a problem

Good morning! How about a problem to start off your day, yes?

Since arriving here, finding something for the kids to do has been an honest-to-goodness struggle. The social outings, which they enjoy, are usually limited to the weekend, and during the week, while there are routine chores, shopping sprees, and a bit of work on the jobsite, there’s not much else going on.

A few other factors that intensify the situation:

*There are no other children around. Our (calm and pleasant) neighborhood mostly consists of elderly folk … and a bunch of empty houses, thanks to Maria and the declining economy.
*The heat makes outside play unappealing. Plus, we are surrounded by concrete. Our property boasts no grass, as in, zilch, zero, nada, none.
*Houses are shut up to keep out the heat and, except for early morning and evening, the streets are devoid of pedestrians…which is kind of boring.
*The parks and ball field at the edge of our neighborhood are overgrown and in disrepair. (They’re probably perfectly safe, but they feel a little creepy.)
*They have no way to get around — no bike, no scooter, no skates — and besides, we’re in the city, hemmed in with interstates. Plus, the older two children, licensed drivers both, have had to relinquish their independence (and a good portion of their usefulness) since MDS policy requires drivers to be at least 19 years old.
*We have an extremely limited supply of reading material, art supplies, and games.
*Thanks to the language barrier, the children often don’t understand what’s going on, which adds a layer of tedium to what would otherwise be an engaging social experience.

Because of the nothing-to-do situation, technology has become a real issue. The older two have unlimited access (as they do at home), but here, without their normal involvements of work, friends, chores, and studies, their usage has increased dramatically. Our younger daughter has an ipod that she uses for texting (at home, she doesn’t have internet access so this is an unwelcome, though permissible, breach of our no-tech communication-until-age-16 rule). Both girls have kindles, and all three of the older children use their devices to listen to music.

Quite honestly, I don’t much mind the collective spiral into the technological abiss. I know it’s a temporary situation — once we start the build, the children will be working mostly full-time, and there will be state-side volunteers to host and relate to — and it’s actually nice that the kids aren’t pestering us (and each other).

However, for our younger son this whole situation — the boredom coupled with the zoned-out sibs — has been a tremendous source of frustration. He’s an active, relational kid: he wants things to do and people to do them with and NOW. It drives him absolutely bonkers when the other kids hole up in their rooms. And it doesn’t help matters that so much of our job requires my husband and me to use technology. I’m juggling two computers, and we both now have smartphones, often spending long periods of time learning how to drop pins and deposit checks, staring at Google maps, and painstakingly crafting messages in Spanish. It’s all work (or mostly all work), but to our younger son it looks like play.

I’ve taken some measures to counteract the pull of technology. We bought gel pens and a basketball. I aggressively encourage the older kids to find actual activities to do with their younger brother. I sometimes collect all devices and remove them from the equation. I’m trying to consolidate my “office” hours. When we’re home in the evening, I read out loud to my younger son before bed.

Still, I find myself constantly racking my brain for things for my younger son to do. He cooks (right now he’s making French toast for breakfast, and my older son is teaching him how to make coffee), assembles furniture, washes dishes, studies Spanish, runs to the colmado for milk, bananas, and bread.

But it’s not enough! We need more options, activities he can, when left to his own devices (ha!), easily and happily fall back on. Is there an engrossing game we should order from Amazon? A miracle toy? A new book series or a magazine subscription (that the other children would enjoy as well)? A yet-to-be-discovered project?

So, to summarize, WANTED: enjoyable pastime activities for a high-energy, twelve-year-old boy that:

1. Can be done in isolation and indoors.
2. Don’t include books.
3. Cost (almost) nothing.
4. Do not include technology.
5. Require no fancy supplies.

Please, weigh in. The boy needs something to do, and fast.

This same time, years previous: snake charmer, moo, sauteed lambsquarters with lemon, ice cream supper, Shirley’s sugar cookies, the basics, my favorite things, chocolate-kissed chili.


  • Rose Shenk

    Does Amazon deliver to where you are? Did you bring any board games, or do you have any favorites that the kids would play if they have them?

    • Jennifer Jo

      Yes, Amazon delivers to our door, but it takes about a week. No, we didn't bring board games, but we did bring cards (Rook, Dutch Blitz, Frank's Zoo, etc) and Bananagrams. Problem is finding a time when everyone wants to play…. The older kids are more inclined to need alone time, while the younger is a raging extrovert. I think board/card games may become a more common activity as we start relating to volunteers. Guests are often more inclined to play a game than older sibs….

  • Steve

    Could he join an organized youth soccer team?

    He could start a container garden and learn how to propagating ornamental plants from cuttings.

  • Nicky

    What about an activity book like Wreck This Journal or Don't Eat This Book. I got my nephew the latter and it kept him entertained for months.

  • Lana

    Our kids loved modeling wax at his age and older. Our kids spent hours and hours playing with it and it was probably right up there with Legos for us. It is great because they can make very detailed pieces and then take them apart and reuse the wax and it never mixes together. It takes patience because the wax has to be warmed in the hands and then shaped but our kids absolutely loved it. Amazon has several options. It may seem a bit pricey but we bought one set and it was used for ten plus years.

  • Susan Immelt

    This reminded me so much of things I did inside when I was a child. We played outside lots, but my siblings had lots of friends, and there were rainy days:
    Learn flowers. collect flowers and leaves, identify and put in flower press. Maybe go to park with sibling and collect samples to bring home.
    Learn birds and bird songs. sometimes you don't realize how many are around.
    Make your own cookbook. Illustrate it. Or use pictures and actual samples to illustrate. Translate it to Spanish. Make it a kid's cookbook.
    Plan a treasure hunt for kids (make clues and design path seekers will take). Need an event to plan for that involves little kids. Youngest children often like to do activities for younger children.

  • Nicole

    Google – super transforming ninja star. A kid at our sons baseball game had made one and everyone was amazed by it! It’s origami that is movable. I think there is even a three-D one. My boys also spend hours creating things out of perler beads. We call them melts beads. Those little plastic beds that you iron together. Can use a peg board or not. They’ve made little shapes out of them and then created necklaces. Minecraft objects are also a favorite thing to make with them. Pinnterest has tons of ideas of what to do with them.

  • Karren

    Learning to juggle is a good one. I see someone above already thought of it, but you could get him one of those Klutz books and a set of soft juggle balls, or that one with the two sticks with the cord between where you juggle the yoyo thing on it. That takes forever to learn properly, and stays with you for a lifetime.

    • Liam Gifford

      I (Kate) second this! Liam spent hours and hours and hours learning to juggle this winter. We deal with the exact pull concerning technology and older siblings, so I am combing through suggestions as well.

  • katie

    There's gotta be yucca down there, right? Look up how to make cordage out of yucca fibers. Seems right up his alley. And with actual freetime, he could end up with a whole ball of it.

    I immediately thought of a pocket knife too.

    Card games, obviously, as has also been mentioned. (a few good options for 2 or more of the kids: Casino, Spite and Malice, Gin/Rummy)

  • KC

    Notes in mailboxes re: domino-playing or dog-walking or cross-lingual conversation? I don't know how people connect locally, whether social media or phone or email, but your local contacts presumably would know?

    There's also learning a musical instrument, learning a language (with online coaching?), or learning how to juggle…

    Good luck!

  • dr perfection

    1.collect seashells at beach and make windchimes. google how to make a seashell windchime
    2. practice magic and put on on a show for extended family when he returns to states
    3. do string craft–make Jacob's ladder and other things: just google to learn

  • Anna

    Would he have any interest in cross stitch or embroidery? I know these are often gendered female, and some male types get uncomfortable with that. That being said, there are a lot of fun and inexpensive patterns (PDF) on etsy that might appeal, and the supplies tend to be relatively inexpensive (~$4 for Aida fabric, ~$.45 per skein of floss, etc.). Certainly inexpensive compared with knitting yarn.

    I'm also a big fan of board games, but those can get expensive, and are less fun to play by yourself (though I managed anyway since my sister never wanted to play anything except the Sweet Valley High game).

  • Anonymous

    Does he know how to tie knots? There are tons of knots he could learn and they take practice to remember and perfect. They are useful in various situations and you only need a small rope or cord. You can likely look up instructions on the internet.

    • Lauralli

      I was also going to suggest learning to tie knots. My dad can tie any kind of knot! My husband and sons….not! 🙂 It's a learned skill that's mostly gone by the wayside. This could also transition into macrame–he could make you a hanging planter. Also, how about making a pinata? It can be a bit messy but you could have him go out to the porch with it. Any scraps of paper and homemade glue with flour can be used.

  • Margo

    My brain immediately turned on – what a unique problem! I'm a maker, so I immediately thought of things to make.

    My son likes to whittle – all he uses is a pocketknife and any scrap wood laying around. My husband showed him knife basics, but otherwise he taught himself with no books or anything. Do you have bamboo around? Or something equivalent in the tropics? All kinds of things to weave, carve, pound, make with bamboo – would probably require a little research to get started, but if he knows the basics, he could apply his imagination.
    I would suggest knitting cotton dishcloths, although that takes knitting needles and yarn and someone to show him first. I think the housework/cooking angle is really key – it's a huge help to you and your husband to just do your job and have the kids' job (at this point) be the house-tenders. It's a lot of work and skill to cook, clean, do laundry, and tend to other myriad details of people living in a house!

  • Anonymous

    How about card games?
    Once upon a time, back when we didn't have technology, our parents kept three high-energy kids occupied during a very rainy holiday by teaching us a card game a day.
    Your kids could pick card games, and learn and play them together.

  • Jeanne Fitzgerald

    My grandson Max, who is in choir with your son, sends these math puzzles:

    1. How many even numbers are between 701 and 5089?

    2. How many different ways can you arrange 5 objects in a line if two of the objects are exactly alike?

    3. How many divisors* does 120 have? What number or numbers between 1 and 100 have the greatest number of divisors?

    (A divisor of 120 is a whole number that divides 120 evenly. For example, the divisors of 10 are 1, 2, 5, and 10.)

    We will send the answers later if you like.

  • Rachel

    Things my boys have enjoyed and stayed engrossed with for hours: SnapCircuits (not cheap but wow did they learn a ton about electricity and physics), small basketball hoop/foam basketball, rubberized baseball and glove, sidewalk chalk. A two-person (or more) game that's tons of fun and different every time is Fluxx. A magazine subscription to Muse or Cricket (these get read over and over in our house). Love the ideas above for relating to neighbors, doing errands and playing cards/dominoes.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Looking up Fluxx now — thank you! (We've just subscribed to The Week, and I think he'll probably find parts of that interesting.

  • Sharon Wyse

    About those elderly neighbors… could one of them be a potential Conversational Spanish partner, a domino buddy or friend?

  • Lora

    Active, relational kid. Could he run errands for the elderly neighbors? Possible do the same milk,bananas, bread trips for others? Someone might be in need of a card game partner or help with a little job that might seem tedious at home but happily done for others?

    • Jennifer Jo

      I love this idea, and he loves to work and happily does so when we're at the jobsite (or it's something we're all doing). But we don't really have any jumping off point for relating to our neighbors. We don't see them at all during the day (I think their houses are air conditioned?) and so striking up a conversation isn't natural.

    • Athanasia

      Don't folks come out at night, after dark, when it is cooling down? Do you go for walks then? Say hi to the neighbors when they are out on porches etc? Do they stay locked up all day?

  • Lizzy

    I've been reading your blog for a long time and have never chimed in before, but this situation speaks so deeply to my heart because my siblings are so much older than I am and I often felt this way. I'm wondering if his want for connection with people could be satisfied by writing letters; to anyone and everyone you know, and maybe people you don't (service folks, retirement communities, etc). I'm not sure if paying for postage is more of an obstacle outside of the U.S., but thought I'd throw it out there.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Actually, he's writing a letter today! I'm thinking I need to suggest/assign a few activities like that every once in a while. It will help him focus and process what's going on, as well give him mind a different workout.

    • Athanasia

      The first thing that came to my mind, also, was writing letters, but I was thinking that is not an active activity. I think postage is the same as the U.S. as it is considered domestic mail. Are there kids, other than his cousins, especially children of other missionaries, that he can correspond with?

Leave a Comment