- Mini ice cube trays, which you can order here if you can't find them in a local store. (You can use regular ice cube trays, but they're more limited and so kids tire of the activity faster.)
- A few yogurt containers or something similar
- An eyedropper or, even better, a pipette like the one in the photo above (we buy ours at Holcombs, a teacher supply store, but they sometimes come with packaged craft or science kits too.)
- Food coloring
- Soothing music
- A cup of tea and book for mom
Partially fill the cubes with water and provide two (or more) yogurt cups with water and food coloring mixtues, plus one with just water . (The reason to stick with two colors for younger kids is that otherwise pretty soon all you have is lots of shades of brown.) Show the kid how to operate the eyedropper. ("Hold it and squeeze out all the air. Keep squeezing, dip it in the water, and let go so it will suck up lots of water. Then hold it over the cubes and squeeze out little drops. Isn't that cool?")
Demonstrate how adding a little of each color or a little extra water to a color makes things change! They can suck up colored water from the little squares as well as from the yogurt cups and just kind of move things around. Encourage them to experiment with different approaches, like starting with a strong color at the beginning of a row, and diluting it a little more and a little more all the way down.
Then put on the quiet music and relax with your tea and book. You could easily have 45 minutes of peace. I'm not kidding.
This really does make an excellent gift for 2 to 5 year olds (just be sure to include instructions or the kid's parent will question your sanity). And I guarantee NO ONE else will give the kid the same thing.
I have lots more ideas like this in my first parenting book, FussBusters at Home, in case you're desperate for ways to keep your kids occupied so you can wrap and bake without "help."