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making the most of dead time

July 19, 2009

Sunday mornings are busy in our home. We leave for church about 10:00 a.m., and my husband leaves about an hour and a half before us, which means I am on my own to feed, clean, and dress both children (ages 12 months and 2 1/2), pack two bags with extra clothes and snacks, and get myself clean and dressed. In addition, Silas needs to take a short morning nap before we leave, and I do my best not to run out of the door while leaving the house in total chaos. I am busy, Silas is asleep, Brian is gone, and Asher is stuck in dead time – an hour or so when he needs to occupy himself. Quietly.

An hour and a half is a long time for a toddler to do ANYTHING, let alone do it quietly or alone. Often, it becomes the hour where he is most likely to a. test boundaries in order to gain my attention (it works, but also lands him in time-out and leaves us both flustered); or b. watch cartoons. I have no problem with television in small, set quantities, but watching television endlessly is not a solution I like, either. And as much as I may want it to, the directive “Go play” normally does not work, either. But it’s impossible for me to engage and/or entertain him every waking minute, so what do we do during those dead hours?

Here are a few things that have worked for us.

1. Novelty is key.

This morning Asher found a bag of cotton balls on the kitchen table. They were out as part of an art project, but when Asher saw them he said, “Ooh, it’s a castle!” A common household object became a novel and interesting toy, and he spent easily 20 minutes stacking them into towers, castles, and igloos, then shaping snakes and snails out of them. When stacking became mundane, I gave him a plastic container to put them in, and showed him how to snap the container closed. The introduction of new materials gave him a new way to play with the cotton balls, and he spent another several minutes stuffing in as many as he could and then watching them spring back. Rather than being entertained by me or by the television, he was engaged with his world, using his hands and imagination to discover something new – all while I was cleaning the kitchen.

2. You control the materials, your child controls the play.

Children (like adults) often need us to jump-start an activity before they can complete it on their own. After cotton balls had lost their fascination, I asked Asher if he would like to choose a toy from his closet. Organizing materials is a different discussion; Asher has access to the lower third of his closet, which contains puzzles and toys for pretend play. I mentioned a few of the pretend play toys that he had not used in a while, and he chose one. I brought it out of the closet and found a sunny corner for him to start. I also asked a few questions about where his toy was going, what he would like for it to do, etc., to get him started. After that he began to play on his own, and I was able to walk away and continue working.

3. Make something new out of something old.

Children thrive in the balance of familiarity and novelty. Familiar toys – a train track, a kitchen set, an art easel – give them a framework for learning new skills, but something new – a container to load blocks onto their trains, or a set of plastic cups to take to their kitchen – encourages their imagination. Later in the morning Asher saw me open the utensil drawer, and asked about the measuring cups. I don’t allow him to have free access to our kitchen equipment, but this morning I handed him the set of plastic measuring cups and told him he could play with them for a while. He immediately took them to his kitchen set and began pretending to cook, then bringing me his recipes to try. It was interesting to hear what he was working on – all of the foods he mentioned are recipes I make that involve using the measuring cups. He was acting out what he had observed me doing in the past. He spent a long time “working” in his kitchen while I worked in mine, and it took almost no effort on my part to spark his imagination.

Now it’s your turn. How do you encourage your children to play independently while your attention is divided? What do you do with toddlers during your dead hours?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Carrie permalink
    July 19, 2009 7:46 pm

    if I don’t have something really inspiring or innovative to say, am I still allowed to leave a comment? =)

    cuz my biggest tools are similar to yours. I’ve found that when I get excited about something, the girls get excited about doing it. The other thing is, kind of like you said, I get them started imagining and I make their toys seem new and different than usual. I’ll go and pick up a toy they play with everyday and pretend it’s a whole new thing and then give them a storyline to run with. It usually doesn’t take long after their imagination is jumpstarted for them to be making all their toys into new things. and they don’t even notice I’m not there anymore! =)

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