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.
On a Plane . . .
While it's a drag to sit on the runway, look on the bright side: You've got a tray table to play and draw on, and there are lots of distractions close at hand.
Even if you don't find a flight attendant who's attentive to your child's friendly overtures, he or she can be a source of tested advice. One handed me a bag of trail mix and told me to shake it for my 3-month old, who also loved mouthing the crackling metallic paper with her toothless gums. And I slipped a penny in the small water bottle I'd just finished with, capped it tightly, and showed her how to make the penny go round and round. Plus, I discovered a new appreciation for the metal flap on the seat belt in the empty seat next to me, which I used to click out rhythms to distract my crying baby when our fellow travelers gave us the evil eye.
My preschooler, of course, usually requires more advanced amusements -- though we've been known to empty those snack-mix packets and spend the better part of a flight sorting out each item into its own pile and counting them up.
Of late, the headsets that are given out are our hands-down favorite. We take turns wearing them while the other person whispers messages in the plug end and the listener tries to translate. When the baby gets fussy, we turn the headset plug toward her and blow some air through it to tickle her neck.
We also invented a hide-and-seek game by tearing a photo of a person out of a magazine and taking turns hiding him within reach. He's turned up behind the pull-down tray, under the blanket, and even in the airsick bag (a surprisingly versatile toy: You can hide rattles inside for the baby or make it into a puppet with a face drawn on the outside).
In Line . . .
For young kids, standing in line is more than irritating -- it's incomprehensible. Why do we have to wait? After all, the table (checkout counter, train, amusement-park ride, and so on) is right there! The situation requires that you literally pull entertainment out of your hat -- or your pocket, as the case may be.
For preschoolers, in fact, your pocketful of change may be just the ticket. Take a moment to look at the money with your child and talk about which coin is which, pointing out that some are bigger or thicker and have ridges or smooth edges. Now have him close his eyes, then hand him a coin. Can he guess if he's holding a penny or a dime?
Once this wears thin, consider a silly variation of an old guessing game: Take turns dropping a penny on the ground and covering it quickly with a toe, then moving your feet around to disguise its location. Which foot has the penny? Challenge your toddler to walk on the lines on the floor or stay on one of the colors in the rug. With several youngsters along, see if each one can stand inside a single tile square. How long can they balance there? This is all simple stuff, but it works.
The same goes for no-prop activities, such as making shapes and letters with your hands and arms. Forming a triangle with your fingers or an "L" with your arm may not be your idea of a good time, but most older toddlers and preschoolers love it.
In the Car . . .
I Spy, license-plate alphabet, and scavenger hunts are universally beloved car games. But on long excursions, even these activities -- as well as wipe-off storyboards and other drawing tools -- can fall short.
That's why Nancy Kay of Nashville has resorted to something unconventional but effective on her ten-hour drives to South Carolina with her three daughters (ages 4, 2, and 3 months). "I get a book of several hundred stickers and let my four-year-old put them all over the back window next to her," says Kay. "Sometimes she'll line up the stickers according to colors or shapes." If you're slightly more protective of your car windows (Kay has to use a razor to remove the stickers), consider blocking the sun and creating a play board at the same time: Cover the back side window with a piece of taped-on cardboard and let your child place the stickers there.
A less messy hit with Kay's kids: puppets or stuffed animals to go along with a story on tape. The kids can act out the plot while listening to the story -- and keep the baby entertained at the same time. Verbal games fall into the no-mess category. My family plays Beep, Cheep, calling out "beep" for stop signs and "cheep" for speed-limit signs. It's silly but fast, especially if you add other things to look for with rhyming words to say.
An advantage of road trips is that you can keep your car stocked with handy props that you don't have to repack each time you set out. Key items we stash in the lunch box under the seat include Scotch tape, a notebook, and a kitchen timer. The tape is the brainchild of my preschooler's teacher, Joyce Drolette of Bozeman, MT, who taught me to rank it right up there with crayons as a creative tool. "Kids can rip up and tape things together for hours," she says. In the car, this serves a dual purpose, as they fasten together empty cups, paper bags, straws, and other trash into wild creations.
We also use tape to secure "treasures" of all sorts that we pick up along the way -- pictures, leaves, feathers, and so forth -- into a travel journal that we keep in the car. As for the kitchen timer: It keeps our guessing games moving along. How long before we see a cow? How about the next stop sign? And, of course, how long until we get there?
Contributing editor Barbara Rowley's most recent book is Baby Days: Activities, Ideas and Games for Enjoying Daily Life With a Child Under Three.