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I’ve had to get creative finding ways to keep my older kids active indoors and engaged instead of bored. But toddlers are a whole other ball game!
Toddlers are at an interesting place developmentally. It’s a time of incredible growth with so many firsts: saying first words and then whole sentences, potty training, and so much more. They are big enough to no longer be happy in a gated area or playpen but they’re not big enough to be able to roam free either.
Whether you’re homeschooling, making dinner, or just need a few minutes to yourself, finding safe activities that will keep your toddler engaged is a must. These easy activities will (hopefully!) help you keep your toddler busy without resorting to a screen.
How to Keep Toddlers Busy
A few minutes to ourselves is nice, but directing a toddler’s limitless energy has benefits for them as well. These tips will help you encourage your toddler to be a little more independent which can help you have a few minutes for older children or activities you need to do on your own:
- Encourage them to be self-directed – The more we trust our kids to be able to play on their own the more they will be able to. Try to avoid turning on the TV and instead remind your child that you’re working on something and you will be with them in a few minutes.
- Include them in what you’re doing when possible – If you’re making dinner, find something your toddler can help you with like rinsing fruit. They will feel included and you’re also building skills for the future (and they might eat some veggies too!).
- Show them what they can have – Dedicate one drawer, cupboard, or cubby just for them. Fill various (safe) objects you already have around the house. Change out the contents once a week to keep things interesting. This post on setting up a Montessori-inspired area at home also has some (simple) ideas.
Easy Toddler Activities to Try
Here are some of my favorite activities for busy toddlers that don’t involve screens or a lot of extra toys (although a few well-chosen toys are worth their weight in gold!). Many of these activities don’t require many supplies, so they’re perfect last-minute and use materials you probably already have.
This activity is incredibly simple but I’m always surprised how long a toddler can be occupied with it. Get a bucket, dishpan, or any vessel that you can fill with water. Place a towel on the floor and the bucket filled with water on top. Add some natural bubble bath, small toys, water toys, or whatever you have available. You could even add measuring cups or scoops (if you don’t think your toddler will dump it on the floor)! If you are worried about water getting on the floor, put down a tarp first. You could also do this activity outside if the weather is nice.
Hole Punchers, Safety Scissors, and Other “Tools”
Kids love being able to use tools that they see adults using. Depending on your toddler’s age and ability, some of these tools could be a fun way to spend 20 minutes. Grab a stack of construction paper and a hole punch or safety scissors and let your toddler make you some confetti.
Tweezers and tongs are other tools that are fun for toddlers. Standard medical tweezers aren’t going to be easy enough for your toddler to use so I recommend toddler tweezers. Gather some small toys or items for your child to pick up with the tongs or tweezers. Some ideas include beads, small stones, pieces of plastic drinking straws, and dried beans.
Kids of all ages love digging. For toddlers, you can fill a bowl or shallow pan with rice, dried beans, or even play sand. Rice or play sand may be best for toddlers who love to put things in their mouth.
Bury a few toys in the bowl for your toddler to discover. Give your child a paintbrush and a plastic spoon to use to “excavate” the toys they find. Here are some ideas for fun things to bury in your discovery bowl:
- Small wooden toys or blocks
- Cotton balls
- Dinosaur bones (made from baked playdough)
- Matchbox cars
For slightly older children you can bury puzzle pieces. Then your child can find all the puzzle pieces and put them together.
Tip: Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to make this activity a soothing and relaxing one!
I Spy Bottles
Fill an empty plastic bottle about half full with rice. Add fun extras like glitter, sequins, beads, shiny objects, and small toys. Hot glue the top on and let your toddler explore. The best part of this toy is that your toddler can’t spill it!
Build a Balance Beam
Anything that’s more than a half inch off the ground can be a balance beam to a toddler. A 2 x 4 wood board works really well, but be creative and use what you have available.
This is best as an outside activity but can be used inside as well. If you do this activity inside, your balance beam may need to be shorter than what you can use outside. It should work fine though and your child will love it. Your toddler can spend time learning to balance moving from one end of the balance beam to the other.
Homemade playdough is so easy to make and kids love it. Use this recipe for regular playdough dyed with natural food-based dyes. Or use this recipe if your kids can’t come in contact with gluten. This playdough will last a long time if you make it ahead as well.
When you’re ready to set up the activity, put the playdough on the table and give your toddler some of your cookie cutters and other safe kitchen tools to use.
Sometimes I would make a simple food-based “finger paint” with Greek yogurt and a little natural food dye. Bonus: Play food that they can actually eat for lunch!
I know, a surprising suggestion from someone who has tried to rid her house of plastic, but it’s all about making the best of what you have and bubble wrap comes in the mail whether I want it to or not! Instead of throwing it out, I’ve saved it for a rainy indoor day and taped it to the floor so the kids can jump on/pop the bubbles. It’s a fun surprise that can turn a day around for a bored toddler, and this is one time I let them wear their shoes in the house so there’s no plastic contact.
Party Balloon Volleyball
I’m always surprised by how enthralling a mylar balloon can be for a toddler. We are sometimes gifted these from an event or party and my youngest would pull them around the house and play with them for days. Even balloons that are not filled with helium can be a lot of fun for toddlers (as long as they don’t start biting them!). (Obviously, please use this and all of these activities with parental supervision.)
Another thing that’s worked well and helps kids expend some energy is creating an obstacle course outside or indoors. You can make one outside from old tires, or create one indoor with soft things like pillows, blankets, cushions, etc. on the floor. We have and love this Ninja Line in our backyard that serves this purpose, but the advantage of a homemade course is you (or older kids) can change it often and keep it interesting and new. This post has some great ideas on how to get kids excited about an obstacle course challenge (and toddlers will watch and want to do the same!).
When you’re stuck inside and your toddler (or older kids) are getting antsy, put together this easy indoor basketball game. The best part is it won’t make (much) of a mess and won’t break anything. Crumple up newspaper into balls and have your toddler try to get the balls into a bucket or trash can. Have your child count how many got into the basket and how many landed on the floor. (Older siblings tend to want to get in on the action too!)
Let Me Know: Did These Toddler Activities Work?
These are some creative toddler activities I’ve used in moments of creativity (and desperation), but let’s face it… keeping a 1 or 2 year old entertained is a tall order.
In the end, the hope is not only to keep them busy and out of trouble, but that activities like these will set the the foundation for an active childhood as they get older, too. (Preferably with lots of time outside!)
Here’s to happy exploring for our kids as they grow, and a few minutes of peace and quiet for mom!
Please help me add to this list of ideas! What sanity-savers do you have to share? Let me know in the comments!