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Keeping Your Toddler Creatively Occupied Without Buying More Toys

Guest post by Amber from Click. Pray. Love.

Do you have a 12-18 month old child? Have you found it challenging to come up with age-appropriate activities for them to do at home that don’t require the purchase of another toy? If so, I have a few ideas and a challenge to share with you.

First, consider a few of the developmental milestones for a 12-18 month old:

  • Walks independently
  • Stacks objects
  • Knocks objects down
  • Pulls objects apart
  • Puts objects in and dumps them out of containers
  • Hold objects in one hand while manipulating them with the other

Now, here comes the challenge: How many objects can you find in your home that will encourage your child to accomplish or build on those milestones? Here are a few ideas:

  • clothes pins
  • liquid coffee creamer containers
  • muffin tin
  • retractable tape measure
  • magnets
  • food boxes
  • dry pasta
  • plastic vacuum hose
  • balls
  • tape
  • bundt pan
  • plastic flip top lids

Some Practical Suggestions

  • Make an Activity Box – Fill a box with various objects allowing your child to explore the box while teaching him/her how to stir, stack, pour, etc.
  • Fill muffin tins with small objects – Cover each tin with tape or a lid allowing your child to discover what’s in each tin.

  • Work on opening/closing flip top lids. You can also teach them how to thread a ribbon through the opening of flip top lids.

  • Play-doh –  Make Play-doh balls and other shapes for your child. Have them place each one in an egg carton or other container. Give them cookie cutters and begin teaching them how to make their own shapes

  • Box Fun – Keep various size boxes (i.e. cereal, rice, cracker, cream cheese, soap box, etc.). Stack the boxes inside one another allowing your child to pull out each one and attempt to place each one back inside another box.

  • Plastic vacuum Hose – Do you have any balls that will fit inside? If so, try holding the hose up and dropping the ball from top to bottom. You’ll be surprised how quickly your 12-18 month will begin doing this independently. You could also use a paper towel roll.

The list could go on and on, but hopefully these ideas will help get your creative juices flowing. Just remember to look at each object in your house and ask, “How could I use this to create a fun, safe, learning experience for my child?”

Amber is a Physical Therapist turned stay-at-home-mom to her son Bennett. She enjoys photography, wants to begin sewing, and is often thinking about the next fun activity to do with her family. You can join her quest of finding the Divine among the daily at Click.Pray.Love.

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  1. MomofTwoPreciousGirls says:

    You know my husband always lets my daughter play with the tape measure, but I remember being about ten and having one slice my finger open. The metal on the side is VERY SHARP! I was always working with my dad on projects, so I was a little more skilled with tools than most girls at the age of ten and I still got hurt…just advising on my own experience.

    I gave her a sewing type instead (the kind you can measure your waist with made out of fabric). It may not be as much fun but it’s much safer…

    • :) says:

      This happened to me when I was a kid, too. Ever since I’ve been real jittery around tape measures! Which is not good, since I sell furniture, and always have to carry a tape measure on me…lol

    • Jenni Dill says:

      I have that same concern with my kids! We found a $1 sewing one that retracts just like the tool kind at JoAnn’s! They have them in all different shapes, like elephants, circles, hearts, etc. We tend to grab one every time we go, and we stick them in our “gift box,” for other small kids’ gifts.

  2. All great ideas, and these will work for slightly older children, too, especially if you rotate the activities.

  3. B says:

    Love these ideas! My daughter never likes the toys anyway. She always wants whatever is NOT a toy!
    She loves pots a wooden spoons and mixing up a “soup” of balls and other toys.
    Just keep in mind little things that fit in egg cartons, maybe small enough to choke on. If it fits thru a toilet paper tube, a child can choke on it!

  4. :) says:

    I’d also suggest making sure the vacuum hose is washed well first. I don’t know about anyone else, but knowning what I vacuum up around the house, and thinking that junk is passing thru the hose and then letting my kid play with it and put stuff inside it…not too sanitary! lol! Just a thought… 😉

  5. Jill says:

    Thanks for the post! I’m going to try a few today!

  6. Leighann says:

    So what do you do when none of these ideas, and, in fact, absolutely nothing you’ve tried (and you’ve tried everything) work?

    My daughter refuses to play with toys or anything I give to her. She only wants to play with things that I am immediately using, or to literally be climbing all over me (even to the point of not being able to use the bathroom or take a shower without her).

    • tampatwinmom says:

      you need to get her around another child kids like to be shaddowed, she sounds like she is smart and needs stimulation. my daughter (17 months) is just like that. Not big on the baby toys, but she like books at least. she really likes doing what her 4 yr old brothers do. Also mabe something like balls in a plastic pool (or your bathtub)

    • diania says:

      My daughter was the same way. The only way I could get anything done was give her something to do that modeled what I was doing.
      when I was cooking I gave her a pot/pan and spoons to “cook”; when I took a shower she gave her baby dolls a bath with a bucket and sponge in the bathroom, etc. I did end up having to buy a toy vaccum cleaner. She had her own broom and dust pan too.

      • Lorna says:

        If you have some old scraps of fabric you can cut them up for dusters and perhaps give her a spray bottle with water (but make it very clear she must only spray HER bottle, not yours – you know best if she would stick to this rule and what other chemicals you have in your own bottles) you can often get small dustpans, not toys just small, from pound shops etc. basically make her a little cleaning box so she can follow you around and copy you without getting in the way! Do the same for other areas of the house, eg she can have a mixing bowl and spoon when you are cooking. Plan ways to involve her – mushrooms are soft enough to chop with a butter knife and herbs can be snipped with safety scissors. And try to get her mixing with lots of other children, she may want to copy them too and get involved in the play!

  7. Ashley P. says:

    My grandmother was a pretty talented seamstress. She made me an activity cloth. It had zippered and buttoned pokcets and ribbon tied to it.

    I could pull the zippers up and down, button and unbutton the pockets. Sometimes grandma would hide treats or small toys in them. I could also use the ribbon to practice tying a box, a nifty little tool that helped me delevop my shoe-tying skills early!

    It was roughly baby blanket size, and when I outgrew the pocket/zipper phase, I used it as a superhero cape or some other such thing.

    So if you’re pretty good with a sewing machine, it might be something fun to try!

  8. Ashley P. says:

    I meant tying a bow. 😛

  9. WilliamB says:

    Thrift stores (Goodwill, etc) have all sorts of junk that make good kids’ toys. I got my niblings a pile of pots, pans, lunch boxes, wooden spoons, etc, for under $10 total. Didn’t think to get muffin tins.

  10. Sherry Brooks says:

    Great ideas. My toddler played for hours each day for the winter months with what he called our “bean table toy”. We put his wagon in the house and filled it with the larger sized dried beans, adding scoops, funnels, toys with little slides, bowls, etc. It was waist height for him. I never minded the floor cleanup each night because it was such a hit with him and any little visitors.

  11. Kim Jones says:

    I try really hard not to be negative but there are some really dangerous ideas in this post. I have spent 20+ years in early childhood developement. Please don’t ever give a child under 4 a real tape measure. As commented on earlier, they are very sharp and can cause serious cuts to small fingers, necks (kids this age love to wrap things around their neck) and delicate skin.

    Second, never give a child this age any object that is a potential chking hazard, even if you are right there. Let them play with food that is safe for them to eat. Remember to always supervise kids this age with food! Choking isn’t the only hazard. It is incredibly common for kids this age to stick small objects in their ears and nose.

    Magnets! Never! Kids this age can easily swallow them. They come out of the small casings so no magnetic toys unless the magnet is COMPLETELY enclosed inside a large toy. If two or more are swallowed they can tear holes in the interstines and the child can die without surgery.

    If you need to find soemthing to occupy your little one while you are busy or you are trying to teach them to play alone, get age appropriate toys. Boxes are lots of fun for all ages too. Don’t give your child this age crayons or markers or pencils unless they are being closely supervised.

    We have loved spoons and a plastic milk jug. They can sit on the floor while you work and put the spoons in the jusg. It is easy for them to shake the spoons back out again.

    • tampatwinmom says:

      I was thinking the same thing! My 17month would try to eat many of the things in the pictures and ideas! Magnets like the ones in the pciture with the letters are small and VERY dangerous. they can end up stuck in the intestins and a trip to the er for surgery!!!!

    • Jenny says:

      I was thinking the same thing! My almost 2 1/2 year old would still put many of the mentioned obects in his mouth!

    • Katy Durec says:

      I don’t think that Amber was saying that you could leave your child alone while playing with anything that could be a hazard. Most of these activities sound like they are meant to take place under adult supervision. Also, you know your own child. If you know that they are prone to putting toys in their mouths than avoid activities that involve smaller object. My oldest always put toys in her mouth, and so any activity with smaller objects was avoided. But my youngest very rarely puts toys in her mouth, especially since she is busy trying to model what my oldest is doing. Always go with your mommy intuition and your knowledge of your own child.

      • Theresa says:

        I would have to say I agree with you Katy. Common sense goes a long ways…and yes, Amber did say several times that these are supervised activities. I have two 17-m0-olds…one puts stuff in his mouth while she doesn’t (as much). Mommy intuition…I like that.

    • Tiffany says:

      I agree with you, Kim! Oh my goodness, I was shocked to see some of the suggestions in the original post. I would never consider giving my toddler all these little choking hazards! I agree that we can be creative with things in our home, and that kids this age really don’t need that many store-bought toys. But wow, so many of these ideas were downright dangerous!

      • Amber Cullum says:

        Thanks Kim for alerting the readers to so many concerns. Like Katy said I def. did not intend to share dangerous ideas, but I have a 22 month old and have completely each and every activity I shared with him. He is ALWAYS supervised and has actually learned a lot about what he was appropriate to put in his mouth and what was not as a result of many of these activities.

        I would never suggest that someone do something that would hurt their child, but I also hope that parents watch their children very closely when completing activities that challenge their fine motor skills.

        We have been completing these activities since my son was 12 to 14 months old and he always has a wonderful time with them.

        However, I am very sorry to have not been more clear on the suggestions I made and how parents should watch their children very closely.

        • rachel B. says:

          Amber, you’ve hit a very good point….if a young child is taught how to appropriately use the items, then there is much less risk or fear of use (under supervision) in the future!
          My two year old never puts things in his mouth because he models good behavior from his 4 yr old brother. And we let both boys hold our tape measure and screw driver when ‘helping daddy’….but we’ve also taken the time to educate them on use!

          My husband is a pediatric ER nurse and so we’ve always given our boys rights to use ‘adult items’ after teaching them how to correctly use/play with them. And i’d much rather teach them on my own in my home when they are young, versus not exposing them to these types of items and then have them stumble upon them at someone else’s house and cause their own harm. Education and hands-on experience is critical!!!

    • Natalie says:

      My thoughts exactly – these ideas are great for a much older child, but a 12-18 month old… well, most of them can be dangerous. If it can fit through a toilet paper/paper towel tube, it can fit in their mouths and down (or get stuck in) the esophagus. Young toddlers are still very oral-oriented and most everything will end up in their mouths!!!! PLEASE be careful!!!

  12. Christina says:

    These are some good ideas, but regarding the vacuum hose/paper towel tube, I’ve seen a paper towel or toilet paper roll used as a measure of what size toys not to give your toddler because if it can fit through the cardboard tube it is small enough for them to choke on.

  13. chelsea says:

    These are great ideas. I find having older siblings around to play and interact with has been the best way to keep our youngest out of trouble 🙂

  14. Charity says:

    Great ideas, and good reminders on the safety issues too. I hadn’t thought about magnets being dangerous. We don’t use them a lot, but that is good to know. Side note–Crystal, saw the tie in with Vision Forum today. How exciting! You’re famous!

  15. KM Logan says:

    My daughter loves playing with muffin tins : ) She still eats play dough though.

  16. Mrs. R. says:

    Great ideas—may we have some for 2-yr-olds and 3-yr-olds, please?

    • Amber Cullum says:

      My son is only 22 months, so I will continue to post as he gets older. I do have some newer activities on my blog for 18 to 24 month olds.

    • rachel B. says:

      I am building a site around activity bags (called Busy Bags) for this exact age range. My 2-yr old and 4-yr olds really enjoy them plus they pack away into very small boxes (love that!!!) and they are all reusable. Feel free to check out:

      And let me know if your 2 and 3 yr olds like any of the activities posted!!

      Amber had some great ideas in the post in that all activities in our home have a focus on education of play with household items as well as being reusable and non-messy…my boys don’t generally like crafts (that is until I introduced Busy Bags) and the non-messy part of any activity is key to our success!

  17. Can we change the “months” to “years” and find something simple for that age group? 🙂 Ahhh . . . if we could go back to boxes, pasta, balls and kitchen utensils being fun again! my younger ones still love building houses out of big boxes – but my teens . . . if it’s not electronic . . . what fun is it? 🙂

    Thanks for posting this and sharing your ideas!

  18. Oh, nuts! My son just got passed that age and I wish I thought of all those things to do! Since he’s not that much older than 18 months (he’s 22 months now) I think I’m still gonna try some of those.


    • Amber says:

      My son is 22 months old
      Now and we still complete several of the activities I mentioned. I have included a few more geared toward a 22 month old on my blog

  19. Daina says:

    My little girl loves magnets — not the little kind, but the big flat kind that come with ads or “save the date” info or, from a yardsale, bit alphabet letters! They go on the fridge, they come off the fridge, and I don’t even have to watch her like a hawk since they’re not a choking hazard. Once I let her put them on a metal baking pan, though… then didn’t realize there was one stuck to the bottom and baked it! Oops… I recommend checking more carefully for magnets if you try that!

  20. Daina says:

    Sorry, that should say “big alphabet letters.”

  21. Love these ideas! I’m speaking next month at our annual state homeschool convention about how to school older kids with a toddler in the house. These kinds of ideas are exactly what I’m sharing. Another one I would add is to arrange your lower cabinets or pantry shelves so that your toddler is free to play with what they find there. My 2 lowest pantry shelves have cans, cereal boxes and bottles of spices. My kids enjoyed stacking these items while I cooked or washed dishes.

  22. I like these ideas much better than my 18-month-old’s currently favorite activities, which generally revolve around screeching and getting into things. : ) The activity box is a nice variation on the tried-and-true “letting the toddler play with the pots and pans” game.

  23. diania says:

    the best thing we did for our now 22 month old this winter was bring the cozy coupe car in the house. He has went all over the kitchen in that thing! We have a small kitchen so I figured he would get tired of the same back forth route, but he didn’t. It does get a little frustrating moving around it but it’s easier than holding him and tring to get stuff done.

  24. Ruth says:

    My son “helped” me with laundry this summer and took my clothes pins a part. So clothes pins may not be the best “toy” for some unless you want to buy new clothes pins.

    Also, these activities, while great may be more geared toward an older child, not in the 12 -18 month age range. In my experience, of having one child, at that age range he would not sit still or be interested in these activities. He is almost 3 and getting interested in play dough, puzzles and paint.

    • Amber says:

      Thanks for all of your input an precautions. I watch my son 100% of the time when we complete these activites.


      Thanks so much for you comment. I do; however, want to point out that I have done EVERY SINGLE one of these activities with my son when he was 12 to 18 months old. I am with him at all times due to some of the smaller pieces, but these have all been done in my home.

  25. anne says:

    magnets are not safe for children to play with. if they swallow them they can stick together and cause serious problems in the intestines.

  26. Kimber says:

    My one-year-old loves to copy his big sister. A new activity they both love is watercolor painting. Instead of giving him paint, I put him in his high chair and give him a paintbrush and a Dixie cup with some water in it. The paper will still change color a bit, especially if it’s construction paper. And when – not if :o) – he spills or tries to drink the water, it’s not a big deal.

  27. Theresa says:

    What great ideas! As some of you noted (and so did Amber in her blog), your child should not be left alone. I already put together the Texture Soup for my 17-mo-old twins for this afternoon play time…they did great! I was there as my boy put the noodles into his mouth, but it was great for me too…getting to watch them play with each other and learn the different shapes and how they feel.

    Thanks, Crystal, for posting this! What a neat site Amber has!

  28. Christy says:

    I have a drawer in the kitchen filled with the containers from the Hillshire Farms lunch meet. My 17 month old can stack them on top of each other or in each other and put things in them and carry them around. But right now he prefers to stack and unstack the books in the office. He also likes to take his baseball bat and hit balls around the house. I came to the conclusion that balls is about the only toy you really need to buy….. well and cars, my baby boy loves cars and choo choo trains.

  29. Jessica says:

    This is a great idea, I am definitely going to remember this in a few months when my baby starts toddling around and getting into things.

  30. Justice For Caylee says:

    I do not recommend dried pasta or beans for children. When my son was 2 he went to a montesorri school daycare which allowed the children to play with dried beans and pasta. One day his teacher told me that he had an “odor” to him, and that none of the children wanted to play with him. I thought maybe they werent changing his diaper, so i marked his diaper that he had on…it wasnt that. I have allergies, and could not smell the “odor”. The next day they told me not to bring him back until i had a Dr. note. I took him to the Dr. and they checked him out, and they found a dried split pea in his nose that was growing into the skin!!! I have NEVER given any of my children pasta or beans to play with, nor do I recommend it to ayone! The daycare just laughed and said “oops, i guess we didnt see him do it”. Needless to say that was the last time we went there!

    • Amber Cullum says:

      I do not think it is a good idea to allow a group of young children who are not directly supervised to play with small objects. However, my son plays with these objects daily under my supervision.

  31. Oh my…so many people clamoring for a warning label. I, for one, think that the author, in writing this post, assumed that we have enough common sense to play safely with our child(ren). Not everything in life needs a ‘caution’ sticker! Thank you for this post, Amber 🙂

  32. Audrey says:

    These ideas are so helpful. Thanks so much Amber! I will definitely try them out w/ my 14 mos. old boy who loves to get his hands on anything.

  33. Beth says:

    I love the creativity shared. I recently invented a fun game for my 6 & 12 year olds. Water bottle bowling. We set up empty water bottles and our bowling ball is a stuffed plush soccer ball. We are all having such fun! Bowling competitions are now a regular occurrence.

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