How to Entertain a Toddler Without a Smartphone

You’re in a public place — say a restaurant or a doctor’s waiting room — and it’s taking longer to get your food or have your name called than you expected. Your toddler is starting to get restless. And cranky. Real cranky. She’s whining and teetering on the edge of a crying fit, and the other folks around you are glancing over with irritated, disapproving looks.

You don’t have any toys or books on you, making it extremely tempting to just shove your smartphone into your tyke’s pudgy little hands to instantly shut off the waterworks.

But, the idea that you should turn to your phone whenever you feel unhappy or bored is not exactly the kind of lesson you want to teach her; you want her to grow up to be able to entertain herself, absent a technological device. So you think about busting out some pen and paper games like hangman or tic-tac-toe, but she’s preliterate and only understands strategy in terms of figuring out how to poop so no one sees her.

What to do?

Well, with a few completely accoutrement-free games in your metaphorical back pocket, you can easily improvise some games that’ll keep your little one happy and engaged before her chicken nuggets finally arrive. Here are 9 fun, brain-boosting ideas to keep on deck; some work better depending on age and ability, many can be modified to meet your toddler’s level of cognition (which is right around that of a golden retriever), and some will be equally enjoyed by the preschooler set on up. Experiment and see what captures your kiddos’ attention.

1. Name That Tune

Hum a familiar song (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Old McDonald,” etc.), and see if your child can identity and name it.

2. What’s Missing?

This is a great one to do at the table at a restaurant. Take a few objects — a fork, spoon, and sugar packet, for example — and tell your kid to take a careful look at the collection. Then cover the items with a napkin, and remove one of the items without them being able to see which one (lift the end of the napkin nearest you for cover as you withdraw the item). Now remove the napkin altogether, and ask your child to name which item is missing.

3. Who Am I?

Pick an animal, and then let your kid ask questions to try to get at your identity. E.g., “Do you roar?” “Do you live somewhere cold or hot?” “Are you furry?”

4. Touch Something That Is….

Ask your child if she can touch something that is X color. “Can you touch something that is red?” “Can you touch something blue?” She can touch anything within her reach — the table, her clothes, your clothes, etc. If it’s someplace where she can walk around without bothering other people, you can make the game mobile.

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