A Roundup of Indoor Toddler Activities…

By: Jen Shoop

Our days in quarantine are full of ups and downs. There are mornings that drag on for centuries, tender moments spent snuggling cheek to cheek, tears of frustration, peals of laughter, and everything in between. The biggest travail has been preoccupying my curious, active toddler when we live in a a Manhattan apartment with no backyard, a big dog, and sections of the house that must be kept fairly quiet while baby brother sleeps. Well — to be more accurate, preoccupying the toddler while getting things done when I can. Though I have my mother’s voice in my ear — “you should never feel you need to entertain your child all day long!” — sustaining the interest and imagination of a three-year-old who cannot explore a backyard or go on a playdate while supervising a nine-month-old who is crawling everywhere, pulling up on everything, and inevitably tangled in a loose cord has reminded me of the many virtues of organization. Maybe ten days into our “sheltering in place” routine, it occurred to me that one source of anxiety has been the lack of control I have over the situation. But when will this end? I demand. And I need to know when the groceries will be re-stocked with toilet paper so I can properly ration. And what will we do if…? It’s an anticipator’s worst nightmare. I have been trying to focus instead on the things I can control: meal-planning as far in advance as I can, tidying the house compulsively, sticking to naptimes and bedtimes, and planning activities for mini that give me a purchase on the day. I keep a running list of activities with new ideas I glean from moms much more creative and organized than I am. I thought I’d share a bunch of them. Some require nothing more than basic pantry ingredients, while others have entailed new purchases. Can I quickly note that these droppers have been the MVP? It took mini some time to figure out how to use them, which was a good activity in and of itself…

1 // Make play dough. (You’ll find I link a lot to Mother Could here. She is amazing. Super approachable and down-to-earth and I love that she demonstrates her activities with her own children and owns up to the fact that sometimes things just don’t work out.) The great thing about making play dough is that making it is fun, and then we can pull it out and play with it on multiple days in the future using these accessories.

2 // Play beach. Mini has been very into wearing her swimsuit inside. We put the wave noise on our HomePod (“Siri, play beach sounds”) and she eats a popsicle on a towel on our kitchen floor. Do you know how long it takes a toddler to eat a popsicle? A long time…perfect happy hour activity 🙂

3 // Free the frozen animals. We’ve done this one a few times. We use the aforementioned droppers and this pack of inexpensive sea creatures (perfect size) so she can get drip warm water onto the ice cube. She loves this and it’s a cool way to introduce the different states of matter to her.

4 // Use cookie cutters on play dough. Even though she has proper Play Doh accessories, I also pulled out my big set of cookie cutters and had her organize them by color and then she loved using them on the play dough itself.

5 // Scavenger hunt. I drew pictures of household objects / items I knew she’d recognize and she ran around gaily finding them. It was really fun and she asked for another hunt multiple times the same day. I had a surprise at the end — a coloring book.

6 // Necklace making. My mom sent mini this kit, and she plays with it close to daily. She also likes this set from Melissa & Doug and it doesn’t seem to bother her that she makes a few necklaces and then starts over from scratch with the same cord every few days.

7 // Vinegar and baking soda experiment. I’ve seen this done countless ways, and we’ve tried it a few different ways, too. I think mini’s favorite variation has been giving her a 9″ cake tin, laying down a layer of baking soda, and then filling up a couple of cups (I actually use this silicon tray, which I used to use to freeze homemade baby food) filled with vinegar dyed different colors using food coloring, and then those droppers. She makes different patterns with the colors and is in absolute heaven.

8 // Baking. We’ve done a lot of this — everything from boxed brownies to homemade raspberry muffins (we used this recipe, which calls for only things I always have on hand, and subbed in frozen raspberries!)

9 // “Car wash.” You can use any toy for this — we don’t have many toy cars (yet) so we used her counting bears. We mixed cornstarch with cocoa powder and a little water to create “mud” in one bowl, and then I gave her one bowl with soapy water and a scrub brush and another bowl with clean water. She loved playing with this. It was a complete mess. Strongly advise doing this outside if you are fortunate to have backyard space, in a bath tub, or on the kitchen floor (where we did this).

10 // Jam session. I usually pull these out for virtual music class, but sometimes we pull them out and play them while listening to music.

11 // Books on tape. Audible has made a ton of children’s books available for free while schools are closed. We’ve been listening to Winnie the Pooh and I was surprised that mini laid in her bed for a spell, just listening. She also liked “reading along” in her version of the book, which — though text-dense and long — has a lot of pictures.

12 // Tiara decorating kit.

13 // Dot markers. Sometimes I have her decorate cardboard boxes, which she LOVES to do, and sometimes I print out the free dot marker activities here. I wish I had spare poster board — she’d have a blast marking up a huge square like that!

14 // Painting. This is a near-daily activity in these parts. She loves watercolors.

15 // Don’t Break the Ice. Mini loves this game. Just ordered Candy Land, too.

16 // Long, long baths. It dawned on me one afternoon while I was coaxing mini out of the tub — what am I doing? So what if she stays in there for thirty minutes, shriveling like a prune? She’s happily playing by herself! Let it be! And so I do. I’ve tried to introduce some fun to the mix by using Crayola dropz or bath bombs, bath tub crayons, and tub stickables.

17 // Decorate Easter eggs. Tis the season.

18 // Melissa & Doug activities — they just have the best stuff if you need something ready-made. This cupcake decorating set is right up mini’s alley. I try to store a few of these kinds of things in the closet for desperate days.

19 // Wonder Forge matching game. Mini LOVES this game and I was surprised to see how quickly she “got” it.

20 // Usborne sticker books and Melissa and Doug puffy sticker books. These are just the best — they keep mini preoccupied for long stretches.

21 // “Play cooking.” I just give her a tray filled with ingredients — flour, sugar, oats, sprinkles, water dyed a few different colors, and let her have at it. She loves using the whisk, droppers, and measuring cups.

22 // Car tape (and cars, if you don’t yet have them — just ordered a set because we don’t have many of these). This traffic set would be a fun add on.

23 // Letter-writing. We draw pictures and write letters to loved ones. She loves licking the envelopes and applying the stamp.

24 // Kinetic sand. I’ve not yet dipped into this stuff because we actually had a friend give mini kinetic sand and it made such a huge mess I have been scared to try again since. Going to wait until a day I feel very patient and set this up in our kitchen.

25 // Make jell-o and check back every thirty minutes to see if it’s “set” yet.

26 // Make popsicles.

27 // Decorate cupcakes. I have this Easter set to pull out in the next week or two to get into the Easter mood.

28 // Picnic lunch. Mini LOVES picnics. Sometimes all this means is having lunch somewhere beside the dining room table — one time we ate on the floor of micro’s nursery, one time we ate in her teepee (which we set up in the dining room), and occasionally we eat out in the living room.

29 // Picnic lunch with a twist. Occasionally I serve her a “special picnic lunch” where I fill the cups of a mini muffin tin with different things — sliced cheese, salami, fruit, pretzels, raisins, etc. Something about the variety and presentation is thrilling to her.

30 // Cutting practice. I was scared to do this but her school insists this is something she does routinely in the classroom. I bought her a pair of leftie scissors (Mr. Magpie, Emory, and I are all south paws!) and printed out a few pages with dotted lines drawn on so she has a guidepost.

31 // Paper Bag puppets. You could probably do this with your own stuff at home if you’re better-stocked than I am, but this kit makes it super easy.

32 // Slime. To be honest, mini hated this — the minute she had her hands in it, she recoiled in disgust at the texture and then flung her hands back and forth, spreading slime all over her bedroom. So, not great for us. BUT. I think most kids love it and Mother Could has a few recipes.

33 // Dry erase activity books. Mini has a few of these and really gets a kick out of them. The Usborne ones are good, as are the Priddy ones. Sometimes she just draws on the pages, but other times I see she’s really trying to connect the dotted lines to form letters and the like.

34 // Cooking. I try to have her help me make dinner/lunch whenever possible. Putting rice/water into the rice cooker is just perfect for her skill level — she can measure and pour the ingredients and turn the machine on.

35 // Organizing. We have one cabinet in our kitchen that has only bottles, cups, plates, and bowls for the children, and sometimes I ask her to organize it for me. She loves taking everything out, putting things in rows, and…jamming the back in there in a hodge podge mess. But who cares? It keeps her happy for awhile…

36 // Paint pasta, leave to dry, then string into necklaces. A classic. I like that it has multiple stages to it.

37 // Waterbeads. I’m new to the whole “sensory play” zone so these were a first. I put them out with the tools and also those little water animals and let her have at it.

38 // Dye rice. I was shocked at how much fun it was just to dye the rice with mini–and playing with it has been a blast, too. Line up a couple of quart-sized baggies. Place 1 cup of rice in each and add 1 tablespoon white vinegar. Then add food coloring to each bag. Shake to coat. Spread out to dry on baking sheets coated with wax paper. I would plan to leave for a good six hours. Mini has loved using the rice to “make cupcakes” — mixing the rice with a whisk, pouring into a mini cupcake tin, etc. It’s also incredibly therapeutic to just run your hands through the rice. You can also bury letters or little animals in there and have your child dig them out.

39 // Paint the bathtub — place an underwear-clad child in a bath tub with washable paint (or you can make your own I have heard!) and a few paintbrushes. Hose down everything at end.

40 // Dot stickers. I printed out the letters of her name, taped them to the wall, and then wrote the letters of her name on a ton of dot stickers. She LOVED matching the dots to the letters on the wall.

41 // Pom pom soup. This started as a simple color sorting activity (sort the pom poms by color!) but to be honest she quickly tired of that. So I told her to make me soup. She loved that — anything to do with cooking delights her.

42 // Invisible shapes painting. This was really fun — I drew various shapes/letters onto a piece of watercolor paper using a white crayon. I then had her paint over the paper with watercolors, which revealed all of the hidden shapes!

43 // Animal parade. A clever way to get some extra mileage out of all of those darned tiny toys in the nursery.

44 // Shaving cream play. I placed her little sea creatures in the bottom of a bin and covered them with Barbosol shaving cream (it gets super foamy). I let her use various tools/implements to fish out the creatures and bathe them in a bowl of water with a scrub brush. She was skittish about getting her hands “dirty” (she’s my daughter after all) but once I joined in, we had a good time together with this one. We then used the shaving cream to make “food” — ice cream cones specifically.

45 // M&M experiment. Anything I describe as an experiment immediately garners tremendous excitement.

46 // Caterpillar to butterfly kit. Just ordered this for mini after a mom friend of mine posted a series of Instastories about it. Looks amazing!

47 // Wash-off manicures.

48 // Wipe-clean painting boards. Another Mother Could GENIUS idea. Emory absolutely loved this! All you need is cardboard, shipping tape, and washable paint (and baby wipes for when you’re ready to wipe clean).

For those interested, below is our daily “routine” while in quarantine:

6 AM – Mini pads into our bedroom. Under normal circumstances, I try to wake up with the children most mornings to give Mr. Magpie more sleep because he usually has long days in the office and my schedule often has a lot more “give” to it. During this coronavirus situation, we’ve been trading off mornings, which has been a lovely and needed respite. Sometimes we are able to cajole mini to retreat to her room to play quietly for another 30 minutes, but that thirty minutes is often punctuated by multiple re-entries: “Daddy, look what I made!” and “Mama, I need to take off my nightgown. It’s wet.” (Nothing springs me out of my drowsy state like the prospect of determining how she’s gotten wet and whether she’s somehow managed to flood the bedroom.) More horrifying, I have on multiple recent occasions heard her always-running feet scamper down the hallway towards micro’s room, a feeling of doom settling over my shoulders. Via the monitor, I hear his door open, and then the sound machine click off. Micro grunts and I know we’re done for.

6:30-ish — Micro is up! Change his diaper, open his blinds, give him his morning bottle. I make breakfast for everyone and empty the dishwasher and get mini settled in front of her morning episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The next two hours are a blur of playing, tidying, eating, making beds, re-filling milk and water cups, getting myself ready for the day, and dressing the children. Mr. Magpie is doing the same thing, plus walking the dog and making us coffee and sending me memes and taking out the garbage.

8:30-ish — Free play time in mini’s room, which is (generally) micro-proof and so I am often able to enjoy a little pocket of time checking my emails and Instagram, texting friends and family, placing online orders for groceries/essentials, etc. From here on, Mr. Magpie and I are engaged in a long-form dance, trading shifts and responsibilities and children as we attempt to maintain our jobs and sanity. Most days, I’m with the children in the mornings and Mr. Magpie takes over after lunch, and then we’re all hands on deck starting around 4 p.m., though he often has a packed virtual meeting schedule and so we work around those to the best of our ability.

9-ish — Virtual music class, yoga class, or dance class. Mini has been very into the yoga classes from Cosmic Kids. I’m so proud of her! She’ll often do it all by herself, as I’m usually chasing down micro / attempting to engage him long enough to get through the program.

10-ish — Micro goes down for his morning nap, and mini and I do our big activity for the day. See list below.

11 — Snack and reading time. I try to read her a handful of books (her choice) and then sit with her while she reads on her own.

11:30 — Micro up from nap; I have the children play in his room (micro will play happily in his crib if mini is within his line of sight on the floor), which is just off the kitchen, as I prepare lunch / tidy up / do laundry / etc.

12 — Lunch.

1 — Bath time. I really love moving baths to midday. It makes nighttime a lot smoother for me.

1:30-3 — We try to plan what happens every day during this time the day before/the morning of, but it’s a rotation of options. If it’s nice enough, we’ll go to Central Park for 30 minutes to let mini run out some energy. Most days, we play games, do some art (painting/coloring), do more yoga, build forts, play with magnetiles/blocks/her train set.

3 — Micro’s second nap, and Emory gets iPad time. I take Tilly out for her “midday” walk. Then this is usually fantastic and deserved down time for all of us — though Mr. Magpie often has to clip back into work mode here.

4 — Small activity — coloring/drawing/activity book time, or game time. I find that if I don’t have something set up for mini to do right after I pry the iPad out of her hands, I have a very cranky little one. It pays to take five minutes to set up a game or small activity for her that I can immediately point her toward.

4:30 — Hill up. Free play in mini’s room.

5-7 — HAPPY HOUR, Dinner, FaceTime family, and bedtime routine.

What other toddler activities should I be doing??? Please share advice and ideas below!

In the meantime — has anyone used Osmo? I’m super intrigued. And I think I might buy a few of these colored play trays to help keep things organized in these parts. Might be annoying/extra and add these monograms to one or two of them (ones I won’t use with water projects). It’s the little things.

P.S. Great new finds for littles: the perfect romper for a birthday girl or gal attending a birthday party, the sweetest little robe, and the sweetest set of spring leggings. Also, Nordstrom has a great collection of items on sale right now: Hill’s Patagonia fleece, for example, which n-e-v-e-r goes on sale. Trust me. I spent weeks searching for a discount before buying full-price. Also — $11 jammies in a sweet print and a sweet smocked dress.

P.P.S. I am in need of a treat yoself moment — eyeing these jammies or a Damaris Bailey dress or maybe another nightgown-day-dress.

P.P.P.S. Time is a thief.

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20 thoughts on “A Roundup of Indoor Toddler Activities…

      1. Katie! Just ordered a pair of the pants because they’ve sold out of all the pajama sets in my size, but signed up to be alerted to restocks in like every color 🙂 Thanks for the tip friend. xx

  1. Check out the “Busy Toddler”, a wonderful site and informative blog by a former teacher, and mother of 3. She has recently been featured on the Today show, radio stations and network tv. All her activities are age/developmentally appropriate, and use readily available, inexpensive supplies. She also has a downloadable activity guide, and a book coming out in autumn. You can follow her on Instagram as well. She keeps it real, has a wonderful sense of humor, and two of my toddler grandchildren love her play suggestions. Good luck, be gentle and flexible with yourself, and stay well!

    1. Just to second the BusyToddler rec, I got two of my greatest hits from her— the “pouring station”, aka an empty bin from container store filled with water, different size cups, and a few small toys – my 3 year old will sit there for an hour concentrating, it’s amazing. And, the LEGO bath! It’s exactly what it sounds like- let your toddler take a bunch of legos in the bath, you do no extra work but they are beyond excited and to your point above, will happily while the afternoon away getting pruney and playing.

      Thank you SO much for this list Jen- have half of this list in my amazon cart and am already planning our “day at the beach” for tomorrow’s rainy morning! Lifesaver!!

      1. Thanks Gina!! Going to try these two immediately. Tried her “Toy Parade” just this morning 🙂


  2. Thank you for these activities! In much of the same boat coming up with activities for the littles. I had bookmarked those trays but forgot about buying them – deeming them an essential now, given the need to come up with daily “learning” activities. (I also like that I can then pre-plan activities and have each in a tray, ready to go). Mine also likes activities with dot stickers (can do similar activities that you’d do with the dot markers) and anything that deals with matching.

    Also curious about the Osmo – been eyeing it, but can’t tell if mine would like it or not. Looking forward to hearing others’ reviews!

    1. Agreed on the benefit of trays for pre-planning — and even coralling thinks like markers/pens in one place. Dot stickers!! Great suggestion. Will be ordering some of those.

      I can’t tell on Osmo either, but it seems like anything with the iPad is appealing, so…

  3. Such great inspiration — forwarding this to my three best friends who have 3- and almost-3-year-olds! I love these ideas, and as I’ve said before, I bow down to toddler parents during this time. I’m in awe of you!


    1. Aw shucks — thank you! And I am bowing down to moms with newborns and toddlers and no support…! I can’t imagine getting through those first few weeks without our nanny and a rotation of visitors. Thanks for sharing this with your friends! xx

  4. BLESS YOU for all these amazing tips. Rho absolutely loves Osmo – the squiggles, coding, and tangram toys and apps especially – and I sit with him to work on the reading and math ones which require him to focus a lot more. I don’t love how much iPad time he’s been getting these days, but I’m grateful that these are engaging him in a more meaningful way.

    Some of my followers recommended Storyline – an app where celebrities read books aloud. Rho really loves them and I love watching Chris Pine read to my kid ;P

    1. Yay! Glad something stuck. Wasn’t sure if people would be having “activity list fatigue” at this point — ha. I will continue to add activities to the list as we discover them. xx

  5. This is amazing!! Thank you for sharing!
    Your posts are a much needed bright spot in my day. 🙂 Hang in there!

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