5 Tips for Stress-Free Toddler Activities

Has this happened to you?

  • You Google “activities for toddlers” or look it up on Pinterest.
  • You see hundreds – maybe even thousands – of beautiful and interesting looking activities. They use nice keywords like “sensory play” or “brain development”.
  • You download a few of them and look at the instructions. There’s a list of needed materials and ingredients.
  • You gather the materials. Flour? Check. Food coloring? Check. Yarn. Pompoms. Glue. Paint. Paintbrush. Sponge. Large sheet of paper. Colored sheets of paper. Colored tape. Masking tape. Raw pasta. Bin. (If you’re like me, even finding an empty bin that doesn’t have any cracks and won’t make the paint drip all over the floor is a struggle.)  
  • You spend 15-20 minutes prepping for the activity. This doesn’t even count the time you spent a few days ago ordering or buying the materials. You do all of this while your toddler is screaming for attention. You tell him to be patient and wait. While doing all this, you also remember all your unfinished house work. But you think, this is a good sacrifice. After all, this is for your child’s development! 
  • Finally, you present it all to your toddler. He spends maybe five minutes tearing through the materials, laughs, then goes on to run around the room. You feel frustrated because you think he “missed the point”. The result is completely different from that child on the internet.
  • Rinse and repeat with another activity. 
  • Exhausted and discouraged, you conclude that screen time is the only way to keep him entertained. You feel guilty because you never imagined that you’d end up giving so much screen time.

Sounds familiar?

You know the facts. The early years are critical for brain development. At this age, kids learn through play. You want to provide activities to boost development. But there has to be a better way than this. You shouldn’t have to choose between fussing over activities or simply handing over your phone or tablet. 

And yes, there IS a better way. Your child can play and learn, and have screen-free activities, WITHOUT the fuss and the stress. You can focus on what really matters, which is connecting with your child.

Tip #1: Simple is better.

Activities do NOT need to be complicated. Simpler activities are just as effective for boosting learning. 

If you look at activity lists, you’ll notice that many of them are variations of the same activity. For example, the basic skill is making strokes with a pencil or crayon. Activity guides will have hundreds of variations of this skill. Coloring an animal picture. Coloring or drawing on a cut out that is shaped like anything from a car to a cloud. Using a crayon or marker to decorate a card, a board, a colored sheet of paper, or a printable. 

It might take you more time to prep for some of activities than others. In the end though, they all practice the same skill. It doesn’t matter whether your child colors on a blank piece of paper, a discarded cardboard box, a coloring book, or on a board for which you spent time gathering materials and pasting all sorts of things on it. It is still coloring.

In fact, coloring on the blank piece of paper or on the cardboard box may even boost your child’s imagination more! Go ahead and prepare the complicated board if you want to. But you DON’T need to do this. And you certainly should NOT feel guilty when you see another mom doing this.

In fact, many of the complicated activities involve materials that are choking hazards. Beads, inflatable balloons, and dry pasta shells may all be choking hazards. Read this article from healthychildren.org for more information on toy safety.

Tip #2: Balance activities from the five domains of development.

These are the five domains of development:

  • gross motor: how the child moves (such as walking, running, jumping)
  • fine motor: how the child uses his hands and fingers (such as writing and drawing)
  • language: how the child understands what you say and what the child says
  • personal or self-help skills: activities of daily living (such as eating, brushing teeth, washing hands) and also helping out around the house
  • social and emotional: how the child interacts with other people, and how she manages her own behavior and emotions

If you search for “toddler activities” on the internet, chances are 80% of the activities you’ll find are arts and crafts and sensory play. These are mainly fine motor activities. Although arts and crafts and sensory play are often the ones needing preparation, they are not the only ways to play and learn. Language or social and emotional activities, for example, often require little to no preparation. Activities for personal or self-help skills are best done as part of your daily routine (see the next tip below). To have well-rounded development, your child needs activities in all the domains.

The good news is, on their own, kids WILL seek out opportunities to do activities in all the domains. We just need to let them find ways to do this in a safe and acceptable manner. In fact, often we are the ones stopping them when we try to make them sit on a desk and trace some worksheets. 

The other good news is that if you keep in mind these five domains, you won’t run out of activities! Every activity out there can be classified into these domains.

Want to know more about promoting language development? Read this article.

Tip #3: Include play and learn activities in your daily routine.

When we think of learning activities, we often think of sitting at a table or on the floor and doing arts and crafts, or maybe doing sensory play. We think of setting aside a block of time when we don’t do anything else except those activities. 

But these are not the only way that kids can play and learn. ANYTHING can be a learning activity. Bath time is an excellent chance to learn self-help skills. When you talk with your child during meal times, you are boosting language development. She also learns self-help skills and fine motor skills when you let her handle the food and utensils. Learning does not happen only when you set aside a time to “do activities”.

While you are cleaning up, for example, you can hand your child a towel and tell him to wipe a table while you clean the floors. Yes, the job will take longer. But you’re already spending so much time prepping for separate activities – why not do this instead? More importantly, you will build your child’s sense of self-efficacy. Your child will feel that he is making an actual contribution to the family.

That said, you will, of course, need to watch out for safety considerations. You need to make sure that choking hazards are out of the way. For toddlers who are running around, you won’t be able to involve them while you are cooking or handling anything hot. You will need someone’s help to either watch your toddler or to take over the cooking. You can still involve your child in the mixing and pouring beforehand.

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Tip #4: Focus on the connection, not the outcome.

The results of your activities DON’T have to look like the photos you see on the internet. So he was supposed to make an artwork where his handprints form the shape of a heart. But your child just smeared paint all over the paper. (That’s what my toddler did when we tried doing this activity. In fact, he didn’t just smear it all over the paper, but all over himself and the floor too!)  That’s perfectly okay!

The important thing is that you and your child enjoy the experience. Remember why you are doing the activities in the first place – for your child’s development. And scientists have found that the most important factor in a child’s development is a stable, loving relationship. When we focus too much on the outcome, on preparing the materials, on the “concept” that your child has to “learn”, sometimes we end up being distracted from just BEING in the moment and making the connection. 

So when you do activities with your child, remove your expectations. Your child may even surprise you and come up with new ideas that you didn’t expect!

Tip #5: You don’t need to entertain your child all the time.

It’s not your job to “provide activities” for your child. You don’t need to schedule every minute of your child’s waking hours. In fact, you SHOULDN’T. 

Many of our kids today live overscheduled lives, and often it starts as early as when they are toddlers. There are toddler classes, mommy and me play groups, multiple play dates, hours (and money!) spent in commercial play areas. By the time they go to school, it becomes multiple lessons and enrichment classes on top of already hectic school work. 

Now that kids are quarantined at home, we’re at a loss as to how to fill the void left by all these scheduled activities. Instead of say, two hours in a toddler class, we think we have to come up with activities to fill up those two hours. 

But we don’t have to! We need to stop, and give our kids time to just be kids. They need down time and independent play.

We all live busy lives, and we want to make each moment count. Focus on the things that matter. Your child is a toddler for only 730 days. That is a very short time in the greater scheme of things. We don’t want to spend those days in a hamster wheel of trying to keep up with all the little details, only to miss the big picture. 

Try this for the next three days. Forget everything you googled about toddler activities. Just choose one part of your routine where you would like to connect more with your child. This can be during bath time or mealtime. Or 10 minutes out of the 1:1 time you spend with your child. During that time, just spend time with your child. Look him in the eyes and respond to his facial expressions. Talk with her and describe what is happening, then let her respond. Try it and see what happens! Let us know in the comments below.

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