This school year, it has been a challenge to keep Jonathan busy! He is currently 21 months old, and does NOT want to play with toys while we do school. He wants to be right in the middle of the action! Jonathan loves to empty out the pencil sharpener onto the carpet, unload all of the crayons out of the box, scribble on school books, and get on top of the school table. It’s crazy. Lately I’ve been on a quest to find some constructive ways to keep him busy!
Here are 10+ tried and tested ideas for keeping toddlers busy. Keep in mind, though, that no toddler is going to stick with anything for very long! I consider 10-15 min. to be a successful activity.
Also, the first thing that I did to help (somewhat) restore order to our school day was to buy Jonathan a booster seat for the school table. Now he can be at the table with us – but he’s buckled in. 🙂
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1. Straws and an empty water bottle. I gave Jonathan a cup full of straws cut into long segments and an empty water bottle. He knew what to do! He loved dropping the straws through the mouth of the water bottle, and it’s good fine motor practice too.
It was fun to pour the straws out and then load them in again! I had to pick the straws up off the floor a few times, but this kept Jonathan happily engaged for a near record-breaking 15 minutes.
2. Playdough at the high chair. We have an island in our kitchen, and I can do spelling or math with Gresham (7) at the island while Owen (4) plays with playdough and Jonathan does playdough in his high chair. At this age, Jonathan really enjoys the wooden playdough stamps that came with the Melissa & Doug Shape, Model, and Mold set.
3. Connect Four game. Jonathan loves to drop the Connect Four pieces into the game board and listen to the sound they make. He also loves to watch them fall out the bottom when he opens it up.
4. A muffin tin and something to put in it. We did this the other day with math cubes, but Jonathan also really loves to play with pom poms.
5. Board books. Rotate them, or check out new ones from the library. A basket with different books in it each week is fun for toddlers!
6. Velcro blocks. I saw this idea on No Twiddle Twaddle, and I knew we had to try it! I stuck strips of sticky-back velcro to some blocks that rarely get played with at our house, and Jonathan loves sticking them together and listening to the noise they make when he pulls them apart. You don’t need a lot of blocks for this – I did 8.
7. Scooping and pouring with water, spoons, and containers. If the weather is nice, this is great to do outdoors. You can read out loud to older children while the younger ones play!
8. Play with real cooking spoons and plastic bowls. This was a big hit in the toddler class at VBS last summer!
9. Sticky Letters. I bought this large oil change pan at Walmart for playing with magnets, but it’s also fun to use with contact paper (taped down sticky side out). Jonathan can stick on our foam bathtub letters, and then I can work with Owen (4) on letters and letter sounds at the same time – score!
10. Watercolor Painting. Like the playdough, if we do this in the high chair, the mess is limited enough that I can work on another school subject with another child. And Jonathan loves to paint!
11. Playing with dry beans. We have done two fun set-ups with beans: Sound exploration with lima beans, and a homemade open-ended rainstick with mixed beans.
12. Duplo Legos. I can usually count on Duplos to actually hold Jonathan’s attention! He’ll even play with them in the living room by himself while we’re nearby at the school table. Investing in a good basic set of Duplos is definitely worth it if you have kids ages 5 and under!
A good set to start with is the Duplo basic bricks tub (set 5506).
Now, I’m not promising you a totally easy day with your toddler, but it does help to have a few tricks up your sleeve! What ideas can you add? What are your favorite ways to keep toddlers busy?
Sarah Oct 18, 2013
I'm realising that my little one is getting beyond this stage! We used several of these activities-Duplo and water were particularly successful. A wooden train set also worked well and for short lengths of time, wooden lift out tray puzzles. I like the sticky blocks idea.
Anna@The Measured Mom Oct 18, 2013
Thank you for this - our toddler boy is 21 months old too. I'll definitely be using some of these ideas. Hope you're starting to feel better!
Marsha Oct 18, 2013
Loved these fresh ideas! Thanks so much!
Jana Oct 18, 2013
Such awesome ideas for a mom like me who is not creative at all! Thanks so much!
Brenda Oct 18, 2013
Ah...so many of these will have to wait until my little turkey stops popping everything in her mouth! But saving them for later....
Rosa Jul 22, 2014
I was thinking the same thing about my son as I was going through the list. I realized yesterday that he's not eating them or even sampling them for taste. It's his way of experiencing the *tactile* sensation of the items. Now, I'm trying to think of safe and fun ways to take advantage of this bit of knowledge on how he works :-)
Gina Howren Oct 19, 2013
I nanny for a couple of families and I love to have a few different things up my sleeve. I am adding these to my arsenal. Thanks so much for sharing.
Jen O. Jan 6, 2014
I sometimes put fingerpaint in a ziplock bag and tape it to the table. They can make fun designs and not get messy (just have to make sure their fingernails are trimmed!)
Laura x Mar 25, 2014
Am always looking for new way to entertain my son who is almost 2. Am gona give the bottle and straws a try. Id be a little nervous on the conect 4 game as hes always putting things near his mouth, other than that its a great idea and will try once hes a little older. Thanks for the ideas.
Ellen Apr 24, 2014
Brilliant! Thank you so much. My son is only 16 months but I have a 3 week old too so I'm desperate to find activities for him while I feed my newborn. He loved the straws in the bottle game this morning and it kept him busy for almost 20mins! Will try some other things this weekend also. Thanks again!
Michelle Apr 24, 2014
My 21 month old son is obsessed with stickers right now. Kept him busy for almost 35 minutes today. Definitely give it a try!
Jessica Jan 13, 2015
T hank you! We have 5 kids; 3 are 3 years and under. Some days it's impossible to get house work done. Your ideas have bought me close to 10 minutes.
TORA Feb 19, 2016
13 MONTH OLD IS CURRENTLY DOING THE STRAWS IDEA. STOPS TO SUCK THE BOTTLE OCCASIONALLY BUT I'VE NEVER SEEN SUCH CONCENTRATION!! THANKS FOR THE GREAT IDEAS!!
Amanda Jul 26, 2016
A comment and a question.
I bought a small plastic baby pool and several bags of dried beans and peas to use as a "sand box". I pour the beans in the pool and let my 21 month old and 4 year old have spoons, toy shovels, bowls, cars, dinosaurs etc. to play with in the pool. Once they lose interest, we scoop the beans into a big bucket that has a lid and put all the tools away. We have the rule that the beans must stay in the pool. When beans start making their way out, that is an indication it's time to put them away.
How do you keep your little guy from eating the play-doh or putting the checkers on his mouth?
Sarah Aug 1, 2016
I think that play dough or toys in the mouth is more of a developmental thing. If they can't stop putting in their mouths after a few reminders, then they are too young for the activity. Each of mine has lost the desire to put everything in their mouth, but at slightly different ages! The child in the photos was not one who really did a lot of mouthing toys. Now my third child was another story... :-)
Elizabeth Mason Mar 24, 2020
Thanks for the great ideas! I adapted the straw idea and used a clean parmesan cheese container. My son (17 months) LOVED putting the straws through the holes in the lid and then dumping them back out through the large hole!!! This kept him occupied for 20 min and then he wanted to play again this afternoon!!! Yay!!!
Karin Glass Apr 4, 2020
Thanks so much. Great ideas. We are still using them all these years later so thank you.
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