(ARA) - When the weather keeps children inside, clever moms need to get creative to keep toddlers and preschoolers from going stir crazy. Experts agree that screen time is not the answer: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 years old watch no television and that those older than 2 watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming.
So what's the answer?
Arranging a playdate is a great first step. Whether they consist of activities for side-by-side play or group play and interaction, playdates encourage the development of social and communication skills and, even better, break up the day by offering something new.
But instead of inviting over the entire neighborhood, Heather Flett and Whitney Moss, co-authors of Babble.com's No. 4 "Most Useful" parenting blog, RookieMoms.com, and the book "The Rookie Mom's Handbook: 250 Ideas of Things to do With (and Without!) Your Baby" recommends keeping it small. They say try mini playdates.
"A playdate with two or three young children max is the optimal number for socialization without intimidation," says Flett. "Any more than that and you've got a circus on your hands, and worse yet, your child can get more overwhelmed than engaged."
Ready to play? Here are tips to help guide the fun:
* Empower your child. Involve your child in planning activities. Show him how his favorite toys - that may be harder to share - are being safely tucked away.
* Keep it short and sweet. Parents know better than most that variety is the spice of life; keep playdates to an hour until attention spans grow with your child. A great Rookie Moms tip: Establish the end time before the play even begins to accommodate nap times, dinner prep or errands.
* Provide easy-access toys. Children should dictate the flow of playtime but moms can provide icebreakers. Moss suggests that moms plan activities where everyone gets to hold something and feel as if they have a role and purpose in the play. One great idea, she says, is to dump out a bucket of DUPLO bricks in the middle of the play table or floor. The larger bricks are better for little hands and encourage individual creation or group building projects. Moss' children especially love when she gives them a challenge to guide their play, such as "Who can build the tallest tower?" or "Let's see if we can make a little village."
"No matter their age or skill level, giving children a bucket of bricks allows them to find a fun and engaging way to play in his or her own way," says Birthe Jensen, a preschool guru from LEGO Systems. "The versatility of DUPLO gives so many ways to play, and not only will children hone critical skills like hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and shape and color recognition, they are building creativity and confidence.It's fun to see where their imaginations take them."
* Feed the animals. Encourage little guests to eat at the table but if the kids wander off, the RookieMoms suggest that drier snacks like crackers or raisins will help keep the play area (somewhat) clean.
* Don't forget to clean up. Assign each child a specific task. You will have much more success with asking "Can you put all the blocks back in a basket?" than "Can you help me clean up?"
Beyond playdates, other ways to break up foul weather days include:
* Freeze dance: Boogie to favorite music - when music stops, children freeze into funny poses;
* Pillow forts: Throw a sheet over a card table and fill with pillows, books, furry friends and even a flashlight;
* Dress up: Pull out mommy and daddy clothes, Halloween costumes and giggle over gear like goggles, aprons, purses and more;
* Or, plan an outing to the library for storytime.
Whatever your day brings, don't forget to mix it up. A busy child is a happy child.