After many years of working outside the home I found myself a little lost on how to entertain a toddler while in a chapter of being home with him all day. I had worked with groups of kids for years and I had a toolkit but I needed something different in the belly of covid. I began to dig online and websites and books I found either required an expensive list of materials, hours of adult preparation time, or assistance of technology, sometimes all three. All of the things I was trying to avoid. Toddlers learn through play and the simpler, the better! Have you ever given your toddler a cardboard box? They don’t need expensive learning gadgets! I realized the advice out there was much about selling a lof of “educational tools” and whole lot less about how to just get your kid outside and learn from their world. So here is the guide I couldn’t find!

These ideas pulled from my years working in early education and largely inspired by our own kids’ interests and ideas are minimal set-up, inexpensive, and tech-free.

Looking for older kids? Check out our guide for preschool and young children! (coming soon!)

Learning with Sidewalk chalk

Each summer, we go through a school-sized box of sidewalk chalk and have logged countless hours learning on our sidewalk and driveway. This cheap and super fun activity is perfect for toddlers! Several ways to extend scribbling time into learning time are outlined below! Any chalk will do, its a pretty quickly absorbed consumable in our house.

Practicing Letters

Write out your kiddo’s name, identify each letter as you write it, and encourage your toddler to repeat after you. As they get the hang of the letters in their own name move onto other family or pet names. This isn’t a copycat activity unless they are interested in trying it on their own. And this is definitely not the time for quizzing them on letters. It feels so good to mentally check off each letter that your child knows, but these testing scenarios aren’t actually that helpful for toddlers and can lead to frustration with play.

Obstacle course

My kids favorite which I have now outsourced to the endlessly creative big kids. Draw boxes to jump from, arrows to run down, and swirls to spin on. Burning energy while practicing direction following, coordination, and balance.

Paint with Sidewalk Paint

Mixing equal parts corn starch and water and adding a few drops of food coloring or tempera paint you can make quick and easy sidewalk chalk paint. The colors on your sidewalk will dry even brighter and more vibrant. Painting with a paintbrush and the process of dipping and painting is all building up the muscles in your toddler’s hands that will later support writing.

Sidewalk paint and sidewalk chalk to create hours of fun and a sidewalk mural to be admired by all of your neighbors.

Learning with Nature

From city sidewalks to wooded backyards, there is nature and the opportunity to learn from and with nature anywhere you are. When learning about nature in NYC we often took a trip out of the city, but plenty of nature could be found within a few block walk as well.

Gathering and Sorting

Gather sticks, leaves, acorns, seeds, etc. in a small bucket. You can sort the nature treasures into each category “leaves”, “sticks”, “nuts”. Then sort the individual categories, i.e. sticks from biggest to smallest and leaves from lightest to darkest.

Counting and Grouping

Count leaves, twigs, trees, birds… anything goes. Practice counting higher numbers and be impressed by how quickly your toddler increases how high they can count. And mixing up and missing numbers is absolutely part of the process. As with all things toddlers, keep it light and fun, they will sort it out!

Nature Collages

Gather leaves, twigs, or nuts and bring them home to make a “nature collage”. Ensure you aren’t bringing home nature from parks especially protected land and only gather what you will use for the collage. We firmly practice Leave No Trace with our family, but balance that with opportunities to explore and bring nature into our home. Creating appreciation AND teaching about conservation at the same time.

fall leaves and sticks
A surprising collection of nature from our very industrial and concrete-covered block in Brooklyn.

Outdoor Classics

Blow Bubbles

Bubble wands, a grandparent’s favorite gift, have a 1-3 minute lifespan in the hands of a toddler. But the wand with a wide handle is super toddler friendly so make the bubble want reusable with homemade bubbles to refill. Our favorite go-to homemade bubble recipe can be made for a fraction of store-bought refills (coming soon!).

Make a bird feeder

Check out our step-by-step toddler-friendly directions to make a hanging bird feeder.

Water Play

Fill a large tub with water and add various sized bowls, cups, spoons, and funnels. Snag these from your kitchen or even the thrift store to make them permanent outdoor tools. Our kids love their dish set from Green Toys which has held up for years of play. Toddlers will scoop and pour and splash for hours.

Play Anywhere and No Materials Needed

Animal Adventure

Pretend to be and move like your toddler’s favorite animals. Crawl like a bear, waddle like a penguin, stand on one foot like a flamingo, soar like a bird, slither like a snake. Special note: doing these in quick succession is a full cardio routine for grown-ups, so bonus points for that!

Follow the Leader

Lead your child around the yard or park taking short quick steps, long slow steps, high knees, moving your arms in various positions, or making unique sounds patterns (not all at once!) and encourage them to copy your movements. Silly? Yes! Yes, it is. We often use this game while out hiking with our toddlers.

Watch Bugs or Creatures

Sitting and watching tiny bugs and creatures move is an incredibly calming and fun activity. It sounds simple, even silly, but it is so incredibly meditative and calming for humans of all ages, not excluding my favorite people, toddlers. Ants, beetles, caterpillars, and worms are favorites in our house. On your first few bug-viewing sessions your toddler may need reminders to look with their eyes and not to touch tiny bugs that can quickly squish under the toddler’s fingers.

Shadow Play

Make shadows in the driveway or sidewalk and explore watching the movement of the shadow as your toddler moves. Encourage them to experiment with different types of movement, fast, slow, big movement, and tiny movement. As your child gets older and learns more about light as a preschooler this early shadow play with help them to solidify these concepts!