Games and Activities for Toddlerhood (and Beyond!)

The following post is by contributor Emily Carter.

I may have a degree in Early Childhood Education and years of experience in childcare and teaching, but I”m going to admit something today:  keeping young children entertained and occupied can be challenging!

My son is currently 2 1/2 and a ball of unending energy. I turn around for just a moment to fix a snack and find a trail of destruction through the house.

Adding to the frustration, popular media would have you believe that you constantly need something new and shiny every few weeks to keep up with your child”s developmental needs.

In my search for ideas, I”ve come across a few wonderful resources that will help you breathe new life into the things you already have in your home.

A Book to Spark Ideas

A few months ago, I stumbled on this book in my classroom. I”d bought it years ago, before I had my son.  The title jumped out at me, I”m sure I picked it up looking for games for older kids, but the tagline boasts “For ages 12 months to 10 years”.

I”m so glad I rediscovered this gem! It”s a fantastic resource for games and activities using things you probably already own.

It”s organization also makes it a winner for me. It”s divided by age group and then broken down into individual games, partner games, and group games.

There are a lot of activity books on the market, but the age span, and quality of this book make it a must-have, in my opinion.

Toys That Last

The market is flooded with cheap toys that are broken or obsolete nearly by the time you make it home from the store. I”ve been hunting for things that are well made and that will hold my child”s attention for more than one season.

I”ve discovered that many times, it”s possible to make more simple rules for games and toys to make them appropriate for toddlers, gradually increasing the difficulty as they develop.

1. Memory Games

Yes, played with traditional rules, Memory would be too difficult for a toddler. However, learning to recognize when colors or images match is not.

Begin by only pulling three or four matching sets of cards out and see if your little one can find the matching cards (don”t turn them face down!).   Add more cards at a time as their skills increase.

If you have older kids, you”ve probably already got a Memory game around your house, but if not I highly suggest the pictured above. It”s really beautiful and well-made.

2. Card Games

So your child may not be ready for complex card games, but there are some fun things to do with cards even for the toddler crowd.

One of my son”s favorite games from Unplugged Play used a set of playing cards and a empty coffee can.  I cut a slit in the lid big enough to slip cards through and let him put the cards in one by one, empty the can, and then start over. Endless fun!

A company that makes not-so-average card games for kids is Bird Cage Press. They make beautiful card sets featuring animals, famous artists, and more.  Geared for slightly older children, I could still envision my toddler enjoying matching animals from this

Card games are great for kids of all ages to encourage math and critical thinking skills.

Keep It Simple

Of course, the simpler the better.  The weather in my part of the country was gorgeous this week, so we”ve loaded up and headed to our local park two or three times to enjoy the sunshine.  A few hours of simple outdoor fun was the perfect cure for cabin fever!

What are your favorite games and activities for really young children?

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  1. I like it. I have a very busy two year old, and keeping her busy can be tough. Old enough to want to play with her 6 year old brother and 8 year old sister, too young for most of what they like to do.

    I like the Memory game idea because it would work well with the older game I have on hand, which has several cards missing, which makes the usual game too hard to play until we get the singleton cards sorted out.
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  2. The author of ‘Unplugged Play’, Bobbi Connor, has a fantastic program on NPR called the Parent’s Journal. I listen to it as a podcast and have gotten lots of great tips and information from her and the experts (including parents) she interviews. I highly recommend it. I definitely will check out her book too!

  3. Emily,
    Great post – so important in an age of too much screen time. Especially your point about going out to the park to play. Interestingly enough, if you get in a good active rousing game of tag, tickle monster, etc. for a few minutes with your toddler, they get so much of their energy out that they are ready to relax better and do their own thing afterwards. Even at age 11, my son still focuses and is much more self-reliant after activity.

    A couple other tips for slightly older children: Collect a big box/bag of junk (egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, etc. ). Give them a roll of tape and let them go to work. So many days I was able to get some breathing time thanks to this “junk” bag and the busy kids it made.

    When I was cleaning, we had a simple fisher price xylophone on wheels that my kids would use to “vacuum” with me.

    And there’s nothing quite like setting them up with an old showercurtain on the floor to protect it and a few dishes of water. My kids would wash every toy within reach, utterly absorbed in the activity!
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  4. Great resources!! My pre-schooler loves havig little workboxes filled with things that help her learn but also keep her busy while her big brother is doing school work. Thank you so much for the fun tips!!

  5. Christine says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. We love unplugged play.

    However, the post made me laugh because our family favorite version of Memory is on our ipad. Sometimes there are great electronic versions of unplugged play as well. The electronic version saves me from the endless battles of having a 19 month old, who wants to run through and kick apart the memory cards and a 3 year old, who want to actually match them up. The three year old can play the game on the ipad and we all get to have a nice time!

    • Emily Woodall says:

      I do agree with you…we use screen time sparingly and meaningfully. My 7-year-old daughter is now playing ‘Words with Friends’ on her daddy’s iPhone. She plays with her aunts, grammy, grandaddy and me…and she is good:) I think it is a fun way for her to use critical thinking skills and ‘play’ with her vocabulary. We also have some great computer software from Bird Rock Family that we use to teach and play. But, there is nothing better than unplugged, creative play!

  6. Emily Woodall says:

    love it! I am about to go cut a slit in the top of a used oatmeal canister and set my 2 1/2 year old at it!

  7. Some great ideas! We have done the rice before as well! I recently did a series for wahm which included a post on entertaining the little ones. Thought I might share it here with the other readers! Keeping little hands busy while mommy works.

  8. Emily Woodall says:

    Ok…Just wanted to let everyone know, the card through the slit game is a hit! I cut a slit in the top of an oatmeal can and gave my 2-year-old son a deck of playing cards…he AND my 5-year-old and 7-year-old daughter’s have been playing happily for 20 min!

  9. I did the slit in the can thing one time and pulled out a whole case of poker chips from the storage closet. The noise was music to my son’s ears (mine, not so much!). I use a similar trick to keep my toddler busy while we’re waiting for brother at swim lessons.

    Another great idea I got from “The Toddler Busy Book” is to take a roll of masking tape and make a “tape city” on your floor. My son loves laying out the roads and then driving his cars or construcing buildings out of legos.
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  10. I have a jar full of dried beans that my (almost) 3-year old loves to play with. He loves to dump them into a bowl, “cook” them, stir them up, and pour them into different little containers. We are also working on separating them into piles by color/size/shape. When he is done, I can just sweep up any beans he spilled on the ground, and put them back in the jar. Of course, now that his little sister is crawling, we can only play with the beans when she is asleep, but it is still a great distraction. I think that I got the original idea from a Montessori book.
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  11. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for the post! I also have my hands full with a 2 1/2 year old who is VERY curious! I am looking forward to trying out some of these ideas!

  12. My little ones loved all of these too! One of the favorite activities around here has always been to put out a muffin tin half filled with water and tint the cups different colors with food coloring. I give my little one an eyedropper and let him squeeze the colors into new empty containers to mix colors, onto containers of snow in the winter (the colors are so vibrant and pretty on the snow!) or onto absorbent paper, crushed ice, coffee filters, etc. I put an old towel underneath to soak up the excess water and it keeps them busy for eons.
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  13. How wonderful! The book recommendation couldn’t have come at a better time for me–I have an active, curious 11 month old and it can be a real challenge finding age appropriate activities. I’ve ordered the book and look forward to getting many years of use from it!

  14. Play Smart! Empowers parents with stimulating activities that can be done in your home without having to buy expensive educational materials.  Learn how to increase word production, stimulate motor development and enhance cognition.  Children learn through play.   Let Play Smart! Empower you today!  Be sure to check out Play Smart! On Apples app store today.  


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