How to keep kids busy on a long winter day

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It’s a long winter afternoon, you want to stay inside, and the kids are raring to do something new.

But you don’t have to put a movie in the DVD player to keep them occupied. There are oodles of easy projects that will entertain for hours, from indoor puppet shows to tea parties to homemade play dough.

Look for things the kids can do themselves – not games that tell them what to do.

“When you get to turn the couch into a castle, that really develops the cognitive and social and even the physical skills in a way that doesn’t happen sitting in front of a television,” said Sherri Iverson, the executive director of the American Academy of Pediatrics chapter in Idaho. Iverson is also a nurse who runs parenting classes at a Boise hospital. “In true play, children develop social and emotional skills that they don’t get any other way.”

One easy project is a puppet show, which can be staged on something as simple as a table, with a tablecloth, or the back of a couch. Wendy Blickenstaff, a Boise landscape painter with two daughters ages 7 and 9, has turned a wide doorway in her home into a theater with a collapsible curtain rod – the kind with springs on the ends – and some sheets (hang the curtain halfway up). Discount stores like Marshall’s sell elaborate cloth shower curtains, with fringe, that can give your homemade theater an authentic look.

For the script, Blickenstaff has her children make up their own stories or use classic tales like “Three Billy Goats Gruff” or “Hansel and Gretel.” Those well-known stories are easy to present as good short shows and have all the necessary ingredients: dialogue, danger, suspense and resolution. Stories with swordplay or other physical conflict are usually a hit.

The puppets themselves are easy to come by. Stuffed animals and dolls fill many roles, and puppets can be produced from socks – with stick-on eyes from the craft store, or buttons, as facial features. Paint pens work well for puppet features, too.

If the kids don’t have a wolf but they love the story of Little Red Riding Hood, adapt it and put on a play with a menacing lion, or whatever stuffed animal you have on hand, instead. Stage the story of the three little pigs with penguins, if that’s what you’ve got. If all else fails, use found materials: Press a cow-shaped salt shaker into service or build some props out of Legos. After my family read a children’s book about the first ascent of Mount Everest, my kids re-enacted it several times on the bunk bed with yarn, action figures and Barbies.

Staging the puppet show is fun, too. Kids love to make tickets and programs and decide what drinks to serve at intermission. Dim the lights and have one child with a flashlight serve as the lighting technician, spotlighting characters. Recruit another for special effects; he or she can play dramatic music, make background sounds like footsteps or rain, or just shake beans in a can when extra noise is called for.

Putting on the show can even teach kids more than stagecraft, said Blickenstaff. “The puppets have conflict, and they work through them,” she said. “It’s a safe place to practice solving problems before you try them out on the playground, with real people.”

Rice, shaving cream and ‘pinkies up in the air’

Terri Bigelow, a teacher at the Washington Elementary School in Boise, doesn’t mind a mess as long as it’s contained. For little kids, she likes to fill a washtub with rice, which is cheap in bulk, and let the children play there with measuring cups and spoons.

“You can find out how many teaspoons are in the cup,” said Bigelow, who is partial to games that incorporate reading, writing or math. “They’ll play with it for hours, because it’s hands-on.”

Bigelow also permits the transformation of her clean kitchen counter into a writing pad with shaving cream or pudding. The kids write with their fingers, then erase what they wrote and try something else.

It’s easy to whip up some homemade play dough using supplies that are probably in your cupboard. There are dozens of recipes on the Internet, and most use flour, water, cream of tartar, and salt in one combination or another. Kids love to use the mixer, and this is a perfect way to let them do it. After making the dough, divide it and let them mix in food coloring.

Tea parties are still a hit with kids. Dorothy Miller, a grandmother in Twin Falls, Idaho, always puts one on when her granddaughters or other children are visiting. Miller has a silver tea service and a large assortment of china and teaspoons she has collected over the years. She lets each child pick out a cup and spoon, lights candles, and serves small cookies or tiny sandwiches cut in squares or triangles. For some reason, she says, this setting seems to encourage tea-party behavior.

“They have their little pinkies up in the air. They like to pour, and they just have a grand time, and their manners are just impeccable,” said Miller. “It has a special spell to it.”

But not all kids will be entranced by the idea of pretty tea cups and delicate finger food. For a wild little boy or a girl who hates frills, recast the concept as a royal feast and tell them they get to be the king and queen. Let them make crowns out of construction paper and decorate them with stickers. After a good hand-washing, they can spoon out slice-and-bake cookies. Serve hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows in mugs instead of tea in china cups.

For some large-scale art, parent Amy Adams lets kids use butcher block paper, the large brown sheets that come in a roll, and Cray-pas, the bright oil pastels that look like crayons, to create murals.

Recently, she used the theme of a habitat, where the kids drew a desert, an ocean or a forest.

“Then I had them go into magazines and cut out the animals that would go into the habitat and glue them on,” said Adams, an elementary schoolteacher.

“They get so absorbed because it’s something they take ownership of,” said Adams. “You’re rarely going to find a kid who says, ‘No, I don’t want to create something.”‘

Adams has also had success, both in school and with her own two kids, with indoor camping trips. Set up a tent, many are available that stand without stakes, and put sleeping bags in it.

“It’s easy if families have the space and are willing to make the mess,” said Adams, who has toasted marshmallows over a candle and decorated the room like a campground, with pictures of animals and the weather. When everyone’s together, they talk about camping things, like first aid, swimming, and fishing.

“Kids love to go in a tent,” she said. “They don’t even think they’re learning.”

Whatever it is the kids end up doing, don’t direct them, but be available if they have questions, and stay nearby, said Iverson, who said she often counsels people in her parenting classes to focus on their children instead of on their work or social life. She knows it’s not easy.

“How do I sit on the floor when I need to check my e-mail?” she asked rhetorically. “It really takes a commitment to be there.”

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