Introduction: How to Amuse Toddlers

I provided part-time private childcare for infants and toddlers (3 months - 2 years) for a number of years and during that time I came up with a wide range of activities that I used to keep these little people busy as they discover the world around them. Some of the activities may be ideas you've never tried and others may be things you do regularly with your own child. Whatever the case I hope that other childcare providers and parents will find inspiration in this Instructable to challenge their babies with creative new experiences.

Step 1: Playing With Water

Playing in water is a classic experience that nearly all babies enjoy. An outdoor kiddie pool is great when the weather is warm but there is no need to stop the wet fun when the air outside turns chilly. Just bring your kiddie pool inside to a warm room (with a water proof floor) and let the tots sit in the pool and play with warm water from a basin. They love using cups and funnels to fill clear bottles with warm bubbly water and to mix pots or bowls of water with spoons and whisks.

One novel variation on this theme that I've tried successfully is to add a couple drops of food coloring to large clear containers of water. The colored water adds a new twist to the play and provides another opportunity to teach the names of colors. (As long as the food coloring is diluted you won't have to worry about staining problems, just make sure a tot doesn't get a hold of the little bottle of concentrated dye.)

Misc Tips:

- When it's hot outside your toddlers will naturally want to drink the water they are playing in. Be ready with fresh water to quench their thirst.

- I don't recommend filling the whole pool with water when you have it indoors because 1.) it's difficult to empty the pool out and 2.) it's more likely the children will become excessively wet and chilled.

- For safety sake keep pool water shallow and maintain constant supervision.

- For comfort use warm water (even outside sometimes.)

- When using a kiddie pool indoors you may want to surround the pool with towels to absorb spilled water. This will make cleanup a little easier and will also help prevent slips and falls when toddlers climb in and out of the pool.

- Add bubbles to the water.

- Try bubbling the water with a straw or baster tube. Older toddlers can do this too, just watch the straw on the first time and make sure they understand the difference between blowing and sucking.

- If you let your tots play right at the sink beware of scalding danger if they can reach the faucet handle. As an added precaution you can turn your water heater down to 120 degrees. That will still hurt but won't cause real damage.

Step 2: Sandbox

Sandboxes are fun both outdoors and indoors. When used outdoors it's good to put a sheet of plastic under the sand to prevent your tots from digging through the sand and into the soil which will make the sand dirty. It's also great fun to flood the sand box during warm weather so slope your plastic so that the water will drain away from the house and toward a shrub. Pierce a few holes in the plastic on the downhill side so it will drain slowly.

When used indoors I recommend putting your sand box in the middle of a tight weave area rug or carpet remnant. This way you can just lift it up and dump most of the spilled sand back into the box. You can also vacuum the carpet if you want to be extra tidy or take it outside and throw it over a clothesline and beat on it. I prefer carpet rather than vinyl because carpet tends to clean the toddlers' feet and trap the sand whereas vinyl keeps the sand right on the surface to be tracked all over the house.

Step 3: Dress-up

Older children (4-5 year olds) enjoy playing dress-up with clothes but toddlers normally haven't developed enough dexterity to manage this game. What they can handle is beads, bracelets and hats. Provide a mirror so they can see themselves wearing the accessories. If your tot is still very oral it would be wise to choose beads that have an embedded string (like Mardi Gras bead) rather than strung beads which could become a choking hazard if the string breaks.

Photography Note: You can sometimes get great pictures of tots dressing up by standing behind them and taking a picture of them in the mirror. With the advent of digital cameras toddlers quickly learn that they can see pictures on the back of the camera and it gets harder to photograph them because they stop what they are doing and want to see the LCD display. Photographing them in a mirror makes it a little harder for them to see you especially if you stand off at a bit of an angle.

Step 4: Tape

Toddlers are amused by the stickiness of tape. Buy different colors and then tear or cut pieces to a manageable size and stick them halfway to a table edge for easy access. If you are concerned about ease of removal or adhesive residue try using low tack painters tape.

Step 5: Cooking

Toddlers enjoy helping cook, especially when there are tasty bits (like chocolate chips) that they can graze off of as they dump and mix ingredients.

Helpful Tips:

- Measure bulk ingredients (like flour and sugar) in advance then let the child 'measure' the ingredients into the mixing bowl with a teaspoon. This gives the tot more to do but assures correct proportions.

- You may not want to allow children to eat too much raw cookie dough since it contains raw eggs which are occasionally a carrier of salmonella. (This issue can also be avoided by substituting one tablespoon of ground flax seed mixed with 3 tablespoons of warm water in place of each egg.)

- They're gonna make a mess. Get over it. They're having a good time right?

Step 6: Animal Safari

Hide toy animals amongst the plants and bushes in your yard (or potted plants inside) then help your toddler go around and find them. Don't hide the animals too well or the child won't be able to find them at all. Leave a nose or head peeking out so that they can see a bit of color. Older children (3 or 4 year olds) may be able to play this game with totally hidden toy animals but toddlers need to be able to actually see part of the toy.

Step 7: Pretend to Fix Things With Tools

Give your toddler some tools and something to fix. It helps if you are fixing something along side the child. Avoid tools that have sharp edges or are likely to pinch. Wrenches and screwdrivers are fairly safe. Just don't let them run around with a screwdriver in hand. And don't leave them unattended with a flat headed screwdriver and an exposed electrical outlet. A very dangerous and tempting combination! :( You may just want to stick with Phillips head screwdrivers since they won't fit into an outlet slot. (You really should have outlet covers on all toddler height outlets anyway.)

Step 8: Playdough

Playdough can be fun for toddlers if you can keep them from eating too much of eat. ;) Cookie cutters, toothpicks, and extruders can all be fun. I've discovered that even at a very young age (before their 2nd birthday) they often understand the concept of baking food in an oven so you can create another fun activity for them by letting them pretend to bake playdough in a toaster oven. You can pickup a second hand toaster oven really cheap at a thrift store or yard sale or even along the curb (like I did) if you're lucky. I removed the power cord from mine so there is no possibility that they could ever plug it in the wall.

Recipes for homemade playdough.

Step 9: Cardboard Box Playhouses

Another classic toddler activity is to make playhouses out of large cardboard boxes. These can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Large boxes are the best but they also take up a lot of space so if you decided to use a really big one (like a refrigerator box) you may want to make it so that it can fold flat when not in use. For added fun, connect several boxes together to make tunnels leading between the play houses.

Photography Tip: Have a camera handy to take some cute pictures when your toddler is playing in the cardboard box playhouse. Pre-focus on a window and then get them to peek out at you. Beware of overexposure if the outside walls of your box are a light color.

Step 10: Playing With Coins

Give the tots a jar of coins and containers to put them in. I'm not sure what the big attraction of this activitiy is but they do seem to find it entertaining so who am I do complain! :) (Make sure your tots understand not to eat the coins.)

Step 11: Books

For toddlers stick with simple board books. Some libraries also loan out books that include a puppet. Another thing that can really help get tots interested in books is to make your own customized books for them using photos of people, animals and toys that they will recognize. If you want a little more advanced project check out my Instructable on how to make a lift-the-flap book for a toddler.

Step 12: Coloring

Markers are easier for toddler to use than crayons because they don't require as much force to make a mark. Just make sure you buy washable and nontoxic magic markers. Toddlers can also have fun adding tape or stickers to an art project.

Step 13: Climbing

Toddlers love to climb. Instead of frustrating this natural urge, create safe opportunities for them to exercise this important gross motor skill. Follow them up steps, spot them as they climb onto the couch or coffee table, and let them try climbing at your local Kids Castle when there are not too many big kids around. If your tot really loves to climb up on furniture, try to arrange your house so that the climbable furniture is on a padded and carpeted floor rather than hardwood or tile so that the impact of the inevitable tumbles will be greatly reduced. Most babies will be able to climb stairs before they can walk (because it's similar to crawling) so let them give it a try, just make sure to stay right behind them as they ascend. (For safety you should install baby gates on all your stairs as soon as your child is crawling.)

Step 14: Swinging

Most kids like to swing. Swings can even be hung indoors for use during wet or cold seasons. Some baby swings at parks are made so that you can choose which way to face the child in order to keep them from squinting into the sun. This type of swing can also accommodate two tots if the swings are full.

Step 15: Make Popcorn

Making popcorn with our Stir Crazy is a regular feature at my house. In fact it's such a big hit that one tot or another will go open the cupboard where the machine is stored and start chanting, "Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn!" :) I recommend the Stir Crazy because it has a clear plastic bubble which allows children to watch the kernels explode.

WARNINGS: The machine gets hot and the oil gets hot so make sure to supervise closely to avoid burns. Also, popcorn is a potential choking hazard with small children so be cautious in that regard too.

Step 16: Doll House

Doll houses are usually associated with somewhat older girls but toddlers of both genders can have fun playing with the furniture and dolls. Obviously you may not want to let them use anything that is a treasured heirloom until they are a little older but a yard sale find or cheap cardboard houses can be used without concern for the inevitable breakage.

Here's another idea for a DIY dollhouse.

Step 17: Bounce on a Big Ball

Get a large ball. Sit your baby on the ball. Hold him/her around the waist and bounce him/her up and down. This one activity probably generates more giggles than all the others combined! :) Only problem with this one is that your back will probably wear out long before their desire for more bouncing is exhausted. ;(

Photography Note: This activity provides a good opportunity to capture some expressions of glee on your toddlers' face but you will have to use a very high shutter speed to avoid motion blur. If your camera has a sports setting use that or use Tv (shutter priority) with a high shutter speed or use manual settings. I used the Tv setting for this picture with shutter speed at 1/640 sec. and ISO 800. You may also be able to catch a fleeting smile if you stop bouncing the child for a second but you may also end up with a picture of the side of the childs frowning face as he turns around to look at the bouncer and says, "More, more!"

Step 18: Refrigerator Magnets

There are various types of refrigerator magnets available for purchase (the alphabet being perhaps the most common) but I would challenge you to make your own set of magnets featuring the faces of friends, family and pets that your toddler will recognize.

A good size for head shot magnets is 2x2 inches square. Use your favorite photo editing software (Photoshop, Gimp, etc.) to resize and place 6 head shots onto a standard 4x6 print. Print out the prints and then glue them onto foamboard. Cut the foamboard into squares with your X-acto knife and stick a piece of self-adhesive magnet on the back.

To add further fun to this project you may even want to make a flat foamboard house to stick to the fridge with windows and doors where the 2x2 heads will fit! :)

Step 19: Field Trips

Field trips are a great way to break up the routine of caring for a toddler day after day. Some good places to go include:

- The park especially with a climbing feature (kids castle) and swings.
- Library children's department (Toddler Time)
- Natural history museum
- Children's museum (if they have suitable activities for toddlers)
- The public swimming pool (if they have a kiddie pool)
- Lawn ornament and water garden store
- Zoo, petting zoo or farm
- Construction work site (watch backhoes and dump trucks at work)
- Pet store
- Play dates to friend's houses

Step 20: Musical Instruments

Toddlers can't usually play much beyond percussion instruments but they will still enjoy watching and helping you play. I have an old beater trumpet that they can try without worrying about it getting scratched or dented. They also enjoy switching mouthpieces and mutes. Playing guitar and letting them try strumming is fun too.

Step 21: Pretend Cooking

Give toddlers some pots, pans, spoons, whisks, etc. and let them pretend to cook. Taking lids on and off and putting plastic food or pasta in the pots is fun. (Only use dried pasta with tots that are old enough not to try and eat it.)

Step 22: Play in a Tent

For some reason playing in a tent is a novelty for toddlers. Throw in some pillows, blankets and toys and let them crawl around and play in this new environment. (You can use a tent inside as well as outside.)

Step 23: Go for a Walk

This is another classic activity. Walking, riding in a stroller, and riding in a backpack each give toddlers a different way of experiencing the world. If you can find interesting places to walk to like the park, library, a construction site, or our personal favorite: a field of llamas, so much the better! :) And don't stop going for walks when the weather gets cold. Just bundle the tots up good. If it's really cold and windy put a clear covering over your stroller. If it's cold but sunny be careful that your tots don't overheat inside a stroller with a clear covering. Due to the greenhouse effect it can get surprisingly warm inside an enclosed space with a clear window even when the ambient temperature is quite cold.

Taking toddlers for a walk in the stroller at nap time can also be a painless way to get them to sleep. Don't worry about the bright light keeping them awake, most toddlers will fall asleep quite easily even in broad daylight when they are tired but they don't like direct sun in their eyes. Keep them busy with all the activities listed here and they will conk out fast on your walk. If your goal for the walk is to get the toddlers to sleep you should probably choose a boring route (like through the woods) rather than an interesting route past barking dogs and construction sites.

Step 24: Last Resort: Send Your Toddler to Someone Else!

If you are a stay-at-home mom or dad it can become very stressful to be responsible for a small child all day every day. This stress can be greatly relieved by leaving your toddler with a trusted caregiver for even just two or three hours 2 or 3 times a week. It may not seem like much but having those six or eight hours all to yourself during the week can make a huge difference in your sanity and happiness. It can also be very beneficial for your child to spend time with other children and with another nurturing adult. If money is really tight and you can't afford to hire help, consider arranging a regular childcare swap with another stay-at-home parent who has a toddler about the same age as yours.

Well, that's enough ideas for now. I'm going to go ahead and publish this Instructable but I'll probably be adding more ideas later. I have some other ideas of my own that I need to photograph and there will hopefully be some suggestions by readers that I can add to the list.