The only common activity I've found that works well so far is fort building. My 2 year old boy is very active, but my 4 year old daughter loves to have books read to her. However, when I'm alone with them the fort strategy works well. Can you think of other indoor activities that toddlers of multiple age ranges would enjoy doing together?
I have a 5 year old boy and a 2 year old daughter. Finding something they can play together can be challenging, especially because my 2 year old doesn't have a lot of the fine motor control required for many of the things that my 5 year old takes for granted. Its also important to note, that developmentally a 2 year old will not necessarily play with others. Often what will be most fruitful will be to create activities they can do in parallel and activities in which the 5 year can assist (so that you don't have to).
Here are some of the activities I have found that my kids can easily do together:
Sand and Water Table - My kids have always loved their sand and water table and on a nice day that could play out there for hours. Many of the sand tables I have seen have various contraptions and mini-machines that are put into motion when you pour sand and water in them. Those are great, but do require very, very fine grained sand.
Forts - This is an activity that I have to setup for them. But once setup kids can play for a long time, especially if there is enough room in there that they can carve out there own space. For some 2 year olds though it might be asking a lot of them not to tear it down, so who knows...
Drawing themselves - Go to IKEA and buy a roll of their kids coloring butcher paper. Then cut out a long strip, have them lay down and trace outlines of each other. Then have them color it in.
Physical Activity - I probably don't need to give a laundry list here, there are so many possibilities. My kids love to race. I have my oldest keep time by counting, and then the other runs a distance. They encourage each other to go faster, and delight in celebrating crossing the finish line.
Sidewalk Chalk - Hours and hours of fun. Period.
You are at a challenging age. I empathize. My 5 y.o. likes to build, but my 2 y.o. literally cannot wait to tear things down -- which is intractably incompatible. My 2 y.o. also wants to do whatever her older brother is doing. Which sounds great, but if he is drawing then she is only content if she is drawing on his paper too. So there are not a lot of things they can do collaboratively. The trick is finding something they can do independently, but side by side.
I have found though that left to their own devices, they will surprise me by entertaining themselves. And they will find fun in the simplest of things together. Be it spinning in circle till they fall over, or jumping in a pile of leaves.
I know I'm repeating myself here, but LEGO is such an awesome toy. For ages under 5, there's LEGO Duplo which are basically just bigger blocks that can't be swallowed. I'm building stuff with my nearly-2-year-old and it's still fun although I'm 37!
Just stacking and creating all kinds of silly constructions. My son will mostly tear them apart but also sometimes add some blocks - which in turn provides an interesting challenge To me for whatever I was trying to build until that point.
New LEGO is expensive, but we just have one small bucket of blocks that we got used (cheap!), and it's plenty. In fact I like that there are only blocks and no cars and windows etc because that encourages creativity even more.
I'm keeping an eye on this one, I have a 6 year old and 1.5 year old and I have a hard time doing anything with them where I am involved. Together they play pretty well, so long as I keep the older one in check, but with me it's pretty much the following:
- playing ball (tossing a ball like baseball or football with really soft ones for the younger)
- building towers with blocks and watching them get destroyed
- kick ball, but you need two as my younger likes to run off with his
- slides, you will get a workout lifting one of them probably
- pulling the kids on a blanket, with our wooden floors they have a great time sliding around
- restaurant, we have kids food and cooking utensils, the youngest LOVES to bang the pans
I hope to get some other ideas as well!
My eldest two are two years apart. Things they loved to do together at that age (and even now for some of these):
- gardening with me (yes, really) - they loved to pull up weeds, with some guidance as to what a weed was
- building towers of blocks, and then demolishing them
How about puzzles?
Our 3 yr old loves doing smallish jigsaw puzzles. Whether they work independently on puzzles of differing difficulty or together on a single puzzle its great cognitive exercise and comes with a great sense of accomplishment when they are done.
We have found some great puzzles available for not very much money, in fact there are some packs of puzzles that come with multiple puzzles of differing difficulty (24,48,63 or 48,63,100 panoramics are a hit at our house) that would probably be great for the 2 yr old on the smaller end and the 4 yr old on the higher piece count end.
There are plenty of childrens cookbooks out there with simple recipes that anyone can enjoy. Even if you're not into that, something you might do regularly (like monthly or maaaybe weekly) is tube-dough cookies with your own frosting or toppings. A nice little treat for their alone time with daddy. Pizza can also be done this way . . . Generic frozen cheese especiale (or whatever) and add your own toppings. They'll love flopping pepperonis on it.
Then there's Highlights magazine. Always a winner.
I would also suggest just make some crap up. My wife told me the story of how one day her mom decided that they were going to go on an Alpine Adventure. They went to Sears and tried on coats, went to a sporting goods store and hung out near the ski display while the sales guy talked about all the places he's skied and they asked questions. they did a couple other things and capped it off with dairy queen. Along this line, you could do say a 'camping adventure' which winds up being little more than a glorified picnic in the yard. Doesn't really work indoors, but there's nothing to stop you from making up your own indoor games... you can do a lot with paper, markers (dry erase around the kiddies isn't so bad), playing cards "if you draw a mans face you have to fly like an airplane to the stairs and draw a smiley face on your page!"
So after going thru all the specifics, i think my point is that you can be as creative as you want to be. It's less important what you do, so long as you're doing it hand in hand with them, spending time with them.
A good one is stuffed animals and role playing. You can make a house out of pillows and put an animal in there, invite another animal in for tea, and see what happens. You can create conflicts, have a "bad guy", and then do conflict resolution. That can be fun. Be careful though. Use your judgement as to what is appropriate for the animals to do, because they may take it and run with it.
We also used to have a math game which I called The Bean game, which was only playable for a short time but helps to build math skill in a fun way. I have no beans. I need to go to the shop to ask for some beans. He has 10 beans. He gives me 3. How many does he have left? He gives me 2 more beans. Now how many do we each have? (WARNING: this game gets boring quickly).
one thing that my kids love when there is snow outside for the winter is really simple and cheap get a spray bottle and fill it with water and food coloring then they can go outside and paint the snow. Something that keeps them entertained in the colder weather.
Mine (4.5 year old boy and 2.5 year old boy) have a cubic metre tent that looks like a pirate ship. They stuff a blanket in it, assorted toys, fuss about taking their shoes off, optionally put on a pirate shirt, then stuff themselves in, and go ARRRRRHHH!
A big box, without the stuff, works well too.
The older one likes welcoming the little one in his home, the little one is awed that he's playing with his big brother and any excuse to shout is always welcome with him.