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Playing with Toddlers

Toddlers.  Though most of us don’t remember much of what being a toddler was like, those with toddlers in their family can probably attest to the fact that they are little bundles of extremes – extreme emotion, energy, and exhaustion, though that last bit usually references their parents.  Toddlers are often thought to be wild, tantrum-throwing little terrors (hence the name “terrible twos”), but that kind of label is really misleading.  Although tantrums are a normal part of childhood, toddlers are also insatiably curious, eager to learn, and are fascinated by the world they are now, for the first time, truly able to explore.

Toddlers need to play.  It’s not just about getting exercise or releasing some pent-up energy.  Play is also a vital aspect of learning.  Through play, they learn about their world, build social skills, reinforce rules about behavior, and develop their creativity and imagination.

Although it’s easy to dismiss playing with your toddler – there are always dishes to be done, laundry to be folded, and that last bit of work you brought home with you – doing so hurts both of you.  Playing with your kids is a great way to bond, to help them learn, and to reach back to your inner child.  Let’s face it, most of us get a little tired of being an adult all the time.  Responsibilities, work, and expectations wear on all of us.  So why not push them aside for twenty minutes, grab a toy, and celebrate being a kid?

Low-Cost Ways to Play With Your Toddler

Treasure Map

Treasure Hunt

This is one of my toddler’s personal favorites.  I hide a “treasure” (usually a couple of coins from the bottom of my purse) and then we play pirate.  I draw up a treasure map, giving specific landmarks around our house that lead to the treasure, and then we use the cardboard tubes from paper towels or toilet paper to search for them.  We check the landmarks off as we go and when we finally find the treasure, she gets to add the coins to her piggy bank.  It’s a great way to introduce basic map skills.

Tag 2.0

I’m sure most of you have played tag at some point in your life.  The basic idea is easy for most children to grasp, allows them to get some needed exercise, and can be played almost anywhere.  Rather than the traditional game, why not mix things up a bit?  When playing freeze tag, the person who gets tagged must remain “frozen” until another player tags them and thaws them out.  Color tag brings additional challenges as the person who is it calls out a color and anyone wearing that color must run or be tagged.  Once tagged, they help the “it” person tag the others until everyone with that color is caught.  Last one tagged starts the game over and calls out a new color.  Or, for a really fun spin on things, try farm animal tag.  Whoever is “it” plays the role of the farmer and must collect the animals that have escaped.  Everyone fleeing chooses a farm animal to be and must move like that animal.

Guess the Animal

Another favorite in our family, this is a staple game for every car ride.  The basic game is played like Twenty Questions.  One person thinks of an animal and the others take turns asking questions about the animal.  Does it have four legs?  Does it live in the jungle?  Does it have fur?  The one who guesses the correct animal gets to choose the next one (or you can take turns guessing to be sure everyone gets a chance).

Hide the Duck

This was a game I used to play with my grandfather.  He would hide a small item (now we use a small rubber duck) somewhere in the room.  He always hid it in the open, but tucked away in some unusual location.  We’d search the room, investigating from different angles, while he called out temperatures: cold meant we were far off, warm meant we were getting closer, and hot meant we had nearly found it.  Whoever found the item then got to hide it the next time.

Playing Scientist


Purchase a magnifying glass for your child (and one for yourself if you’d like to join in) and then pretend to be a scientist.  Take a closer look at everyday things to learn about the world on a different level.  Investigate plants, bugs, rocks outside or journey inside to learn more about toys they play with every day.  Investigate what a rough toy looks like up close or see why plastic feels so smooth.  Take a closer look at the foods they eat by looking at strawberry seeds up close or check out what a single piece of rice, quinoa, or barley looks like.

Creative Story Time

This is a great way to encourage creativity and is a great option for car rides.  Have an adult start the story with an opening scene.  Then, take turns adding to the story.  Don’t worry if it goes astray.  This game is all about being silly, so if Goldilocks ends up visiting a house filled with purple dragons that fly her to a soccer game where she scores the winning goal, just go with it.  Changing the story as you go encourages creativity and also quick thinking.

Build a Fort

No engineering degree required.  Simply gather a few household items – blankets, pillows, chairs, folding tables, etc – and create the fort of your child’s dreams.  Bring flashlights inside to play shadow puppets, horde treasure and watch for thieving pirates, or pretend the family dog is a dragon guarding the castle gates.  If you have access to the wooded outdoors, build a fort outside with sticks and logs, rocks, and other items from nature.  You may be surprised by just how creative your toddler can be.

Hopscotch 2.0

A neat arrangement of squares is a thing of the past.  Why not update your next hopscotch framework to include things like swirls for spinning, zig-zags to follow, footprints to match, and even things like “hop like a bunny” and “flap like a bird”?  Your imagination is the only limitation.

Toddler with camera

Photo Shoot

Most of us take pictures of our kids, but how many of us let our kids take the pictures?  Now that getting film developed isn’t necessary, taking pictures doesn’t have to break the bank.  You can have them take pictures of pets, family members, or even direct their own fashion show with a bit of dress-up fun.  If you don’t want your child playing with your camera or phone, consider buying an inexpensive camera specifically for your kids.  Though it may be a $30 or $40 dollar investment, it can provide lots of opportunities for fun that will last for years.

Obstacle Course

This is a great option for parties or other gatherings.  Using things from around your house, lay out the groundwork for an obstacle course.  Set out paper plates for hopping stones, use pool noodles for limbo bars, and line up lawn chairs to use as a tunnel.  Then create the rules.  Maybe they have to hop like a frog or log-roll from one area to the next.  Be silly, be creative, and have fun.

Dance Party

Turn on some tunes, clear off the floor, and get ready to dance.  Create a chart of people and animals on a piece of paper and use small pebble to be the marker.  Whoever goes first must drop the pebble on the paper and dance like whatever or whoever it lands on.  You’ll laugh as your toddler dances like daddy or like the beloved family pet.  Try your hand at dancing like an elephant or perhaps a baby chick.

This list should give you some new ideas for ways to help your child explore the world around them, learn about nature, and express their creativity.  We hope that you enjoy getting in touch with your inner child just as much as your child enjoys playing with you.  Come back soon to get some ideas on how to encourage your older children to keep playing when social pressures and demands at school may be pushing them to stop.