Friday, May 17, 2013

Simple Independent Play Activities for Toddlers

Yesterday we discussed some simple tips to help your child play independently.

Today I am sharing some of my favorite simple independent activities that my kids have enjoyed as toddlers. 

For me to be able to use them with my kids, independent activities need to be easy to set up, low on the messy scale, and adaptable. When I'm working on making dinner I don't want to have to keep leaving the stove either, so I typically don't use independent activity ideas that end with me scrubbing walls with a magic eraser or cleaning glue off the kitchen table.

Here are nine of my favorite independent play ideas.


I'd love for you to share your child's favorite independent activities in the comments as well. We can never have too many!

1. Looking at books

I call this independent reading time. It may sound overly simple, but it is actually amazing how many kids don't know how to look at books independently by the time they come to kindergarten. Being able to sit and look at the pictures in a book is an important skill!! We have a simple little reading nook set up with a basket of books next to it and we go and look through them. When we are practicing, we both choose our own book to look at and sit nearby one another looking at the pictures. Sometimes I have my son model for my daughter how to look at books quietly. We rotate the books so that there are new and interesting ones to look at. 

2. Stickers

Stickers are my favorite independent activity. I can sit next to my daughter and answer emails while she does them, work on the dishes, or prep materials for my son's school teacher. Since she is still working on learning how to pull stickers all the way off by herself, I lift each sticker up a little bit to help her out and then she can do the rest. Sometimes I just stick a bunch of stickers on the edge of the kitchen table so she can easily grab them and stick them herself... or her big brother helps her. I give her scraps of paper, boxes, homemade books, easel paper, etc. and she just adds stickers and creates. The reusable stickers are great because they can be moved around a lot!

3. Playing and building with {plastic} spice jars

Just open your spice drawer or put a few spice jars out in an accessible spot. This works the best if I just leave the drawer slightly ajar... so my toddler thinks she is being sneaky. Kids at my house are always really creative when they are playing with objects they don't think they are supposed to play with :) Before you put these out make sure the lids are tightly screwed on! Spice jars are fun to stack, roll, shake, etc. 

4. Toy Puzzles

Trace a few toys onto cardstock and then have your child match the toys to the outline. I like to use this activity when I am putting laundry away in the kid's rooms because I can join in occasionally and mention what different objects are called. I always love finding simple ways to teach new vocabulary words (or reinforce old ones).

5. Laundry hamper play

If I leave a hamper filled with clothes anywhere in the house it is guaranteed that all the clothes will be dumped out and the hamper will be used as a tunnel or basketball hoop. If you can't beat them... join them, right? I love to fill up a hamper when I need to get something done and it doesn't take long before the kiddos are tossing clothes and peeking out of the hamper and I have a free twenty minutes. I have several of these collapsible hampers and they provide loads of fun. 

6. Sticky Walls

Contact paper with the sticky side facing out is such a great versatile way to let your kids create. I tape the contact paper to walls, doors, windows, or tables and then vary the materials that we stick to the sticky wall (pom poms, pipe cleaners, ribbon, tissue paper, etc.). You can find some sticky wall activity ideas here.

7. Sticky Sorting

Sticky sorting combines stickers and sorting. I just grab a roll of art paper, some markers, and foam stickers and can quickly set up a sticky sorting station. The one pictured above was a shape sorting activity, but I also do color, number, alphabet, animal, and flower sticky sorts. For shape sorting my daughter found a shape on the floor and then stuck the foam sticker to the corresponding bigger shape on the wall.

8. File Folder Activities

I like to use file folder activities to work on visual perception skills, though you can use them for much more than that. These take some prep-time to create, but then can be used again and again and again! Someday when I have more free time I will make more. They are great for airplanes, church, etc. I love using velcro to help materials stay stuck... which leads to less frustration for the little ones.

Shape Town, Big Movers, and our Butterfly discrimination folders are among the most popular ones on our site.

9. Sensory bin scavenger hunts

I like to hide things inside sensory bins and then have the kids find them! Sometimes we use cool tools for digging in the sensory bins and sometimes we just use our fingers. We also vary the size of the sensory bin and the materials we use. Having a task to do is a great way to get kids started playing with sensory bins... and then usually you can't get them to stop playing. Sensory activities are my one exception to the mess-free independent activity line up. I like to put a plastic tablecloth on the floor (which I remember), play on top of it, and then shake it out in the garbage or recycling when we are done exploring.

Now that I've shared our favorite independent activities with you, do you have any favorite independent activities? Please come share some in the comments!


  1. What great ideas! My children do many of the same, and I will totally try the sticky sorting on the wall/door idea, usually we just do it at the table, this might be a fun variation. sharing this :)

  2. Fabulous post! Thanks so much for the great ideas. My baby is fast turning into a toddler. I know we'll go back to these. Pinning!

  3. Fantastic ideas - we're really struggling with independent play at the moment with T so this is going to be wonderful

  4. Some great ideas that I gotta do with my 2 yr old grandson but one thing I do find is that independent play is good as long as I or his mother are very close by....or he will just wander off trying to find us

    1. I have the same problem, she loves painting and puzzles and stickers but I have to be sitting with her all the time. The only activity she seems to want to do on her own is playing 'babies', she places mats on the floor and then puts one of her stuffed animals or dolls on them and covers them with small pieces of fabric (the blanket).

    2. I agree, my 2 years a 4 months doughter almost all the time wants me to play with her. She plays alone maybe 15 or 20 minutes.
      My doughter loves to paint, playdough, reading a books, helping me in the kitchen, she also loves to transfer grains of peas or soy from one conteiner to other, she also loves stickers,
      she also likes to play with silocone molds for cupcakes. Great fun is when kids can draw on the sand or semolina. I put some semolina to pizza mold and my douther draws a finger. We making a funny birds from baloon and creativ wire (ramrod? i don't know how to call in english) Kids can draw or stick eyes to baloon, make legs, nose. Rolls from toilet paper are fantastic to play - e.g. kids can tape the rolls together and make tunnels or pipes and put in them pompons or small balls, and segregate them by the collor. Small color pompons are fantastic to segregate.
      For now thats all ideas that comes to my mind.
      (sorry for my english)

    3. Try training them to do mat time - instructions here:

  5. A friend's been having trouble getting her work done around the house; will definitely pass this along. Would never have thought there was so much excitement to be had from spice jars. Add to that the forbidden factor...

  6. If you have a train track, putting it together can be challenging and keep them busy for hours.


  7. Wonderful ideas, thank you for sharing!

  8. Playdoh is my answer for getting supper ready. Make a different theme every once in a while to spice it up. Sometimes I ask my kids to make birds and give them feathers from the dollar store to decorate them. Another time I might give them small plastic dinosaurs and ask them to create a prehistoric landscape in the dough with them. I've also used cheap fake flowers from dollar stores and yard sales, and my boys have made flower arrangements. Fun, fun, fun.

  9. Great ideas! Is very important for toddlers to have independent play time!

  10. Great ideas! I see a laundry basket dump in our near future! Also love the puzzle pieces on card stock. Haven't seen that one before. Thanks!

  11. Wonderful ideas...I make roti's at home everyday, so we use that dough as play dough and A definately enjoys it and I get dinner ready meanwhile :)

  12. This is a wonderful collection of activities to help cultivate independence in toddlers. I have linked to it so my readers can enjoy. Thanks for this work.

  13. I like the stickers,i m sure my son too.thanks


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