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Top-TWENTY Tuesday: Toddler Toys & Activities for Independent Play

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Sometimes you just need your toddler to entertain themselves for a while, especially when you’re pregnant or have a new baby in the house and you need a moment of peace! So we’ve been brainstorming a list of activities that our big kids love as well as games and toys that keep them entertained for a good long time. These “independent” activities require adult supervision (’cause who leaves a toddler unattended, right?), and sometimes setup and cleanup, but once you’ve got junior going, these ideas should buy you at least enough time to get a load of laundry folded. What a luxury that can be!

1) Art projects

Sure, sure, “art projects” sound messy, right? But Amy says, “I figured out that Maggie enjoys it more and does it for longer if she can just make a mess within reason. She knows that she can’t paint/color/etc. on anything but the paper so really it hasn’t been too big of a deal. I do make sure to buy all washable varieties of things though!”

Our kids love…

  • Finger paints. When they’re finished, let them “wash their hands” (read: play) in a tub of soapy water.
  • Glue sticks and gluing (think feathers, other paper, magazine clippings, etc.)
  • Stickers. Goes without saying, really. But A has these fantastic Melissa and Doug reusable sticker pads, one set with scene from a house and one with different outdoor habitats, that she’ll play with for hours. The pads are oversized at 11″ x 14″ and each set comes with over 100 stickers that can be attached and reattached over and over again.


  • Post-It Notes can be individually colored and then put on a larger piece of paper as well.
  • Crayola Color Wonder Markers and Paper are nice because they only show color when you apply them to the special Crayola paper, so you don’t need to worry if they get on something.


  • Dry-erase markers.
  • Play Doh. Especially kits with a bunch of cookie cutters and different tools to use.


  • Cutting paper. Also good for preschool preparation!

2) Books & Magazines

Sure, kids like to read books, but have yours discovered “I Spy” type books yet? I Spy, A To Z: A Book of Picture Riddles is a good introduction to the harder “I Spys.”


Younger kids might do better with the “My First Look and Find” series.


All three of our kids have subscriptions to Highlights High Five magazine—HUGE, HUGE hit! It’s got a great combination of puzzles, stories, and activities.


3) Puzzles

Tangram-style puzzles are big in Amy’s house right now. Self-imposed IQ test? :)


Sarahlynne’s son loves puzzles. This particular one was one of his first and is still one of his favorites. It is four puzzles with 25 pieces each, and each piece is uniquely shaped enough for a preschooler to figure out its corresponding piece with minimal help. Each piece is also color coded on the back to make for easy sorting.

4) Games

Matching games are perfect for toddlers, and this one’s so bright and colorful, with pictures from nature that we love.


One of A’s favorite things is these Brain Quest Preschool cards, which we’ll sit and do together while I’m nursing the baby or she’ll flip through on her own, now that she’s familiar with them, quizzing herself!


You can also make your own games with items around your home, like a baby wipes container and milk jug lids, as suggested here by Learning Through Play.

5) Apps

Amy says, “We do let Maggie play with the iPad from time to time, although there is always a time limit on this. I created a tab on the iPad of games she is allowed to play, like Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and Monkey Math.



6) Imaginative play

All our kids enjoy pretending to be in a doctor’s office, either as the doctor or the patient. Amy will give her daughter a scenario to start with: “Bitty baby is really sick. She needs to see the doctor and then needs to eat lunch.” Sarahlynne’s son has been to the doctor a lot this summer. So now he puts a bib on his baby sister as she sits on her play mat and gives her a check-up. She, surprisingly, thinks this is awesome.


My daughter loves to host “tea birthday parties” with a wooden birthday cake she received when she turned two. She’ll set our entire dining room table with plates, cups, and utensils, then blow out the candles, and serve her guests.



7) Treasure or scavenger hunt

Amy and I have both used the tactic of sending our kids on a hunt for items around the house. Sometimes, I’ll even make a checklist for A with words or pictures of the items she needs to find, and then we’ll mark things off as she goes.

8) Jobs

Kids this age tend to be very task-oriented so they love having “jobs,” even the most mundane. Dusting is a big hit in our homes, especially when the Swiffer Duster is involved.


If you’re looking for a list of other age-appropriate “jobs,” check out Busy Kids = Happy Mom’s list.

9) Magna Doodle and Aqua Doodle Pads

When A was 18 months old, our pediatrician recommended that we purchase a Magna Doodle for her to start “drawing” (practicing holding a writing utensil) without the worry of their being pen/pencil/marker marks all over the house. We especially love the travel-size version that’s perfect for car rides. Another alternative is the Aqua Doodle, which is even more portable in that it’s pliable and has a cute purse-like handle.



10) Sewing cards

For crafty kids, these “lacing cards” are a good toddler-friendly precursor to true sewing cards, and eventually sewing itself. Handling the laces is great for developing fine motor skills and someday learning to tie shoelaces, too.


11) Sidewalk chalk

What kid doesn’t love to spend a sunny day making their own masterpiece outdoors with sidewalk chalk? And if you’re really looking to up the ante, check out this accompanying Freaky Rivet activity that incorporates water balloons.


12) Bubbles

Despite what you’ve read on Pinterest, there really isn’t a better bubble recipe out there than Gymboree’s (believe me: I’ve tried recreating them—glycerin and all!).


13) Obstacle courses

This activity is somewhat reliant on us, but setting up an indoor or outdoor obstacle course for your big kid might buy you a world of time! We love Learn ~ Play ~ Imagine’s outdoor course that includes tunnels, sawhorses, jump ropes, and “stepping domes.”

Obstacle course play date (1)

And here’s another great idea; No Time for Flash Cards’ spider web walking Halloween game


14) Water play

For some reason, anything involving water is ridiculously exciting to toddlers. So, if you’ve got the space and the budget, and the weather’s nice, a water table is a fantastic addition to any backyard.


Another alternative is to set your child up with a pot of soapy water to create a “car wash” for all their vehicles. Or let them help outside by watering plants around the yard. What child could resist this cute chameleon watering can?


15) Building blocks

Sarahlynne’s son has fallen in love with Magna Tiles, which she says are “not just blocks.” They are multicolored, two-dimensional basic shapes that connect because each piece is magnetized. So, these shapes can be turned into two-dimensional shapes on the floor, or built high into three-dimensional shapes, towers, or even shapes within shapes. They keep K busy for hours! Sarahlynne writes, “We recently went on a two-day trip to NYC, to a child-free apartment, and just brought Magna Tiles. K happily played with just these, all weekend.”


Another great option is good old Mega Bloks, which look like giant Legos.


16) Excavations

Sarahlynne likes to place a sheet on the kitchen floor, put mixing bowls on the sheet, then dump Rice Crispies or dried rice in the bowls. K loves to drive his cars into the rice, bury and find them, and use ladles to scoop out rice.

17) Getting dressed

I know this seems trite, but it can take K up to ten minutes to put on his clothes, and he’s happy to do it. A great thing to ask him to do while I feed the baby or get us ready to go out.

18) Backpack adventure

Now that he’s preparing for pre-school, K loves to take his backpack, walk around the house and pretend to “go to preschool.” He puts things in it and announces his pretend adventures. In case you haven’t already discovered these, Skip Hop makes the cutest little kid backpacks in the shape of basically any animal you could think of!


19) Forts

K loves to make forts with pillows, complete with sheets for a roof. He takes all his books, friends and trucks in there and has a party. Our kids have also received tents as gifts, which make fantastic “forts,” if you don’t feel like rearranging your whole living room :)


20) Making Kid Time Count! Looking for ideas or activities that require little to no materials? Check out Sarahlynne’s book, Making Kid Time Count, available for pre-order on Amazon.com and in Barnes and Noble on Sept. 15!


Evanthia signatureSarahlynne signature Amy's signature

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3 comments… add one

  • Jane August 14, 2013, 10:54 am

    Awesome list! I can’t wait until N. is old enough to try these out. :)

    • Evanthia Evanthia August 18, 2013, 5:18 pm

      Thanks, Jane! These are tried and true.

  • Andrea December 13, 2013, 7:37 pm

    This is great, thanks!! There’s also this product called Tiggly that my children love playing with!

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