NOW that big brother or sister is back in school, you might have to perk up your lonely preschooler with a special activity. Keeping him busy and contented will be easy if you turn some of the following ideas into ``just you and me'' moments: Visit the animals. If you live near a farm, ask if you can take a short tour for a small fee (some cities and towns have special farms for children). Watch the chickens, pat the sheep and goats. You can scout out a stream or pond, too. There's sure to be a family of ducks swimming around. Let your youngster feed them the bread crusts you've been storing in the freezer. This is a fascinating way to introduce children to wildlife and nature and also provides time for leisurely conversation.
You also might decide to install a backyard bird feeder so the family can watch its feathered friends all winter. (But don't start feeding until late fall. You don't want to entice migrators to stay around when they should be flying south.)
Visit the library. It's fun to select new books for cozy reading sessions at home, but today's libraries also have other resources for children. Some lend puzzles, board games, and educational toys; many offer a play corner or stock filmstrips suitable for preschooler viewing. Introducing young children to the library helps them feel ``at home'' there throughout their lives.
Turn everyday items into ``projects.'' When one family replaced worn, roll-up window shades with new ones, Mom and the children drew ``cities'' on the old shades, including roads, houses, trees, and shopping centers. The maps were perfect to use with toy cars and could be rolled up when playtime was over. Another parent sharpened all her three-year-old's old crayons and sprinkled the shavings onto waxed paper. Her daughter laid a second sheet of paper over the first and, with Mom's help, ironed the piec es together. Framed with construction paper, the artwork was displayed proudly.
Every house yields plenty of potential ``treasures.'' Look around and discover what projects you and your preschooler can develop and enjoy.
Permit some water play. On warm rainy days, provided there is no thunder or lightning, put on your rainwear and splash through puddles. Or stand your child at the sink while you work in the kitchen. Give him funnels, eggbeaters, plastic measuring cups, and sponges to ``experiment'' with. (A caution here -- don't fill the sink full!) A few drops of food coloring in the water give a new twist to this activity. Water play can also include a filled bucket and brush to ``paint'' the house or sidewalk. Overlo ok the mess -- preschoolers can be happy for hours with small amounts of water.
Dig a hole. When my sons were small, they once spent days attempting to dig a hole to China in the backyard. Each night they came in grubby and exhausted, yet thrilled with the chance to be engaged in a serious construction project. Even more exciting was the hill of dirt created by the excavating -- big enough to climb, roll down, or load into dump trucks. Start a hole for your child, and watch how much fun he has with it. (And dig a bit yourself.)
Change the mealtime scenario. Serving sandwiches and lemonade on a sheet in the living room can perk up a flagging appetite, but there's more than one way to ``eat out.'' Consider barbecuing dinner at a nearby park -- even if it's chilly, children can play on swings and slides while waiting for the hot dogs to grill. Take a thermos of cocoa and some fruit to a place with a view, and watch the sun come up (my preschoolers loved to arise in the dark, drive to the lakefront, and eat break fast as the sky lightened). Bring a sack lunch along on a round-trip ride on a commuter train. Meals served in an unusual way turn any ordinary event into an adventure.
Share special time with your pre-schooler every day. He'll bask in your undivided attention and he'll learn even more about the world around him.