The toddler stage is a fun, exciting — often tiring — time in parenthood. These little people are discovering their identity and asserting their independence. They are learning at an astonishing pace, and have enough energy to power a large metropolitan area. I love watching my little ones (ages 3 and 1) become more aware of the world around them; but it can certainly be exhausting to get through a day.
Here are 10 simple ideas to keep your toddler busy playing — and learning!
1. Hunt for things
I don’t know why, but toddlers get a ridiculous amount of enjoyment from finding things. Last spring, in an effort to encourage my 3-year-old to get some exercise, we started going on scavenger hunts. We continued doing them all summer long, and now that the weather is warming up, we’re at it again. It’s one of his favorite things to do. I love that it gets us outside in the sunshine, and we both get some exercise — and I can even sneak in some academic learning by doing hunts that focus around letters, numbers, shapes or colors. There are tons of great ideas online for scavenger hunting with little ones. Here are some of my favorites. In the winter, we keep hunting indoors by going on treasure hunts. Similar to an Easter egg hunt, we take turns hiding plastic treasure coins (from the dollar store), and then finding them. My favorite thing about this game is that while my toddler is taking his turn to hide the treasure, I can snag a few minutes of rest and close my eyes “so I can’t see” where he’s hiding things.
2. Cook together
Both of my boys have loved to cook from a young age. At 18 months, my older son was standing on a kitchen chair with me stirring muffin batter and even helping sauté vegetables. I’ve found that if I take some time to teach them about kitchen safety in simple terms (“This is the oven. It’s hot. Don’t touch.”), and then closely supervise what they are doing, my boys are careful and safe. I’ve also found that they get excited to eat things they have helped cook. And for the littlest helpers, there are lots of things you can make that require no cooking at all. These No Bake Granola Bites are one of our favorite snacks, and they are a perfect “cooking” project for little ones.
3. Paint with water
Water is cheap, and my kids seem to get limitless enjoyment from playing with it. When I was a little girl, my mom used to give me a bucket of water and a paintbrush, and tell me to go paint the back patio. I loved making shapes with my brushstrokes and then watching the sun dry and “erase” my artwork. It was an endless canvas. I’ve done this with my own boys, too, and it’s been a huge success. Younger toddlers may just dump out the water, but it’s still fun for them to stomp in it, make wet footprints and brush around the puddle of water. It’s cheap fun for all. For other water play ideas, try playing sink or float and doing toy car washes.
4. Make an obstacle course
Gather items from around the house, or just use the furniture where it is, and make an obstacle course for your child. Demonstrate what you want your child to do (for example, crawl under the kitchen table, go around the couch, hop on the pillows, walk across the blanket “bridge,” and tag the door to finish). You can make it as complex or as simple as you want. My 3-year-old is old enough now that he likes to help decide the route the course will take. He also thinks it’s really fun to make up obstacle courses for his stuffed animals or cars using toys as the obstacles. We’ve even done this at the playground with the play equipment. So fun!
5. Play with cloud dough
This one is messy, but it’s worth it. Cloud dough is super simple to make (get the two-ingredient recipe here), and it’s taste-safe for even the littlest toddlers. It always occupies my kiddos for at least 20-30 minutes (even my 20-month-old). My boys especially love it when I let them dig in the dough with their mini construction trucks or with their dinosaurs. Other good toys for cloud dough are spoons, cups, cookie cutters and Popsicle sticks. And even though it makes a mess, it actually sweeps up really fast, and then I throw the boys in the tub — which means we have another 20 minutes of a fun activity, because they love bath time!
6. Blow up a balloon
There are so many fun things to do with balloons. Toddlers are fascinated by the way balloons get bigger and bigger and how they float around. Start by blowing up a balloon and letting it go. Your little one will squeal with delight as the balloon whizzes around the room. This activity alone can keep my little ones’ attention for several minutes. But, once your lungs need a rest from all the blowing, tie off the balloon and play some more. You can have competitions to see who can keep it in the air the longest, who can bounce it across a room, make a balloon rocket, or any number of games. For more balloon play ideas, click
7. Make a poof pad
This is another one from my childhood that my kids love. We usually did it when my mom and dad weren’t home (shhh…), and maybe that’s why I love doing it with my kids so much — I feel like a cool mom or something. Simply pile up all the blankets and pillows you can find, then run and jump on top of the pile, over and over again. It’s like playing in a pile of leaves, but indoors.
8. Build a fort
It’s a classic, but it needs to be included. Make your fort as elaborate as you want, but I often just throw a big blanket or sheet over our dining table and let the boys climb underneath. We gather books to read, and I give them flashlights. Sometimes they play by themselves, and sometimes I climb under with them and read stories to them. It’s a great rainy day activity.
9. Have a dance party
When I’m in a mom funk, my go-to activity is a dance party. Turning on music and moving helps me enjoy being with my kids, especially in the late afternoon when I really just want to flop on the couch with a book and read. Sometimes we’ll play freeze dance. Sometimes we wear “costumes.” Sometimes, we use our homemade shakers (put some rice or beans inside your leftover plastic Easter eggs and tape them shut … don’t forget the tape). A few weeks ago, I turned on some Riverdance on YouTube and the boys and I attempted Irish clogging. It was hilarious, and it ended up creating some quality memories with my little guys.
10. Practice sorting with tongs
My boys regularly raid my cooking utensil drawer, and 90 percent of the time, they go for the tongs. Why they are so fascinating, I don’t know; but I can give them tongs and a pile of something to pick up, sort or transfer, and they are happy campers. Obviously, you need to keep in mind your child’s age, and what he or she may try to swallow, but there are lots of ways to play with tongs. For young toddlers, use Cheerios or some other small snack food so you don’t have to worry about choking. For older toddlers, you can use glass pebbles, pom poms, blocks, ping pong balls, etc. Have your child transfer items from one plastic bin to another, or for more of a challenge, invite your child to sort pom poms by color, or blocks by shape.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Smarter Parenting. It has been republished here with permission.