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When you're playing with your preschooler, even favorite games can lose their appeal after a while – for both of you. Here are some easy activities to try when the old standbys become a little ho-hum.
1. Play Earth and Moon
Bill Herbert, father of three and longtime third-grade teacher, invented the game Earth and Moon with his daughter Melanie when she was 4 years old.
To play, give your child a flashlight with a wide beam and grab a flashlight that has a narrow beam (a laser pointer will also work). Lie together faceup on a bed in a dark room. Your child's job is to make the Earth (the wide beam) move in large, slow circles around the ceiling. Your job is to keep the moon (the narrow beam) orbiting the Earth.
2. Create "scrap boxes" for favorite places
On an outing to a favorite place – a park or another place you like to visit – gather things particular to that spot, like shiny rocks or acorns. Take photos of mementos that won't last, like colorful leaves.
Once you're home, help your child decorate a box to store your collection. For example, have her draw a picture (or print out a photo) of the place and glue it to the box top. Then let her color and embellish it any way she'd like. Make a different box for each of your favorite places.
Then on those days you need to stay inside, you can snuggle up with your child and relive your favorite outings as you sift through the treasures you've collected.
3. Build a simple bird feeder
To attract more feathered friends to your yard, here are two quick ideas for DIY bird feeders. You'll need birdseed, peanut butter, empty toilet paper rolls or cut-up empty paper towel rolls, an orange or a grapefruit, and twine.
To make the first feeder, sprinkle birdseed on a container that has a rim, like plate or pie tin. Help your child spread a thin layer of peanut butter on the outside of the paper rolls, then have him roll the peanut butter coating in the birdseed until it's well covered.
Slip the feeders right over tree branches or use twine to hang them up.
You can make two feeders from an orange. (You can also use a grapefruit.)
Parent prepwork: Cut the fruit in half and carefully scoop out the fruit, leaving plenty of thick rind. Use a skewer to poke a small hole in opposite sides of each orange half, about a half inch from the top. Then thread a long piece of twine through both holes, and knot the ends of the twine together to make a hanger.
Help your child combine the peanut butter and birdseed and spoon the mixture into each orange half. Hang it up outside.
4. Put on a show with toys
Have your child help you gather a cast of dolls, stuffed animals, and toy figures. Divide them up between the two of you and act out a play, using different voices for the different dolls and animals. Improvise as you go – half the fun is taking the action in a silly direction.
Another option: Host a talent show and have each character sing a song or tell a joke or story.
5. Arrange food art
Raid the refrigerator and fruit bowl for "art supplies" that you and your child can arrange into pictures on a large plate. Cut up carrots, cucumbers, grapes, or other colorful fruits and vegetables for inspiration. The two of you can create anything from a clown or train to a beautiful piece of abstract art. Use olives for eyes, round crackers for wheels, slices of cheese as windows – the possibilities are endless.
And then the real fun begins: Eating your masterpiece!
6. Make bubbles
Make your own bubble solution by mixing one part dishwashing detergent with 10 parts water and adding a little glycerin or corn syrup to make the bubbles hold. Your child can use almost any open-ended object to make bubbles, like the rings from a six-pack of soda. Try making bigger and bigger bubbles!
7. Camp out in the living room
Campouts are always fun, but the ones in your living-room have the added bonus of such creature comforts as carpeting and access to the kitchen and bathroom.
Pitch a small pup tent, or make your own by draping blankets over carefully arranged furniture. Then pull out the sleeping bags, pillows, and flashlights for a real camping experience. The "tent" can stay up for as long as you want, making it easy for you and your child to go camping anytime.
8. Watch the clouds
Grab a blanket, lie on your back in the backyard or in a park with your child, and watch the clouds float by. Talk to your child about what shapes he sees and compare notes: Where your child sees a pony, you may see a whale. Feel free to get silly ("Is that a dog with an umbrella?") or contemplative. ("That cloud looks like love.")
9. Shake, rattle, and roll
Turn on the music and move! "My daughter Ashley and I love to dance around the living room," says Steve Brum, a father of three from Hayward, California. "It's one activity that's guaranteed to get us both laughing." You and your child can jam to the Funky Chicken or make up your own moves.
10. Tell stories to music
Kids love to hear you make up stories, and you can get your inspiration from your own music collection (and increase your child's appreciation of music to boot). Start simple with a recognizable, instrumental tune and storyline, like Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
You don't have to tell the story exactly as you remember it – embellish a little, replacing the main character with your child or introducing a new character that will fascinate your child, like a dinosaur. Stop often and ask your child if he'd like to add to the story.
You'll be amazed at how music helps you both move the plot line along: Beating drums sound like someone trotting through the forest. A flute is a little bird in the sky, telling the animals which direction to go, and a violin means the sun is setting. Before long, you'll most likely hit on some favorites that both you and your child will enjoy recounting.