Stay-at-Home Activities for the Toddler/Preschool Crowd

I am definitely not trying to moonlight as a mommy-blogger, but as a teacher and mom to a three-year-old I know what it's like to have long stretches of days where your kid is annoying the hell out of you and you just want them TO DO SOMETHING AND BE QUIET OHYMGOD. So, over the past year or so, I've used Pinterest, Instagram, and my own brain to come up with some cheap, minimal mess (well, for the most part), fun activities that will occupy your 18 month- 3.5ish year olds. These are nothing special or wonderful, but they work. 

Water Activities
1. A water table- this is the most expensive item on this list, since most run between like $40 and $100, but if you think about the hours your kid will stand at is then it's totally worth every penny. We also bought a fire-pit canvas cover to protect it from the weather (and so it looks nicer and tidier when not in use).

2. Indoor water play- I'll lay down some towels on the floor, strip Sawyer down to his undies, and give him a few pitchers of waters, along with an assortment of whatever I pull out of my cupboards (ice cube trays, turkey basters, spoons, colanders, etc...). There's something about pouring water between containers that kids love. Plus, my floor ends up super clean in that spot of the kitchen. 

3. Water beads- These are less than $10 on Amazon and you only need a tablespoon to have PLENTY. Sawyer plays with these with his water table or inside. They're also really fun to watch grow over the course of six or so hours, while they are absorbing water (if your kid still puts things in their mouth you may want to hold off). 

Sensory Stuff
4. Rock/bean tub- We call this "Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site" after one of Sawyer's favorite books, and it lives upstairs by my treadmill. I had some leftover floral pebbles that I combined with a couple of bags of assorted dried beans, added some of the trucks, animals, spoons, and small containers he already has and BOOM! A station that keeps him busy forever. 

5. Pipe Cleaner/Colander/Beads- I honestly have no idea what to call this contraption, but I cut down some pipe cleaners, showed him how to thread them through the holes and to slide beads on. Now that he's really into colors and sorting it's serving more of a purpose than just fine motor skills.

[bonus: it can be a hat]

6. Play Dough- Oh, I hate messes, I do. But when you have a kid, you have to learn to deal with it, so I buy cheap disposable table cloths and cut them in thirds. I then tape them to the table ahead of time so that when he's done we can just save the big chunks and throw out the tiny little crumbs. 

7. Bean Sorting- I bought a bag of the 10 bean soup mix (or however many beans are in it) and I set up cupcake liners so that he can sort the different colors. I was really surprised how long he spent on this one and how meticulous he was about the whole thing.

Arts and Crafts (aka part of the reason I save Michaels coupons)
8. Door Decorating (picture at top)- For every holiday or season (so every two or so months) we decorate his bedroom door accordingly. I don't do a lot for seasonal decor in my house, so this is sort of my concession. We recently did an ocean theme and every few days we'd do a new craft (easy ones from Pinterest). It's really cute to see him involved and take ownership of the projects.

9. Canvas Painting- Michaels runs some crazy sales on cheap canvases where you can get a pack of like five or six for a few bucks a piece. I use the tablecloths from above and old paintbrushes and we're good to go. They make good gifts for grandparents, too! You an also reuse them (paint them white when no one is looking- our secret). 

10. Big Boxes- Save some of the old boxes you get from furniture or other big items and when you're desperate bring them inside and put your child in the box with some crayons, markers or stickers. They're confined, the mess is in one place, and it's recycling! 

11. Sticker Books- Sawyer has an old blank book that I got somewhere and he loves to sit and just put stickers in it. I pick them up when I see them in dollar bins and have ransacked my classroom cupboards, and now that people know how much he loves them he gets them for gifts, too. 

12. The Usual Suspects- Sidewalk chalk (LOVE! Costco has a huge box for less than $10), coloring books, stamps, bubbles, LEGO, puzzles, balloons, paint daubers (I had never seen these until last year- they're great!), etc...

13. Tape roads- We use painter's tape to make roads all over the living room for his cars.

14. Cooking- Since Sawyer was old enough to sit in a high chair I've let him play with measuring cups and stuff while I've cooked. For the last year or so he's gotten really into helping and I'll give him "jobs" that he loves (cupcake liners into the pans, putting toppings on a pizza, unwrapping sticks of butter, rolling out pieces of scrap dough, etc...).

15. Magnet board- When Sawyer wasn't even two yet we got him a magnet board and some magnets (Melissa and Doug!). Now every time we go somewhere new he gets a new one, so that we can add it to his collection. It's a great way to talk about past memories and work on vocabulary, too!

16. Melissa and Doug Jumbo Building Boxes- As far as I'm concerned, Melissa and Doug walk on water, and these blocks are one reason why. They're also a little expensive, compared to these other activities, but they hold up really well and are used all the time. We make towers, garages for his cars, chairs for his stuffed animals, etc...

Hang in there, moms. We're in this together. 


  1. I really should have done more of these when Greyson was smaller. Now that he's seven I feel like I'm getting an early dose of the teen years. He's out of the house on his bike, playing with friends all day, and he comes home to watch movies. lol Very strange, these life transitions.

  2. These are great ideas! I'm going to skip the ones involving pebbles or beans for now -- my little guy would like nothing better than to just fling them everywhere!