Non-screen ideas for organizing children during social gatherings? Talk amongst yourselves.

As the holidays approach, so do the potlucks and dinner parties and get-togethers that mark the season. My good friends, Mary Wells and Bryce, wonder how folks occupy the kids once the adults are ready to settle into a little grownup conversation. Is TV the only answer?

We often find ourselves sending the kids off to watch a movie so the grownups can relax during dinners with friends. The other night we were dreaming about media alternatives that would involve groups of kids (like three or more) and keep them from popping up and constantly interrupting the adult flow.  Perhaps setting a fun task- like putting on a show or a concert, or bringing a bunch of clay (obviously a bit problematic!)?  We wondered what other ideas had worked for people, especially with mixed ages of kids and inside, since around here it's either too dark or too rainy for outside play during much of the year.

It's a great question — we've never come up with a suitable alternative that both entertains and keeps the collective noise level under a dull roar. Have you?

More: Best of Parent Hacks: Thanksgiving


  1. Kookaburra says

    When I was growing up, my grandparents had a playroom in the basement for us kids to hang out in after we were finished with dinner. We played the usual kids stuff… pretend office, house or school, board games, hide and seek, hang man, or tic tac toe. It was also great fun when they got a karaoke machine.

  2. hedra says

    Playroom with lego, large blocks, ride-on toys, and enough room to run around. Works best if there’s widely mixed ages, though.

  3. Anne says

    We built a sandbox this summer and the kids have practically lived in it. Sand plus waterhose equals hours of messy fun.

  4. advorunrmom says

    When outside isn’t an option, we have a playroom in the basement. There’s a tv/movie player, and there will be a game system, but there’s also a little space to run around in and space on the floor to set up games.

    One of the best things we got is a game table that converts to serviceable pool, knock hockey, and fusball, among other things.

    Dominoes are another big hit, not to play by the rules but to set up those big chain reactions.

    We also have a box full of percussion toys – hand drums and various other noisemakers, so sometimes that works to keep them busy, if noisy.

    Great topic!

  5. Amy says

    My family was smart when I was a kid. At big get togethers they would tell us that we should make up a play and put it on for them at a certain time, promising to video it so that we could watch ourselves right afterwards.

    What kid doesn’t love being on video? It kept us busy right up until that set time (usually an hour or so after dinner) and the parents had time to relax and visit.

    The older kids loved being able to make up their own play and the younger ones just loved to be included in the older kids fun.

  6. SAHMmy Says says

    I find the little ones are quite content to dump out each and every toy they find–whether at our home or a friend’s! We just let them wallow in the mess; it gives the host the chance to reorganize her kid’s room the next day :) I have to say though, when I was a kid we weren’t allowed to watch TV UNLESS my parents were having a party. Then we got to hang out in their room and watch movies until our eyes fell out. My mom would bring up plates of appetizers and check on us every hour or so–TV was such a treat, all 5 of us were always in the same spot.

  7. Elaine says

    It’s all about the cards! Building card houses, 52-card pick-up, 21, Golf, Speed, Spit, War, Go Fish, Crazy 8s, Old Maid, Kings Around the Corners, FanTan, Solitaire, Double Solitaire, Rummy, Hearts, Spades, Canasta, UNO, Ratscrew, Baloney (otherwise known as *BS), SkipBo, Memory, Spoons. Works pretty well with a mix of kids, esp with older to teach/team with the younger ones, or when grown-ups take turns rotating in. Is especially fascinating for kids who are pretty much only exposed to electronic entertainment.

  8. Bruce says

    We had great luck with hiring a clown. Even better, our clown spoke Spanish, so we could entertain our multi-lingual crowed. The clown brought games and prizes and of course was experienced at herding the children. Further, the clown did face painting and made balloon animals. A lot of bang for the buck. If money is an issue, perhaps one or two adults can volunteer to run a bunch of games. Our party had children ranging in age from 1 to 15 – and the teenagers had as much fun with the clown as the little ones.

  9. Leanne says

    We set up a “craft” table in our garage (of course we have a few “heater fans” to keep the kids toasty). Ahead of time I make a few examples of each craft, be it a pom pom turkey with feathers, or a lollipop reindeer, then on small poster boards show pictures of how to do it. Last Christmas I had six little stations set up and it kept the kids busy for most of the night plus they get to all bring home a little “present” that they made! Even little ones can simply paste feathers, sequins, etc onto poster board!

  10. Chris says

    I think card games work really well. I remember being on the bus during concert tours with our orchestra and we’d create make shift tables with our instrument cases and have giant Spades tournaments.

  11. Lisa says

    Have an adult/older child babysit all the kids…

    I was the oldest one out of the newest set of cousins and calabash cousins so I was always stuck watching the younger ones when my parents had parties. My mom would greet the parents when they came in and say, “Hey so and so, would you like to see Lisa’s room?”

    The kids would then spend the rest of the night pulling out every stuffed animal I had, or we would play some game.

    Recently, I baked two boxes of cupcakes and bought a whole mess of candy and decorations. The kids spent the entire time in the kitchen before dinner decorating the cupcakes and had a blast. Some of their creations were really amazing!

    I thought I would be the only one in the kitchen with the kids, but some of the other wives came in to play too. We didn’t mind missing out on the grownup stuff as it was mostly a party for someone else’s extended family.

    The grandparents and aunties of the kids were all very impressed when the children proudly brought out the cupcakes and pointed out which one they made.

  12. Cobwebs says

    Depending on the age, they might enjoy doing non-messy crafts like stringing beads or coloring.

    I like Oriental Trading Company’s craft kits; they’re ridiculously
    cheap, and there are all kinds of fun choices. (I once did a kid’s Halloween party entitled “Witch Crafts,” where a big chunk of the activities involved making Halloween-themed craft kits from OTC.)

  13. Jill in Atlanta says

    I like the idea of setting up art supplies but I know that wouldn’t work for all kids. Board games can be a hit if everyone is calm enough and I love the idea of challenging them to make a show of some kind. Especially if the kids don’t know each other all that well, it’d be a great ice breaker for them too.

  14. rachel says

    We used to take a cheap digital camera that had a basic video function and make videos. The older kids would mostly deal with the directing and the camera and the younger kids, who were just happy that the older kids were willing to play with them, would star in the video.

    We used to do things like have the “actors” jump and the videographer would try and start the camera while they were in the air so that it looked like they jumped out of nowhere. We could spend ages doing that, and it usually stayed fairly quiet because we wanted to make sure that all the dialogue or sound effects could be heard on the video after.

  15. InTheFastLane says

    Most of our friends have “young” kids (3 and younger) so they still need supervision for a lot of stuff. But, we usually put several of the older kids in charge. We always promise my 13 year old extra allowance if no one gets hurt. And there are several in the 6-8 range that at least understand rules and such. But, when we get together we have the older kids and then 9 kids 3 and under. It makes for a lot of mess making and we usually just make sure that any non baby toys are put away and then let they kids have free range of the toy rooms (ie bedrooms). It usually works with minimal hair pulling :). I am looking forward to they day that these 9 kids are old enough to do some crafts without chaos.

  16. Hot Wife says

    We had some friends over last night for dinner and I tried out the idea of the kids putting on a performance. It worked like a charm. The kids had a great time practicing, performing and watching themselves on video. The adults loved the alone time and the performance.

    Thanks for the great idea!

  17. Julie Johnson says

    We have a playroom over the garage which allows for noisy play, but no noise for the adults in the house. We have lots of different toys for a variety of ages since we have a huge age spread in our kids. We also have a basement area to allow for multi-aged activities. The basement is where the craft cabinet is, so the kids just craft away. Decorating cookies is also a great activity which can keep them entertained for a little bit, and can be done throughout the year with different holiday themes.

  18. Christy says

    Create a treasure hunt with clues hidden in the yard or throughout the house. You can create clues for different ages and have the older kids help the younger kids out.