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Easy Toddler Fun

You've just gotten the phone call canceling your playdate. Or the delivery people have called to tell you they'll be there with your new water heater sometime between early morning and 5 p.m. The day stretches out before you. What to do?

We asked moms around the country for their best tips for keeping their toddlers happy and occupied. And not one of them calls for turning on the TV! These activities are easy to do at home using stuff you already have, and are sure to delight both of you.

In the bathroom...

  • Draw a bath, throw in a couple of clean sponges, and ask your toddler to help you "clean" the bathtub while she's in it. While she's busy, you can scrub the sink or just sit there and enjoy some downtime.
  • Nothing occupies a toddler more than his own little squirt bottle filled with water and a small sponge, I've found. Show him that the idea is not to soak but to spritz -- and then clean the smudges off the walls.
  • Mindy Swanson of San Diego sprays shaving cream all over the bathtub walls and adds a drop of food coloring. "Let your kids mix it together and you're rocking," she says. "Finger-paint-o-rama!" A quick spray is all it takes to clean up afterward. An added bonus: Your bathroom smells like Daddy.

In the kitchen...

  • Mini-muffins are a perfect project. "They're very simple to mix up, and your child can do almost every step," says Christina Bess, a mom of two in Maplewood, New Jersey. "Plus, they only take ten minutes to bake. Turn on some disco and do some crazy dancing while they're cooking." (To see her recipe for banana-chocolate-chip muffins, plus more toddler-enticing recipes, go to parenting.com/muffins.)
  • Rebecca Horvath of Bluff City, Tennessee, sets down a big plastic bowl of uncooked rice, along with some cups, spoons, and containers, for her 3-year-old. "Emily pours and scoops for as long as I'll let her," she says. Another option: uncooked beans. (But watch your toddler carefully.)
  • "Washing vegetables is one of the first ways that my kids 'helped' when I made lunch or dinner," says Lani Horn, a mom of three in Seattle. "So what if it ends up being more about running their hands under the water?"

In your room...

  • "I hand Francie a hairbrush and she brushes my hair while I get to read a magazine," says Amey Stone of New York City.
  • "I give my toddler some face paints and let her paint herself," says Martha Brockenbrough of Seattle. "She'll stand in front of the mirror and paint her face, arms, and legs, and then her sister. It's my secret weapon."
  • Play doctor. When I was pregnant with my son, I got to lie down on my bed while my then almost-3-year-old listened to my heartbeat, checked the baby, and worked on my feet. (Don't ask why -- I could never figure out what she was doing with them.)

In the family room...

  • Don't shoo your toddler away if she wants to help. Whenever I vacuumed, I had my kids move their toys out of the way. When I finished, my son got to do 'toes,' which is when he stepped his foot on the button to retract the vacuum's cord.
  • Robin Whitsell of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, goes "shopping." "I give my toddler one of those fake credit cards that come in the mail, and we 'shop' with stuff I keep in the junk drawer."
  • Put a gym mat or big cushion in front of the sofa and see what your toddler can do. Two-year-old Jesse Kolodny of Long Beach, California, entertains himself by throwing his stuffed animals onto the gym mat and then jumping down to get them. "He makes up all sorts of fantasy games, like he's on a boat and the mat's the water," says his mom, Harper. "Or he rolls his Hot Wheels off of the couch onto it."
  • Toddlers are fascinated by the act of emptying and refilling. Sarah Gilbert of Portland, Oregon, gives her 19-month-old a big urn filled with fabric scraps. "He loves to take them out and put them back in, piece by piece."

In the end, the greatest thing about toddlers is that they have fun so easily. Good luck wrangling them to the dinner table, though.

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