Do you recognize this scene? It's four o'clock in the afternoon and your three children have just gotten off the school bus. Your ten year old is desperate to discuss the plans for her girl scout camping trip this weekend. Your eight year old is trying to tell you all about the school play he is in and how he volunteered you to make a half dozen frog costumes. Your six year old simply must share with you the entire inventory of her best friend's beanie baby collection. You need to get dinner started so you can eat by six o'clock, so you can get homework started by seven o'clock, so you can get baths started by eight o'clock, so the kids will be in bed by nine o'clock. The kids begin squabbling with each other, but you simply don't have the time to give each of the them the individual attention they need. No wonder they call this the arsenic hour. I call it "rush hour." What do you do to bring peace back into the house? If you are like many families, you probably turn on the TV. It's not what you really WANT to do, but you can't think of any other solution that won't mean a lot of extra work for you.
There are other solutions besides the TV. For example, if you were Martha Stewart you would pop in a Mozart CD, seat the kids at your antique kitchen table, and teach them to make radish rosettes while you whip up a gourmet meal. But, back in the real world, what can your kids do during "rush hour" that doesn't involve the TV?
- Set goals. The first thing to do is to set some goals for the activities you plan during this time. The goals should involve everyone. The kids are fighting for your attention, so give it to them. Hold "rush hour" activities at the kitchen table where you can watch and interact while you work on dinner or other end-of-day activities. Second, plan activities that involve as little extra work for you as possible. Third, make sure the activities involve lots of talking and lots of busy hands. Too much sitting still and not talking leads to boredom and whining.
- Look in your pantry (and involve the kids). Okay, now you've got the goals set, but what can your kids actually do? Look in your pantry for inspiration. Give the kids a bowl of dried pasta or Fruit Loops and some string and let them make jewelry. Challenge the kids to build a gingerbread house using crackers for the walls and peanut butter for cement. Take a few minutes out of your dinner preparation and teach your older kids to scrape carrots, slice cucumbers, or tear up lettuce.
- Stock up on art supplies. Keep your eyes open for special art supplies like rubber stamps, changeable markers, and scissors and hole punches that make interesting shapes. Give the kids a pack of construction paper and let them create their own masterpieces. Make these items available only during "rush hour" and they will remain special longer.
- Go on a magazine hunt. We used this activity to keep our three year old busy during "rush hour" for months. Save up a few old magazines and catalogs. Give each child a piece of construction paper, a glue stick, and some safety scissors. The smallest kids can pick a color and search through the glossy pages to find items of that color to cut out and glue on their pages. Pre-schoolers might pick a number and cut out items that come in those multiples. Beginning readers can use letters to set the theme of their pages. Post the resulting pages on the refrigerator for a day or two and then slip them into a notebook to keep track of the colors, numbers, and letters each child has completed.
- Design greeting cards for distant family members and friends. Once a week have your kids choose a friend or relative to whom they would like to write. Then give them paper, markers, and crayons to design their own cards. Grandparents will love getting a personalized card every few weeks.
- Teach your children how to journal. While you are buying school supplies, let each child choose a special spiral bound notebook. Let them decorate the cover with stickers or markers. The kids can use these notebooks to record thoughts, describe favorite events, plan for the future, or draw pictures. Keep these in a special place so no one can read them except the author. One favorite journaling technique of mine is "101 Lists." Pick a topic and have your children list 101 things that relate to the topic. For example: 101 Places I'd Love to Visit or 101 Favorite Foods. If this number is too high, use 20 or 50. But remember to keep the number high enough to encourage lots of creativity. Don't judge the lists; each child must be free to write whatever they want.
- Do your kids enjoy crafts? Whenever you come across a good, simple craft idea in a magazine, cut it out and put it in a zip-lock style plastic bag. Once a month, go through these ideas and find out what you need for supplies. Put the supplies in the bags with the idea and mark down any items you need to buy on your grocery list. Then during your next "rush hour," pull out a completed bag and set the kids to work. Keep a shoe box handy with glue, scissors, and other craft basics. A simple craft idea: give the kids a box of plastic drinking straws, colored pipe cleaners, and scissors. Cut the straws into short lengths, run the pipe cleaners through them, and bend the ends to create as many animals as you can.
- Let your kids do some planning. Have them come up with the plans for next week's dinner menus or Saturday's activities. Plan activities for vacation or design the next family birthday party.
I find it disturbing that the average child in America spends four hours a day watching TV. Imagine all the wonderful things they could accomplish if you could just cut that time in half. One way to do this is to ban TV watching during family "rush hour." Whatever activities you plan to fill in this time remember: keep it creative, keep it simple, keep it fun. You may even find yourself looking forward to this once dreaded time.