I am on my eighth toddler. We are still clinging to calling her a baby but she is 23 months so... I guess she is a toddler by now. With eight children one would think I have a handle on toddlers. I don't. Keeping toddlers safe and happy while mom schools or cooks is always a challenge, even with older children to help. But I have a few techniques that work with some of the toddlers some of the time.
During school time at the table we give the toddlers their own supply of paper, workbook pages and pencils or crayons. When that wears thin, I may pull out pipe cleaners (quiet, no mess), a puzzle (that never lasts long but seems so schoolish), counters, shape sorters, small blocks, linking cubes etc. In desperation I may produce the playdough but that distracts the other children, so I try to look at it as a good character building opportunity for them. :) Our toddlers also enjoy re-arranging our silverware basket though that can get noisy. If I remember to set it up, they enjoy Montessori type activities. A favorite has always been moving cotton balls from one bin to the other using small kitchen tongs. Moving anything with the tongs is fun!
We do try to teach our toddlers safety on stairs as early as possible. They want to go up and down the basement stairs to be with the other children in the playroom. This is only safe if they are not mouthers since there are Legos everywhere.
All moms know the dinner hour is the worst. The babies and toddlers just want mom and everyone else just wants a good dinner. I used a playpen for these situations; when mom has to get something done and the little one has to be kept safe. However, mine seem to climb out pretty darn early. I never thought I would blanket train but it has worked beautifully with Lydia. I suspect it is her temperament more than the effectiveness of my blanket training skills.
When the playpen was no longer safe for her, maybe at about 13 months? I decided to give blanket training a try. We spread out a toddler quilt, gave her just a couple of toys and kept gently putting her back on when she moved off. We also gave her verbal instruction. We were consistent, gentle and patient in returning her to the blanket. I think it only took a few sessions for her to stay put on the blanket. We kept it all a very happy thing.
While I am finishing up dinner prep and getting it on the table, usually with my kitchen helper, Lydia sits on her blanket in the kitchen with a book or toy. That way she can be near me which is what she wants. We are flying with hot food and naturally we do not want her to be hurt nor do we want the table settings disturbed. She has learned to sit there till everyone else is seated and we instruct her to get up and come to the table. During her blanket time she is near us and not unhappy at all.
Toddlers want to help. They are no help at all but letting them 'help' you with your work when it's possible makes them so happy. You are laying the groundwork for their future chore training and building delightful memories together. Mine help move the laundry from the washer to dryer, wipe the table (or anything else for that matter), wash windows, stir the batter...
One other thing about toddlers, especially in a large family. They are in a hurry to be big kids but still have plenty of baby left in them. Even my most rowdy, bent-on-being-a-big-boy toddlers still need a lot of cuddle time with mom and dad. They snuggle in bed with us half way through the night, cannot function till they have early morning mom time in the rocking chair and need us nearby for frequent check-ins.
The added bonus with toddlers in a large family is that keeping them safe and happy becomes a whole family project!