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Hey, Exhausted Parents: Here Are Hacks for Playing with Your Kids When You’re Too Tired to Move

Updated: Jan. 06, 2023

Parenting is exhausting, am I right? No matter how tired or sick you are, there is no "time out" from keeping your kids entertained. Whether you've been up with a newborn all night, you just worked a 12-hour shift, or you're sick as a dog, keep these games on hand to fall back on when you're too tired to move.

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Play doctor

Whether or not you are really sick, being the patient to your “little doctor” might just be the easiest way to keep your little one happy while you get some rest. “I’m currently recovering from my third hip surgery, though this is my first as a parent,” says mom Thaila Bruehl. “My daughter is 2½ years old and it’s certainly been tough on her. Some of our most positive moments have been when she’s been playing doctor to my patient. She’s been incredibly caring and it allows me to stay in bed.” Kick back on the couch, or climb into bed, and let your child take over patient care for the day. Younger kids can play pretend with a box of bandages and a toy doctor’s kit. Older kids can refresh your water, fluff up pillows, and even warm up chicken noodle soup in the microwave.

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Family reading time

Don’t underestimate this familiar activity’s ability to keep your children busy for the day. Sometimes, a few new books or a change in environment is all that is needed to recharge your kids’ love for reading. “We read together,” shares Rebecca Alwine, mom of three. “Everyone gets a book and piles on the big bed and we each ‘read’ quietly. Some of us are actually reading, some are looking at pictures, and I ‘read’ with my eyes closed.”

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Judge a dance party

Even when you’re completely depleted of energy, your kids still need to burn off some energy and get exercise each day. Before plopping down on the couch for a little rest, throw on a 90s playlist on Spotify and let your kids show off their best dance moves. If your kids want you to be involved, play the role of judge and score the dance moves from the couch or turn the party into a freeze dance for an added challenge.

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Listen to audio books

Use audio books or kids’ podcasts to entertain younger kids without relying on a screen. “My son is four, and we snuggle on the couch and listen to David Bowie narrate Peter and the Wolf together,” says Jessica Friedmann. Audio books can be played on apps including Audible. Podcasts, like Storynory or Sesame Street podcast are also a great way to get a few minutes of rest when you home with active toddlers. (Find out how to carve out more “me” time every day.)

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Create a scavenger hunt

lthough some scavenger hunts require a lot preparation and planning, mom Kari O’Driscoll created a super easy alternative. “When my girls were toddlers, I would make lists of different things for them to go find (something smaller than your thumb, something that smells good, something soft and fuzzy, something red…) and give them a paper bag. They would go off through the house or the yard if the weather was nice and find the things on the list and bring them back to me.” Genius!

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Here kiddy, kiddy, kiddy

If you’ve ever owned a cat, you know just how much they love to chase laser lights around the house. Desperate moms can take a note from cat owners and try this one out on their young kids, according to mom Kat Taylor Rutkin. A cheap laser light from the dollar store might because your new favorite way to encourage your toddlers to exercise and chase around the light while you put your feet up for a few minutes.

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Create busy boxes

Plan ahead for some mommy downtime by creating “busy boxes” for your kids. There are no real rules to creating these boxes, except that they only get pulled out of the closet when you’re desperate for a brake. Keeping certain toys “off limits” most of the time will make them feel extra special, capturing your child’s attention like a brand new toy would.

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Send them to “outer space”

OK, so you can’t really blast them off to Mars, but this idea from mom Jordan Carlson might be the next best thing. Pick a few empty cardboard boxes or save diaper boxes instead of throwing them out. Give them markers, duck tape, and a pair of scissors and let them create their own spaceship, train, or playhouse.

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Embrace the screen

If you are having a rough day, consider loosening up the screen time rules in your house for an afternoon. You can always cut back on screen time for a few days afterward.

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Go crazy with stickers

You’ll never meet a toddler who doesn’t love stickers. Keep a pile of sticker sheets handy, but save them for special times of independent play when you need a break. For guaranteed entertainment, let your kiddo break all the “rules,” by allowing them to stick stickers all over themselves. (Or you!) Not up for the mess? A few sheets of paper will also work.

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Water play

Most kids are obsessed with playing in water. Put your kids in their swimsuits, place a few towels on the floor in your kitchen and scatter toy dishes on top. Fill a few cups with water and let your kids go crazy dumping and pouring water into various toys, cups, and containers.

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Let boredom take over

There is nothing wrong with letting kids entertain themselves. In fact, the parenting experts at Aha! Parenting insist that boredom is a good experience for children of all ages. Boredom forces children to slow down and use creativity to keep themselves busy, instead of relying on mom or dad for constant entertainment. If you kids are accustomed to you keeping them entertained, it may take time for them to adjust to being in charge of their play time. Give it a few days, you’ll be surprised what kind of creative ideas they come up with.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest