Before I had kids of my own, I always felt awkward around youngsters at family gatherings. Sure, I wanted to play with somebody else's baby, or even know how to keep them busy if a friend needed me to watch their child, but I had no idea how. It turns out the job isn't hard if you know a few good icebreakers.
Age 0: Tiny Babies Just Want to See Your Face (or Sleep in Your Arms)
If you get the chance to hold a very little one, don't overthink it. If a baby seems sleepy or oblivious to the world, just give her a nice hug. Her head can rest on your shoulder. For bonus points, provide a little motion: walk around, or sit in a rocking chair, or bounce her oh-so-gently by patting her bum.
If the kid is awake instead, find a spot in your lap or on the couch where she can stare at you. Just talk or sing. Can't think of what to say? Try the alphabet song. For extra baby entertainment value, move your hands in time with what you're singing, or boop their nose with yours.
Age 0-3: Older Babies and Toddlers Love Silly Gags
For this age group, you'll have to step up your game. They can see adults yammering at them any time. You need to be entertaining. Sound tough? Not really:
- Put something on top of your head. This is hilarious.
- Establish a silly cause and effect. When I touch my toe, it goes "Braaap!" Yes, you will be using your voice for the sound effect.
- Stack things on top of each other. Blocks if you have them, household objects if you don't. Expect whatever you stack to be instantly knocked down. That's half the fun.
- Wiggle your fingers along the floor. Now your hand is a spider! It's a TICKLE SPIDER AAUUUGH NOW IT'S COMING FOR YOOOOU!
Now, you aren't going to just up and tickle every kid you meet. They may be wary of you as a stranger, and that's just fine. Show them the tickle spider, and use it to tickle yourself. The kid might just watch, but sometimes they will want to get involved: either tickling or being tickled. Same deal with any of the other activities: maybe they want to knock down your tower, or maybe they want to see a stuffed animal knock down your tower. Bonus points if the stuffed animal does it when you're not looking, and then you get really pretend-angry about it.
There are two more things you can do that are surefire hits (in my limited experience, anyway) but they take some advance planning. First, juggling: if you know how to juggle, just do it in front of a toddler. Their little brains are still trying to figure out physics, and they will be simply amazed. Second: bubbles. Stop by anyplace that has party favours, and grab a pocket sized bottle of bubbles. The kids will giggle and run around trying to pop the bubbles.
Age 3-8: Young Kids Can Tell (and Listen to) Stories
The previous items will often work on these kids, who are roughly preschool age. But they're also old enough to have a little bit of an attention span. That means they can follow a story, whether it's one that you're telling or one that they watched on TV and can talk about. Here are a few more things you can do:
- Read them a book. Feel free to stop and ask what they think is going to happen next, or to point out something silly happening in the pictures.
- Show them a cool game on your phone. The simpler, the better: Angry Birds is a classic, but a four-year-old can amuse themselves for hours with Snapchat filters.
- Dance party. This works for every age, really. Put on We Are the Dinosaurs and stomp around, or crank up your own favourite tunes.
Kids this age will often have a favourite TV show or movie. They tend not to keep this a secret: your little cousin may show up wearing Paw Patrol sneakers, a Paw Patrol shirt, and carry his Paw Patrol toys in a Paw Patrol backpack. You could ask "So, you like Paw Patrol, huh?" but that won't get you very far. Instead, ask what a character's name is, and then ask what that character does.
With just a few questions, you can often get the kid to relate the plot of an entire episode to you. (It may be mixed with other shows' plots plus some figments of their imagination. That's normal.) If you want to be really on top of your game, google their favourite show in advance, so you can ask more specific questions. And since a lot of popular characters today are remakes of older ones, you can tell them about the stories from back when you watched Star Wars or Wonder Woman.
9 and up: Tweens and Teens Are a Lot Like You
By this age, stories and dance parties are still cool, but kids have pretty well-developed interests of their own. They may be playing on sports teams and devouring favourite book series, for example.
That means there should be plenty of common ground for conversations besides the same old "How's school?" that they get from all their other relatives. Try asking about the last book they read or movie they saw, or whether they have played any fun video games lately. Or just bring up something that's interesting to you, and ask what they think of it.
If you'd rather do something more active than just conversing, try one of these:
- Play a lively game like Apples to Apples or the app-based Heads Up. If you have a tabletop game on hand, that's a good choice too.
- Rope them into cooking or some other purposeful activity — but let them be the boss. What should we make? How should we decorate these cookies?
- Show each other the funniest YouTube videos you can find. You're both pretty much guaranteed to see something new.
Kids this age may seem like alien species if you're not used to them, but once you make a little effort to get to know older kids you'll find that you have a lot in common.
For all of these age groups, remember that what works for a younger kid might work for an older one, too, or vice versa: it's hard to draw firm boundaries on what's age appropriate. So don't feel like it's weird to propose one of the little-kid activities to a bigger kid, or vice versa; just adapt it to their interest and skill level as needed.
You can play with different age groups at the same time, too: Ask the 3-year-old to show you how he entertains his baby sister, or get the 5-year-old to teach the 10-year-old a silly song or game. Before long, everybody will be laughing together.