Sometimes it’s exhaustion, sometimes it’s just wanting a few minutes without pretending to be a Paw Patrol character.

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You’ve got two kids under 2, or a newborn, or just kids who are seemingly allergic to sleep — and you’re absolutely exhausted. Or you’re trying to balance parenting and working from home in the time of the pandemic — and it’s not going so well.

Whatever your specific situation, you need some easy ways to entertain your kids (without too much screen time).

Well, we’ve got you covered!

We asked parents to share fun, simple ideas for occupying young children — that require little to no energy or effort. So, whether your eyelids are heavy from little sleep or you’re trying to squeeze in some extra work, these activities can help.

Important note: Obviously, safety is paramount. It’s important to supervise around water, avoid choking hazards, and provide developmentally appropriate toys. If you think you may doze off, ensure that your child will be safe during your snooze.

According to Erin Rossi, a certified sleep science coach, pretend you’re a sleeping dragon while your child tries to steal the “treasure” — a favorite toy you placed nearby — without waking you up.

“If they do make a noise, just pop open an eyeball and let out a ‘dragon’s growl’ to send your child running back to the other side of the room.” And if your child is quiet enough to steal the treasure, says Rossi, it’s a win-win for both of you!

“Send kids to find something big, something small, something red, something blue, something you wear when it rains, or something to color with,” says Jaymi Torrez, a teacher and parenting blogger at TheSaltyMamas.com.

Say one item at a time; if you’ve got several kids, have them race each other to retrieve the item. “Always end with finding something wonderful to read,” and snuggle up together, Torrez adds.

When she needs a few moments to herself, single mom and full-time slow traveler Jackie Omotalade gives her 2-year-old daughter sensory bowls to play with: one bowl contains ice and cold water; the second contains ice and hot water; and the third is just ice.

You can also create sensory bins with cornmeal, rice, and different kinds of beans. Add in measuring cups, scoopers, jars, and your kids’ favorite toys. Find more ideas for sensory play here.

To foster independent play, create a box filled with anything your child shows interest in that can be done without much supervision, such as crafts, games, LEGOs, play dough, and science kits, says Lindsey Wander, founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring. Let your child choose what they’d like to play with.

When Sarah Cook worked full time, cared for her disabled parents, and had a super active toddler, she’d play “what’s on my butt?” She’d simply lay face down on the couch and guess what toy her son placed on her bottom. “I could easily get 20 to 30 minutes of resting my eyes on the comfy couch,” says Cook, founder of the lifestyle and food blog Sustainable Cooks.

To sharpen fine motor skills, Justine Green, EdD, author of the children’s book “Completely Me” and mom of two, suggests placing painter’s tape on the floor in different shapes or creating a town for your kids’ cars and dolls.

Or, she says, create two lines on the floor for your kids to hop to and from, or act like different animals for you to guess. “Kids also love peeling [the tape] off the floor for easy cleanup.”

When Liz Jeneault, a single mom and vice president of marketing at Faveable, needs to get work done in a pinch, she lets her toddler play with bath crayons, bath foams, and special toys while in the tub.

“My toddler loves getting creative in the bathtub by drawing pictures with the bath crayons or making mini foam sculptures out of the bath foam. [And she] gets a kick out of glitter bath bombs, which she says makes her feel like a princess.”

Obviously this one requires direct adult supervision, so don’t leave the room or get too distracted while your toddler is in the tub. But you can sit on the toilet and get a moment to think and relax!

Simply have buckets of soapy water and clean water with a drying station so your kids can wash their toys, says Green. Her kids have cleaned everything from their cars to dinosaurs to LEGOs.

Again — anytime water play is involved it’s important to be present and attentive. But you can do your own cleaning while they play, or simply find a comfy spot to sit down and enjoy the giggles.

Former teacher and founder of Small World Spanish Rachel Kamath keeps her toddler sons busy by asking Alexa to play “Freeze Dance” on her Amazon Echo (an option you can add for free).

Alexa instructs the kids to pretend to be an animal or object that begins with a random letter of the alphabet. Alexa also plays music for the kids to dance; when the music stops, the kids have to freeze like statues.

Don’t have an Echo or a similar device? Simply call out different animals and objects, and play DJ — all from the comfort of your couch.

The key to occupying young kids when you’ve got nothing to give (or need to focus on a work-related task) is to have activities at the ready.

Experiment with the above options to see what your child enjoys — and ask them to share their ideas, too, letting them use those incredible imaginations.

And, most importantly, if you’re beating yourself up for your lack of energy and enthusiasm, remind yourself that you are human and your kids don’t need elaborate, Pinterest-perfect activities to keep them entertained.

Simple — and often silly — can work wonders in engaging your kids (and even honoring your needs).


Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at www.margaritatartakovsky.com.