Most parents feel a bit of guilt about plopping their little ones in front of the TV, iPad, or phone. And yet...sometimes, we just need to get things done. We need to clean the house or cook food or just take a few minutes for ourselves. It’s hard to think of other things that could keep a kid distracted long enough to actually accomplish anything.
There are options, though. True, they take a bit more planning and thought than sitting your child in front of a screen, but encouraging your child to do something constructive just might be worth the extra effort. (And other times, a little bit of Sesame Street is perfectly fine, too! Screen time is not all bad.)
Create a game box
Fill a box full of things your child can play with alone – things like coloring books, playing cards, or easy puzzles. When you need to keep your kids busy, give them the box. They might resist at first, but the more you do it, the more they’ll accept “game box time” as part of their routine.
Have them make their own cartoon
Instead of watching cartoons, have your children make their own. Give them a piece of paper and some crayons, and ask them to draw you a hero and a bad guy. When they’re done, let them come back and tell you their hero’s story.
Let them help you
If you’re cooking or cleaning, let your kids help. Give them a job they can handle. For young kids, that might be stringing beans or setting the table. For older kids, that might be slicing vegetables, sweeping the house, or taking out the recycling.
Give them an important mission
Give your child a task, and make it a really big deal. Tell them they need to draw a picture for Dada, or that they need to make a block fort for Grandma. If they think it’s an important job, they won’t complain about working on it independently.
Generate an idea box
Brainstorm ideas with your children about what they can do to overcome boredom. Write down their suggestions, and put them in an empty box. Then, the next time they’re bored, have them pick out one of their own suggestions. Given that it was their idea, they’ll be more willing to actually do it.
Offer creative toys
Any toy that lets a child create is sure to keep them distracted for a long time. Invest in Legos, puzzles, and Play-Dough. Not only will your child be able to play with them for hours, but they’ll build up their spatial reasoning, too.
Design a treasure hunt
Hide something like a coin or a sticker somewhere in the house. Give your kids a clue, and let them run wild trying to find it. If you make it a bit tricky to find, you’ll build up their resilience – and their ability to find things without begging for your help.
Let them play outside
Don’t forget how your parents kept you busy. Give your child a ball and a stick, and let them run wild. If you’re worried about their safety, keep them in sight of the window.
Send them to a friend’s house
Work out a deal with another parent on your street. When you need some time, send your kid over to play with their kid. To be fair, you’ll have to let them send their kid over sometimes, too. When two kids play together, they keep themselves distracted.
Build a fort
Give your child a few pillows and a blanket, and challenge them to turn the couch into a fort. No child will turn down the chance to make a secret base – and they’ll be much more likely to play independently once they’re inside.
Make a sculpture
Give your child a few pipe cleaners and a piece of Styrofoam – or any other kid-friendly items you might have on hand – and ask them to make a sculpture. Anything will do, but favorite heroes are a winning suggestion.
Listen to an audiobook
If your child’s too young to read independently, pick up audio versions of their favorite books. Let them sit down and turn the pages while listening to a friendly voice read to them. Or, if you can’t find a recording, use your phone to make one yourself.
Play with locks and bolts
Hand your child a lock and a key or a nut and bolt and let them play with it. Young kids, especially, will be mesmerized by the act of unlocking something – and they’ll develop their motor skills while they’re at it. Give them a mixed bag, and see if they can figure out which lock goes with which key.
Have messy mixing time
Set up a big tarp on the floor, and give your child some bowls and things from the kitchen they can mix together. Let them go wild. Your child will be so excited that they get to be messy indoors that they’ll be willing to play without your constant attention.
Play verbal games
If you have the energy to multitask, you can keep your child entertained while still getting things done. Take turns naming an animal for each letter of the alphabet, or play 20 Questions. You can cook, clean, and get ready while quizzing your child.
Create a scavenger hunt
You don’t need to make a whole list – just say, “Find me something that starts with the letter B,” and let them run around the house searching. To keep your kids motivated, you might reward them by letting them choose a dish for dinner once they’ve found 10 things.
Let them grow a garden
Give your child a little plant to take care of. Maybe they can grow an herb garden or a few flowers on the windowsill. Have them water their plant each day and, when you need a few moments, ask them to check on it. They’ll be immersed in their work.
Suggest a science experiment
Let your kids discover the world. Teach or show them something about an object or their surroundings and let them explore it. That might mean giving them a magnet and telling them to see what sticks, or giving them a bowl of water and prompting them to see what will float and what will sink.
Let them play with a camera
Give your child a digital camera, and let them take pictures. They’ll stay distracted making selfies and videos long enough for you to get something done. Afterward, you’ll get to see what the world looks like through your child’s eyes.
Give them a new tool
Especially for young children, just handing a child a new tool can keep them occupied for a pretty long time. Give your kids a flashlight, a combination lock, or a magnifying glass, and let them figure out how it works for themselves.
Make them do chores
This probably isn’t the one your child’s hoping you pick, but it’s good for them. If you’re going to clean the kitchen, make your children clean their rooms. Not only will you get time to actually do your job, but your kids will learn that they have a role in keeping the house clean, too.
Wait them out
If all else fails, just wait them out. If you can put up with 20 minutes of your kids whining about you turning off the TV, they’ll eventually find something else to do.
Getting kids to play independently won’t go smoothly every time. If your children are used to either having your attention or the entertainment of a screen at every moment, they’re going to put up a fuss.
Keep trying everything, though, and your children will get used to playing on their own. Promise!