a toddler girl pouring glue on a table
Courtesy Cat Bowen

These 10 Screen-Free Ways To Distract Your Antsy Toddler *Actually* Work

I am the first mom to admit I have no problem letting my kids play with tablets or phones. Unlike some, I do not view it as a cop-out — it's just life in 2020. However, there are times when you want or need screen-free activities to distract your toddler. I understand the value of analog play; I also understand that I frequently forget to charge the things before a car trip or jaunt to a restaurant.

Surprisingly, I've actually become quite adept at managing toddlers sans screens, and I think it's mostly due to my own personal frenetic energy. I just get toddlers. Life is too exciting to let pass you by, unless you're completely absorbed in something engaging. The key to distracting a toddler is to think like they do. Yes, you might find doodling on napkins relaxing, but to them, it's just frustrating and dull. You need to find activities that channel all that excitement trapped in their tiny bodies.

Think of activities that engage both their body and mind. Not only do physical games help to sharpen motor coordination skills, according to WebMD, but they also tire your little one out, which is good for all parties.


The Classic Stacking Game


Oh, so you've forgotten to charge your iPad, and you're at a restaurant for brunch. Great, just great. Thankfully, if you're at a place where kids are frequent diners, you might get lucky and have some crayons and paper. Otherwise, it's every parent for themselves. This is where the sugar packets come in.

I don't know how many houses I've had my children construct from sugar packets, but I can tell you that at age 8, my daughter can make one that's over 20 packets high, alternating pink, yellow, and white. (Blue if she's very lucky, and if the restaurant is frequented by people over 50.) You think this won't entertain them, but for some reason, it works.


Teach Them About Physics

OK, so we're not talking about quantum mechanics. Few toddlers care about the Higgs Boson, but what they do like is a good magic trick. This one works at the restaurant, or out and about if you can grab a tea or water at Starbucks. Just skip the ice.

You and I both know that when you pass something behind a glass of water/clear liquid, the shape appears to change. Get your kids to draw on whatever is handy, and witness how it changes the pictures. Sure, you can tell them all about light refraction, or you can tell them it's magic.


A Somewhat Quiet Activity

On a call? Wi-fi out? Let me teach you an old favorite. Get your kids to try on their clothes — all of them. All at once. Yes, there will be fits of giggles, and getting them out of it will be a hilarious chore. But they love it. Plus, it is helping them learn self-sufficiency. Bonus, you will figure out which items have holes in them now and are ready to be made into rags. Bonus: teaching kids how to tie rags in knots has its own benefits.


All You Need Is A Flat Surface And Shaving Cream

Shaving cream is heaven's gift to toddlers. It's clean, it smells good, and it doesn't stain anything. Cover a big section of your table or patio door in the stuff, and give your kids free reign to go bananas. If you're using the glass door, you can give them washable markers and let them combine the two, which was my kids' personal favorite. It also cleans the glass really well.


Team Alternate Ending

I love this one, and did it myself as a kid. Hat tip to my grandmother who came up with the idea when I bothered her while she was making dumplings. You ask your kid what their favorite book/television show/movie is, and then guide them to figure out an alternate ending. Then, have them act it out.


Have Them Help You If You Can

Folding clothes? Give them the socks to match. Eating and they're annoying the pants off you? Feed each other the easy stuff. Cleaning? Hand them some baby wipes and have them follow you.


Obviously Books, But There's More

You know the best part about kids? They love, and I mean, love libraries. You know what's good about being a mom? You can sit there and read while they bring you every book, and enjoy the blocks and trains at the library. I am a donor for life after the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library saved my bacon one truly cold winter.


Magazine Hunt


Most pediatricians have great stuff for kids. Dentists, optometrists, dermatologists? Not so much. What they do have is magazines. So many magazines.

Time for a hunt. Find everyone with brown eyes. Find everyone in green shirts. Find everyone sitting down. Find all the perfume ads. It works. It sounds dumb (and it kind of is) but it works.


Toddler Tricks

This is where you need to get truly creative: the Trader Joe's Line. They wrap around the dang store, and there's no hope for a quick trip.

Here's where a toddler's lack of shame comes in handy. Have them try to stand on one leg. Pat their belly and rub their head. Have them make you a new song. Read words off the products and have them think of one that rhymes. If you're truly desperate? Make fart noises. It makes them laugh and passes the time quickly every time.


Take Notes

Wedding reception? Funeral dinner? Family reunion? Been to all three of those with a toddler, and it's not great. But there is one great thing about these events, which is that everyone knows each other, and if someone's a jerk, you can tell them off. Give your kid a notebook and pen, and have them get signatures from every one, asking them to write something about you or your little one. I've done this a few times, and kids love it. I swear.