We hear it every day:
“You’re gonna miss this.”
“Babies don’t keep.”
True, but clean dishes don’t “keep” either.
As much as we love our kids, sometimes we have things that need to get done.
We need a few minutes that don’t involve going somewhere, or teaching the kids something, or engaging with them one on one. What we need are a few independent activities for our toddlers. Fun little activities they can engage in while we go about with our chores or businesses.
Over the years, we’ve come up with a long list of independent activities for preschoolers to keep them learning, growing, and—most importantly—out of our hair. Read on for our toddlers’ favorite at-home activities—some of them may just surprise you.
1. Cling On Gels or Stickers
You see them all the time at the dollar store or in Bullseye’s Playground at Target, but did you know “window” clings stick to WAY more than just windows?
Three-year-old Abram likes to play with the window clings on the refrigerator while I’m cooking, whereas 6-year-old Lila would prefer to decorate the mirror in her room. Get letters and numbers for educational purposes, or whatever your kid is into. When we’re on the road, window clings also stick to the cookie sheets in our kids’ travel activity bags.
Your kids can sort them by size, color, and shape, create scenes, or just act out little stories on their own.
2. Seek and Find Sensory Bins
These take a slightly bigger commitment as they make some mess. But this is one quiet activity for toddlers and preschoolers that never fails to fascinate our kids.
They don’t have to be over the top to be successful. Fill them with shredded paper, colored rice or pasta, or even water beads. Add some tools for them to scoop, pour, and transfer. We like these sensory bin tools to help with their fine motor skills, but you can also use measuring spoons and cups from the kitchen.
To take your sensory play up a notch, try this simple seek-and-find sensory bin. First, get a few different colors of dried beans and a foam letter puzzle.
Fill a small bin with beans, and then hide foam letters inside. As kids search around with their fingers, they’ll find the letters and add them back to the puzzle. When the puzzle is finished, they’ll know they found them all.
My kids can play with magnets for DAYS. Whether it’s letters or numbers, playsets, or just whatever I have on my fridge, kids take joy from making things stick. And the best part? It’s generally a totally independent activity, even for toddlers.
If you’re cooking in the kitchen, the fridge makes a great backdrop for magnets. In the laundry room? The dryer will work! Anywhere else? Grab a cookie sheet and make a portable magnet station wherever you are.
(These gear magnets are fun and educational)
4. Picasso Tiles
Our kids are obsessed with Magna-Tiles (well, actually, Picasso Tiles because they’re half the price), and it’s one of the few independent activities for preschoolers that my kids will actually play together.
Bring them out for open-ended play or give them a challenge. How tall can you make a tower? Can you design a bridge? Can you make three different sized houses, one for each of the three little pigs?
Get creative with this, and you can get a lot more time out of these simple (but super fun!) toys.
5. Independent Art Projects For Toddlers
You might think I’m crazy, but when I need an independent activity for my toddler, I turn to art. I know, I know. It can be messy.
But the more your kids do art, the less mess they’ll make over time.
Check out our list of open-ended art projects or just let your kids experiment with different media (we’re partial to our watercolors and Do-A-Dot markers but do whatever works for you).
6. Tong Transfers
Kids these days need more fine motor practice than ever. Teachers are reporting that kids are increasingly coming into classrooms without the scissor skills, pencil grips, and hand strength they need to carry out routine classroom tasks.
One way to work on those fine motor muscles is by adding tongs to your child’s independent play. Drop them into a sensory bin, or grab the game Sneaky Snacky Squirrel, which requires you to use tongs to win.
We also add kitchen tongs to our sorting activities. I picked up some superhero figurines at Target, or you can use counting bears from Amazon. Have your child sort the figures by color, size, or type using ONLY the tongs for an extra challenge.
7. Rock Play
Why are kids so fascinated with rocks? Our kids have come up with a dozen different ways to play with rocks, and it keeps them busy and quiet for hours on end (no, seriously).
8. Do-A-Dot Markers
I know, again with the messes. But Do-A-Dot Markers are perfect for both art and fine motor practice. Try them out as an independent activity for preschoolers or add some structure.
Add lines to help kids make a fine motor rainbow, or you can grab a workbook to help them practice getting their dots in the lines.
You may not think of stickers as an independent toddler activity, but with a little support, it is TOTALLY something your toddlers can do on their own.
We like to grab seasonal foam stickers whenever we see them, as the paper backing adds extra fine motor work to the activity (and, if we’re being honest, helps it take up more time). Don’t forget to have them clean up their own messes when they’re done!
If you’re using a regular sheet of stickers, you may find that preschoolers can use them independently just fine, but your toddler may need more help.
In order to make stickers easier for your little ones to use, first remove the sticky border surrounding the stickers. This is what tends to give toddlers the most trouble. Once you remove it, you’ll be left with a shiny sheet with just stickers. It’s much easier to remove stickers when they’re no longer trapped inside a sticky border.
If needed, you can scaffold it further by peeling up one edge of each sticker, making them much easier for toddlers to use independently.
10. Cereal Sorting and Threading
My preschooler is OBSESSED with threading things. We’ve done dyed pasta beads before as well as regular plastic beads from the dollar store. We’ve also made Cheerios necklaces for an on-the-go snack option.
Add a little extra learning to the activity by using Froot Loops. Have your child sort by color before threading onto a necklace (pro tip: a little piece of tape on the end of your string makes an excellent “needle,” making it easier for your kids to get the cereal on the string).
For an independent activity for preschoolers, have them create a patterned necklace after sorting. Allow them to make their own pattern, or request an “AB” (i.e. red/blue, red/blue) or “ABC” (red/blue/yellow, red/blue/yellow) pattern for additional educational practice.
Our kids love Play-Doh, but if left to their own devices, they’ll end up squishing it all together and making a big mess (in a very short amount of time).
Which is fine sometimes, but other times? You need some quiet activities for toddlers at home that will last more than five seconds.
Extend their play using these unique dough recipes and prompts. We’ve gathered all of our favorites in one place, so you’ll never run out of exciting playdough activities to help your kids play independently.
It may take a bit of practice, but we promise, keep working at it, and you’ll find a whole treasure trove of independent activities for preschoolers and toddlers that will take your quiet time activities to the next level.
And hey, maybe you’ll actually find a little time to get something done. Or (do we dare say it?) to even drink your coffee in peace.
Originally published on The Salty Mamas
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