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Toddler activities to do at home with no store-bought materials

Most likely you are in a country that has implemented lockdown. I am writing this post on day 41 of lockdown. We have gone out only four times for shopping groceries and Ría (18 months) hasn’t gone out even once. I don’t think this is mentally healthy for any child (or us) but that is the law. 

We are trying to make it fun and exciting for her hoping she won’t feel the lack of outdoors that much. As you probably know, that takes a lot of energy, but also a lot of creativity! Toddlers are not known for sitting still, being patient, and waiting quietly. They are impatient and get bored easily. It is challenging to find activities that will get their attention for more than 30 seconds.

I googled a lot and got inspired by so many ideas. I tried a few dozen. Some worked, many I adapted, and a bunch I just tossed. This is my selection of fine motor activities to do with toddlers who aren’t keen on bland entertainment!  (In a later post, I’ll share some gross motor activity ideas.) 

My criteria for choosing activities:

  1. Ría is 18 months old, so I chose activities suited for her age. 
  2. I didn’t want activities that involve a screen.
  3. I wanted them all to be done with things I have in the house, recycled or recyclable materials. 
  4. I didn’t have time to make anything elaborate (especially given she’ll likely play with it for only 5 minutes or seconds!) 

My tips and recommendations for a happy, long play experience:

  • It’s all about playing. Please don’t fixate too much on “finishing the task” or doing it “successfully”. 
  • There is no right or wrong or fast or slow way to do these activities. Don’t worry if they don’t get the idea straight away. Let your child play around and explore the materials first. It’s ok if that’s all they do. It is all good.
  • No cheating. If the game is about catching balls with a spoon and your child holds a ball and puts it in the spoon, it’s not cheating—he or she is a genius! Applaud them. You’ve got a great problem solver at home. 
  • Find the right level of challenge. If it is too difficult, they will get frustrated. If it is too easy, they will get bored. It needs to be challenging but doable. Adapt the game so it works for your little one. 
  • Help, but don’t interfere. Children are great at using their creativity to solve problems. Wait for a little bit before you offer help. 
  • Observe and go with the flow. These are evolving activities, so think of them as triggers or inspiration. Your child will probably propose an alternative game (or a few) with the materials you gave them. Follow their proposals. The longer he or she stays entertained, the better! 
  • Don’t toss it so fast. If you think the activity didn’t work, leave it around a few days and your little one might come back to it even if it is for a different use than the one proposed initially.
  • You are the playmate. Not a teacher, not a coach, not a trainer. Have fun, and your little one will have fun too!
  • Be prepared. Kids get excited easily, but they also get bored just as easily. Don’t expect to have an activity each afternoon. I suggest you have at least three activities ready so you move back and forth through them. Your child will guide you. 😉
  • Reuse and recycle. Reuse the activities that work. Like any toy your child loves, you can come back to it many times.

Disclaimer: Every child is different. Please adapt all instructions to suit your child and not put your child at risk in any way. These are all supervised activities, or better yet, shared activities so you can have fun and bond with your little one. 

Game 1: Get it in 

Simple, fast and adaptable with many variations. 

Materials:

  • A round or flat container that is open on both ends and light enough that you can stick it to a wall with painters or washi tape (e.g. kitchen towel rolls, pieces of pipes, any box)
  • Painter’s tape or washi tape
  • Balls, sticks, little toys, anything that will go through the hole of your container. I used takeaway chopsticks.  
  • A big container for the floor (box, tupperware, basket)

Variations:

  • Kleenex box and cards 
  • Empty baby wipes container and little balls, bottle tops or anything you can push in through the dispenser
  • An empty bottle and beans. This doubles as a rattle! 

Our Experience:

Ría was hooked for a few minutes and then, of course, destroyed it. The good thing was that seeing her focus on taking the tape from off the wall, more than the original game itself, gave me the next idea!

I tried a few variations and our winner was the tissue box. Ours is wooden and has a long hole on one side and a small round hole on the other. I gave her cards for one side and pieces from a board game for the smaller side. As you see in the pictures, we started out very organised with the pieces on a container, and the game transformed into throwing cards in the air and pieces around. So let’s say we went from a fine motor activity to a gross motor activity. 😉

Game 2: Stick it, unstick it

Basically, tape things to the wall, table, floor or anywhere and let them get obsessed with taking it off. 

Materials:

  • Painter’s tape/ washi tape

Variations:

  • Paste things to the surfaces. Cards, popsicle sticks, magazine pictures, anything flat works better
  • Use a cupcake baking pan or an egg carton and put things inside the holes and tape on top so they are trapped. Put things inside that are attractive to your child, toys, cars, pieces of puzzles, you choose.
  • Just use tape and stick it anywhere. Washi tape might be more attractive. I used normal painters tape (cream) and drew lines and dots on it when it was taped. 

Our experience:

Ría has this obsession with peeling: children’s cardboard books are all in layers, mandarines, labels. So, it was no surprise that she got hooked taking the tape off of the box from the wall in Game 1. This was great and gave me this idea. Now we have tape around and anytime I need her to get entertained for a few minutes, I take it out and tape it around. I tape it in her high chair table while I serve her meals, in the shower glass door while I organize her bath, in the kitchen door, anywhere. On some surfaces, it is easier to take tape off than others. Find your child’s level of challenge so they don’t get frustrated. If it is too difficult, I peel the tape a little so it is easier for her to pull off. 

Game 3: Oobleck 

Definitely our favorite. I am glad I did this one. It felt controversial to waste food for play, but I balanced the positive effect and the waste and still went for it. I realize markers and molding clay probably are more contaminant. If you disagree, you can just skip this one. 

Materials:

  • Corn starch or any starch
  • A container. I wanted to use something I could wash and not just throw away, so I used a baking tray. 
  • Little pieces of toys, keys, legos, you name it

Instructions:

Put a cup of starch on the container and add a half cup of water. Mix with your hands like making dough. Keep adding water or starch as needed to make the amount required until you get a goopy texture. It is hard to describe, but you’ll see it and recognize it. 

The end product will run through the pan if you incline it, but slow, like oil. If you need to visualize it, google videos with the name “oobleck” or “goop,” which it is often called. 

When you are done, don’t throw it away. Just keep it in the container and use it again by just adding a little water until it becomes goopy again. To control the mess, put a tablecloth or sheet underneath, which you can throw into the washing machine at the end. 

Variations:

  • Use natural food coloring or nontoxic paint and make different batches of colored goop.

Our experience:

This one really worked for Ría and we actually reused the paste a few times. The tray stayed in the room and she asked for it many times. For us having a smaller container was better as we had thicker playing material. She liked to bury the pieces and then pull them out. 

Game 4: Scoop it 

There are many ways to have fun with this simple idea. 

Materials:

  • Ice cream scoop
  • Balls, toys, onions, anything that fits in the ice cream scoop
  • Containers (egg cartons, muffin pans, bowls, boxes)

Instructions:

The basic idea is to pick up things using the spoon and transport them to a different place. 

As for the initial place, a bowl instead of a square container makes it easier. Also, a smaller bowl, to start, makes it easier to pick up the elements. Try both and see what works for your child. The end place could be just one container, could be a few containers so the child gets to decide or could be a holed container like a muffin tray or an egg carton, which makes it more difficult. 

Variations:

  • I added a soup ladle and other serving spoons and switched between them. You can also try tweezers.
  • Add water to the containers for a more exciting activity. It feels more like fishing. 
  • Add rice to the main container so picking up the toys feels different. Rice can be cooked and eaten afterwards! 
  • Just scoop water from one container to the others. Use jugs, bowls, tupperware, many different shapes as the end containers. Small containers with wide openings work best as you can see the water adding up and the wide mouth makes it easy to fill. 
  • Increase the difficulty by transporting rice instead of balls into an ice cube tray (beans, pasta or lentils could work too).
  • Use an egg carton or a muffin tin as the end container for adding up the challenge. 

Our experience: 

This one was my favorite and we keep making adaptations. I loved to see Ría concentrated trying to solve it. I felt she was stimulated in many ways during this activity, she felt proud of herself and we had a lot of fun. Spoons are now part of our bath time too. I loved how Ria enjoyed it so I was encouraged to make a video. It probably gave her the level of difficulty she needs, and she felt so proud that she clapped for herself at the end <3. 

Game 5: Clothespins

A home must-have that could save you

Materials:

  • Clothespins

Instructions:

Pin them anywhere and let your child have fun taking them off!

Our experience:

I am just going to say from now on I will carry a few clothespins in my purse. I have used them when I do laundry, I put them in the drying rack and she gets entertained taking them out. I pinned them in her clothes, on the bed cover while I made the bed, on the curtains, anywhere. 

The first time we did it I used the box as you see in the pictures and she got so hooked to it, she went into her bed and got comfy. It was so cute, sometimes it feels simple! I would have never imagined clothespins could give us this moment. Some pins you just pull them and they will come off but some are stronger so you need to press the ends. I thought she was too young for that but so I taught her and she got it. Trust children’s abilities, I never stop being surprised. 

Game 6: Weaving a strainer

Materials:

  • A colander (pasta strainer) or lettuce spinner 
  • Strings, shoelaces, ribbons

Instructions:

Knit the strings through the holes around the colander. The idea is to have your child pull out the strings. 

Our experience:

This one I had to adapt many times to find the level of challenge that won’t frustrate Ría. I realized ribbons or soft strings make it easier as they run smoothly. Also, skipping holes makes it easier to pull them out, otherwise, they get stuck. I was not going to list this one as I felt it didn’t work and got her frustrated, but the colander was left around and she went back to it. As in the process of adapting the game, I took off some strings and reknit others, and that time it worked! 

Game 7: Rubber bands guitar 

Materials:

  • Rectangular container
  • Rubber bands

Instructions: 

Put the rubber bands on the box and play. 

Variations:

  • Put toys inside the box and let your child try to take them out through the rubber bands. It could also work vice versa by trying to put toys into the box through the rubber bands.
  • Let your child put the rubber bands around a container. 

Our experience:

The guitar was fun for a little bit and then Ría came up with all the other variations. She got bored with the guitar and brought small toys and threw them in and then tried to take them out. We increased the challenge level by using bigger toys and that worked also. The second variation was when the game finished, she kept playing with the rubber bands for a while, and then started to try to put them on the box again. It was too difficult so we brought a bottle and that worked. All in all, the activity got us busy for almost an hour even though the initial idea only worked for a few minutes. 

I hope you enjoy these activities with your little ones. I wish you a happy, long, and fun playtime. I would love to hear how it goes. Please send me any variations you discover, and I will post about them so more people can benefit! 

PAOLA // Lima

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