Teaching your kids how to play independently is one of the the best skills you can give them. It will also help them lead lives in which they do not rely on a screen for entertainment.
These independent activities for kids ages 1-5 are perfect when you need to get some work done but the kids keep demanding your attention Or maybe you want five minutes to yourself before your coffee gets cold, but you don't want to turn on a screen to keep them occupied. These easy play ideas are just want you want!
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Independent Play Ideas for Babies
Babies need and deserve lots of attention. We read to them, shake rattles in front of their faces, play peek a book, but sometimes you need to put the little munchkin down! And babies do need to be able to entertain themselves. Read this post to learn more about that!
Try these ideas to keep your baby occupied (but always within arms' reach and under your watchful eye, please!).
BALL IN A BOX
Place a soft ball or balls (large enough to not be swallowed in case it escapes) inside a clear plastic container. See how we made a ball in the box activity here. Babies love to push the container around to watch and listen to the ball. Curious babies will also wonder how to get the ball out of the container. That's okay, too, but be sure the ball is too big to be a chocking hazard.
MAKE MUSICAL NOISE
Give your baby a large wooden spoon or two and a metal object like a pot to bang.
Make a ribbon waterfall box. Take a large cardboard box, poke holes in the top and thread long ribbons through the holes so they hang down. Secure the ribbon ends to the holes with a knot or tape. Babies love the sensory experience of running their hands through ribbons, or crawling past them.
Place clean, non-chokable objects in a basket or box and put within reach of baby. Objects can be almost anything, as long as they are safe for babies. For example, hard plastic cups, large wooden spoons, a large ball, a soft toy.
Ideas for Toddlers
Toddlers, ages 1-3 are starting to spend longer stretches (although it probably doesn't seem that long to you!) on independent play activities, but you still need to stay close. They like to have you nearby so they can feel safe exploring their world. Remember, these are all ideas for when you need a little extra help; you don't have to keep your toddler busy with complex activities. This post has some great advice for how to stop entertaining your toddler all the time!
UNIT BLOCKS & OPEN ENDED TOYS
A set of unit blocks is a must have. If you have no other toys, get your child a set of plain, natural colored wood unit blocks just like these. Childhood 101 has some great suggestions for encouraging block play.
More great open ended toys include dolls, toy animals, play food, toy transportation and a dollhouse.
MORE: 10 Screen-free activities for 2-4 year olds with free printable cheat sheet!
Toddlers LOVE to rip paper. Provide a stack of construction paper or scrap paper and let your child rip it to thier heart's content Just keep an eye out so they don't eat it!
Drawing on big paper. Put down a large sheet of paper on the floor or on the wall, offer up some markers and let your toddler scribble!
Toddlers love to push things into bottles! I made this "slot machine" when my boys were young and we got years of use out of it! I always have it on hand if a toddler comes over because it is a surefire hit and guaranteed to let the grownups talk for a few minutes. Watch the how to video to see how easy it is to make:
Water play may be perfect for outside on a hot day, but you can also have water play inside on a non-carpeted surface with a shower curtain or stack of towels underneath the play area. Fill a shallow basin with water and put in a few household items like spoons, cups, whisks. For extra fun you can add bubble bath and toy cars!
DIY DOT TO DOT
Place dot stickers or draw large dots on a piece of paper. Hand your child a washable marker and show them how to draw lines from one dot to another. The dots don't have to create an image, your child will love simply drawing lines!
HOLE IN A BOX
Cut a hole in a large cardboard box. Give your child a basket filled with objects to drop into the box. Unit blocks work great for this. You will be amazed at how fun your toddler thinks this is!
Independent Play Ideas for Preschoolers
Just like for toddlers, provide open ended toys to encourage creativity and imagination. Preschoolers will enjoy the same blocks, dolls and other toys just like the 2 year olds!
Kids love stickers, and you don't even need to buy them. I keep all those free labels and stickers that come in junk mail. My kids each had a blank composition notebook and they would fill the pages with stickers! They adored doing this. I still have the notebooks. I can't bear the thought of throwing them out.
The quickest way to turn a handful of toy cars into an exciting afternoon is to show your child how to slide toy cars down a large mailing tube or a ramp. We DIYed a ramp by propping up a baking tray against a stack of books.
MORE: 20 Ways to Play with Toy Vehicles
Preschoolers love to scoop. Set up a scooping station by filling a bin with rice and offer your child a variety of containers and scoops. You can also hide objects like toy animals in the rice. It's okay to let your child make a big giant mess. That's what vacuum cleaners are for.
Set up a simple science exploration station with baking soda and vinegar. Preschoolers love the surprising fizzing and bubbling! My son never, ever, ever got bored of mixing baking soda and vinegar. Never. They can experiment outside, or on a tile floor with a towel. Both items are super cheap so stock up!
Play dough is a classic for a reason. Add in some interest with these objects that enhance fine motor skills. Always make sure to supervise if you give your child small objects.
Play dough mats are a fun addition to independent play time. Try these free printable play mats:
Dramatic play is a must for this age. I liked to have a big box full of dress up items that my kids could use. I included colorful play silks, dress-up clothes (pull a few things from your closet), toys like play doctor's kits, a magnifying glass, a briefcase, etc.
MORE: Easy DIY cardboard stove for pretend play
FELT PATTERN PLAY
Cut out 10 squares, 10 circles and 10 triangles out of felt. Demonstrate to your child how to create patterns. For example, square-circle-square-circle-square-circle; or triangle-circle-square-triangle-circle-square. Patterning is an excellent pre-math skill. Encourage them to create their own patterns or designs. See our explorations with felt pattern play.
STICKY PAPER ART
Hang a large piece of sticky paper on an easel or wall, sticky side out. Give your child an assortment of items like scraps of paper, fabric, feathers, etc. Your child will enjoy sticking the items to the sticky paper.
Place a laundry hamper at one end of the room. Give your child an assortment of soft items such as stuffed toys, balled up socks, even crumpled paper. Now, toss the items into the hamper!
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