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5 Hacks to Occupy Your Toddler SCREEN FREE!

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Toddlers can play independently anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours depending on their temperament, how you respond to and encourage their play, and the environment that you set up for them.via @ParentingJunkieTweet This

Do you have a little toddler at home and you’re tearing your hair out, trying to find ways to keep this person busy without always resorting to screens? If so, I’ve got you. I totally feel it. And I am here with 5 ways that toddlers generally love playing independently that you can use today to keep your little person occupied and busy without screens.

  1. Sensory Play
    My number one hack to keep toddlers occupied most of the time is through sensory play. Now, before you start hating me because you don’t want more mess in your house, hear me out. There are many ways to contain the mess and make it manageable for you, and it’s usually so worth it because it generally occupies toddlers for a longer length of time than other play modalities. They’ll play with things like Play-Doh, sand, clay, beans, rice, bubbles and shaving cream so much longer than they would with things that don’t fascinate their senses. So if this is alien to you and you cannot stomach the idea of mess in the house, don’t worry. There are some ways of containing this. First of all, you can offer sensory play inside the tub or shower, or even inside the sink. You can sit them in their highchair and have them play with some washable paints. You can also have them sit in a large tray that is designed for play, or one of my favorites, the Oatey Tray, which is actually designed to go under the washing machine, but I use it for sensory play with my little kids. Or you could get the Ikea table, the Flisat, that is specifically designed for this type of thing. Toddlers are learning so much through sensory play, not only the fine motor skills, but how to control and manipulate their fingers to really get the effect that they want. 
  2. Movement
    Many toddlers need to move a lot. We tend to underestimate the amount of energy they need to exert on a daily basis in order to be sufficiently tired at the end of the day and sleep well. Movement also of course develops their gross motor skills, so they need a lot of it. That’s hard when you’re cooped up, when you’re in lockdown, when you’re working from home, when they have no school, all of that stuff. I totally get it. So I’m inviting you to be really creative here in transforming a corner of your home into a movement zone. I have a lot of videos about this and inside of Present Play we go deep on this one. But today, suffice to say, you can simply gather a bunch of pillows, beanbags, blankets, mattresses, yoga mats and any other soft and fluffies, and set up a place where they can rough and tumble. If you want to take this a step further, you could install indoor swings, as we have. This is an absolute game changer. Or you could get things like a Pickler Triangle, a climbing dome, or climbing wall. Bottom line: if you don’t know what to do with your toddler to get them to occupy themselves, then movement should be one of your go-tos.
  3. Music
    Toddlers famously love nursery rhymes, often on loop. It can drive us a little bit crazy, but it is really fantastic for their development and will keep them occupied screen-free. You could go for audiobooks if you want to take this in that direction, but you could also just play them CDs or MP3s, et cetera, of lullabies, toddler songs, classical music, pop, whatever it is that you want them to hear, or have instruments that they can play with. One of my favorites is a steel drum. I love this because it not only keeps my toddler occupied for quite a long time, but it also makes really beautiful sounds for the rest of the home. Any kind of rattles, shakers, rainmakers, harpsichords or recorders are great. As long as it doesn’t give you a headache, let them play with musical instruments and create their own music. It’s likely to keep them occupied for quite a length of time.
  4. Dressing Up
    Toddlers are in that developmental stage where they want to take on different roles. They want to be a lion or a superhero and any kind of dressing up gear is going to be fantastic for this. One of the best ways you can do this, rather than buying costumes, is actually just to look through your wardrobe and see what things you don’t mind them messing around with. Maybe you have some hats, some scarves, some shoes. If you put those out in a bin or in a pile for them to explore, you’ll be amazed at how deeply they can sometimes play by putting a scarf on. Dressing up is very developmentally appropriate and really sparks the imagination. I don’t think that you need to buy dressing up costumes for this, but one thing that I would recommend buying is play silks — just simple, colorful silks. The reason I think these are so great is because a child can become so many different things with them. Silks can be a superhero cape, or a dragon or a sling for a baby or an apron, et cetera. They’re very open-ended and they lend themselves to dressing up in more ways than one.
  5. Pretend Play
    Toddlers are hardwired to copy us to do what we’re doing. Children learn the skills of their culture through play, so they are literally designed to copy the types of things that we’re doing. If they see us on a computer all day, they’re likely going to pretend to be on a computer, on a phone, cooking, changing a baby’s diaper, driving, doing all the different things that they see their adults do. And that’s fantastic. If you want to occupy your toddler, a great way to do that would be to give them a few of the tools that look like yours. There’s been quite a lot of anecdotal research that shows that children prefer real-looking objects to plastic toy imitations. If you have an old phone that’s not in use, an old computer, some cooking apparatus from your kitchen that is safe for them to play with like a spatula, an old remote control, an old typewriter — those real life, household objects are a great way to occupy your toddler.

So there you have it: 5 hacks to get your toddler to play independently for a little stretch of time. There’s a very wide range of how much toddlers will play independently. It could be anywhere from 2 minutes to 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on their temperament, but also very much depending on you, how you respond to and encourage that play, and the environment that you set up for them.

So just a quick recap: offer sensory materials to explore and get messy with, encourage movement, music, dressing up, and imaginative role play (i.e. copying you). These are all fantastic ways for toddlers to play.

If you want even more on this, I have a Childhood Design Guide that will help you transform your home into a play-inducing haven. It will tell you all about the 5 plays zones that all kids need, or I would love all kids to have, and the only 10 toys kids need and also the toys to get rid of. 

I believe that getting our kids deeply immersed in imaginative play is so healthy for them and so much easier for us. Fantastic. 

I’d love to hear if YOU have any other tips for keeping toddlers occupied so you can get ish done! Leave a comment below and join me over on Instagram @parentingjunkie!

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