5 toddler games to play when you're sick

Five ways to keep little ones busy when you’re just not up to the job.

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Sick happens. And when you’re the one who’s ill, you soon find out a baby or toddler can only be entertained by a screen for so long. So what can you do when you’ve got a headache, the flu or even a bad cold, and there’s no one to call to contend with your little one’s boundless energy? Don’t panic, Mama; we’ve come up with five activities to carry you through to nap time.

Read more: No sick days for mom > 

1. Switch up the toys
Low-energy days are the perfect time to haul out a stash of new or old toys, says Richmond, B.C., mom Andree Lau. She used this trick when her whole family was sick with hand, foot and mouth disease and her 22-month-old son Harrison was, of course, the first to recover. Each batch of books and toys she brought out from storage bought her some respite. Since Harrison seems to play with just a few things at any one time, Lau keeps out his favourites and hides away the less popular toys to circulate when the current standards won’t do any longer. “He thinks the toys are new when I bring them out, so he’s really excited and interested,” she says. Another idea: Refresh your selection by swapping toys with friends.

2. Turn on the tap
Most little ones love splashing in the tub, and if a daytime bath can bring you a half hour of entertainment on a crummy day, why wait until bedtime? In fact, why not take that whole concept of water play one step further: Fill a shallow, plastic tub with clean water and place it on the floor on a vinyl tablecloth and some towels to catch the majority of the mess. Water is calming for kids (and quiet for you!), and she’ll also learn from this sensory experience, says Linda Hudson, coordinator of the Early Childhood Education program at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont. Stirring with spoons and pouring from sieves, cups and child-safe containers will keep your toddler busy for a long time. Older toddlers love “doing the dishes” at a sink of sudsy water, mirroring what Mom and Dad do. (Never leave your child unattended around water, even for a moment. If you’re feeling drowsy, avoid any type of water play.)

3. Get recycling
There’s nothing more liberating to your budding artist than a stack of fresh paper and a few crayons or washable markers to scribble away with to his heart’s content—but such waste, even in the name of art, will give an eco-minded parent heart palpitations. Save some trees by setting your little Picasso up with a stack of papers that need recycling. For toddlers, the novelty is the new paper, so even digging up old notepads from your junk drawer works just as well.

4. Find a big box
It’s no secret that toddlers often prefer the packaging to the presents, so give him exactly what he’s craving. If you have a large box, put it on the floor and see what happens. He’ll crawl through it, pretend it’s a fort, or even drive it like a car. Throw a flashlight into the mix and the fun could last even longer—while you lie on the floor beside him. If you’re still under the weather tomorrow, spread out some newspapers and get out the paint. “They can spend days painting a box and making it their own,” promises Hudson. “For them, the experience is in the doing, not in the finished product.” If you don’t have a big box kicking around, use tables and blankets to make forts; even babies get a kick out of being under a table or crawling through cushion tunnels.

Read more: Boxes: How to turn them into hours of play >

5. Make a mess
Take her on a sensory experience in the safety of her high chair, or on a waterproof mat on the floor. Watch her learn about texture as she mucks around with a little bit of flour, cornmeal, frozen peas or cereal. Give her the freedom to pour, mix and ultimately make a gloopy mess, albeit a confined one. We know what you’re thinking: Who’s going to clean it up? And the answer is, unfortunately, you. But at least you’ve had time for your pain reliever to kick in.

A version of this article appeared in our March 2014 issue with the headline “Fun and games,” p. 40.

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