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12 Low-Prep, Screen-Free Ways To Keep Toddlers Busy In Winter


Both research and common sense demonstrate the importance of play. Toddlers need unstructured, under-scheduled time to just be. Time to revel in dirt and sticks, time to build with Duplos, time to learn how to entertain themselves with the contents of the recycling bin. As a mother of two small children, I get this.

Yet the whole idea feels less appealing when the icy winds of winter keep me and my kids cooped up together inside. Nothing says “naughty, grumpy, and loud” like a bored toddler who hasn’t gotten enough exercise. Winter colds and flu only make everything worse. Clearly, there are times when the only way to stay on fond and friendly terms with each other is to have a plan for our day.

There’s nothing wrong with getting out of the house for play dates and toddlers classes, or with turning on the occasional movie, but I still want the majority of my little ones’ time to be unstructured. Because of that, I’ve had to learn how to support my kids’ indoor play.

How To Find Meaning In The Little Things

I’ve also realized that I need a change of mentality. Sometimes we moms fall into the trap of seeing our kids as obstacles to our goals. That makes for a long, discouraging day. I am happier and more productive when I can see the entire process of our day as a valuable part of my job. I can tell myself, “Now we will spend twenty minutes practicing the skill of putting on winter clothes,” or, “Now we will practice refolding laundry as an investment in future child labor,” rather than, “Wow, we wasted a lot of time trying to go somewhere/get stuff done.”

Thinking of prep work and cleanup as a learning experience for the kids—one of the planned aspects of our day—helps me to see the meaning in it.

Key to our peace is reading the mood of the kids and intentionally alternating between activities. Here are some favorite ideas that work for my three-year-old and my one-and-a-half-year-old.

Use Music To Get Out Energy And Entertain

Music is a powerful tool. It can change the vibe in the room almost instantly. When my kids are restless, one of the first things I do is find a lively song. We love dancing to big band swing, bluegrass, Celtic music, Raffi, and Wee Sing. Of course, it doesn’t usually work if I simply hit “play” and tell them to have at it. I have to dance too. We like to wave silk scarves in the air as we dance. Sometimes we use little tambourines or jingle bells (check the dollar store).

Sometimes simple dancing isn’t exciting enough. In that case, we play a non-competitive version of musical chairs. I put toddler-sized seats (chairs, cushions, bean bags, etc.) in the middle of the room, and every time I hit pause, we all need to find a seat. Then the music resumes and we’re off again. Sometimes we play a variation in which everyone needs to collapse to the floor and lie still. The kids like this. Even the one-and-a-half-year-old “gets” it, and she loves “getting” the game the bigger people are playing.

Sometimes we just chase each other to the strains of our favorite bands. Our house has an open floor plan, and we like to play tag in big loops all over the house. Often I capture the kids and tickle them. Enough of this, and they start to relax and lose the grumps.

Once my kids are older, we will probably try making obstacle courses in the basement out of furniture and couch cushions. On the condition, of course, that they clean it up afterwards.

Kids Can Clean And Do Grownup Work

Incorporating child-labor into the daily running of the house is a great way to keep the kids busy and help them feel useful and important.

When I dust, I give them rags and let them follow along. When I vacuum, they take child-sized brooms and pretend to vacuum (pro-tip: you can buy “lobby brooms” from Home Depot and cover the top of the handle with a pool noodle or piece of foam to stop the kids from accidentally cloncking each other on the head).

When I strip the beds, they help pull off the pillow cases and jump on the piles of sheets. My children are particularly fond of washing windows. The windows don’t necessarily end up cleaner than when they started, but they aren’t any worse, either.

Give Your Kids Lots Of Baths

What toddler isn’t more relaxed after a bath? We’ve often beaten the long-afternoon-blues via tub-time. It’s especially fun to first mix up some homemade bathtub finger paint and spend time making pictures on the tile.

Go Outside, Even When It’s Cold

It may be cold outside. It may be gray or wet.

Yet on most days, we go out anyway, even if all we do is poke the ice in our yard with sticks or play a few rounds of tag. Considering that my Scandinavians relatives put their children outside to nap in sub-zero temperatures, I’m pretty sure my children can handle cold cheeks and fingers. The difference in their mood is absolutely worth it.

Put Together A Pasta Bin

I hesitated to jump on the sensory-bin bandwagon. After all, I dislike food waste, and who really wants to spend time dying rice purple? Or picking it out of the rug later? However, we’ve had a lot of fun with a shallow Tupperware storage bin full of pinwheel pasta. It lasts a long time (which cuts down on waste), and, most importantly, the individual pieces are big enough that the kids can pick them up and put them back in.

Sometimes the kids play construction site with pasta and trucks. More often, they raid my measuring cups, mixing spoons, and leftover containers and spend a long time scooping, moving, transferring, and spilling.

I consider clean-up part of this activity. They don’t get to move on until they’ve helped return all the pasta to the bin and all the kitchen-items to the counter.

Entertain Kids With The Kitchen Sink

My son once pulled all the plastic leftover containers out of the cupboard and informed me solemnly, “Dese have a lot of germs, Mommy, but I will wash them.” I was relieved to be protected from disease by so stalwart of a dishwasher. The kids both love to stand at the sink and pretend to wash dishes. They explore the textures of sponges, rags, and brushes; and they scoop and pour to their hearts’ content. When they were small enough, I would let them sit right in the sink while they played.

Try Out These Cardboard Extravaganzas

Cardboard is one of the most awesome things ever. We get our diapers from Amazon, so we have a lot of boxes. Here are some of our favorite ways to use them:

  • Sit inside the box while decorating it with markers or crayons
  • Cut doors and windows to make a car or house
  • Fasten boxes together with packing tape to make a long tunnel (we throw balls down the tunnel or just crawl through)
  • Open up the box and use the cardboard to draw roads for toy cars
  • Use the cardboard to trace a child’s outline and make a life-sized paper doll

Winter Is A Great Time To Bake Together

My kids have highly-developed stirring skills. We are still working on learning to, er, cheerfully take turns with the whisk or spoon. Sometime I give the one-and-a-half-year-old a decoy bowl with a little flour in it. It’s fun to make muffins or cookies together and then eat them at snack time.

You Can Make Playdough

Kids love to be part of the process. Mine enjoy choosing the color of their own playdough and watching me mix it up. We’ve tried this recipe (quick and easy, but doesn’t store well) and this one (a much longer shelf-life and a more workable texture).

Playdough lends itself to lots of creative avenues. Sometimes we squish it and make little balls. Sometimes we use cookie cutters. Sometimes I give the kids cheap birthday candles and let them make pretend birthday cakes.

Explore Different Craft Supplies

We don’t make many official crafts. The kids are too young and too independent-minded. Instead, I supply one or two materials at a time—scissors, finger paint, markers or crayons, glue sticks, stickers, etc.—and they explore.

Sometimes I try to get them to make cards and pictures for specific relatives. The kids enjoy helping me seal these into envelopes, and who doesn’t love receiving a kid-made thank-you note?

Try Out Duplo Blocks

Over the course of several birthdays and Christmases, we’ve built up a big collection of Duplo blocks. My husband has spent many evenings on the floor with the kids, modeling the process of using them. By now, the three-year-old will spend hours creating his own “dirt cement mixer dump trucks,” trains, and other things. We love the open-ended nature of these blocks.

A Quick Note on Toys

I’ve noticed that my children actually play longer and with more focus when limited to a smaller number of toys. I encourage this is by periodically rotating the available toys and games. It’s nice to be able to pull out something “fresh” on a tough day.

Winter Is An Opportunity To Connect With Toddlers

This time of year can be tough on parents. The kids are cooped up, the colds are in full swing, and Christmas is over. On the other hand, we can also see this season as something special: a time to get to know our kiddos a little better. After all, they won’t be tiny, housebound toddlers for more than a few years. Now is our chance to scoop pasta and build Duplo towers. Now is our chance to dance in the living room with people who inexplicably think we have awesome dance moves. I plan to take full advantage of that.