What to do when your kids are bouncing off the walls

Jen sits at a picnic table with her kids.

As I’m writing this, the Philly area is getting hit with the remnants of Tropical Storm Ophelia: rain, wind — and, for this family, entirely too much time indoors with three young, very bored children.

We broke out all the toy bins, baked cupcakes, organized winter clothes, added some extra TV time and, still, it felt like there were about 40 hours packed into one day — and 39 of them were filled with chaos. Blueberries smashed into the rug by 7 a.m., an all-out brother brawl by 9, four diaper explosions before noon and so … so … so … much screaming.

Rainy day blues, indeed.

One of the hardest aspects of parenting (at least based on the ages of my kids, thus far!) is trying to simultaneously entertain — not to mention, educate and enrich! — a quick-to-boredom kid, a challenge that grows exponentially when multiples are added to the mix. Each kid has their own interests, preferences and abilities, and more often than not, they’re entirely competing with one another. (Not to mention, the “He hit me!” “She’s breathing on me!” “He touched my toy!” of group playtime.)

So, what’s a harried parent to do? Here are a few simple ways I’ve found to keep my kiddos distracted without breaking the bank, or incurring the guilt that comes with too much YouTube:

Walk the mall 

This was our go-to this weekend. We’re lucky enough to live five minutes from a mammoth indoor mall and, if you have one accessible, I’d urge you to pack up the kids for a little people-watching relief. Just strolling the mall can be enough of a feast for the senses to keep little ones distracted from their boredom temporarily. And, if your mall is anything like ours, you can spend tons of time and just a couple bucks on those motorized, rocking cars and busses. Many shopping centers even offer free kids programming like storytimes. 

Tap your local library

Jackson holds a certificate in a library.

When our library reopened its doors for in-person visits a few months into the pandemic, we were one of the first in line. Not only has Jackson always loved books, but the library added a welcome disruption to the day for me as well (and it’s free!). We’d cuddle up in the kids’ section and spend time working on learning new words or play with puzzles, train sets and the myriad other toys we’re fortunate our library’s children’s room is stocked with. Sure, we have all of that at home but the change of scenery was always a big boredom buster. And our reliance on library programming has only grown since we added two more kiddos — especially because libraries are well-suited for kids of all ages. At toddler storytime, it’s a triple win: I can have Jackson building blocks in the toy section, August throwing puppets in the air and Avery (the only one who follows the rules) clapping along to the storytime songs.

Visit … a different room 

Sometimes loading the kids in the car is just entirely too much — but so is sitting in the living room. So, venture to a new room! It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve found that taking my kids out of the living room — which has been entirely transformed into their playroom; so long, house parties of our 20s! — even just for a few minutes can be a good way to reset playtime. When Jackson is home from school and we have two babies napping on separate floors, we’re often forced to play in his bedroom or in our basement — and he comes to life in ways he rarely does when we’re in his typical play setting. This summer, we spent many an hour piling up every stuffed animal he owns on the basement floor and catapulting ourselves into it.

Jackson, August and Avery play at a park.

Surprise toys

Along the same lines, new toys can totally throw a wrench at boredom — but they don’t have to be new new. For instance, a few months ago, I was running out of ways to keep the kids’ attention so I ran up to our attic, bursting with Jackson’s old toddler toys. After a few trips, all three of the kids were surrounded by boxes of goodies — that the twins had never seen and that Jackson either didn’t remember or had a blast walking down memory lane with. And I was able to check “attic toy sorting” off my to-do list. You can even use this when birthdays or Christmas roll around: Covertly stow away some toys that weren’t the most immediate hits … a few months later, when the novelty of all the other presents has worn off, bust these back out and — bam! — new fun.

Turn a regular outing into something special

My kiddos love going to the playground but they (and I) often get bored with our typical routine at the neighborhood park: first the swings, August falls a few times and cries, climb the rock wall, Avery falls a few times and cries, pretend we’re driving a school bus on the balance beam … So, to kill a couple hours, I’ve spiced things up and taken advantage of my playground-friendly area with a “tour” of the area playgrounds. They can get every last ounce of energy out while diving into a competition of which one has the highest slides or the bounciest see-saw. Pro tip: Pack all the snacks. And Band-Aids.

Jackson dips toy card in the mud.

Get messy

Most kids love mess — of any kind. And when a parent actually sanctions them making one, that’s like a childhood jackpot. I found that out this summer when, after watching one too many YouTube videos of kids submerging their toys and cars in mud and rinsing them off (exhilarating viewing!), Jackson begged me to let him muddy up his toys. With nothing to do one afternoon, I finally assented. We dug up dirt from our garden, broke out the hose and made some mud in buckets and got to plopping in any toys we could find. It wouldn’t have been my first choice for a summer adventure, but Jackson couldn’t have been happier.

Chore time

When Jackson was about 1 and able to start walking, I figured it was high time he earned his keep with some chores. Not exactly — but he did start helping me. Trying to get anything done by yourself with toddlers around is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree — but with them “helping”(?), it’s slightly more possible. I decided to make unloading the dishwasher a fun, learning game for Jackson when he was a young toddler; I’d ask him to hand me each clean item and I’d name it out loud to help him learn the words (all while finally getting those clean dishes away!). Now that the twins are upright, it’s their turn to pitch in! Food shopping is the same. I’m the food shopper in the house and nearly every week since the pandemic slowed, Jackson (and later, his brother and sister) have accompanied me. Sure, I usually end up buying a $1 Hot Wheels at checkout for good behavior but that is well worth the price of being able to restock the fridge and keep the kids entertained for an hour. Not to mention, it can be a great learning experience for all ages — socialization with fellow shoppers and workers for the toddlers, along with a boatload of new words to learn; and for the older ones like Jackson, counting out the number of apples we need or understanding the value of coupon-clipping. Plus, my local Giant has a Starbucks so that’s a major Mommy come-up.

There’s no way to prevent kids from getting bored; in fact, I think boredom can actually be good. It challenges youngsters to get comfortable with the idea that every minute of every day isn’t always going to be fun; we adults sure know that, so there’s nothing wrong with kids learning how to cope with that reality early on. Parents can help their little ones use that discomfort to cultivate their creativity and hone their problem-solving — as long as we’re committed to doing the same!

Newsletter Sign-up