Thanksgiving is mere hours away, and there's lots left to do: Clean the house; go food shopping; extend the dining-room table; run out yet again because you forgot the onions or thyme or butter. But for moms, the biggest challenge of the holiday has nothing to do with keeping the turkey moist or preventing the pie crust from burning. Nope; it's finding ways to keep the kids busy while you cook Thanksgiving dinner.
Of course, you love your kids; really, you do. And you want them to have all kinds of wonderful holiday memories, like meeting out-of-town relatives, watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the first time, or going for an after-dinner walk in the brisk autumn air. But you can't enjoy any of those Lifetime movie moments if you don't finish cooking Thanksgiving dinner in time. And you can't finish the cooking if you're being interrupted every five minutes by sighs of "I'm booooored" or the shrieks of a sibling war. Nor do you really want to take the easy way out by planting your children in front of the TV and letting them OD on PAW Patrol or Gravity Falls.
A little advance planning (and, occasionally, a shopping trip for supplies) can help keep those crucial pre-dinner hours from becoming a chore for both you and the kids. Here, some suggestions for ways to prevent boredom and fights so you can get your work done. Because at Thanksgiving, the only thing that should be melting down is the whipped cream on top of the hot apple pie.
1. Let Them Help With Meal Prep
If your kids are toddlers or older, they can give you a hand with the simpler chores that don't require going near the stove or handling knives. Have them snap green beans, shuck corn, mix pumpkin pie filling, or put the refrigerated dinner roll dough on the baking sheets. Even a 2- or 3-year-old can tear lettuce for salad; if you have a salad spinner, that can keep them amused on its own long after the greens are dry. A child can start using a vegetable peeler at about age 6 or 7, according to Kids Cook Monday, so they can help scrape carrots; a slightly older child has the dexterity to peel apples for pie. Kids also love to help set the table; little ones can be taught how to place the silverware and napkins, while older ones can set out the plates and glasses.
2. Have Them Make Place Cards
Even the most informal Thanksgiving feast takes on an air of class when everyone's place setting is personalized. Give your children construction or card-stock paper to cut and fold into place cards (you may have to do this yourself if your children are still iffy on their scissors skills), plus crayons, markers, glitter glue, or whatever they need to decorate the cards. For emergent writers, you can write your guests' names on a separate sheet of paper for them to copy.
3. Let Them Make A Pretend Meal
As any preschool teacher can tell you, young children love to reenact scenes of home life in the school's dramatic-play center (which is teacher-speak for the area with a play kitchen and dress-up clothes). Before you get busy with the bird, stock your kids' normal play space with whatever they might need to create a feast of their own: extra pots and pans, wooden spoons, plastic plates, empty food boxes and cartons. If they already have a pretend kitchen, so much the better; if not, a large cardboard box makes a fine stove when you cut a door in the front and draw some circular "burners" on top. Add a few items of clothing for dressing up (hint: hats, aprons, and purses are always a huge hit), and you have a recipe for a little uninterrupted time while you try to figure out whether you have enough cans of cranberry sauce.
4. Send Them On A Feather Hunt
Why should the Easter Bunny have the monopoly on encouraging children to go on a holiday-related treasure hunt? Instead of plastic eggs (which you won't be able to find in November anyway), pick up a bag or two of colored feathers at your local craft store or Dollar Tree, then hide them around your house and/or yard after the kids go to bed on Wednesday night. Give your intrepid hunters a bag in which to store their finds, and let them go to town. If you like, you can offer a small prize to the child who finds the most feathers. But if that's likely to result in tears and hard feelings, you can have them make a fun craft instead by gluing their feathers to one side of an empty toilet-paper roll. On the other side, have them attach googly eyes (again, Dollar Tree is your best friend) and triangle beaks cut from construction paper.
5. Play Turkey Bowling
Bowling is one of the most perfect games for kids: Where else are children actually encouraged to knock things down? It's also super-simple to set up a game with just a few large plastic drinking cups and a tennis ball. For a holiday-inspired twist, use brown cups decorated to look like turkeys, as suggested by The Seasoned Mom blog.
6. Let Them Make Slime
Yes, it's messy (so you'll need to lay out newspapers beforehand). Yes, it means adding glue, shaving cream, food coloring, and contact solution to your Thanksgiving shopping cart. But think about the big picture: They'll be so engaged in tactile bliss that you'll have time to get your veggies prepped. if you're really mess-adverse, grab a few containers of beads or sequins and some slime from your craft store, and let them mix the two together to create different textures.
7. Set Up Some Water Play
Shopping for a turkey baster? Pick up two or three more while you're at it. No, you don't need that many to keep the turkey moist, but you will need them to keep the kids entertained. Set up a large basin in the basement, bathroom, or backyard with enough water to play in (but not enough to create a disaster). Add the basters, plus some cups and measuring spoons, and let your children experiment to their heart's content.
8. Play Autumn Tic-Tac-Toe
If (like me) you haven't yet scoured your yard clean of every scrap of fall plant life, then gather two different sets of autumn materials (five acorns and five leaves, or five pine cones and five milkweed pods) to use as markers for a few rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe. It'll keep your kids busy and hone their strategy skills at the same time.
9. Have Them Make Handprint Crafts
If there were a Thanksgiving Hall of Fame somewhere (and really, why isn't there?), it would have to include not only William Bradford, John Alden, and Squanto, but also the first person to realize that tracing the outline of a hand would result in something that looked vaguely like a turkey. Without him (or her?), generations of Americans would have gone without these traditional holiday mementos. After demonstrating the technique to your kids, you can have them go at it on their own; for a variation, try having them trace and cut out a number of handprints (10 to 12 should do) on colored construction paper, and arrange them in an overlapping circle to glue together for a festive wreath.
10. Organize A Scavenger Hunt
The kids will be doing enough sitting down during dinner and the post-dinner lethargy period. Let them stretch their legs and their minds by having them search for tricky-to-find items around your house and yard. If you have nieces, nephews, or godchildren visiting for the day, so much the better; you can organize them into teams. Prepare a separate list for each team with 8 to 10 items they need to collect (you could choose things like "3 acorns" or "something beginning with E"). Or you could download and print these Thanksgiving scavenger hunt clue cards from PlayPartyPlan, which also help kids realize all the things they have to be thankful for.
11. Get Out The Games
Whatever you have stored away in the closet — Candy Land, Sorry, Monopoly Jr., Jenga, Yahtzee, Chutes & Ladders, Yeti in the Spaghetti — this is the time to set it up and let the kids enjoy some friendly competition while you make the final dinner preparations. After the feast is over and everyone's recovered from their turkey coma, invite the adults to join in for a full night of screen-free family fun.
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