This past week, I worked in the one year old class at my church’s Vacation Bible School. Well, at least I did for three days until my youngest two sons came down with colds! (What’s up with colds in the summer?) VBS runs from 9:00-12:30 each morning, and the toddler class is only open to kids whose parents are volunteering at VBS, which means that they are dropped off around 8:30 a.m. when their parents head to their stations. That’s a long morning for a toddler!

Group play activities for toddlers

I knew that we were going to need some tricks up our sleeve to survive this week! The kids in our class were 16 – 20 months old, so still young enough to be putting things in their mouths.

Here’s what we did to keep ourselves busy (and happy!):

Walks outside. Being in the same room for 4 hours straight can make toddlers (and teachers!) cranky. We were able to borrow enough double strollers to take all of the children on a walk each day. There were 7 toddlers and 4 workers, so we were able to pull off a walk with three double strollers and one single stroller.

Treasure bag. My sister-in-law posted on her blog an awesome idea for keeping her little girl busy while she gets a few things done. She has a special bag that she fills with items for her daughter to “discover” at a time that she needs her to be occupied for a few minutes. Genius! The key to toddler happiness is new things to explore! I found a large bag, and filled it with different items each day.

Ideas for a treasure bag:

  • Cooking spoons. On the first day, I filled the bag with real cooking spoons, and we used some large plastic bowls from the church kitchen to go with them. The toddlers were soon busy pretending to stir, pretending to eat off the spoons, wearing the bowls as hats (and then peeking at each other under the bowls – it was adorable), and sitting in the bowls. Who knew spoons and bowls could be so much fun?
  • Plastic animals. I brought several animals from our collection at home, and the toddlers loved them! Everyone stuck them in their mouths, of course, but they were easy to wash up with a little soap and water.

Group play activities for toddlers

  • Flashlights. These are fun because they fall into the category of “things one year olds are not usually allowed to have.” Our toddlers did not like it when we turned the lights off to play with the flashlights, but they liked them with the lights on! We used really little ones, and they kept putting them in their mouths. Not sure if bigger flashlights would discourage this at all.
  • Musical instruments. We were able to borrow rhythm sticks, jingle bells, and shakers from the children’s Sunday School supply closet. Everyone loved them!

Music. Having music around can lift everyone’s mood. We had CD’s to play, and the children also had a singing time each day (well, more of a listening time – but they’re learning the words in their hearts!). I also brought my guitar. I am not a super great guitar player, but when I pulled out the instrument, they all immediately gathered around me! They loved the sound, and got to try strumming it themselves while I held it.

Water Play. We played outside with water, and the toddlers literally squealed when they saw it! I used two narrow under-the-bed tubs with just a couple inches of water in the bottom. No one felt like these boxes were a pool, which was good, and the only one who fell in was my son!

Group play activities for toddlers

I set out sponges and containers for scooping, and let the kids discover what to do with them. So much concentration going on here! Toddlers love to discover!

Group play activities for toddlers

I used a nail to punch holes in the bottom of two plastic cups, and they enjoyed watching the water drip out.

Group play activities for toddlers

Painting with water. I bought some big, coarse paintbrushes, and the toddlers used water to paint on the sidewalk (and themselves!). Of course, they also tasted the paintbrushes, so make sure to get some that won’t have loose bristles! Painting with water is a fun sensory activity that does not create a mess.

Substantial snacks. The church provides Cheerios and Gerber puffs for toddlers, but that didn’t seem to be cutting it! On the second day, we started serving Cheerios at 9:30 and then bananas and lunchy-type snacks that the kids brought from home at around 11:30. This made a big difference! The last hour was filled with happy toddlers instead of whiny and clingy toddlers. Plus, they probably all fell asleep in the car on the way home (I know mine did!) so they weren’t going down for naps hungry.

Balloons. Balloons can pop and become a choking hazard, so you really need to assess the individual kids you have in your group before using them. For us, they worked great! We had some of those “punching bag” balloons that we used without the rubber bands attached. These bought us about 15 minutes of happiness, which in toddler time is a long time!

What ideas do you have to keeping toddlers happy in a group setting?


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  1. Jannapy Jul 21, 2013

    I was just looking for a few extra toddler ideas for MY turn in VBS nursery. We have the same time frame and "teacher's kids only" as your church. :o) One of the things we did last year (wasn't my idea) was to tape white butcher paper over the whole table and let the kids color (scribble). The enjoyed coloring on the table. :o) We did have to watch for "tasting" of the crayons.

  2. Pam Jul 29, 2013

    I love your blog... you have so many great ideas for all ages! I subscribe to a TON of blogs and I pin almost every one of your posts! THANK YOU !!!!

  3. Suanna Aug 3, 2013

    I helped with the same age group this summer and we took the kids for wagon rides. We also used the last 30-45 minutes to dim the lights (we had a small lamp on the counter) and we set out books, played quiet music and held those who wanted to be held. We had several boys in our group, so they enjoyed playing with a variety of balls and cars.

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