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5 Fun Activities for Toddlers on a Budget


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Any parent knows that the “terrible twos” can start a lot earlier than 24 months, and may last well into your child’s third year. I knew I was in trouble when my two-year-old learned to get the toilet paper off its roll. He would hold one end of the paper and toss the entire roll down the stairs, then drag it back up slowly. Antics like these can quickly become tiring, but you can bet your toddler isn’t going to care or notice.

The best way to cope is to simply find ways to keep your child busy so he or she doesn’t have the time to get in trouble. Though you could easily spend a small fortune on the latest learning toys, books, and games, your toddler would still likely be more interested in the packaging. Instead, offer cheap or free activities that entertain and educate without costing an arm and a leg.

Cheap Toddler Activities

You probably already have the perfect gear around your home to occupy your little one. Take a look through your craft supplies, wrapping paper drawer, garage, and attic to see what you can find that would capture a toddler’s attention – at least for a few minutes.

1. Tub Finger Painting

Finger painting is “Kid Stuff 101,” but toddlers are usually more interested in squishing the paint between their fingers than actually creating arts and crafts. I’ve spent many an afternoon watching my kindergartener calmly paint a picture, while my toddler generally makes a mess. The solution? Bathtub painting!

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Instead of stressing over the mess, pop your diapered or naked child into the tub, then squeeze finger paints onto the sides of the tub. My kids love that they can make a huge mess without mommy having a complete panic attack. When they’re finished, I hand over a couple of sponges. Cleaning up the mess in the shower or bath is half the fun.

2. Shoebox Train

Toddlers are notorious for tossing a toy aside in favor of its cool packaging. Foster that weird love of paper and boxes by making a shoebox train.

Head to the garage or attic to dig out as many shoeboxes as you can find. Cut up newspaper or magazine strips to fill each box, and grab a ton of stuffed animals to serve as passengers. Your toddler will love lining up the boxes, adding the animals, and even pretending to punch tickets and play conductor. Just make sure you save those shoeboxes for later – they could also be monster shoes, rockets, or bird nests.

3. Toilet Paper Trail

A roll of toilet paper is like the holy grail to a toddler. It’s the forbidden fruit in the bathroom that Mom is always saying not to play with.

Toilet Paper Trail

Instead of trying to stop the attraction, grab a roll of toilet paper and use it for play. Your toddler will be delighted! Take the roll and start at one end of the house. Wind it around your couches, tables, and beds. Then, go back to where you started and put your toddler in the lead as you both follow the trail. When you’re done, gather up the paper and hand it to your toddler to rip, throw, and wind to his or her little heart’s content. This “toy” is sure to please and will set you back less than a dollar.

4. Snack Buffet

When it’s time to break playtime for snack time, most toddlers want the same fare over and over again. But since Goldfish crackers aren’t exactly healthy snacks, encourage your toddler to try something new by setting up a buffet.

Instead of a plate, grab a muffin tin. Chop small pieces of fruits, vegetables, and old favorite foods, and place a different kind in each cup of the muffin tin. With so many choices, your tiny terror might be more apt to try something new. Plus, the actual process of eating from each cup takes up that seemingly endless stretch of time just before napping.

5. Nature Scavenger Hunt

Your toddler is learning new things about the world every day, and loves nothing more than to demonstrate that knowledge. Allow him or her the opportunity by creating a nature scavenger hunt. Make a picture list of things you see around your neighborhood, such as a bird, a neighbor’s dog, or a mailbox, and go for a walk. Hand the list and a crayon to your toddler to check off found items, and grab your camera. End the hunt at the closest park, where your baby can burn off some extra energy and you can take some cute action shots.

Final Word

Yes, toddlers can be troublesome. But they’re also bright, funny, and irresistible. Playtime is just as important as mealtimes and nap time, so get creative. You don’t need the latest educational gadget to foster learning and fun with your troublesome two-year-old. Instead, giving yourself over to his or her mischievous nature makes for a cheap afternoon free of toddler drama – and you might even enjoy yourself as well!

What other fun, cheap activities for toddlers can you suggest?

Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.