My husband suggested that we go bag-free and see if that helped. But I knew that wasn't practical. I still needed to bring diapers and tissues, and a couple necessities. But he was on to something. We needed to train the girls to be happy with less entertainment.
So I made a small tote bag (about the size of a coloring book), and told Leah it was our special strawberry church bag. And we seriously simplified what we brought to church. It took a couple of weeks of child-torture, but after awhile they adjusted to having less. And they were more quiet and more behaved. For the most part.
So these are some suggestions for what to put in a simple quiet bag. I would suggest bringing 2-3 of these items per week. And maybe a book or two.
2 Color Water Timer - these are mesmerizing, even for adults. My mom still keeps a keychain sized version of this and passes it to fussy babies in church.
Melissa and Doug Water Wow Coloring Book - these books are an awesome non-messy option for little ones who want to color. The marker just uses water, and when the pages dry, the colors disappear, ready for next time! Melissa and Doug make a few different kinds of these, some educational, some for girls and some for boys.
Lacing Cards - Eeboo makes beautiful lacing cards in lots of different themes. Even if little ones aren't coordinated enough to lace them up, they'll certainly enjoy un-lacing them!
Neon Dot Stckers (garage sale dots) - toddlers love stickers, and these are a cheap option, perfect for chubby fingers! You can also draw a quick bunch of circles on a piece of paper for them to practice placing the stickers inside.
Magnetic Tin Scene - my kids love these magnetic tins. We have the house one and the transportation one. They love to put all the magnets on and then take them off again.
Tangle Jr - did you ever play with one of these in a museum gift shop?! Perfect little fidget toy for older kids who are learning to listen, but need to keep their hands busy.
Imagine Ink coloring pad - another awesome no-mess coloring idea. These books come in lots of different characters, and the colors are bright and fun. This is my favorite brand by far!
Crayola Pip Squeaks (skinnies) - these little markers are perfect for throwing in a little zip bag. They take up less room than full sized markers. And, of course, they're washable. Perfect!
Magic Loops - another gift shop fidget toy find! These twist into lots of fun shapes.
Magnetic Storybook - these are another great magnet toy/book option! This brand has a few different themes as well, and the little case up top is perfect for holding all the pieces
Steno Notepad - this is our favorite size notebook for church.
Occasionally we throw in a sticker book or coloring book as well. I've wanted to make some of those laminated file folder games, but haven't gotten around to it yet.
Anything I missed? And I know, there are probably lots of opinions out there, as far as what is "church appropriate" and what is not, and that's totally fine. I've seen families that let their kids bring matchbox cars and Ninja Turtles, and other families only allow one pencil and a small notebook for drawing. To each his own! At the end of the day, we're all just trying to keep our kids quiet at church so we can maybe listen a bit!