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Indoor Madness: Easing Cabin Fever

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After my daughter Anna was born, we took her out for a stroll on her second day home. But then the Montana winter arrived  -- virtually overnight  -- bringing screaming winds, arctic temperatures, and foot after foot of snow. A few days inside quickly started to feel like a week, and when a week passed, I was sure I hadn't gone anywhere in a month. On particularly grim days, I can remember feeling as if my daughter had become my unwitting jailer.

Three long winters later, we've stored up plenty of tactics for being inside together for days on end. Our annual winter cold snap in January has afforded us some of our greatest family memories. Here, five basic strategies we keep in mind whenever we find ourselves housebound:

Barbara Rowley is writing a book about activities for babies and toddlers.

1. BREAK THE RULES

When the weather is already ruling your family's life, you might as well loosen the restrictions inside to compensate. Nothing cheers a child like the prospect of eating dinner on the floor, using every pillow in the house to make a cushiony mountain, or getting really messy  -- on purpose.

THE HUMAN CANVAS

There's a reason your kids are always drawing on themselves. They really, really like it. You'll be the family hero if you cheer up the day with a designated body-painting session, scheduled, not coincidentally, right before bath time. Babies younger than 18 months  -- who already cover themselves with food  -- don't usually appreciate the novelty of this activity.

MATERIALS

  • Face or washable paints
  • Soft brushes and sponges

HOW TO DO IT

Cover the bathroom floor with towels, get out your paints, and strip down to your bathing suits or diapers. Now decorate each other's bodies using brushes and sponges dipped in paint. Instruct the kids not to paint their own or each other's faces  -- you'll help them with these finishing touches to make sure that no paint or paintbrush gets near the eyes. (If you don't have face or washable paints, you can make your own: Mix together a few drops of food coloring and a mild body lotion or cream, for instance.) Fill the bath while your kids paint, and then, when their masterpieces are complete, take a photograph and hit the tub.

THE SNOWBOX

Kids (even babies and toddlers) love snow. So when it's just too cold and nasty to go out and play, why not bring some snow in the house?

MATERIALS

  • Large bath or beach towela
  • Plastic baby bath or dish tub
  • Snow
  • Plastic spoons and measuring cups
  • Cookie cutters
  • Paintbrushes
  • Washable paint

     

HOW TO DO IT

First cover the kitchen floor with beach towels; then step outside and fill your plastic tub with as much clean snow as you can quickly scoop up. Place the full tub on the towels. Babies as young as 9 months will enjoy stirring, scooping, dumping, and making shapes with the snow in and out of the tub. They'll also like painting the snow with paintbrushes and washable paint, a messy, mix-it-up experience that allows them to learn about color firsthand. At 2, Anna painted snow with great concentration. After she colored and mixed it sufficiently, she spent an equal amount of time slicing up the painted snow with a plastic knife. The point? Who knows? But she thought it was fun.

2. TAKE ACTION

The most unpleasant aspect of being stuck in the house is the feeling that all you're doing  -- indeed, all you will ever do  -- is sitting around. Now more than ever you and your family need to get your feel-good endorphins pumping.

To a newborn, an exercising parent is much more exciting than any mobile. If it is at all dark outside, direct a light at yourself while you reach and jump; let your baby sit in her infant seat and have her look at you and your wild shadows on the wall.

OBSTACLE COURSE

Older kids and toddlers alike will enjoy an indoor triathlon, which could last all morning.

MATERIALS

  • Pillows
  • Couch cushions
  • Ride-on toys
  • Slides
  • Balls
  • Bottomless coffee cans
  • Tunnels (or a big cardboard box)

     

HOW TO DO IT

Scatter the pillows and cushions around carpeted areas of the house to establish the course route. In between station cars to drive, slides to scoot down, balls to roll through bottomless coffee cans turned on their side, and open cardboard boxes or premade tunnels to crawl through. From the age of 18 months my daughter could spend entire mornings running these courses. This always made nap time a breeze  -- for both of us, because she insisted that I run the course with her.

ANIMAL EXERCISES

Touching your toes has limited appeal to most toddlers and preschoolers. But acting like an elephant  -- bending at the waist and swinging your clinched hands down like a trunk from side to side  -- is considerably more exciting.

See how many standard exercises can be turned into something resembling an animal or inanimate object. As you exercise, get your children to guess what you are (make appropriate noises as clues) and get them to exercise along with you. Challenge them to see what exercise charades they can come up with. Can they arch their backs like a cat? Roll like a worm? Skitter like a crab?

3. HUNKER DOWN

Before you had kids, shut-in days could have a cozy sort of appeal, as you curled up with a book and enjoyed the feeling of being safe and warm in your own little place. You can still have these sorts of days, but you'll need to adjust your expectations a little.

PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES

You will have no better audience for your photo albums, high school yearbook, and old family movies than your children. In fact, they may be the only real reason for saving all this stuff. Even kids too young to walk enjoy looking at photographs of people, and if you put extra photos or doubles in a sturdy photo book with plastic pages, it may become your baby's favorite treasure.

I often worked on photo albums when my daughter was still in her infant seat, holding up pictures for her as I went along and talking about the people in each photo. It gave me something to talk about, and the changing views and conversation kept her from being fussy for long stretches of time.

JOURNAL KEEPING

This exercise isn't just recreational  -- it can teach your child the connection between words and writing as well as give you the record you want of your child's firsts.

My daughter and I started her journal during the dark days of January when she was 2. I'd ask about her day and she'd tell me bits and pieces, watching carefully as I wrote down the fragments, sentences, and disconnected words. Soon we were taping Polaroid photos, as well as cutout scraps of artwork, into the journal or drawing the outlines of our hands and feet on the pages. These days Anna "writes" in her journal herself, and lets me write down what she tells me she has inscribed below it.

4. GO TO THE KITCHEN

What better place to be on a cold wet day than in a warm, fragrant kitchen? Besides being the center for such expected rainy-day activities as baking cookies, the kitchen can be the ultimate playroom.

Sniff extracts and spices, turn the pots into a bang-along band, or whip up batches of edible  -- and inedible  -- fun.

COOKIE-CUTTER CRAFTS

If you're making cookies, put the cookie cutters to use while the treats bake.

MATERIALS

  • Potatoes
  • Knife
  • Selection of small cookie cutters
  • Washable stamp pads
  • Paper

     

HOW TO DO IT

Small cookie cutters provide the easiest way to make potato prints. Cut a potato in half, and then imprint the cutter into the cut side. Now go around the outside of the potato with a knife, cutting in to meet the point where the cookie cutter cut in. Remove this excess and you have a potato printer within minutes  -- and your child can begin stamping away.

MOLD COMFORT

Commercial versions of the two malleable substances below are available, but it's more fun (and more instructive) to create them at home. Just make sure your child is way beyond putting stuff in his mouth.

SANDY CLAY

This stuff feels similar to wet sand and molds like it as well, just like at the beach. Only this can be molded into permanent sand castles that will harden after a day or two in the open air.

MATERIALS

  • Sand
  • Cornstarch
  • Old pan

HOW TO DO IT

Combine two cups of clean sand with a cup of cornstarch and let your kids mix it up. Add about one and a half cups of hot water and stir again. Now take the mixture out of the kids' hands while you cook it over low heat until it thickens; use an old pan so it won't matter if it gets scratched. Once the mixture is thick, pour it out onto a smooth surface and let it cool for a few minutes. Then let your kids go at it. (In a tightly sealed plastic container, it will remain moist and usable for several days.)

ELASTIC CLAY

This strange, goopy substance stretches and droops but doesn't stick to your hands. (It will stick to fabric, however, so watch it on carpet or upholstery.) You can form it into shapes, then watch as it "melts" back into goo. And it bounces too!

MATERIALS

  • Borax
  • Container with lid
  • White glue (such as Elmer's)
  • Two bowls
  • Spoon
  • Food coloring

     

HOW TO DO IT

Mix half a cup of Borax (which you can find in the laundry detergent section of the supermarket) with two cups of water in a container with a lid. Shake thoroughly. Mix a cup of glue with a cup of water in a bowl, and stir well. Shake the Borax mixture thoroughly and put three tablespoons of it in a second bowl. Add 3/8 cup of the glue mixture and a few drops of whatever color you prefer. With just a few stirs of a spoon, the stuff will turn  -- like magic  -- into a strange semi-liquid putty. In a covered container, it will last for weeks.

5. GET STUFF DONE

Before kids, rainy days were productive in my house. They still can be, I've found, if I consider the kid-friendliness of a project (and expect that everything is going to take at least twice as long as it would if I were doing it alone). This turns out to be the time to do all kinds of detail cleaning I don't usually get around to. The novelty of opening drawers and dumping them out or scrubbing rarely seen corners has great appeal to kids.

MAKE THE BED

You may hate stripping the sheets, but chances are your toddler and pre-schooler will love it. Especially if you toss them the dirty sheets for a little impromptu fort or tent building before they go in the wash. Drape the sheets over furniture, over a rope tied to two doorknobs, or simply drape it over yourselves and tuck in the ends and sit on them. Or give a sitting up baby a ride on the tail end of a sheet or blanket as you slowly pull it across the floor.

WASH UP

As soon as they can walk, most babies are eager helpers. And they'll love a chance to get wet in the process. Hand your baby a spray bottle filled with water and a sponge and let her help you spray spots on the floor and wipe up the water with the sponge. Soon you'll find that you've trained a little inspector  -- always on the lookout for spills and spots. You can also let her "wash" unbreakable dishes  -- plastic kids' plates are perfect. Put a tub of water on a towel on the floor and let her wash and dry the dishes by hand. It's true that you'll probably have to rewash them, but that's not the point.

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