Every mother knows that the attention span of a toddler is about as long as…that, and so sometimes those long lunches at places where there is no playscape (why do those still exist? It’s 2017!) can be about as enjoyable as a poke in the eye. Or how about those days when your little one is sick and you get so tired of watching Daniel Tiger, you contemplate concocting a drinking game to go along with the show…every time he says “Ugga Mugga,” take a shot. I’m not a huge fan of more than one hour’s worth of screen time a day anyway, especially when the screen is my phone. What is it about my cell phone that makes my child spontaneously and repeatedly sneeze all over it?
Thankfully, I’ve picked up some (cheap) tricks of the trade and found some fun toys and games to help keep my daughter entertained and myself and everyone else in the restaurant, airplane, or room, sane. In the words of Sia, “Baby, I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight!”
Here are my favorite cheap tricks to entertain toddlers:
Pen and Mini-Notepad
This may sound too simple, but it has provided hours of entertainment in our household. Honestly, it could have just been 30 minutes, but in toddler time that is a light-year! You give your child a mini-notepad and a pen, a real pen, preferably a “clicky” one with washable ink, and let your kiddo take your order over and over like in a restaurant. This is fun in an actual restaurant if you have a large party and a long wait; that way your little one can walk around to everyone and “take their order” and you may actually get a bite of the spinach artichoke dip before everyone else devours it.
Target Dollar Section “Fegos” (fake Legos)
(It’s funny, while I’m writing this, my daughter is in fact sick, sniffling on the couch next to me and watching the Daniel Tiger episode about coming up with ideas of stuff to do while waiting. It’s like they know…Stop watching me DT!)
Anyway, so these colorful little gems are cheap, easy to use, and easy to transport. Just be careful with little ones under three, or if your child likes to put things in his/her mouth.
Yep. That’s it. Felt. Get a big bag of felt, cut it into different shapes and have different colors for your child to create pictures out of the felt. If you’re crafty and have some time, you can cut out cupcake shapes and toppings or something of that nature so your kiddo can decorate the felt cupcake. If not, just good old felt scraps can be very entertaining. It’s so easy it’s almost stupid.
Big wooden beads on a shoelace, or small plastic beads on a pipe cleaner, string or silly straw can be very entertaining and also help with learning colors, counting, patterns, and fine motor skills. This could also be a fun party game for all ages; a sort of “minute to win it” contest.
Popsicle Sticks and Clothespins
Color the clothespins different colors with markers, then color the large Popsicle sticks in coordinating colors and have your child use the clothespins to pick up the Popsicle sticks with the matching colors. This helps kiddos learn colors and again fine motor skills. You could also do different matching activities, like match the word with the picture, or match the number with the number of dots on the Popsicle sticks, etc. My daughter literally just walked up with her Popsicle sticks and clothespins busy-bag I received through my MOMs group “Busy Bag” exchange…weird!
Buttons or Pom Poms
Something about buttons just makes me want to grab them and play with them! There are so many different shapes, colors and textures from which to choose. Grab a big bag of them and have your little one sort them in different ways, count them, glue them to something, spill them on the floor to pick them up…whatever keeps them entertained and engaged and learning. Pom poms can also function about the same as buttons, but are FLUFFY, fuzzy and soft. If you’re feeling crazy, mix them up…in the SAME bag! Ahhhhhh! We are wild, here!
Dum-Dums, safety pops, tootsie roll pops can be great if you need your child to sit still and be quiet for a few minutes.
Magic Watercolor Markers and Books
My daughter loves these things and concentrates so hard on staying in the lines. These are a favorite for Church entertainment: clean, no mess, quiet, and not so many pieces that can spill and roll down the aisle to the altar. Elizabeth’s offering that day, I guess, hahaha!
Dino Dig Kit
Target had these for a while in the spring, but may have other similar kits now. These probably require adult help and can be messy, but it’s a fun activity for adults and children to share. My hubby actually got a kick out of helping my daughter with this. I got a kick out of having an hour to myself while my challenge-loving husband and daughter chipped slowly away at plaster to get a tiny plastic triceratops.
They have little packs of this in the Target dollar section in bright colors and they come with little cookie cutter shapes to play in the sand. So cute and so fun! But messy. This is one of those, “go play outside for a minute” activities.
Cheap, easy, fun, somewhat safe if eaten, fairly easy to clean, Play-Doh is a classic time burner. You can even cheapen it up more and make your own homemade Play-Doh then use cookie cutters to make fun shapes. My daughter loves to make snakes and pizzas, and I love making spaghetti and meatballs. Watch out Michelangelo!
Who doesn’t love to draw with sidewalk chalk?! They always have this stuff in dollar sections in many stores. You can draw on the sidewalk, on a mini chalkboard, or really anywhere, like your arms and legs; that’s how Elizabeth rolls! It washes right off; it’s chalk! Likewise, you can turn almost anything into a chalkboard with chalkboard paint. Find some cool objects around the house and shake things up a bit; Paint a wall or a door or a tabletop.
Picture Book and Stickers
Get a small photo album and put pictures of your child(ren) and family in it. My daughter loves looking at pictures of family and of herself. This can help kiddos learn family members’ names. Get some cute, cheap stickers and let him/her/them decorate the plastic covering the pictures to make simple scrapbooks; this could even be a sweet gift for someone like grandma or grandpa.
Kids love playing with stuff they’re not supposed to play with, like tape. Give them a roll of masking tape or painter’s tape and let them have at it. They can tape off streets on the table and roll cars over them, they can make rings out of it, they can make bracelets and decorate them with markers…they can just pull the whole roll off if they want to; so long as they are occupied and not hurting themselves or others, I am happy!
Deck of Cards, Dice, and Dominoes
Start teaching older kids some card games, or build a castle with the cards, roll the dice and play math games, set up the dominoes and watch them fall or play Mexican train or matching, or maybe even Jenga using Dominoes (need to experiment with that and see if it works…)
Mini Solo Cups and Plastic Shot Cups
These now come in multiple colors and can be used for many activities: Use them for stacking to make a pyramid or a castle, put little objects in them like buttons, pom poms or even candy and let kids count, sort, shake, rattle and roll!
Water, Droppers, Straws, Spoons
My daughter is obsessed with water. She would play in the sink all day if I let her. We play tea party with this tiny dollar store tea set using water and it is truly so fun for both of us! You could also get some fun straws, or medicine droppers or even spoons and just let your child(ren) experiment with water. You could even color the water and let them see how the colors change when you mix them, or do simple experiments such as mixing water with different household items, like salt, sugar, bakng powder, flour, etc. to see what happens. Teach the scientific method early! Why not?
Yep, good old-fashioned books. The Dollar Tree has plenty of kid’s books to keep the little ones entertained. Target has great little books as well, as does Walmart and many more stores. If they get tired of a certain book play a game such as “I spy” with the book rather than reading it, or read it upside down or backwards and make up a silly story that parallels the actual story to shake things up and use those creative juices!
I hate to admit how entertaining these things are. For kids and adults alike. I always have to make sure the top falls, you know, just in case we are really living in a dream. The Dollar Tree sells them in packs of 6 or 2 depending on what size you want.
Piggy Bank and Plastic Coins
We had a little pink piggy bank that we bought from the dollar store that my daughter loved! She would put plastic coins in it over and over again. It is a great way to learn about money, counting and math.
Gift Bags and Paper
They always have little gift bags, tissue paper and/or wrapping paper in the dollar spot at Target. Wrap up some dollar toys in balls of tissue paper and let your kiddo try to open it when you go to a restaurant. If you really want to make it fun, wrap the ball of tissue with masking tape. That way it takes them time to open it and then it’s like they have a special new toy to play with the rest of the night. You could also have older kids wrap stuff in wrapping paper and play “Christmas” or “Birthday Party,” or teach them origami if you know it.
There are always little puzzles in the dollar spot at Target and at the dollar tree. You can also make puzzles pretty easily. Just take a picture from a magazine or even something from the internet, cut it up, then laminate the pieces or you could Mod Podge them to a piece of poster board, let it dry, cut it up, and you have a puzzle!
Sticky Notes, Dental Floss, Toilet Paper
Sometimes I think my daughter is part cat because the appeal of a nice, neat, fresh TP roll is just too much for her; she just has to slap it around to make it unravel. Again, objects that children are usually not allowed to play with, but that are not necessarily dangerous or expensive, let them have at it. Just make sure that they don’t wrap the floss around any body parts or try to eat it. SMH. You’d never think floss was dangerous…
There’s plenty of cool stuff you can do with shaving cream. You can just play with it as is, or you can even turn it into paint using food coloring and make your own marbled shaving cream paintings. It is messy of course, but it wouldn’t be any fun if it wasn’t, would it?
My daughter also loves to paint. We have painted many things around the house such as a birdfeeder, a stepping-stone, rocks, shells, pumpkins and pots for plants. Many stores sell inexpensive, washable, non-toxic paint and paper. I’ve been wanting to try filling balloons with paint and water then letting E throw them at a canvas or t-shirt or whatever to make some cool abstract art. I guess that officially makes me a nerd.
So, there you have it, ideas taken from my personal arsenal of child-entertainment activities. Granted, I did not come up with all of these, but I have tried all of them and had success. I highly recommend getting with some Mom friends and exchanging “Busy Bags” so you can divide the work. For example, each Mom makes 5 or so of the same busy bag, then you all trade, and everyone has five different busy bags in the end.