Activities for a 4 Year Old Who Can't Amuse Himself?

Updated on September 20, 2013
A.B. asks from Beverly Hills, CA
5 answers

Hi there. I'm not a mama myself but I've been nannying for a little boy for the last three years. He was born three months premature and had a lot of early struggles, but has thankfully has overcome a lot and is four years old now. He's a pretty well-behaved little guy, but he's actually difficult to nanny for because he seems so disinterested in everything. Unlike most babies that I've cared for, he didn't experiment with babbling noises or mimic what you said to him when he was little (his speech was delayed). If you put a toy in front of him, he typically wouldn't poke at it or pick it up, and if you put a crayon in his hand and showed him how to scribble, he wouldn't copy that either. Now that he's four, I am having a hard time getting him to play alone with toys or books for short periods of time. Sometimes I'll suggest that he go play with his little peddle car in the yard, but he'll just sit in it looking zoned out, not moving or making "beep beep!" noises or anything. I feel terrible for him because it seems like he doesn't know how to play! I looked up some age appropriate activities and tried to get him to build a tower with lego blocks, but for the most part he just stares at the blocks as if unsure of what to do with them - not even touching them to try - even when I show him an example, and sometimes just says to me "you do it." Today I brought over two chairs and a blanket and showed him how to drape the blanket to make a little fort. When I disassembled my example and told him it was his turn, he didn't seem to understand the concept, and after I made it for him again he didn't seem eager to check it out or experiment by crawling inside it like I'd expect most children his age to do. Later after I read him a book, we went back to the beginning and I asked him questions about the illustrations (ie. "What is teddy doing in this picture?") In one illustration, the teddy was reading a book. I asked, "What do you think teddy is reading about?" and I expected some kind of imaginative kid answer. But he had no response at all, even after multiple prompts and a lot of time waiting. Finally when I suggested that teddy might've been looking at pictures in his book, my little guy said, "I want to see inside the book," which indicates to me that he was probably perplexed by the whole use-your-imagination-and-make-something-up nature of my question. He couldn't physically see inside the teddy's book, so he had no answer.

Am I just having unreasonable expectations that he should be using his imagination more than he is? He seems totally dependant on being entertained by whichever adult he is with. What activities can I give to him to encourage independent play, curiosity and creativity? I see all these great ideas for preschoolers on websites but none of them ever pan out because he doesn't respond to/engage with them.

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So What Happened?

Hi mamas, thanks for all your gentle and helpful answers so far! To answer a few of your questions and explain further: yes, he did receive early intervention and attend at least one speech therapy session. He is currently in preschool for a few hours a week and loves it. He is a very social little guy and absolutely thrives around other children, and I've definitely noticed that his behavior changes for the better after he's been playing with kids his age or at least seen something like Sesame Street where children are shown doing daily activities. Unfortunately his parents have strictly limited his exposure to either of those things (at least while he is with me) because they fear it will create attention difficulties or that he'll catch a respiratory illness. They explicitly told me right from the beginning to entertain him. This sort of leaves me in a situation where all I can do is try to come up with appropriate and stimulating activities for him while still meeting his parents' demands and keeping my job. I'm more confused now - should I just let him be if he seems uninterested in playing, or should I continue to present activity/craft/game ideas? Thank you for all your suggestions so far!

More Answers


answers from Grand Forks on

Have you seen him interact with other children? Try taking him to the park when there are other kids playing and see if he will play with the kids. If other kids engage him then maybe you can try setting up play dates for him.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Oklahoma City on

Some kids who are born pre-maturely have developmental delays that end up being a developmental disability. It truly sounds like this little guy may have had some brain damage during his time in his mamma and/or from being born.

He's 4 now so he should have started pre-K this year. Maybe mom and dad didn't think about it? Next year he'll be starting kindergarten and he'll surely show his abilities then. I imagine he'll be on an IEP before he's out of kindergarten.

I'd push the mom and dad to put him in pre-K so they can get him socialized and with kids doing stuff. He may imitate them and thereby learn to do stuff and come right out of this.

He may also have a life long disability.

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answers from Boston on

Sounds like there may be some developmental delays. Poor guy. What do the parents say? What do they do with him on the weekends? If he's 4, he's eligible for early intervention services to evaluate his speech, fine motor and gross motor skills.

Trying to get him to build the fort might be too much, but sitting in it and playing "camping" might be fun. Get some sticks and some orange construction paper, and make a "fire", pretending to warm your hands by it. If he has some toy animals, put them out in "nature" surrounding your tent.

Take him outside in his pedal car, but tie a small length of rope around the front end or the wheel, and tow him down the street and back. If he can't pedal, that's okay, if he can put his feet on them or at least hold them off the ground. If he's got some delays, this might be too much for him.

Get out of the house - he's got limited stimulation in one place. Take a small bucket and go collect rocks or leaves. Glue the leaves to large pieces of construction paper and hang them on the fridge. Wash the rocks off, drain them in a strainer, and when they are dry, paint them. The goal is to get him to touch different textures and surfaces - rocks, leaves, water, a paint brush, etc. Take note of whether he seems to be repulsed by certain sensations or textures, and make notes.

Keep reading the books. Don't worry if he can imagine things right now. Can you take him to other places? Go to the children's library, take out a new book once a week, and see what else they have in the play area. Most libraries have block play or puppets or little costumes. If you can go to a children's museum, which has many exhibits as well as many tactile exhibits, you can expose him to many more things.

Get some CDs and do some singalong - you'll get a sense of whether he has any verbal issues.

If none of these activities generate a change in verbalization or motor skills, it's really time for the parents to get involved. With 3- and 4-year-olds going to preschool, if this little boy has no abilities to socialize, speak or play, there's more going on.

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answers from New York on

He needs to be around other kids. Respiratory illnesses they only worry about the first year. These parents need to realize the big disservice they are doing him.

My husband and I babysit our granddaughter five days. Now she is very happy with us. However, I felt she needs to see people her own size. So I take her to story time which she loves and a little music group that she goes nuts over. Is it absolutely necessary at 15 months, no. Does she love seeing the kids. Absolutely. She smiles and laughs the whole time.

You are great, but he needs more than you at his age. He should be outside socializing with others. Running around, being silly. That is how they learn.

Good luck. I would try to gently persuade them to let him be a four year old boy.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

Welcome to MamaPedia!

Since you nanny for this boy, have you talked to his parents about this? What is their opinion?

To me, it sounds like maybe you should stop trying to "force" him to play. If he enjoys sitting quietly and looking at the world around him, great!! (Many parents would love to have their 4-year-old do more of that.)

Unless his parents are trying to insist that you do these things with him, I'd suggest that you can just relax. Sit and read a book with him by your side, visit a museum where he can see beautiful art, walk though the park...and just take it all in. It's okay to not have a noisy active day of play. It's okay to be quiet and reflective!

1 mom found this helpful
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