I am a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother of an 18-month-old boy and I have a hard time thinking of things to fill our day.

I feel guilty for dragging him on errands to the mall and other places when we should be at home spending time together and doing things that he enjoys.

Can you suggest activities that are both fun and educational, indoors and outdoors?

Consider the consequences before you immerse yourself and your son in fun and games from breakfast to bedtime.

If you entertain your child all day it will spoil him silly; it will take away his initiative and it will make him think that the world really does revolve around him.

There must be a balance between his needs, your needs and the family's needs. You may think he wants you as his personal entertainment center but he really wants and needs you to be his own amazing mother. No one is more entertaining or educational than you are, no matter what you're doing with him. Even a trip to the mall is fun, as long as you have a purpose and you talk to him about it.

The difference between advantaged children and disadvantaged children is not in the money their parents have or the toys or the teachers they get, but in the time their parents and their caregivers take to talk to them and the way they do it.

When your son was 3 months old, you undoubtedly touched his nose and said, "Nose!" and stroked his hand on the cat's back and said "kitty," because you knew that he was taking in information long before he could repeat it.

Today your little boy needs you to tell him what you're doing and why and where you're taking him, because it's instructive, it's respectful and it makes him feel like he's part of the team.

Just don't drown him with attention.

One big activity with you, like baking a cake, and one nice walk to the playground a day is plenty at 18 months and maybe a Mommy and Me class once a week, so he -- and you -- can be with your own kind.

No matter what you do together, be patient with your son, so he will have time to absorb all the information he gets.

When you take that walk, only go half as far as you intended and expect it to last twice as long. He needs time to smell the zinnias and the petunias as well as the roses and when he's in the kitchen, he needs time to smell the cinnamon, the ginger and the sage, too. The more distinctions a child can make, about anything, the more knowledgeable he will be.

He also needs the kind of classic toys that will stretch his skill and his imagination, like blocks, balls, dolls, dress-ups, chalk and play dough. He'll get bored with them in 10-15 minutes -- as he does with everything -- but he will return to them again and again because a child uses these activities to test himself.

Your son won't enjoy these or any toys much, however, unless he's given the right to work with them on his own. If you make the snakes and ducks out of play dough for him, he will ask you to make more and more of them, but he won't try to make anything himself. It's much better to introduce a new activity or read a book to him when you have time or when he's about to get cranky, and then wander away and let him be. That's the way a child learns to entertain himself.

To encourage inventive, independent outdoor activities, put a pan of water and some tin measuring cups on a table in the yard, so he can pour the water back and forth. It's every young child's favorite game. Or fill a squirt bottle with soapy water, so he can spray the plants to keep the bugs away or give him a small tin can of water and a brush to paint the fence.

To pick up more ideas, check out those fine activity books by Nancy Blakey, "Lotions, Potions, and Slime: Mudpies and More!" -- which has a great, glittery play dough recipe -- and "More Mudpies," $8.95 each and published by Tricycle Press. They will fill your days with activities and gladness, too.

Questions may be sent to margukelly@aol.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.