The Mother of All Busy Bags – Entertaining a 16-Month-Old

Estimated read time 8 min read

Disclaimer: this post doesn’t talk about running. Weird, right?!

Our awesome childcare provider is going to be out of town for a week while her family visits Boston to see her dad run the Boston Marathon (hey—that’s running!), which is totally badass, but that meant we’d have to cover some afternoon daycare for my 16-month-old son. Being the kind of person who needs a reason to plan trips and use up vacation days, I went, “Woo! Vacation time!” and decided Wally and I would peace out for a couple days and take the train to Chicago to see some friends.

My husband doesn’t get much time off from work, so my first thought was, “Do I really want to take a toddler out of town alone?” Then I thought, SURE I DO! Because I’m a crazy person. Why not? After all, I firmly believe life should be at least a little bit terrifying.

Dren and Wally doing stuffMy only real guiding principle or motto for parenting is to know what your child is capable of, and not to ask more from them than that. I can’t make him skip a nap and then go out to eat, for instance. That would be my bad. And when I give him the responsibility of soup in a bowl that doesn’t suction to the highchair, I need to be okay with knowing he may not be able to literally or figuratively handle that (I’ve cleaned up a lot of soup in my short tenure as a parent).

The problem with this trip is that I really don’t know what he can handle. We took a 4-hour boat ride to Wisconsin over the summer, but there was a play room and all three of us went as a family. That’s different from 4 hours on the train with just me, but he’s older now. And the ride starts at 6am (UGH!) which means the day actually begins around 5am for him, and I’m hoping he’ll spend at least the first hour asleep. That means I have 3 hours to fill. Snacks only go so far, then looking out the window, going to the dining car, and looking out the observation area (if there is one—I haven’t been on the Amtrak in a long time). I’m sure at least part of the ride will be him walking seat to seat, smiling and waving at everyone. That’s cool by me, and most people like it (except for those real grumpy bastards, in which case I’m trying to teach Wally how to give people the middle finger—JUST KIDDING).

Realistically, that means I need a crapload of entertainment.

Knowing this, I set out to make the mother of all busy bags. This is what I know about Wally:

  • He really loves opening containers
  • He likes trying to take things apart
  • He likes putting things back into containers
  • He likes scribbling
  • He likes things that light up and make noise (but people on the train probably don’t want to hear “CIRCLE CIRCLE CIRCLE CIRCLE CIRCLE CIRCLE SQUARE CIRCLE CIRCLE”)
  • He likes things that feel cool
  • He’s not yet great at not eating things, so small things can’t be too small
  • Color/texture/pattern/sparkle = good

With those things in mind, I set off to Pinterest and some parenting blogs to get ideas. Here are all the things I came up with, and snappy names for them. There’s a full gallery of pics at the bottom, too!

Spicy McPipecleaner

toddler pipecleaner activityThis is an activity that was made possible thanks to my weird tendency to save small containers for no reason. Now I have a reason! Toddler games! Luckily, I had a small glass spice container formerly containing rosemary so the holes are bigger than other containers, and the top unscrews for easy access to empty it and do the activity over again. Wally hasn’t played much with pipe cleaners, so we’ll see if he tries to eat them or stab someone with them, but I think it will be a hit. Plus, it takes up barely any space. This might make its way into my purse after vacation.

Pom-pom Jabbies

For this one, I used a small, clear hummus container and scraped off the labels. Then I used a box cutter to (carefully!) cut an X in the top. The plan is to give junior a bag of pompoms and show him how to push them into the opening. I hear this is popular with the tots.

Three Words: Star Wars Containers

I bought some of these years ago for a little stocking stuffer kit for my husband, and they’ve been around ever since. I filled this Star Wars container with tiny toys, slap bracelets, and a deck of cards held together with a ring via holes I put in them with a hole punch. We’ll see if any of these pique his interest.

Photo Booky Flashin’ Cards

Wally really likes turning pages and trying to open little spaces to get things in and out. I had this idea to bring him some kind of flash cards, and I found animal ones at the dollar store. Then it occurred to me that they’d be scattered everywhere if I didn’t put them together somehow, so I picked up a tiny photo album with a sweet 3D cover. The pic doesn’t do it justice, plus, it was a dollar! Woo!

Yay Unwindy Thing

Ribbon spooly thing
Ribbon spooly thing

Wally loves unspooling things and doing stuff like yanking wipes out of a bag one by one until he reaches about 200. Someone on the internets had sewn together ribbons and put them in a reusable wipe container. I thought that was brilliant, but I ended up not finding the right supplies in my escapades. I improvised. This is several pieces of ribbon sewn together, but smaller in width and they’re wrapped around a reusable spool of tape. Then I put the spool in a small makeup bag that I wasn’t using and cut a slit to pull the ribbon through. I haven’t tested it with him because I want the mystery to be part of the fun, but I have a feeling I’m going to spend at least an hour constantly re-winding this.

Hey, Look at All These Things

I picked up a tiny craft box with little compartments in it, and also found a Monday-Sunday pill box for the same purpose. Both of them are filled with small things to do. One has some ribbon and pipecleaners, all with little things to string on them like a handful of penne. There are also several rubber bracelets, some small stretchy animals, and spare pom poms in there.

Busy Wallet

Busy wallet! I love this.
Busy wallet! I love this.

This is my favorite! Wally is obsessed with my wallet and keys, so I made him his own. I looked for random used-up gift cards and stuff to put inside, and got this wallet at the thrift store for a dollar. It’s filled with fake money (you could use board game money—I found a set of bills and coins at the dollar store, too), cards, coupons, post-it notes, and stickers. I imagine he’s going to rip everything out of it and spend some time trying to fit things back into the slots, which works for me!

Just in CASE You Want Some Stickers

Wally is also in love with DVD and video game cases. I think he just loves the ‘snap’ of it closing. I took an old software case, removed the sleeve, replaced the cover sleeve with stickers, filled it with stickers, and put in some other small paper crafts. I hope Wally doesn’t sticker the inside of the train. We’ll see how this goes. Also a bonus because this takes up barely any room at all.

The Busiest Busy Bag

busy bag for young toddlersWell. Everything that wasn’t a coordinated activity basically ended up in here. I have some small squishy toys from Target in mini containers (got a set of 10 mini containers at the dollar store—woo!), a tiny flashlight, tiny Play-Doh, a small plastic Slinky that’s super sparkly, party favors like little finger googly-eye things, a lanyard with spare keys on it, coloring supplies, …I don’t even know. Tons of stuff!

Can you tell I spent $30 at the dollar store? Hey man, if it means that we have a 4 hour train ride with no tears, plenty of laughs, and we don’t bother everyone around us, that’s totally worth it. Most of the things will make it back with us, and I’ll definitely keep them handy for the rest of our trip (hellooooo eating out at a restaurant with a kid who isn’t losing his mind!). If there’s anything that he really doesn’t care about and we feel like lightening our load, we’ll give stuff away.

Wish me luck!

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