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Great Waiting Games

We were on our way home from vacation and had already driven 45 miles, waited an hour for a plane, flown for two hours, and were faced with another delay when I discovered the joys of twist ties. I had them in the diaper bag to secure my 5-month-old's dirty diapers in plastic bags. But now my 4-year-old and I found we could twist them into animals and people, then clothe and decorate them with tissue paper secured with a twist. The plane seemed ready to board in no time.

Desperation is the parent of invention, as you'll find when you're left at the mercy of a circling plane, a traffic jam, or a long restaurant line with a couple of tired and hungry kids at your side. An essential skill for family outings: being able to turn waiting into a game and entertain your kids with whatever meager objects you have at your disposal  -- or your wits alone.

Here, ways to have fun in some of the places you're most likely to be stuck.

At a Restaurant . . .

Time really does slow down when your dining companion either can't speak in full sentences or seems compelled to repeat the same message  -- "I'm hungry"  -- over and over.

Of course, there are steps you can take to ease things along: Ask that your child's order be brought immediately when it's ready, for instance, and request crackers to stave off starvation.

Since you're in public  -- and may want to return to the establishment  -- look for low-mess, quiet amusements. "Emptying the salt and pepper shakers and sugar packets and then using the mess for finger paint should be discouraged," says Denise Wade, a mom and restaurant owner in Big Sky, MT.

On the other hand, playing peekaboo through a water glass with your baby  -- who'll love to look at your big eyes through this distorted view, feel the cool glass held up to her chubby cheeks, or hear the sound of your spoon chiming gently against the side  -- can be a winner. So can games with straws, as long as they don't involve squirting liquid. A popular activity: blowing small, folded pieces of paper across the table but not over the edge in a race.

Put an ice cube on a baby's high-chair tray and let her push it with her hands and watch it speed and slide across the tray, or let her try to catch several cubes with a spoon and fill an empty cup. (Be sure she doesn't put the ice in her mouth, since large cubes can be a choking hazard.)

Drawing is also a no-mess restaurant favorite. Suggest that your child (age 3 or older) make a puzzle by outlining tabletop items as well as those you have with you (keys, lipstick) on the back of a place mat, and then you or a younger sibling try to match each item to its outline. Or make rubbings of coins, credit cards, and any other two-dimensional objects you can lay your hands on. Just put the object under the paper place mat, hold it down firmly, and run a crayon over the surface.