WhattoExpect.com offered nine fun play date tips for toddlers and...

WhattoExpect.com offered nine fun play date tips for toddlers and preschoolers. Credit: Handout

A few friends and I all have two year olds. This has worked out well for play dates, but after a couple of years of well-planned weekend and after-work activities, we're running out of ideas for keeping the little ones engaged.

WhatToExpect.com (WTE) recently featured creative suggestions for keeping preschoolers entertained. Here are some of my favorites:

Outdoor outings
When the weather cooperates, even a walk around the block can turn into a great play date activity — if it has a purpose. Try arming children with plastic pails in which to collect finds like leaves and pine cones. Or play an on-the-go game of I Spy. Describe neighborhood spots of interest as you go — a robin’s nest, say, or a shiny red truck — then see if the kids can spot what you’re talking about.

Dance party
When all that pint-size energy threatens to soar out of control, crank up the tunes and let the little ones boogie the wiggles out. Boost the play date fun by playing Sit-Down Dance: When you pause the music, the kids scramble to find a seat (the floor counts). Unlike musical chairs, no one ever gets out. You can even invite a few stuffed-animal dance partners to join in. Or try musical freeze tag.

Craft time
As long as you can live with a little mess, crafts are a reliable source of play date fun, no matter what the age of the kids you’re hosting. Help preschoolers use crayons and yarn to transform a paper plate into an animal mask. For older toddlers, pour a bit of school glue onto a throw-away plastic lid, then let kids dip in cotton balls and stick them onto a piece of construction paper. Or help them trace the outline of their hands on construction paper, cut it out, glue to a craft stick, and call it a “high-five.”

Silliness starter
Little ones love to giggle, so a no-holds-barred laugh-fest might be the ticket for initiating  toddler buddy bonding. A sure-fire knee-slapper? Something oddly incongruous. So get them laughing by, say, putting mittens on your feet and socks on your hands. When you offer a few silly accessories, like hats and old suit jackets, along with a mirror to watch themselves, they’ll have a great time making themselves — and each other — laugh the day away.

Draw and erase
Pulling out the scratch paper (or a dry-erase board) and washable markers is a great way to keep younger toddlers amused for a little while. But you can get more mileage out of that old artistic standby (and encourage creative play) with this play date idea for older tots and pre-schoolers: Offer a surprising drawing surface, like an unbreakable mirror they can scribble on with dry-erase markers. With a few paper towels on hand, they can draw and erase over and over. You can even help them decorate themselves by drawing mustaches or silly hats for their reflections to wear.

Container sandbox
Even when the weather doesn’t cooperate, let the kids play like they’re outside by converting a large, shallow plastic storage container into an indoor sandbox. Filled with sand or even rice, and peppered with shovels, cups, and trucks, it becomes a sandy getaway. In winter, try this preschool play-date idea: Bring some chilly weather inside by scooping fresh snow into the box and supplying kids with mittens. They can scoop and mold, make a miniature snowman, and even carve out a tiny igloo without freezing their tootsies.

Mixed-up hide-and-seek
Virtually all kids are partial to hide-and-seek, either because they love the challenge of finding a hidden friend or they thrill to the suspense of waiting to be found. But with toddlers, the game can be a challenge: The littlest ones can’t count and they’re not great at staying hidden, preferring to belt out “Here I am!” than waiting to be found. For longer-lasting play-date fun, turn the game on its ear by taking turns hiding objects — think socks or small toys — rather than people. Another option: Let the little ones hide together, while you search s-l-o-w-l-y for them.

Reading corner
When it’s time to dial down energy, take a couple of chairs, put them back-to-back a couple of feet apart, and fling a blanket or sheet over them. Tuck some pillows underneath and invite kids into the homemade fort. While they settle in and make themselves at home, you can hold story time with one of their favorite read-aloud books. (A few good picks include Sandra Boynton’s "Blue Hat, Green Hat;" Margaret Wise Brown’s "Big Red Barn;" and Don and Audrey Wood’s "The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear.") When you’re done, your preschooler and his pal may even tell you a story of their own.

Play ball
With all the large- and fine-motor skills it takes to pick up, hold, and toss a ball, by two years of age most toddlers are just getting the hang of the game. But while they work on perfecting their pitching arms, they’ll still enjoy playing their own version of catch. For your next toddler playdate, head out to your yard with a few different kinds of tossables, foam balls, beach balls and/or squishy bean-filled balls, and let the games begin. A gentler version of this for the under-two set: Sit in a circle on the living room rug and practice rolling a ball to one another. It's a great way to keep your toddler active!


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