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Child's play

Parents, that meltdown isn’t inevitable. It’s easy to stash a sack of tricks and toys
to keep kids’ hands busy and minds occupied when away from home.

Published May 18, 2006

[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
SICK IN BED: Get well soon.

ON THE SIDELINES: While a sibling practices.
EATING OUT: When is the food coming?
WAITING ROOM: The doctor’s office
AT THE OFFICE: On the job with Mom or Dad

Whether you’re rushing to a checkup at the pediatrician’s office, taking the kids to a restaurant or amusing your 6-year-old at your office on the day the babysitter calls in sick, you’re lucky if you remember to grab some paper and a ballpoint pen to amuse your little one.

It’s not  easy to keep a small person busy and reasonably quiet in a public place. And as summer vacation starts, there may be more occasions when keeping the kids occupied is parents’ Job One.

With a little planning and a small investment you can stuff a few backpacks with items to entertain your children in places where boredom and fussiness often rule: a crowded restaurant, a business office, or even home in bed nursing a cold.

These are deliberately low-tech items: no iPods, almost no handheld games. It’s Kids Unplugged.

Find room in the coat closet or a corner of the garage to stash the backpacks so you can pull them out at a moment’s notice. At day’s end, return the backpacks and their contents to their hiding place so the novelty doesn’t wear off and the items retain their ability to captivate when you need it most. (Backpacks, $9.99 and $19.99 at Target)

ON THE SIDELINES: While a sibling practices

While one child participates in an organized activity (soccer or swim practice), a brother or sister can have fun on the sidelines with colored chalk on the pool deck or sidewalk. ($2, Michaels)

Fill a plastic container with water and let them “paint’’ the concrete with paint brushes. (Three for $1, Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts) Or blow bubbles. ($1.99, Target)

If you’re at a big field, take your own ball along. ($1, Dollar Tree)

If it’s hot, bring out the water squirters. ($1, Dollar Tree)

This is also a great time to play with plastic bugs, sea creatures or jungle animals. ($1, Dollar Tree; $6, Lakeshore Learning)

EATING OUT: When is the food coming?

Wikki Stix are bendable, brightly colored wax sticks that can be made into chains, animals, people, jewelry or about anything. Some kits also include colored drawings that the kids can re-create with their “stix.’’ ($5 to $10, Lakeshore Learning)

Klutz’s book of string games such as Cat’s Cradle: A Book of String Figures keeps restless hands and minds busy. ($9.95,

Silly Putty won’t make a mess and can be molded like clay or pressed down to make copies of words or pictures from place mats or a menu. ($1, Dollar Tree)

Try dominoes — the classic black-and-white dots version or a newer set with road signs, animals or insects. Play the game, show the domino effect or let a toddler build a tower or little houses. ($1, Dollar Tree)

Throw in a small pack of crayons and a spiral notebook for drawing, writing or tic-tac-toe. ($1 each, Dollar Tree)


The electronic 20 Questions game can keep the family busy for miles. Decide on a “thing’’ — from a beach ball to a taco — then this little round computer asks questions that you answer with yes or no. It almost always guesses it right and offers smart-aleck comments along the way. ($9.74, Target)

There are sticker books for all ages on topics ranging from race cars to horses. Some have backdrops of space, the ocean or a girl’s bedroom, and kids fill them in with stickers. ($2 and up, Target or any bookstore)

Here’s a tip for toddlers: Before you hit the road, peel the edges off each page so it’s easier for their little fingers to peel off the stickers.

At the public library, check out a few books on tape or CD. There are many titles to choose from, including popular series such as Harry Potter, Junie B. Jones and Little House on the Prairie. Grab a stack of picture books too. They don’t cause car sickness from too much reading, and even nonreaders can enjoy the pictures.

If your trip is more than two hours, spend $10 at the dollar store for a bag of surprises. A water pinball game, clay rendition of Mr. Potato Head, plastic Slinky and wipe-off Hangman board aren’t high-quality toys, but you can hand something new to the back seat every 40 miles. ($1 each, Dollar Tree)

WAITING ROOM: The doctor’s office

Pair a box of SpongeBob  or Mickey Mouse Band-Aids with a stuffed animal and let your child play doctor. Then let her tend to pretend cuts and scrapes on herself and Mom or Dad. ($1.99, Target)

A handheld electronic game like Hangman or Simon has multiple categories and difficulty levels. ($10 each, Target)

Take turns acting out and watching stories with finger puppets. ($7.99 for set of three, Target)

A chalkboard and chalk can be used for drawing, tic-tac-toe, keeping score for I Spy or any number of things. ($1, Dollar Tree)

Take along a minibottle of hand sanitizer to wipe down toys in the doctor’s office before you play with them as well as your youngster’s hands after your visit. ($1.99 for three, Target)

SICK IN BED: Get well soon

Any child loves a four-pack of fresh, brightly colored Play-Doh and will stay busy for a good while rolling, squeezing and molding this classic clay. Give your child a tray to use as a table in bed. ($2, Target)

A 64-pack of new crayons — with colors like “asparagus,’’ “wisteria’’ and “bittersweet’’ — gives new inspiration and limitless options to artists of all ages. ($3.29, Target)

Pair the crayons with the Draw, Peel, Stick Sketch Pad by 3M. Each page peels off easily and has Post-it  note adhesive on the back so it can temporarily decorate the sickroom or the front door. ($2.99, Target)

Your child may be stuck in bed, but his mind can take him to a prehistoric cave, a pet store, castle or beyond with a few dolls or plastic animals. Children love to make up stories, and all they need is a character in each hand. A bunched-up blanket or sofa pillow is a fine backdrop. (Plastic animals, $1, Dollar Tree; $6, Lakeshore Learning; three dolls in a tote bag, $29.99, Target)

Card games, such as Uno, Old Maid or Go Fish, can be played like solitaire. Younger kids will have fun just placing matched pairs all over the coffee table or their bedroom floor. ($1, Dollar Tree; $5 Target)

It’s good to have one DVD movie or collection of TV episodes that your children rarely watch so it really keeps their attention when they are stuck inside. Kids of all ages love The Brady Bunch. (One season with 24 episodes, $29, Target)

AT THE OFFICE: On the job with Mom or Dad

When a child needs to stay home from school or camp but parents can’t take the day off — or if you’re tag-teaming until the other parent can pick up a child — your office may become the kid’s office. A blank, hardbound book with big pages will keep writers and illustrators of any age busy for some time. ($2.75, Lakeshore Learning) Colored pencils will keep the story in the book and off your office walls. ($2.84, Target)

Younger kids also will enjoy the safe Color Wonder activity books with markers and paints that work only on its special paper. ($7.99, Target)

Playful Patterns includes 132 colored, geometric foam shapes that fit just so into pictures drawn on cards that range in difficulty. ($20,

A jigsaw puzzle can be put together on the floor or at an empty desk. ($2.99, Target)

At some point every child will want to burn off some energy. Take him outside and let him jump rope for a few minutes. ($1, Dollar Tree)

If your child reads, a good chapter book is also a must. If she’s not reading yet, try a thick collection of stories with lots of pictures.


[Last modified May 17, 2006, 21:02:18]

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