How to entertain a toddler indoors

We previously lived in a 600-square-foot apartment with no dedicated yard. We’re moving to a 1490-square-foot town home with an enclosed patio, but still no dedicated yard (it’s shared space and open).

I have a very active (but normally so) 3-year-old boy. For a while now his favorite activity has been running away from mommy the moment he hits fresh air. We’re working on it, but it’s exhausting and painful to chase after him with my bad back and hips. Here are some things I do with him when I choose to keep him indoors:

Give him tasks

This past year he has loved being challenged with “Can you do it? I need your help!”A few of the most common tasks are these:

I’ll give him a wet washcloth and let him follow me around the house helping me wipe down dirty walls and windows. Side note: A wet microfiber cloth is all you need for this. We don’t use any soaps or detergents. I really works.

I’ll grab a laundry basket and place it in the middle of the living room, which is where we store the majority of his toys and books for lack of space elsewhere. I’ll challenge him to help me fill the basket with -everything- on the floor. It all goes in there. When the basket is full I put it on my hip and walk around the house depositing things where they belong. This has been working for us since he was 1.5.

He enjoys washing dishes at the sink. This makes a little water mess but it entertains him while I work on something else in the kitchen. I’ll fill the sink part-full with soapy water (I love Dr Bronner’s or Honest Co White Grapefruit dish soap). I’ll put some safe dishes in there for him and let him at it.

He always loves to help me carry things. I’ll usually word my request like so, “Mama needs your help. Can you do it? What a strong boy. Thank you!”

Read

It has taken years for him to sit still during our reading time but we’ve finally arrived, to an extent. I’ll let him pick out the books. There’s a lot of interaction and encouraging him to “read” to me after I’ve read to him. I ask him many “where” and “what” questions about the pictures. Our reading sessions still only last 10-15 minutes at a time at this age.

Build

We love our blocks. We have duplos, alphabet blocks, Melissa & Doug Architectural Unit Blocks, and a bucket of generic, multi-colored blocks. I have these separated into different buckets and I only allow one set out at a time. If I don’t do this I’ve noticed that he dumps them all out and becomes too overwhelmed to play.

When he was very young he enjoyed stacking them up as high as possible and then knocking them down. We could get about 15-30 minutes of playtime with that activity. Now that he’s 3 he enjoys creating slightly more complex structures — homes, castles, towers, cars, etc. I still sit down with him for 10-15 minutes to get him started, so to speak. He’ll continue playing for a while after I’ve gotten up to do something else.

Shower

This is a little unconventional but I still count it as an activity. We have very low flow showerheads and we’ve lowered our water temperature for safety. He’ll be in there for 30 minutes at a time with his bath toys. He’s old enough now that I can be nearby cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry. We are currently only doing this a couple times a week but it used to be more often during those extra messy potty training days.

Crafts

This is my least favorite activity because it requires the most supervision and makes the most mess. Crayons always get broken and writing utensils are used on the walls rather than paper. I will never bring glitter into my home. He’s been entertained for HOURS with this pair of toddler safety scissors and a small stack of construction paper. I let him cut and tear to his heart’s content. We had construction paper shrapnel ALL. OVER. THE. HOUSE. but the vacuum made quick cleanup of that. Stickers are also fun, but very short lived and harder to vacuum. Stickers on windows are a pain, too.

I occasionally reference Slow and Steady Get Me Ready by June R. Oberlander for additional crafts and other activities. It’s stock full of age-appropriate ideas for children from birth to age 5. Every activity uses materials you can typically find around the home.

Homemade play dough is great because it’s cheap and I don’t feel guilty throwing it out in a day or two when it becomes yucky from use. I bought some cheap play dough tools and I designate a table he must use. He’ll play for more than and hour.

“Fixing” something

The current rage is disassembling something with a screwdriver. He’ll go after anything with screws. My grandma used to buy a box full of small kitchen appliances at the flea market and give them to my brother to disassemble. Zach is just starting to do the same thing around here. This activity requires a lot of supervision because he tends to turn the screwdriver into a weapon, or try to stick it into a socket. It gets put away after that.

Hide and Seek

This never gets old. He’s still young enough to get distressed if I hide from him too well, so after a few minutes of looking I’ll turn it into a Marco Polo game where I make a silly noise or knock on the wall to give him a clue.

A friend

This is my best solution for indoor (and outdoor) play. I’ve been hired by another mommy to watch her son in my home two days a week. I make some pocket money and the kids have a blast. They initially needed about a week to “adjust” to each other’s company, but now they’re good friends. I’m able to get a little housework done while they play. A win-win all around.

Shows

I use this sparingly when I must do something (like cook) and want him safely entertained while my attention is elsewhere. He watches on our laptop and the laptop gets put away in the office when I decide the shows are over.

So there you go!

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