Having three children aged almost 7, 5 and 16 months, I find there are now significant times when the play in our household includes all three girls in one game (such as the game of babies & mummies they are playing as I write, with their combined 10 baby dolls in the loungeroom).
In these games each girl will adapt the play to their own level of understanding - right now, the eldest child is narrating a complicated story about the birth, development and history of each "baby", while the 5-year-old busies herself changing nappies and singing lullabies, and the 16-month-old is rocking and "breastfeeding" her baby doll with little murmurs every now and then. Their play is integrated rather than parallel - they are talking to each other, building the game together, layering extra elements. This is often, if not usually, the case with their imaginative play.
However, as well as combined play, there are times when the kids pair off for play. As you might expect, this is often a matter of the two big girls wanting to do something that is not age-appropriate or possible for the toddler to do with them, although there are also times when the eldest takes herself off to bed with a book and the younger two play together.
This week, being a wet and icy cold one, the older girls have been asking to get out their paints quite a lot, which has posed a question of what the little girl can do while they create their masterpieces. 16-month-old C isn't a good risk with paint at the moment - while I have done fingerpainting with her (and she's loved it), she has a tendency to try to eat the colours and the older kids find painting with her frustrating, as they are at the stage where they are trying to create pictures / representational art rather than playing with colour.
The answer for C was fairly simple and easily found. C loves water, she loves to splash and play and explore it, and she loves to pretend to clean things. One sink with cool water, plastic crockery and a dish brush later, and she is happy as a clam!
So what we have been doing is using paint time as a transitional activity several times this week, marking the end of post-school wind-down and preceding the big girls' preparation for dinner. This transition is usually marked for us with outside play - the girls often go out and bounce on the trampoline, dig in the sandpit, or just ride bikes for the half-hour before dinner. This week has just been too cold for that, so instead I've set them up at the table with paints and brushes, then retired to the kitchen with C, got her established with the dishes, and then used the 20-30 minutes that follows to cook the dinner.
Colour and water have been our winter salvations this week!