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Rainy day playdate

When Teresa Hurwitz's two daughters host a playdate, it's time to start cooking.

"When we have friends over, we usually do a baking party," says Hurwitz, mother of Stephanie, 8, and Allyson, 5.

The girls will often invite playmates to the family's home in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., at the same time, and they'll spend time together baking cookies and cupcakes, and decorating both confections with icing and sprinkles. They also like to make their own candies by melting chocolate and pouring it into molds.

"They love the hands-on experience of baking," Hurwitz said recently. "They love creating and stirring it and watching it in the oven."

With winter here and foul weather in the forecast, soon the day will come when you just can't bear to bundle up one more time to face the cold, let alone to spend time outside with your kids. And if your children are fighting with each other or driving you crazy or saying they're flat-out bored, it's time to call a friend. A playdate can cure the winter blues.

"Kids have playdates all the time, so it's especially good when the weather is bad," says Janet Chan, editor-in-chief of Parenting magazine.

"You'd think it's harder on a mom because now you have another kid," Chan says. "But generally, your kids are better behaved during a playdate and there is less attention on you."

Chan advises parents to loosen the house rules when you're stuck inside.

"What really cheers a kid and a friend up is the prospect of doing the opposite of what they're usually allowed," she says.

Here are are some activities to help steer your kids away from the glow of the computer, television or video game screen and to have some fun with a pal. And just because an activity is in one age group doesn't mean an older or younger sibling can't join in the fun.

BABIES TO AGE 5:

— COLOR IT: The Internet is full of printable coloring pages of your child's favorite characters. If you know your daughter loves Dora, and her playmate is a Diego fan, print out some of each and give your little ones a big box of crayons. Stacks of plain paper and colored construction paper are also good to have on hand.

— SQUISH IT: Make your own play dough. There are many recipes for homemade versions of this mushy compound.

— CUT IT. PASTE IT: Make a collage by turning old household items into original art. Tear out pictures or use old fabric or buttons, and paste them onto paper or cardboard. Give kids specialty magazines (sports, dance) to make a theme collage for their walls.

— SHAKE IT: Turn up the music.

"We do fun games to music, like freeze dance or parachute," says Kimberly August of Garrison, N.Y., mother of 11-month-old Jillian, 3-year-old Colin and 5-year-old Kailyn.

Chan also suggests moving the furniture to the edges of the room and blasting some favorite music to create a disco. For a variation, she says, show your kids your smooth moves (if you still have any) and let them copy you, or call out commands such as "Dance on one foot" or "Act like a chicken."

— WEAR IT: A trunk full of dress-up clothes - or kids' latest Halloween costumes - can be loads of fun. Girls love to get their hands on long, shimmering princess dresses. Add tiaras, wands and shoes (watch the high heels), and your girls can be royals for a day. Pirate and superhero costumes are popular for boys too.

— CELEBRATE IT: Kids love holidays, and with so many in the winter, incorporating them into a craft or baking project should be a hit. Many stores sell edible holiday decorations, and "The Preschooler's Busy Book" by Trish Kuffner has seasonal projects such as making paper-plate snowmen and several ideas for Valentine's Day and other holidays.

AGES 5 TO 8

— CRAFT IT: There are hundreds of craft kits, projects and supplies available in stores. Whether your child likes beads, painting, scrapbooking or drawing, stock your home with the right supplies, and your child with be ready to spend a cold, winter day crafting with a friend.

A craft project is special if it means something to its maker. August's older daughter, 5-year-old Kailyn, likes to string beads. "We make bracelets or bracelets for their dolls and they really seem to like that," August says.

Nicole Corrigan of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., who has a 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, favors inexpensive projects available at craft stores. One is a plastic mug with inserts the kids can decorate or paint themselves. Another is bare wood shapes, such as Christmas ornaments, which usually don't cost more than a dollar or two. They can be colored with crayons, paint and markers.

"I haven't found anybody yet who doesn't want to do that," Corrigan said of arts and crafts. "Kids like to get their hands dirty."

— RUN IT: Chan suggests letting the kids set up an obstacle course using couch cushions and pillows, then adding events in between them, such as riding toys to drive, balls to roll and cardboard boxes or store-bought tunnels to crawl through. Supply a stopwatch and let the races begin.

"If you do it right, it could last the whole morning," she said.

— PLAY IT: Most kids like some type of board game. Younger children can start with easy standbys such as Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, while grade school kids should have fun with Sorry, Twister and Connect Four.

— MAKE IT: Papier-mFachDe. Search the Internet for recipes for this old flour and water favorite. When the paste is ready, tear newspapers into strips, dip in the paste, then form them into a shape. One idea is to cover an inflated balloon with papier-mFachDe, then pop the balloon when it dries (though that can take some time). "There is something almost indescribable about the pleasure of getting your hands in slippery papier-mFachDe goop," says "Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun," a recent book by Bobbi Conner.

— STRETCH IT: Chan suggests making elastic clay, a goopy substance that stretches into shapes, then "melts" back into goo. It also bounces, but can stick to fabric, so be careful near furniture or carpet. "It's almost like a wet Silly Putty," Chan says.

AGES 9 TO 12:

— DYE IT: Let the kids tie-dye their own T-shirts, boxers or socks. Rit, the dye maker, tells you how on its Web site, complete with a supplies list, basic instructions and eight tie-dye patterns.

— BAKE IT: Unlike younger children, who require maximum supervision in the kitchen, these children can follow a recipe with five to eight familiar ingredients and actually do the cooking or baking as long as a parents stays nearby and helps with the oven, Chan says. As an added benefit, tweens can clean up after themselves.

— WATCH IT: For some kids, weekends are the only time for getting together with a friend, and a little sack-out time in front of the tube is in order. Heather Gioia of Montrose, N.Y., said her 12-year-old son is so busy with after-school activities that he hangs out with his buddies on weekends. "They usually sleep over," said Gioia, who also has a younger son. "So we do a pizza and movie night."

Kailyn August, 5, and her brother Colin, 3, play an indoor parachute game at their home in Garrison, N.Y., during a stretch of nasty winter weather. - AP