Our zero-degree-freeze-the-snot-inside-your-nose midwestern winters are in full swing, and we are officially hibernating. I bought 3 months worth of food and we’re not leaving the house until April.
The freezing weeks of winter here cause us to get a little bit creative with our indoor activities.
And by creative, I mean, my kids play with our trash.
JK. But seriously…
Maybe it’s just our kids, but sometimes they’d rather play with trash than toys. I mean, our first child literally used to empty the recycling bag in our tiny Boston kitchen and PLAY WITH THE TRASH.
And if we let our 1st kid play with trash, you can only imagine what our 4th child gets himself into.
Talk about “FREE AND EASY” home made toddler activities. Does trash count!? HA!
I have an old post about our kids’ favorite toys. Most of those are still on the favorite toys list around here. But I realized my kids also spend a fair amount of time playing with non-toys.
TO THAT END, HERE ARE SOME IDEAS FOR FREE/ CHEAP TODDLER TOYS
These are not glamorous, organic, pinterest-worthy children’s activities. (Although if you like this post, I’d love for you to share it/ pin it anyway! Social media could use a little trash… oh wait…) 🙂
These are cheap homemade toys for babies and toddlers that you could put together with junk you probably have around your house, while you binge watch old episodes of Downton Abbey.
I keep a lot of these activities stored in ziplocks in a medium sized bin that is HIDDEN, so that when I pull one out, it’s special and fun.
Almost every idea in this post requires less than 10 minutes of effort to put together (with a couple exceptions). Now that’s my kind of home-made toy. Cheers to being free & easy.
Do you have any ideas to add? Add them below in the comments!
1. PIPE CLEANERS + OBJECTS WITH SMALL HOLES
Our 2 year old likes to see if she can get the short pipe cleaners to fill all the holes in the parmesan cheese shaker without them going all the way through. The package of pipe cleaners and the parmesan cheese shaker were $1 each at the dollar store.
- My children think it is an entirely separate activity to stick toothpicks in the shaker.
- Or pipe cleaners in the colander.
- Or toothpicks in an old spice container.
Any other ideas for this one?
2. Scooping + ice cube trays + small objects
- Dry pasta
- Fruit loops
- Ice cubes
- Giant buttons (my kids love these)
- Plastic Bottle caps
Anything that makes noise, is small enough to scoop, but big enough to clean up.
I’ve found that less is more. 1 type of item + 1 scooper + 2 different types of containers is a good amount of things.
Too many items and containers and the kids seem to get overwhelmed or bored faster.
If this activity (or any other) gets out of control, time to clean up! I highly recommend calmly ending the activity at the first sign of craziness.
If your toddler dumps some pasta out, this is not a big deal. They’re exploring! Let it go. Or put the whole activity on an old towel or sheet and remind them: “Keep the pasta on the sheet.”
But, if your little angel starts throwing pasta around the room, time to be done.
Just calmly say something like, “I can see you’re done. Clean up time.” And start cleaning. No big fight or behavior issue necessary. Here are other ideas for proactive, positive 1 year old behavior training + discipline.
When they start getting crazy, it’s your clue that they’ve lost interest. Move on, don’t try to make it an obedience thing where they have to “play the right way.”
3. Muffin Tins + Buttons
You and I know this is the same as dry pasta and ice cube trays… but toddlers?
They think it’s totally new, different and fun! Capitalize on this my friends.
4. BEADS + YARN + PLASTIC NEEDLES
Beading was a favorite activity around age 2.5-4 years old.
I purchased plastic needles, tiny hoop, yarn, wooden beads at Hobby Lobby for less than $5.00 total.
The brown “netting” pictured was extra from some of that sticky cabinet liner that you put on the shelves in your cabinets. Or you can order it on Amazon.
The plastic needle makes it easier for a toddler to bead than with string by itself. If you have old shoelaces around, those will work too.
Pipe cleaners are fun to bead, then you don’t even need the plastic needle. Use your imagination!
Bonus: beading and threading help kids to develop the fine motor pincher grasp necessary for holding a pencil correctly.
Bam! Now your free trashy activity is educational too. You’re welcome.
5. PAPER RIPPING
All of our kids have gone through a paper ripping phase circa 10-15 months. I showed Emma how to rip from a stack of magazines. Once she figured it out, she went to town! She’d spend 15 minutes or more on this.
(Which, as you know, can be JUST the amount of time you need… squeeze in a 15 minute workout, prep a quick meal, have your kid do this on the bathroom floor while you take a shower, or just read a book and sit by yourself in the quiet with the peaceful sound of paper ripping in the background.)
She thought this was fun for weeks. When she would get bored, I’d just toss all the ripped up pieces in a brown paper bag to recycle. She would help.
Should we call cleaning up our ripped paper bonus baby activity 5B?!
Yes I think we should.
6. RECYCLED CONTAINERS
Empty plastic bottle. Fun to crinkle. Fun in the bath. Fun to drink. Literally one of the world’s best baby toys for free.
Fun all around! I was not kidding when I said my kids play with trash.
I have a small box of washed out plastic containers that we use for all kinds of things… all the scooping and pouring activities, playing in the sink, bath, sandbox, or pool, etc…
Old spice containers and those plastic grated parmesan containers are the crowd fave because the kids love to flip up the lid and see the water pour out through the little holes.
Every so often, I actually recycle them and save “new” ones. The gift that keeps on giving!
7. BABY WIPES CONTAINER + ANYTHING THAT WILL FIT INSIDE
An old baby wipes container was a BIG hit for all of our kids around 15-20 months.
They loved pressing the button and seeing the top pop open. They put something in, click it back down and repeat. Once all their objects are inside, they sometimes need help opening the whole box to get them out.
Eventually, they figure out how to open the box, or how to stick their hand in and pull stuff out.
ANYTHING is fun to put in and dump out of an old wipes box:
- recycled milk tops
- q tips
- fabric scraps
- play cards
- small action figures
- bouncy balls
- LITERALLY ANYTHING
This is another toddler favorite for the bathroom floor while mom showers. (Don’t use anything they can choke on while you’re in the shower, obviously.)
Related: 22 Tips to Survive a Road Trip with Toddlers & Preschoolers (Tons of other good activities in this post!)
8. Straws in holes.
I think I snagged these giant straws off an endcap at Walmart for $1.00.
They have served us well. Besides using them for smoothies, they are fun to drop in our empty block bucket. Our block container has a shape sorting lid like this.
The trashier method would be just cutting holes in the top of an old oatmeal container.
9. Cutting straws
Let your toddler cut straws with toddler scissors. (These are AMAZING scissors for first learning to cut.)
Then, use the small pieces they just cut as “beads” on a pipe cleaner or shoelace.
10. Hide the straws
Hide 5 brightly colored straws in a room and let your toddler try to find them.
You could do this with anything your child loves, but a “novel” item like a pack of brightly colored plastic straws or a pack of colorful erasers from the dollar spot at target makes it even more fun and new!
11. Throw the straws and & Clean them up Race
We did this with those plastic straws! Basically, throw a bunch of a lightweight object all over and then see how fast you can race to get them back to a certain spot.
Do it with like 5-10 large, light weight objects… stuffed animals, straws, measuring spoons, etc…
DON’T do this with something like beads. Duh!
12. Money Activities
At 2, our kids liked doing the following with money…
- sorting change by color (silver & copper)
- sorting by size (using only quarters & dimes)
- pouring it from container to container
- putting it in a piggy bank 1 by 1.
Our 1-2 year olds have reeeeeeally liked a piggy bank. Something about the coins disappearing into the slot, and then dumping them all out again.
Of course, they make fancy toys that mimic this:
Since we’re trying to stick to trash, I’d recommend using recycled items to make your piggy bank.
Fun every time!
Sometime in between 2 and 3 years old ish, a toddler can figure out clothespins. I found small/medium sized crafting ones at Walmart, which are easier than big ones.
These plastic clips would accomplish the same activity! And probably last longer 🙂 Wooden clothespins fall apart easily…
I picked up some paint chips to try a color gradient activity for my first toddler, which she really liked. I put a light, medium, and dark green paint chip in a tray with 3 clothespins. I cut off a strip of each paint chip and glued it to the clothespin. Then, she would match the shade of green to the right color paint chip by clipping the clothespin on.
She didn’t conceptually understand light and dark colors until we did this, and doing this activity helped her just figure it out on her own. It was so fun to see her figure this out on her own! #TeacherMomNerd
Full disclousre: 4 kids later, we do not still have this activity and I will not make it again… because I have 4 small children! HA! #4thchildprobs. He’ll have to learn light and dark a more organic way.
The 4th child version of this activity would be…
Skip color gradients and just color on them with markers and clip them to construction paper.
Or skip color matching all together and just let the kid(s) clip the clothespins to whatever they’ll fit on – cardboard, old cereal box, hair, fingers, string, necklaces, the edge of their shirt…
Jk. kinda. Around 2 1/2, my toddlers reeeeally want to help cook. Every single meal. And it’s not enough to just stand next to me with an empty bowl and spoon and pretend anymore.
So, we have a dip-spreader with a serrated side that I made a big deal out of – how it’s a grown up knife, only for big kids, etc..
We’ve also talked extensively about how it’s the only knife she’s allowed to do… yada yada yada. (Come on, people, don’t actually let your kids play with knives.)
But give them cooked noodles, melon, bread, or bananas to cut with a butter knife, and you will have one focused toddler on your hands.
Our kids love to jump into a sea of pillows.
By 2, they’re old enough to run and get all the pillows by themselves 1 at a time, and put them all back when they’re done. So this is a minimum 30-minutes-of-fun activity.
One of their faves while I’m making dinner because they can occasionally peek out the window and see if Dad is home yet.
When we moved into a house with more space, we bought this 5 foot square foam jumping pillow specifically for the purpose of jumping off of furniture onto this!
16. Dry erase markers
Here, I put construction paper inside page protectors. Then I used painters tape to tape them all to the table so they wouldn’t slip around.
I gave her a dry erase marker and small piece of paper towel.
Scribble, erase… like magic!
My current 3 year old LOVES a mini dry erase board and marker.
Yes, it gets on walls and furniture and skin. No I don’t care because I use this magical, chemical free stuff from Norwex that wipes ANYTHING RIGHT OFF ANYTHING! Sharpie, dry erase, disgusting grime in tile grout, spaghetti sauce, whatever… it wipes right off. Voodoo magic I tell you. This container will last you YEARS.
17. Sticker Line Up
Susie at Busy Toddler has a billion fun ideas for dot stickers! This one is simple as can be for toddlers.
If you peel the background off, 2 year olds can get the dots off by themselves. #protip
18. Fill The Letter with Dot Stickers
Totally different from dot stickers on a line… to a toddler anyway 😉
These neon dot stickers are $1.00 at Walmart next time you’re there. Otherwise, you can order these primary colored dot stickers on Amazon for less than $5.00 for a pack of 1000! That’s so cheap! They will last a while!
19. Water at the Sink
An all time favorite for toddlers around here!
Put a beach towel under the chair they’re standing on and embrace the fact that it’ll be wet! Who cares!? It’s just water. My toddler will do this for 30 minutes!
20. Water in a Bin (aka: Pouring station)
Finally, if all else fails, put some all-time favorite toys in a fort and call it a day. Because forts make everything more fun.