also try Miniscule, which is animated bugs against a live action background and nice music (YouTube). Yes to cooking - he is constantly asking to make waffles! Ask her parents what she eats - kids are weird.

Another idea: Bath time = water to play in. Give her some plastic tupperwear and measuring cups and stuff. My kid also loves "washing dishes" but that one depends on how much clean up you want to do!

If you're in an area where you can go for a walk that's always good too. See how many different leaves you can find or something.

We spend a lot of time playing imaginary games - running back and forth through the house being puppies or firemen and whatnot.
posted by jrobin276 at 9:58 PM on April 8, 2018

My 3.5 yr old loves playing cars and trains, baking any simple cake, coloring (in short bursts), “helping” on weekend projects around the house, dance parties.

For TV, if you have Amazon Prime, Tumble Leaf is hands down the best tv show for kids that age. Seriously.
posted by ohio at 10:34 PM on April 8, 2018

Have a livingroom dance party,
build a pillow fort,
make banana pops,
make play dough stamps,
go to the park,
have a picnic,
watch Wildcratts nature cartoons on PBS,
go to the library and get some cool books together, then come home and read them,
plant some seeds in the yard (or in cups),
go to the pet store and look at the birds and fish,
go on a walk and have a nature scavenger hunt,
do some drawing activities,
do some free little kids exercise videos or meditation videos with gonoodle...

I'd also ask the parents what kid usually does and imitate the normal flow of the day. Is there a time when kid normally goes to the park, watches cartoons, etc., because I bet she will be a little discombobulated and some normality will probably be welcome too.
posted by hungrytiger at 11:37 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also think making food to take to mom and dad is a good idea!
Some ideas:
high protein muffins,
chia pudding,
lactation cookies (basically oatmeal chocolate chip with some nutrients that are supposed to help lactation) if they're planning on breastfeeding,
or fruit salad in a jar (<--that link has other ideas of food to bring new parents also)
posted by hungrytiger at 11:48 PM on April 8, 2018

Well you don't have to fill every minute with activity. Three years olds need quiet time and cuddles too, particularly when their mum isn't there. Think about quiet, routine, calming down things, and ask the parents how to deal with tears etc. If the labour goes on for 24 hours as you think it might, you'll have a wired, hysterical, upset child by the end of it if every activity is geared towards excitement. Ask the parents what to do to wind down.
posted by glasseyes at 1:58 AM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Seconding what glasseyes said—ask the parents what their kids does to chill and go heavy on that versus “activities” since just being at your house (versus theirs) will count as a stimulating activity. By that age, many kids are ok to play alone in one room while you’re in another as long as you’re in earshot. Ideas would be letting them watch a movie (Moana!) alone on the couch with some books in case their interest flags, letting them hang out on a bed with a big blanket and books/toys, extra time at the dinner table with a toy while you tidy up, etc. Basically, if the kid is up for amusing himself/herself, that’s a feature, not a bug. Also, do they still nap?
posted by whitewall at 2:42 AM on April 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

My mom is forever making sugar cookies with my kid. She has an array of sprinkles and decorations and cookie cutters, rolls out the dough for him and he goes to town cutting the shapes and then putting the sprinkles on. Those are nice things to give because they are very clearly made by the kid. It's like an art project you can eat.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:42 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, think in terms of just a few activities to do together - it doesn't hurt to plan a few extras up your sleeve as back up, but please don't think you have to (or even should) spend every minute together interacting. If you purchase toys, think in terms of blocks, puzzles, books, dolls, cars and trucks, drawing materials, that the child can play with by themselves as well as playing with you.
posted by Gnella at 3:56 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tie dye rice. Make a bunch of white rice. Separate into several bowls. Add one color food coloring to each bowl. Stir (with your hands if you want to have more messy fun) until rice in that bowl is that color. Wait a few minutes for the color to set. Mix all the rice in one big bowl. Lots of tie dye rice. Eat.

I also found that if you start an activity, especially a mundane one like helping to vacuum, with the phrase, "Does your mom let you?" kids will jump at the activity.
posted by AugustWest at 4:18 AM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Number one way to entertain toddlers indefinitely is to bake multiple kinds of cookies from scratch. You would /think/ they would get bored with it, because repetitive, but because it is cookies and they get to eat some during the process, they never seem to. So you pull something like “We are making THREE KINDS of cookies for luck for your mom!” and then you just bake and make cookies for three hours. If you add icing to the cookies and let her decorate each solitary cookie it can stretch on to infinity.
posted by corb at 4:49 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can you do a trial run with the kid? If staying a day at your house is nothing new for the kid, it might be less stressful for her.
posted by Omnomnom at 5:58 AM on April 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I did this for my in-laws and niece when she was around the same age. Be prepared for lots of questions from the kid and tears and worries. That may not happen but my niece is a bit anxious by nature and we spent a not-insignificant time consumed with worries and just wanting her mom. Maybe discuss how the parents have been discussing with the child all these changes. If they are the right temperament, maybe involve them in shopping for some favorite foods and snacks to stock their home refrigerator for when baby comes home plus making a big sign or banner with their drawings (of anything) plus “Welcome, Baby!”
posted by amanda at 6:24 AM on April 9, 2018

My nieces and nephews all seriously lose their sh*t over Paw Patrol. Also, making signs/banners/ drawings welcoming baby. (I still remember doing that for my little sister 31 years ago!)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2018

Take her shopping for a (small inexpensive) "gift" for the new baby.

posted by Ginesthoi at 7:21 AM on April 9, 2018

If you have a tablet or smartphone the child could use, there are a lot of apps that will occupy a 3 year old for a long time. My 3 year old loves all the Sago Mini apps, and some are free. Endless Alphabet and Endless Numbers are not free, but absorbing and educational.
posted by Kriesa at 7:28 AM on April 9, 2018

(I have an almost-4 year old and am pregnant.)

Does she go to daycare/preschool? If so, you'll want to send her there because routine is good.

Yes make cookies! Lactation cookies as mentioned above. Or chocolate chip cookies. Or whatever. Kids love making cookies. Muffins are also good - basically stuff that's easy. We like making these.

Maybe a playdate if she has a special friend or two that you can connect with? My kid loves to meet up with her friends at the park/playground. You definitely want to get her active and outside if you possibly can, kids that age NEED it or they won't sleep. My kid will happily dig in a sandbox, plant sticks, look at rocks in the sidewalk, look for signs of spring, etc, for ages.

Children's room at the library - there are toys and books.

You are a good friend!
posted by john_snow at 7:31 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Things I did with my almost-3-year-Old this weekend:

Swimming pool
Read books
Color with markers
Ate pretend food she made in her play kitchen
Made actual cookies with sprinkles
Made an illustrated list of activities we could do
Scooter and bike ride
Changed a baby doll’s clothes over and over
Ran errands (grocery store, etc.)
Had her help with chores like picking up her room and setting the table
Watched Daniel Tiger and Thomas the tank engine
General imaginative play involving trucks and planes
posted by juliapangolin at 7:38 AM on April 9, 2018

I'd caution against the lactation cookies for now... they were super effective for me, and I ended up with a temporary oversupply problem when I tried them at 3 months postpartum. Engorgement can be pretty painful when milk first starts to come in after giving birth anyway, so I wouldn't do anything to try to boost supply until she knows if that's needed.
posted by Kriesa at 7:54 AM on April 9, 2018

Octonauts on Netflix is another good choice.
Trail mix can be fun to make- lots of scooping and measuring and mixing, but no wet ingredients to be potentially messy. Also you can eat it right away. Plus, mom of newborn can easily eat it one handed, so good to take home.
A cheap watercolor set that comes with a paintbrush can entertain my three year old for quite a while.
Playing hide and seek, either indoors or outdoors.
Take a walk around the neighborhood and talk about everything you see- what are those plants coming up? How is this neighborhood different from hers? Isn't that an interesting stick? Three year olds walk slooooooooooooow and stop constantly, so going around the block can take up to half an hour.
posted by Adridne at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2018

Mom of a 4 yo and 8 mo. You are awesome for doing this duty!

Lots of great ideas here. I'd also point out that Toys R Us is going out of business and if you want to pick up a few cheap things in anticipation of this event, now is the time to go. Then you can slowly dole out the new toys/activities one-by-one as she loses interest.

My BIL watched my son when I went into labor and he said that the best thing he did was take him to the McDonald's play place for a few hours.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:48 AM on April 9, 2018

If you end up having the kid for a whole day at a time, you really want to watch out for:
You've got to make sure the kid is drinking enough. Individual milk cartons and juice boxes are good for this. Water is also good if the kid will drink it. Keep an eye on their fluid intake. If the kid hasn't peed for hours they're not getting enough to drink.

***MAKE SURE THE AMOUNT OF SUGAR THE KID CONSUMES DOES NOT INTERFERE WITH THEM CONSUMING OTHER, MORE HEALTHY, FOOD. Because then you get a wired, hungry kid and tears are not far away. If not melt downs. So watch what you're doing with sugary drinks and sugary snacks. Good snacks are pieces of fruit, like strawberries, and vegetables, like cucumber. Ask the parents what she likes.

If the kid, on the other hand, isn't eating much (because young humans are bloody awkward) then using sugar to tempt appetite might be necessary but try and go for something more foody like cake with a few chocolate chips in rather than frosting.***

Paradoxically, kids getting too sleepy is another thing that makes them wired. Ask for guidelines from the parents about nap times and quiet times.

If your friend's labour is short, none of this matters - the ill effects of too much sugar/excitement accumulate over the day and parents are used to dealing with it at the day's end. But if you find yourself looking after the child in the evening after a long day there are things you'll want to avoid. Special adult friends are all about the excitement, but parents are all about the maintenance so if you're in loco parentis for any length of time you'll need to do the maintenance.

Playing outside is great if you can (it makes them healthily tired) tv and kids apps are okay but can lead to jitteriness in a toddler if there's too much of them. Little children need human interaction more than anything: talks and cuddles and stories and shared activities - and downtime. After all, she's three, she's supposed to be able to play amongst herself.

Apologies if all this is insultingly obvious. I hope you and the little girl have a lovely time together.
posted by glasseyes at 9:17 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Build a fort using chairs/table/sofa back and a tablecloth/sheet. Put pillows inside. Climb in and read a story, cuddle. If you are heading into nap time, maybe listen to quiet music in the fort and see if she will fall asleep.

If you have shaving cream in the house, spray some on a cookie sheet and let her play.

Use dry erase markers to draw on a sliding glass door or large window. (just keep an eye on it, the markers clean up off of glass easily - painted walls not so much)
posted by metahawk at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Glasseyes has really, really good advice! At that age they really need to be reminded (gently forced) to drink & pee. My kid does terribly with juice so do check with the parents - milk or water may be a better bet.
posted by john_snow at 12:39 PM on April 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Aww, MeFi! I was already feeling pretty good about this, but you guys are the best. Nothing is too obvious and all your ideas are wonderful. I will definitely use the suggestions of snuggles, making sure to stay hydrated, and decorating a welcome sign for her new baby sister. Kid just loves to be helpful, so I’m sure it’ll work out great even if it’s more stressful than our usual routines. Thank you all!
posted by deludingmyself at 9:48 PM on April 9, 2018

Further update: kid has a new baby sister today and is so excited, but also spent the last 20 minutes of stalling before bed trying to convince me to a) let her sleep at my house, b) text my husband, and c) have him come move her bed into our house. We did some gardening, made muffins, went to the playground, colored a giant piece of paper on the floor, and made a happy birthday sign for her sister. And hydrated. Thanks, all.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:08 PM on April 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

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