stations of the cross

UUUUUUUGGGGHHHH who invented afternoons with toddlers?!?!

I used to love afternoons. 

I'd go for a run, then come home to a hot lunch and a hot shower. Then I'd put on soft stretchy pants and watch one of the thousands of outstanding 1990's American action films. The Eraser, The Saint... True Lies for crying out loud! 

I'd go shopping, see a movie, meet up with some girlfriends for a pitcher of sangria and chips and guac while we talked about who was getting married, who was getting promoted, and where we could find harem pants that weren't thin and clingy.

Even working afternoons held the promise of productivity and accomplishment. After lunch, I'd return to my desk with a fresh cup of coffee and the knowledge that my day was more than half over. "Here we go," I'd think, and even though my work was tedious, I'd still leave for the day knowing something had been done.

But afternoons with toddlers... they're just the worst. They start with a question mark and end in the suck pocket, and nothing ever gets done.

When will the children wake up from their naps? Will they even nap? Make plans for 2:30 and you bet your ass they'll nap. Leave the afternoon open because they're looking dazed and exhausted and they will spend their nap time throwing binkies and climbing the bookshelves. 

So they wake up from their naps (or you finally accept that there will be no sleep, not in this house, not on this day) and it's either 2:00 or 4:00, depending. That's your question mark.

And then comes the big problem... WHAT DO YOU DO UNTIL DINNER?

Like I already said, it's tough to make play date plans unless your friends live next door.

It's November, and we live in Seattle, not Southern California. It's not like there's a daily option to get them outside to run until they no longer have the energy to swat full cups of milk out of each other's hands. 

When you can't meet up, and you can't get out, you have to hang on. 

Seal yourselves in the messy, shrinking box of a play room, and daydream that today will be the day that Ryan (surprise!) comes home at 3. Then you wrap yourself in a warm blanket of rage and resentment when he comes home at 5:30 like always. It's something.

There's only so long I can handle the aimless misery of a toddler in the afternoon. 

Chicken legit walks around the room pulling shit off shelves. Impassively. Almost unconsciously. He doesn't even wince at the sound of plastic trucks clattering to the ground. It's like he's sleepwalking, only with a scowl on his face. 

Buster walks around the kitchen pointing at shit on counters and whining. I would seriously give him anything on any of our kitchen counters, including the computer AND the knives, to make that sound stop. But he doesn't actually want anything. I hand him a cup of milk; he swats it away. I hand him the whisk; he sits down on the ground and sobs.

They both have a void inside them, the kind of empty hole that adults fill with QVC purchases and entire deep-dish pizzas. 

They need a project. They need structure. They need the thrill of newness. And let's be honest, I need to feel like I planned and executed something that actually fucking worked. 

And thus, last week, on a rainy, gloomy Tuesday afternoon, Stations were born. 

Chicken and I sat on the couch with a notebook and a pen, and we picked 5 stations. We set the timer for 10 minutes, and when the timer beeped, we moved to the next Station. 

These were our first Stations:

1. Coloring Station

we do colored pencils
it takes buster longer to bite off a piece of colored pencil
so i can usually get there
in time
unlike crayons

2. Tupperware Station

take it all out
i don't even care
whatever you want

3. Balloon Football Station (the clear winner)

pro tip:
move the furniture
and put on some fast-paced music

pro tip:
don't blow up the balloons all the way
there will be gnawing

4. Reading and Snack Station

make sure
for the love of god
that they get the exact same snack

5. Play Doh Station

chicken created
this snake museum

buster created
this stabbing extravaganza

Whether or not you choose to use Stations, let me lay out the reasons I think they have been working:

1. You can do anything for 10 minutes. For example, block station. Block station was an unmitigated disaster. What was I thinking, giving two toddlers blocks, and then expecting them to play harmoniously? No, you know what Block station was? Mutually Assured Destruction Followed By Double Meltdown And Assault With Blunt Objects Station. But you can do anything for 10 minutes.

2. When the timer goes off, it's time to change. Chicken is already conditioned to respond to the timer. Of course, if something is a gangbusters hit you can go longer than 10 minutes- we did "Double Decker Balloon Football" the other day for 20 minutes instead of 10. But by setting a time limit, the kids don't have enough time to get bored with their toys and wonder what would happen if they threw/swallowed them.

3. Clean as you go. When you plan the stations, you have to make sure that your space is suitable for them, which means you have to kind of clean up after yourself each time, which means that you haven't totally thrashed the house with pointless tub-dumping and block scattering.

4. You have a sense of purpose and order. You know what comes next. You're not just watching the kids play with dinosaurs and then wondering, in the voice of Sean Bean, what dreadful churning torrent lies beyond this placid calm? By my troth I know not... That sense of calm confidence is infectious, or at least it is with my kids. When I'm calm, they are more likely to find calm. Or whatever passes for calm in an 18-month-old and 3-year-old.

If you're feeling insane like us, try Stations this afternoon.

Here are a few more that have worked well for us:

- Zoo Train Station (animal toys + trains)
- Cutting Yarn Station (Chicken only)
- Racetrack Station (the kids got to pick trucks and race them around a designated track)
- Landing Pad Station (take all the cushions off the couch and create a landing pad)
- Pots & Pans Station (your mom's favorite parenting hack - give them bowls, spoons, whisks, spatulas, whatever. Cheer as they make a wonderful, terrible racket. If you're strong enough that day.)
- Chase Station (put on some music and run around the house chasing each other.)

Here are a few that have been total disasters for us:

- Block Station (see above)
- Scooping oatmeal/rice station (there's just no fucking way to clean that shit up between stations)
- Paint Station (it was a pipe dream. It was folly.)
- Stack Boxes of Organic Soup Station (worked great for 2 or 3 minutes, but then they were like "so we stacked the soup," and I was like "let's do it again!" and they were like "wait, is that it?" and I was like "uh yeah..." and they're like "nope, we out," and then I was like "where are you going? What are you doing in the bathroom? What did you put in the toilet? THERE ARE THIRSTY PEOPLE IN JORDAN STOP RUNNING THE SINK.")

Godspeed my comrades. May your afternoon not suck today.


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