If you’ve ever tried to keep a preschooler occupied all day, you know it’s no easy task.
I am not a preschool whisperer, nor will you frequently find me doing perfectly Pinteresty projects for the sake of keeping the little people busy. I’ve got four kids, and as anyone with four kids can tell you, ain’t nobody got time for that.
You should also know that I am most definitely not super mom in any way, shape, or form.
There is no magic formula to keep a preschooler occupied all the time, and no way to completely eliminate boredom or meltdowns. Heaven knows I am well familiar with the screams of a seemingly distressed 3 year old who can’t get her stockings on straight.
However, I do know that preschoolers need to test, experiment, and try things. And, whether we like it or not, the way they play is often messy, loud, inconvenient, and interfering with our adult world.
It is possible to help our preschoolers live rich days full of good play, independent exploration, and sweet interaction with trusted adults.
Over my years of teaching in daycare, preschool music classes, and in my own home, I have found a few easy ways to keep preschoolers occupied. These tactics can be helpful for stay-at-home parents, homeschooling families, work-at-home moms or dads, grandparents, nannies, or any other regular caregiver.
I can’t promise that any of these tips will keep your preschooler occupied all day- but they will help them stay a little busier.
Be patient- most of these tips take time and consistent practice before you see a real change.
Here we go!
Disclaimer: Obviously I am not suggesting that you do anything unsafe. Remember to always make sure your preschooler is in safe proximity to a responsible, trusted adult.
This first tip may feel counterintuitive, but stepping back a bit will do wonders for your preschooler. As a loving parent, it’s easy to hang over our kids and help, guide, or correct them at every juncture. However, if you find yourself “helicoptering” constantly, they’re going to be very used to you fulfilling that role, and will have a hard time playing without you right there.
If you step back a bit and let them explore, make messes, play the “wrong” way, or figure out a problem themselves, you’ll see them grow. They will develop independence, creativity, and problem solving skills.
Just remember to be available for keeping them safe, or for helping them if the problem gets too big for them to solve.
It won’t be easy at first, but you can gradually encourage independence for increasing periods of time. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Play alongside your child for a few minutes, then excuse yourself and let them continue playing until they’re ready for your company again.
- Set them up with an independent activity in the same room as you. For example, they can play with play dough at the kitchen table while you cook.
- Let them play at the park while you sit on a bench to watch them.
- Sign them up for a preschool class where you can sit nearby while letting them stretch their wings a bit.
Invite them in.
Oftentimes we just want the little ones to stay out of our hair while we try to accomplish something, but pushing away a child who just wants to be near you is often counter productive. (Believe me, I’ve been there.)
Instead of trying to send them away when you’re busy, try to find a way to invite them into your work. Cooking? Buy a child-safe knife and let them try chopping celery. Typing an email? Pull out a play computer or the tablet for them to “type” next to you. Doing dishes? Grab a chair and hand your preschooler a rag.
Letting little kids come into your world can make a world of a difference to them. You’ll be making memories together, and it will likely make things easier on you too.
Give them “work.”
Giving your child a big boy job to do- if you catch them at the right moment- can make them feel very proud and accomplished. Sometimes I’ll send my girls off with magic erasers to clean the walls, and they’re often thrilled. Or I’ll ask them to clean the toilet bowl with some non-toxic cleaner. They love it. Seriously.
My only caution is to differentiate in your own mind between chores that you’re requiring them to do, and tasks that you’re merely suggesting to them for fun. This will help you to decide whether you want to follow through on completion of the task, or if you don’t mind it left unfinished.
Use the screen when you need to.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting your preschooler have some screen time. However, I have personally found screen time to be most effective when I use it sparingly.
If I let my young kids have screens throughout the day, they turn into what I call “screen zombies.” They zone out, their eyes glaze over, their cheeks get rosy, and then they’re cranky as all get out when I try to bring them out of that world.
However, if they each get a turn playing a game on the tablet for about 30 minutes, or maybe we watch something together as a family later in the day, then it’s not all consuming. They get to enjoy the screen, but they don’t get that zombie quality that comes with constant usage.
Bonus: When they only use the screens for a short amount of time, it can serve as a great “babysitter” for when you need to accomplish something. (I.e., a shower, or needing to make a phone call.)
When it’s on all the time, it loses its novelty and no longer holds the same power to keep their attention.
Make time to play.
It’s easy to worry about how to keep a preschooler occupied, but sometimes we forget to just get down on the ground and play their games. I know I am guilty of this- I’m always “so busy” and forget to be busy in the right ways.
Build with blocks. Paint side by side. Go for a walk together. Play pretend. Dress up.
Give up a little of that adult time to spend time in their world. When we are too busy for our kids, they are thirsty for our love and attention. But when we invest in them, we fill their figurative cups, and then they are ready to go and be independent again.
Perhaps the best way to keep a preschooler busy- and content- is to make sure to share in their life with them.
I hope these easy ways to keep a preschooler occupied will help you and your child make more beautiful memories of rich, full days.