Wednesday, June 12, 2013

40 Screen-Free Activities for Toddlers

The summer weather has officially arrived here in the Inland Northwest, and it is glorious.  Nothing makes one appreciate a dry climate like five years of DC summers.  Warm days, cool nights, children roaming free without fear of heat stroke or mosquitoes: just perfect. In the spirit of the season, and as a follow-up to my Screen-Free Week post a few weeks ago, I wanted to share a list I've been making of fun activities for toddlers that don't involve turning on the TV or sticking them in front of an iPad app.

Toddlers present a special case for parents committed to a screen-light lifestyle... while some might entertain themselves, many toddlers still need constant supervision, redirection, and structure to keep them busy and (mostly) uninjured all day.  I don't know about you, but I often need some creative ideas to keep the day moving and avoid the "just play with your toys, already!" directives (that somehow never work).  These ideas have the bonus of being free or inexpensive, for the most part.  Feel free to add your own favorite ideas in the comments!

Disclaimer: Some of the activities I recommend (such as stickers or trains) will be labeled for 3 years and up, but we have used them from 18 months or so with no problems. Use your own judgment and knowledge of your child's development to decide which activities will be fun and safe. And supervise your child. Duh.

  1. Ride bikes, trikes, or scooters.  If you don't have one, check Craigslist or ask around to friends with older kids who might be trying to get rid of an outgrown model.
  2. Help with gardening.  My almost-2 1/2-year-old can move dirt, water flowers, and sort of pull weeds.
  3. Pretend play. Pretend to be farm animals, complete with sound effects.
  4. Make your own play dough and play with it using cookie cutters, toothpicks, and chopsticks.
  5. Play with dry beans in containers, or make pictures using glue sticks and beans.
  6. Pasta necklaces - a classic.
  7. Make your own shapes box by cutting shapes out of a shoe box and making or finding objects that fit through the holes.
  8. Make a play oven out of a medium-sized moving box. If you have some old pots and pans or utensils lying around, let your toddler keep them in his own "kitchen."
  9. Stickers. We have gotten hours of entertainment out of just stickers and paper.
  10. Finger or brush paints. For an older toddler, I think brushes make less of a mess than finger paints.
  11. Wooden train sets - check Craigslist for parents getting rid of whole sets, rather than buying the pieces one at a time.
  12. Or make your own train by tying shoe boxes together.  Your child's stuffed animals can ride in the "cars."
  13. Make blocks out of square tissue boxes or milk cartons. Big blocks make for a big (and relatively quiet) tumble when knocked down!
  14. Make a playhouse from larger appliance boxes.
  15. Design a maze or tunnel out of large cardboard boxes for your child to crawl through.
  16. Make a car, airplane, or boat out of a cardboard box for your child to sit in.
  17. Decorate any of your cardboard box creations with stickers!
  18. Glue fuzzy balls or small pieces of paper to a larger piece of paper to make a collage.  It won't look like much at this age, but your toddler will enjoy it.
  19. Sing songs together.  
  20. Go to the library!  Many libraries have baby or toddler story time. 
  21. Read library books together. The wonderful thing about library books for toddlers is that the 3- or 4-week checkout window is just perfect for a toddler's attention span. By the time your child is growing tired of the same books, it's time to take them back anyway! Our local library has book bags available with a theme (family, colors, food, animals...) for toddlers and preschoolers that make it easy to run in and out with an active child and still get some good books.
  22. Help with baking. Toddlers can pour measured ingredients, stir batter (with help), and put utensils in the sink.
  23. Finger knitting. I confess I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds fun.
  24. Playing with a ball of yarn (with supervision, of course).
  25. Dirt. We had three cubic yards of dirt delivered for our flower beds and garden (pictured above). Never have you seen a happier boy.
  26. Mud. This is advanced dirt.
  27. Water. In cups, in tubs, in tubes. Make a "water wall" with containers designed to overflow into each other. Water.
  28. Make a simple matching game with stickers, stamps, or your own drawings on poster board cards.
  29. Teach your child to stitch using a blunt needle, yarn, and plastic mesh.
  30. Play instruments. You can play the piano or guitar, or your child can play a harmonica, kazoo, recorder, or drums (at your own risk).
  31. Plant a garden together outside or potted herbs inside (from seeds, so you can watch them grow together).
  32. Sprout beans in a jar.
  33. Make clothespin dolls (old-fashioned clothespins without metal springs work best).
  34. Puzzles - make your own, or find on Craigslist or at garage sales.
  35. Attach chopsticks together with a rubber band and rolled-up chopstick wrapper, and use them to pick up small objects and put them in a box.
  36. Sidewalk chalk.
  37. Tear up paper that needs to be recycled anyway - catalogs, newspapers, magazines, and junk mail.
  38. Take a short walk with your toddler on foot. You can take the opportunity to teach some pedestrian safety, and she will find lots to entertain her along the way!
  39. Build a fort from furniture and blankets. 
  40. Play with your child! Often when I feel frustrated that my toddler isn't playing with his toys, I realize I've been trying to dictate his play from across the room, rather than getting down and actually playing with him. Sometimes all I have to do is to sit down on the floor with my own book or knitting, and this is enough to make him comfortable that he isn't missing out on any fun grown-up stuff up there.

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