Great Games for Good Nights
By Barbara Rowley
Family evenings just aren’t what they used to be. With one parents, or both, putting in longer-than-ever workdays, the scant hours between dinner and lights-out are often the only point during the week when the family is totally together. And they’re often totally chaotic. The kids just want to have fun, especially if they haven’t seen you all day. You’re thinking about what to do first, from oohing over art projects to cleaning up the kitchen to packing tomorrow’s lunches. And play has its limits at this hour: winding the kids up now means much more time winding them down for bed later. (Of course, there’s always one parent who manages to forget this rule. I’m still trying to convince my husband that pajama clad frog hunts aren’t a great idea.)
Still, there’s a good time to be had, without a balancing act of Herculean dimensions. These ten ideas can help disguise your not-so-hidden bedtime agenda in a cloak of fun, squeeze in special family time, and lead everyone from good nights to sweet dreams.
THE PAJAMA WALK
Fresh air can be invigorating for you at the same time that it’s exhausting for your child: in other words, a perfect before-bedtime combo. Susan Reichert has been walking with her son in the evenings since his babyhood. Connor, now 5, has progressed to riding his bike while Mom and Dad walking briskly alongside him. "It’s a great way for my husband and me to talk, and for Connor to get some exercise," she says. My own family nightly strolls are so much a part of our evening that if the hour is late and the walk looks threatened, 4-year-old Anna will consent to getting completely ready for bed, then being pulled in a blanket-cushioned wagon in her pajamas on our regular route while we all talk about our day. Sleep is nearly always imminent afterward – sometimes she even drifts off mid-walk, and we manage a direct wagon-to-bed transfer.
Bedtime rituals can create lasting memories for kids, either because they’re repeated nightly or because they’re a dramatic departure from the norm. A friend of mine still remembers his parents occasionally springing this sneaky ploy on his family: to set a quiet mood, they simply turned out all the lights early, starting the evening with candlelit supper followed by a low-light bath. Then all family members were supplied with flashlights for stories by battery power, as well as treated to a show of hand shadows before bed. We sometimes turn the lights down low during bath time; the combination of warm water and dim light is so relaxing that my ordinarily sleep resistant daughter has been known to beg for bed afterward.
A SPECIAL SNACK
A bedtime snack is often essential for small kids, so why not turn it into a special incentive? A friend invented an indoor marshmallow roast on one rainy summer evening. She darkened the room, lit a candle, and under her close supervision, her daughter, Anna, held marshmallows skewered on a cooking fork over the flame to brown them, them plopped them on graham crackers. This has been a great pre-bed activity: the snack is quiet and ritualistic to prepare – and it’s almost healthy, if you add a glass of milk.
HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU
Looking through family photo albums is relaxing, but it may not hold a sleepy child’s interest. Turn it into a game of I SPY, and you’ll have a captivated audience. Toddlers will be able to point to people and objects as you look at each page. Preschoolers will enjoy turning the pages to follow a request like "Find Daddy in a lion costume" or "Find Mommy holding a puppy."
HIDE AND SLEEP
If your little one fights every step of the way toward bedtime, disguise the process as a game. This one is appreciated by those as young as 2: Hide all your child’s getting-ready-for-bed props throughout the house, but in the general direction of his bedroom. Hang pajamas on the coat rack (when he finds them, he has to put them on right there); hide his toothbrush and paste in the refrigerator (he then goes to the bathroom and uses them); place a favorite doll or stuffed animal under a table, and his book on the stairs. Once your child has made it to the last item, he’ll have gotten ready for bed almost without knowing it.
HIT THE SACK SKITS
Getting more than one child to sleep isn’t easy, so reward preschoolers and older kids for their cooperation with this activity once they’re fully ready for bed. While they prepare, pick up loose odd items – the extra sock, the forgotten art project, the book, the toy car, the hair barrette – that belong in your kids’ rooms but have somehow managed to land on the bookshelf, the kitchen counter, the stairs. Once you’ve collected a dozen or so items, put them in a paper sack and give them to your children with the following instructions: they must use all of the items as props in a skit, to be performed before a parent audience. After the performance, they have to put away the corralled items before you tuck them into bed.
A child as young as I can appreciate a change of bedtime scene; there’s a good chance you will too. Get your little one bathed and dressed in her pajamas, with teeth brushed, and load her into the car with a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, coat (depending on the season), and slippers. Then drive to the widest, highest point within reasonable distance of your home and indulge in a little family parking. Watch the sun go down or the lights of the city come on, look for constellations, snuggle, and wish the rest of the world good-night. You may even want to bring along a few good books to read (and a flashlight if it’s already dark). The drive home and tuck your youngster into an already turned-down bed.
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