It was one of those wonderful "spring is finally here" evenings, and our girls, Kate, 2, and Anna, 6, had just discovered the back of my husband's new pickup truck. They were sitting in it, opening and closing the windows to the cab while their dad looked on, enjoying the transformation of his shiny grown-up toy into a child's plaything. And I, with dinner ready inside, was feeling duty-bound to ruin all the fun in the name of mealtime. And then I decided not to.
I piled dinner onto trays, grabbed paper plates, and headed out to the driveway. We all climbed in the back of the truck and ate dinner on the top of the built-in toolbox. When we were done, I delivered pajamas and toothbrushes and the girls readied themselves for bed right there. The evening's most mundane tasks were accomplished more quickly than usual, and I didn't have to sweep the floor or wipe the table.
Even more important, I was reminded that mixing things up a bit doesn't have to be a major hassle. Kids thrive on regular schedules, of course, but every now and then, the whole family can benefit from a little something different. Almost any daily routine can be infused with fun and transformed into a memory. Ideas for sprucing up the everyday:
Color outside the lines
Recently, Anna and I went to a different playground than usual, and that simple departure from the norm turned into a particularly creative afternoon. We had so much fun exploring that we decided to go to as many playgrounds as we could before dinner. While we compared each one (specifically, the many varieties of monkey bars), we had terrific conversations -- and lots of neat acrobatics.
Playtime with your kids can be elevated from typical to great when you introduce new elements, and it needn't involve a tour of all your local children's recreational facilities. Bringing out the baby dolls to make foot- and faceprints in play dough, for instance, may be all you need to do to expand on a current doll obsession. Taking the toy trucks on a mini-outing around the neighborhood -- and letting your kids drive them through mud puddles -- leaves ordinary truck play in the dust; painting the dollhouse furniture blurs the line between pretend play and arts and crafts.
Think venue and menu
A little change at dinnertime can help resolve conflicts, spark conversation, even encourage more adventurous eating. At Angie McLeod's house, in Wichita, Kansas, for example, dinner was becoming too focused on dessert, with her three kids trying to negotiate exactly how many bites of pasta were required before pie. So McLeod instituted the occasional backward dinner, where sweets come first. "Amazingly, on those nights, I never have to fight with them about eating their hamburger after their cake!" she says.
Change can also just mean an interesting menu -- something as simple as breakfast for dinner (eaten in pajamas, of course). Or stick to your favorite version of macaroni and cheese, but serve it in the backyard play fort or as a picnic on the floor of your child's room. A tent pitched indoors is where Paula Nystrom's two young children enjoy hot dogs and microwave-made s'mores during indoor camping nights in their Boston home. The McLeods have been known to eat their post-dessert dinner while sitting under the dining-room table.
Including the kids in making or planning an out-of-the-ordinary meal generates excitement and often inspires help where there may have been none before. Just calling a meal a party -- even if we have no guests -- is all Anna needs to start making place cards, assembling bouquets, and filling paper cupcake holders with candy. And she stays firmly planted in her seat until the last course.
Your kids will also happily help you plan meals if there's a challenge involved. Ask them to come up with a complete menu of orange-colored food, a lunch served totally on skewers, or a dinner that can be eaten entirely with straws. Our family's solution to the last one was fruit smoothies and a creamy tomato soup. It was healthy and delicious, and our girls even figured out how to use straws like chopsticks to pick up pieces of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Just add to the water
At most homes, bathtime is a signal that playtime is over. But at the Mochrie house, in Wichita, it's time to party. Some nights Juliet Mochrie's neighbor Angie McLeod brings over her three children -- all under 6 -- and they join her 2-year-old twins in their large whirlpool tub for a "team bath." Bubble bath adds to the wet-and-wild fun.
Even without neighbors interested in group bathing (or a tub that's big enough), you can add to your ritual with plastic items from around the house (a sieve works wonderfully for scooping up rubber lizards, and a salad spinner makes whirlpools for little boats). We've drawn all over baby dolls with washable markers before the kids got in the tub, then scolded the dolls for their mess and scrubbed them clean. And when your kids' outfits are as dirty as they are, consider the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a clothes-on bath.
Sometimes we've skipped the tub and bathed in dish bins, the utility-room sink, or even the wading pool. Lots of towels contain the mess (which is, after all, just water) and the change of scene can help me too, allowing a bath to go on right near where I'm cooking.
Simplify your strategy
Of all the changes parents can add to their child's day, perhaps none are sweeter than simple alterations to the nighttime routine.
Like many 4-year-olds, Alyssa Gragg doesn't always go to bed without a fuss. But she looks forward to the evenings when her mom and dad take her play parachute (a blanket would also work) and let her run underneath it, put a ball on it to pop in the air, and move it up and down over her head to make a gentle breeze, before finally tucking her in with it. "She's pretty willing to run to get into bed for an opportunity to do something like that," says her mom, Wendy, of Santa Barbara, California.
Storytelling is a special treat at Sara Perry's home, in Portland, Oregon. "When Julie was two and couldn't sleep, we'd take a pajama walk up and down the street, looking at the houses and the windows. Whatever we saw -- like a cat in the window -- would become the basis for a story we'd make up," she says.
A bit of night air is surprisingly calming for everyone, says Debbie Werner, a San Francisco mom of two boys who happened to catch an unusual view of her foggy city one night. "It was beautiful and clear, so I grabbed my four-year-old, wrapped him in his dad's jacket, and held him on my lap in the backyard and looked at the stars. Between the fog and his early bedtime, it was something he'd rarely seen. It was so quiet and peaceful." Since this time, Werner has kept a closer eye on the night skies for more family stargazing opportunities. "My boys are very active, running around, wrestling and shouting," she says. "Stargazing helps turn off that part of the day and prepare for the quiet, cozy part -- bath, books, and bed."
My family loves short walks around our neighborhood to say good night to the world -- the trees, the flowers, the grass, the river. Kate has even said good night to the road.
But while this ritual is an activity we can try again on special nights, we've also enjoyed some moments that probably can't be repeated, or replaced. When Anna was 4, I'd often read stories to her in the hammock as a treat before she had to head off to bed. But Kate wasn't interested in books during her turn one night. She piled her baby dolls in the hammock, climbed up beside them, and then instructed me to sing "Rock-a-Bye Baby" while pushing the hammock. She fell asleep as I rocked her, dolls in her arms, a cool breeze in her hair. I have a photo, of course. Not that I'd ever forget it.
Barbara Rowley wrote "Kid Cleanup Made Easy," in the April issue of Parenting.