Activities, sensory play, and easy low-mess ideas you can do at home with your toddler.
Ah, it’s finally here. I’ve been working on this post for too long. But, with many people stuck at home, I hustled to finally get it done!
I originally started this post with 1-year-olds in mind. That’s how old my little guy is. But, many of these will work for 2 and even 3-year-olds as well.
Tips for Playing with 1-Year-Olds
- Model the Activity: Very often you’ll need to model an activity for a toddler. We can’t always just put it in front of them an expect they know what to do. Show your child the way to play with it and then offer it back.
- Parallel Play – Parallel play can often help extend the length of time your little one plays. Parallel play is when you see two kids playing next to each other but not actually with each other. You can mimic that same thing by “playing” to encourage them to continue playing with whatever toy they have.
- At their level tables and shelves – It’s super helpful to make your space accessible for your little one. Having toy shelves that are right at their level is ideal. It’s also great if you have a toddler-height table for them to use. It’s a little more expensive, but I also really love using a learning tower, which allows kids to stand at counter-height in the kitchen to play and do activities.
For this activity, you’ll take some paint (I used finger paint we had in our art bin) and squeeze it into a Ziploc bag. Then, you’ll want to tape it to a window or glass door. I suggest painter’s tape so you don’t leave any sticky residue behind. Your little one can then smush the paint around inside of the bag. While you can do this on a wall, the window illuminates the paint a little differently.
We put this on our back door and it lasts for many days. It was actually nice because my son would play with it and it’d keep him entertained while I got ready to go outside.
Tip: This is an activity that probably needs to be modeled first. Show your little ones how to smush the paint.
Magnets on a Cooking Tray
Place some kid-appropriate magnets on a cooking tray to use in your child’s play area. Like stickers, kids love magnets. They’ll enjoy pulling them off and putting them back on.
Tip: Offer a cup next to the cooking tray that the magnets can go inside of. This age loves putting things inside and taking them back out. It may extend the length of the activity if they can take them out of the cup, put them on the tray, and back again.
This activity requires putting up contact paper on your wall. I used these, but any clear sticky contact paper works. You want the sticky side facing outward, so use some painter’s tape to hang it on your wall. Then, you can have fun sticking different objects to the wall! I started with balloons but Miles was still just a little too young for that and he kept putting them in his mouth which made me nervous. So, I ended up swapping them for pompoms one day and strips of tissue paper the next. You can use pretty much anything that’s light enough it’ll stick!
Edible Play Dough
Playdough is a super fun activity. But, even though playdough is non-toxic, it’s not supposed to be eaten which is hard with this age. You can instead try making some homemade salt-free edible playdough. I used this recipe.
Sometime after 12 months little ones really like to help. One thing Miles loves doing is “cleaning up” messes. He has been watching me do it for a while and now he wants to help! I have a few toddler-friendly items I offer him to help out including a small broom his size and some little washcloths. After you eat or play a game, let your little one help out cleaning up. Miles’ favorite is wiping down the table.
This activity does require a purchase of wooden beads – I bought this set. But, to me, these beads are well worth it because they can be used in many ways.
- Stringing them – Obviously, the intended use with these is to string them. It’s a great fine motor skill. To modify this when your little one is still younger, string a straw onto the string first which will make it much easier for your child to get the beads on. As they get better, you can remove the straw.
- Color sorting – As your little one is a bit older, these beads are super fun for color sorting.
- Stacking – we’ve used our beads to practice stacking (and knocking down) towers.
Small Box with Toy Inside
There’s something fascinating about a little toy inside a box at this age. You need a box that fully opens and fully closes. Then, fill it with a “treasure” or two such as a finger puppet, a bottle with something inside that makes a noise when you shake it, a little mirror, tissue paper, etc. Little hands love opening and closing the box.
The one we use is from our Lovevery Toy Subscription which I’ll talk about a little below.
Tip: As they get older, a box or bag with some type of clasp is a great way to make this a little more challenging. Get something they have to zip and unzip or something with a latch that involved two steps to open.
Large Tupperware Sensory Bin
I fell onto this idea by accident and we use it ALL THE TIME. We had a large Tupperware bin for storage and one day when I was organizing I had an empty one in the kitchen. Miles tried to climb in and a little lightbulb went off above my head. I placed him inside and poured rice all around him and gave him a cup and spoon. He played happily in that thing for over an hour.
It’s great because the mess stays more contained as it’s all inside the Tupperware. Here are some ideas of what you can put in the bin
- Pompoms (I suggest the larger ones like these as they are less likely to go in mouths)
- Beans (when they are older)
- Cooked pasta that’s been cooled (this is probably best stripped down to the diaper)
BUT WAIT! Doesn’t rice and beans end up all over the floor?! Well, yea. Rice or whatever you use will end up on your floor. Miles knows it’s supposed to stay in the bin. If he throws it out of the bin he has to come out. But no matter what, stuff gets on your floor. I know this is hard as a clean freak. Trust me when I tell you it takes about 5 minutes to quickly vacuum or sweep it up and it’s worth it for engaging play.
Kitchen Play with Pots and Pans
Kids love playing with pots and pans. Whenever I’m cooking Miles wants to cook, too. He has a little set of his own pots and pans, but I also, personally, am OK with him using the real ones, too.
Tip: I like letting him play this in the kitchen when I’m really cooking because I feel like it makes him more engaged. It feels more real to him. The kitchen is where we cook, not the living room. I also offer him some real ingredients (such as potatoes, lemons/limes, herbs, etc.)
Oversized Cardboard Box
Never underestimate the power of a big box. And, thanks to Amazon you probably have at least one in your basement right now. Open one side up and you have an instant fort.
Ways to expand on this activity:
- Cut some holes in one side of the box. Your little one will love passing toys through the holes.
- Color the box together (better for slightly older toddlers)
- Hang strips of string or tissue paper from the opening.
- Put a pop-up tunnel leading into the box (such as this one)
- Put pillows, stuffed animals, and a few books inside.
Treasure baskets are a Montessori concept. It’s basically a basket or box that you fill with different items. Sometimes it’s items of a certain type like from nature, sometimes it’s items all of one color, or different textures. Often they are used with babies as a way for them to explore different objects. But, I find they work great for older kids too. This post gives you a bunch of pictures of some different treasure baskets.
Some good ideas for this age could be:
- Musical items
- Strips of ribbon
- Different fruits and vegetables
- Balls of different shapes/sizes
- Household items like a toothbrush, empty pill bottle, hairbrush, mirror
I feel like everyone talks about sensory bottles but that’s probably because…well, they work. They are great starting around 6 months but many kids enjoy them well through preschool. You can do something as basic as just rice or water in a bottle. Or, do some Googling and get fancy, here are some nice rainbow sensory bottle DIYs.
Sink Water Play
What is it about the sink? I’m not sure but little ones love it. I place a plastic bin in our sink, fill it with water, offer a cup or two and Miles will splash around for 45 minutes or more!
For us, we do this at the kitchen sink. We have a learning tower and it’s a little bit of an investment, but we use it multiples times every day. For us, it’s been a must-have item. I’m able to pull it right up to the sink and he can happily splash about. If you don’t have this, you could try doing it in the bathtub or outside if the weather is nice. Sensory tables work, too, if you have one.
Any chance to get outside is a win with this age. One thing Miles loves doing is playing with dirt. You can use dirt you have in the yard or get a cheap bag of potting soil. Offer them a spoon or two and a couple of pots.
Tip: This is another one that’s great if modeled. Miles played with this activity for much longer and much more engaged after he watched me use the same soil and a similar pot to replant two of my houseplants. It gives the activity context for them and makes it feel more like a real activity.
Empty Kleenex Box with Scarves
Empty Kleenex boxes are literally one of the best toys ever. Currently, we’ve been filling them with play scarves and he loves to pull them out and try to push them back into the box.
Other things to fill your Kleenex box with:
- Small stuffed animals
- Rubber or plastic toys
- Strips of ribbon
Lovevery Play Subscription
I had the Lovevery Play Gym and loved it when Miles was a baby (read my review here). I got a lot of DMs asking if I thought their play subscription was worth it as well. So, I reached out to Lovevery and asked if they’d send me a kit or two to try out so I could let you guys know and they did. We’ve currently used the 13-15 month kit and the 16-18 month kit. I really, really like them.
Each Lovevery play kit comes with a surprisingly good amount and mix of toys (including fine and gross motor skills, books, etc.). All the toys are made with wood and organic cotton so they are also just extremely well-made. But, what really rocks is that the toys are created based on what children need at each stage. They have child development experts on staff to curate these toys to be things that are engaging, developmentally appropriate, and Montessori-based. It’s amazing to see how much more engaged Miles is with these toys. Even the books that come with the kits are his FAVORITE books. They just really know what each age needs.
Lastly, each kit comes with a guide for that age range. It tells you about the skills they are mastering at that age and gives you tips for them. It also tells you more about each toy, offering different ways to play with them to get the most use out of each toy.
At first, the price seems like a lot (depending on the subscription you do it’s $108-$120 a box). I got sticker shock the first time I looked. But then I really looked into it. Each box has around 9-14 items inside so you’re actually paying about $9 a toy which when you think of it that way is nothing for the quality of the toys you’re getting.
Anyways, an entire post on these is coming, but this is just a long-winded way of saying I really do recommend these kits for engaged, child-centered, age-appropriate play and think they are definitely worth the price.
Some of My Other Favorite Toddler Toys
Other Toddler Activity Posts
The Confused Millenial – Rachel’s daughter is just a few months younger than Miles and she offered 7 fun ideas you can do with household items.
At Charlotte’s House – this post is for slightly older kids, so great if you don’t have just a toddler. Also, some of the activities can skew younger, too.
Read my post for activities for babies
Websites I Like for Toddler Activities
I got some of my inspiration from the sites below. And, they are all great resources for a ton more ideas of how to play with your little one!