Being home with toddlers is a constant tug of war battle between wanting to play with them and needing them to play on their own so you can have some sort of mental break. However, it’s not always easy for toddlers to play by themselves since their attention span isn’t very long and they’re still developing their imaginary skills. That’s where busy activities are helpful. Some require little prep work and others may require you to be a bit more hands-on, but you may just find a little more extra time to yourself.
Sensory boxes have been around for a long time and are easy to put together. There’s a whole world on Pinterest if you search sensory bins, sensory bags, or sensory bottles. Some of the ideas out there are a little over the top, but simple is the way to go. The current bin we’re using has rice, dried beans, buttons, and pom poms. My kids use the bowls, pots, cups, and spoons from the play kitchen to practice scooping and pouring. I put the bin on a spill mat and the rule is that anything that ends up off the mat gets swept up later and thrown away. We can get away playing like this for a decent amount of time until my son starts flinging things and he needs to be moved onto something else. We’ve also done water beads with bath toys or ocean creatures. Kinetic sand, toy animals, plastic Easter eggs, and mini construction vehicles are also easy add-ins. I would love to have an Ikea Filsat, but I just use storage bins for holding our current sensory bin. If you don’t have the time to research different bin ideas and put them together, there are sensory bin kits or subscription services you can order.
Dry Erase Board
This seems so simple, but my kids love the dry erase board. We have one on our fridge and a travel lap board which they are allowed to play with. It’s pretty much just scribbles, but hey, whatever keeps them occupied. Our four-year-old has started learning to write her letters and likes writing her name. Something similar we’ve gotten as a gift is a water mat. It comes with water pens, stencils, and a rainbow mat that they can color all over time after time. Again, our oldest could sit forever just coloring the mat or the Melissa & Doug water books.
Art is therapeutic and calming, even as an adult I like to doodle. There are so many fun ways for kids to paint with fruit, vegetables, leaves, and everyday items. 3D painting with puffy paint requires shaving cream, white glue, food coloring, and squirt bottles. Draw a few simple shapes or pictures and have your kids use the squirt bottles of puffy paint to trace your sketch. Create food art with apple stamps or potatoes. Cut them in half vertically and horizontally, apply paint and stamp them on paper or canvas. Potato stamps can be a little more labor intensive because you have to carve designs into the potatoes, but I’ve seen some cute ideas without having to carve them. Baking soda and colored acid is art and science rolled into one. My four-year-old could sit and do this for hours. Fill a container with baking soda and an ice cube tray with colored vinegar or lemon juice. Using pipettes or droppers, squeeze the acid into the baking soda and watch it react while painting a picture. We also did shaving cream art one year and gave the pictures as gifts to family members.
My kids are always asking for ice to eat, but it can also be fun for play. Add it to a sensory box of water and see how long it takes to melt. Freeze water in fun molds and then once unmolded, give your kids some paint to color them. My bother-in-law sent me a TikTok of a mom freezing her kids’ toys in a bowl and then setting it up outside with an Elsa toy on top and told her child that Elsa froze his toys. She then gave her son some paint brushes, water, and toy tools to get the toys out. It kept him busy for at least an hour. This is on my list to try for warmer days — I thought it was genius.
Tissue Paper Art
Do you have lots of tissue paper hiding in your closet? Use it to make sun catchers. Grab some con-tact paper, draw a design on the outside, and let your kids make a mosaic on the sticky side. When they’re done, you can decorate your windows with them. You can also clip a piece of con-tact paper to a clipboard so the sticky side is facing up and then when you’re out for a walk, your child can stick their nature finds on it. Or make another mosaic using leaves and flowers. You can make a huge sun catcher with cardboard and colored cellophane. Cut out a design, cover the holes with cellophane, and then take it outside to make rainbows on the ground.
Some Instagram accounts and websites I follow for fun ideas are Days With Grey, Busy Toddler, 1000 Hours Outside, and Active Littles. The Dad Lab is a fun book of science activities to do at home. Some of the activities are geared toward older kids, but there are a few easy ones to do with toddlers. They also have a Facebook page where they post ideas and videos. I am not great at being prepared to do all these activities with my kids, my sister is better at it, but I try to have at least one thing ready to pull out if needed.