Do you feel like you are constantly in a pressure cooker trying to juggle the demands of motherhood, life tasks and/or (paid) work..
Do you find yourself struggling to extract yourself from your children for a period of more than 30 seconds to get to the never-ending list of tasks on your to-do list?
Do you feel the constant need to entertain your children and get the guilts when you don’t give them your undivided attention?
Do you constantly feel like you are drowning in the juggle of life and resort to ‘quiet time’ (i.e. TV time) more often than you wish to admit?
Whether you are a working mother, trying to whip through household tasks on your 1-2 “days off”, whilst cradling your infant on your hip, a phone on your shoulder calling into a work teleconference and praying to all that is good and decent, that your child will not make a sound to tip them off that you aren’t 150% dedicated to the task at hand;
You are a mum juggling the household load, managing the lives of multiple humans and just looking for a 5-minute break so you can drink your coffee before it goes cold and perhaps, just perhaps, make yourself your own meal rather than those toddler leftovers that you usually call “lunch”…
The juggle is real.
And regardless of what we are juggling, we all need our own headspace sometimes. We need our kids to throw us a life line every now and then and say, “hey Mum, you look tired, let me pack away my toys, play quietly in my room and why don’t I pour you an herbal tea in the process?”.
Whilst we may never see that particular reality, there are some activity tips that I have learnt along the way that has helped me keep my head above water when managing multitudes of client calls and work tasks on my “days off”, whilst also writing a book and remaining the primary carer for my kids.
Tips for engaging your children so you can get stuff done
1. Create the space
Whether it’s an office or a work corner, define a space in the home which is dedicated to you completing your tasks. For me, we have Mummy’s office. It comes with rules. It comes with clear expectations of the kids. I’ve heard others create a Room of Reflection or Quiet Room. Whatever it is, make sure that it comes with clear rules on behaviour and use.
2. Carefully structure your day
I have a 2 and a 4 year old. They have A LOT of energy to burn. And, they can also display terrible behaviour. But it is handy to remember that kids aren’t inherently badly behaved. Instead, this behaviour reflects an unmet need. For my children, often it is not enough quality time.
I have found it useful to prioritise my kids in the morning. We do something fun. We get outdoors. We burn a lot of energy and they have my undivided attention. That way, in the late morning / afternoon, they feel content and (if I am really lucky) a little tired, and are generally much better at having some quiet, independent time from then on (or, if all the stars align, even a nap!). Plus, I don’t get the guilts so much if I know that I have given them their time first.
3. Collect random materials
I have started siphoning off some recyclables into a spare drawer; milk and egg cartons, different shaped boxes, bottle lids, pretty leaves, tubes, buttons, a whole heap of random goodness. They are great to pull out for a whole raft of imaginative play activities (not just arts and crafts, but think, towers, car ramps, cities). By keeping these materials away, they remain special when they are brought out and engage my children’s imagination and independence.
4. Outline your expectations to your child and explain that it is not a punishment
Well before I start my work / important teleconference / urgent task, I allow myself enough time to sit down with the kids and outline what work I need to do, where I need to do it, how long it will take (usually giving the measure of “one Play School episode length”) and what kind of behaviour I expect from them at the time.
It is also very important to clarify that they are not being punished but simply, Mum has some jobs that she needs to do and the quicker she does them, the quicker we can do [insert fun activity and / or incentive here]!
5. Set a clock
As an extra measure, you can also set a clock to provide the boundaries on the time that you need to complete your task.
6. Brainstorm activities
Some days the kids are off and racing, and others they cannot seem to tap in to that creativity. Before my allocated work time, I always brainstorm the type of activities that they could do with little interruption / interaction from me. Clearly, my suggestions try to involve a type of quiet play that is unlikely to cause arguments.
There are so many things that they can do around the home that doesn’t involve cost. The obvious ones are drawings, play dough or Lego. But how about the following activities to keep them amused:
Shops: If you have more than one child, set up a shop. Our all-time favourite is a shoe shop. Do not underestimate the amount of time that it takes to bring out all the shoes and arrange them! Don’t forget a chair for the customer to sit on, a tape measure to measure their feet and some bags for them to take away their purchases!
Build a city: In our house we like to use masking tape on the floorboards to create roads and then we pull out anything we can find… cardboard boxes or blocks for buildings, cars, any little figurines we may have… My eldest loves using sticky tape (think, fine-motor skills) so he can literally spend hours unravelling it and sticking it down.
Sort the socks: Sounds a little ridiculous but this is just another matching game. For younger children, choose socks that are quite varied (i.e. different colours) and with older children you can choose socks that are similar with slight differences (such as lines vs. dots).
Build an obstacle course: Tables to go under, cushions to climb, boxes to jump in and out of… the options are endless.
Create a car ramp: A piece of cardboard sloped from a chair. Simple. We have had hours of entertainment from this. To extend the activity for older children, they can explore how fast different sized objects go down the ramp (heavy vs. light) and what the effect of changing the ramp slope is.
Create a post box: Cut a slit in a box and a door to retrieve the mail and, bammo! For toddlers, this activity kept my child occupied for 2 hours! They will find random goodies to post; anything from paper and books, to pegs, remotes and toys!
7. Set Boundaries
I find that it is particularly important to clarify boundaries, to let them know what is acceptable to interrupt me for, and what isn’t.
I also let them know the best way to communicate with me (because, let’s face it, they will inevitably forget the above rule at some point). Usually, I am in teleconferences, so I tell them that they need to tiptoe in like a fairy and tap me on the hand.
It sounds silly, but it actually took me a number of interrupted teleconferences to realise that I hadn’t actually talked to my 4 year old about the fact that screaming at the top of his lungs wasn’t the best method of communication AND provided him with alternative (and acceptable) methods.
I’m not going to pretend that it is foolproof, but I do feel that it reduces the proportion of disruptions that I have!
And geez Mama, when you get to finish line, be sure to praise that child for the way they occupied themselves and helped you to get your stuff done! You most certainly want to reinforce these behaviours!
If you are looking for ideas for activities to engage your children around the house whilst not spending a cent, then feel free to download our guide: 18 fun activities to do around the home using household items.
Note: Whilst the benefits of independent play are well cited, please remember that pre-school aged children still require supervision at appropriate levels to their individual needs and abilities. We recommend promoting independent play in an area where supervision can be maintained whilst other tasks can be completed.
About Alice Zsembery
She is a busy working mum of 2 preschool aged children and has just released her new book Real Kids, Real Play – 150 activities to do around the home using household items. It aims to remind us of the copious educational and fun activities that our children can do around the home using everyday items – without you having to spend lots of money, time or effort. It is written by an exhausted mum, for an exhausted mum. And dad. And grandparent. And carer.