Entertaining Elijah (tips for toddlers)

Elijah playing with “rainbow stones”

“What do I do with the toddler/preschooler while I’m homeschooling an older child?”  I know I’m not the only mom who has asked that, because when I started looking online for answers, I found lots of great suggestions.  So I thought I’d share the list I compiled.  Most of these are activities you can set the child up with and let them “work” independently, but there are a few “preschool-type” activities that are for you to do with them.  I was too lazy to separate them out.  (Just being honest!)

A few of these are original ideas, but the vast majority are copied from various other sites (which I’m afraid I can’t cite because I either forgot to note it down or else I found it in multiple places).  I broke them down into categories because, well, that’s just the way my mind works best.  I haven’t tried them all, especially the ones that would be better for an older preschooler, but I’ve found it very handy to have a list for when I’m not feeling very creative.  (Activities in bold are favorites around our house.)

NOTE: Many of these suggestions involve small pieces that could be a choking hazard.  You know your child best!  (Some of mine could be trusted… others not so much!)


  • New Coloring Books (in order to keep them new, just tear out unused pages and staple them together)
  • Paint-with-water books (where the color’s already on the page and you just run a wet brush over it)
  • New Crayons (try to keep the crayons fresh by sharpening them or melting old crayons and making new ones in fun shapes)
  • Color Wonder Paper and Paint/Markers
  • Chalk or light colored crayons on dark construction paper.
  • Sticky notes and pencil.
  • envelopes, labels, paper, and stickers.
  • Stickers & Wax Paper (they can reuse the stickers that way)
  • glue stick and white glue, scissors, construction paper and paper scraps
  • Easy-to-use paper punch and strips of paper.
  • Scissors and paper (no other objective in mind!)
  • Stencils, paper, colored pencils
  • rubber stamps
  • Put paper clips onto paper
  • Tear paper (use for a mosaic-type art project later?)


  • Matching shapes – cut out shapes, then draw around them on another sheet of paper. Let the kids match the shapes.
  • homemade cards to play as a memory game or in any other creative way.
  • Sort Duplo blocks by color & size.
  • Look through a button box.
  • Magnet and paperclips, washers, a nail, etc.
  • Magnets and a Small Cookie Sheet
  • Ice trays/muffin tins/egg cartons and buttons, beads or marbles for sorting.
  • Various colored pom-poms to sort out into colored cups with a small spoon/tweezers/tongs

Tactile Play/Small Motor Development

  • Lacing Beads (easy to make a homemade set with colorful beads or cut up straws and a shoelace or pipecleaners.) Older child can do patterns
  • Lacing cards (I bought some Melissa & Doug ones but you can make your own with just cardboard shapes with holes punched around them.) Attach yarn, wrap masking tape around the end.)
  • plastic canvas and a large plastic needle with yarn
  • Chalk & Small Chalkboard (you can get them at craft stores for about a dollar)
  • Make a necklace or snack chain with yarn (masking tape on the ends) and any cereal with holes (like cheerios). If the toddler is old enough, they may be able to string them himself. Older child can do patterns
  • Nuts and bolts to sort. Go to a hardware store and pick out several sets of large nuts, bolts, and washers that fit together. Buy several of different diameters. Use them as an assembly project. This builds eye-hand coordination and estimation skills.
  • Writing tray; Put a layer of rice or cornmeal in a cookie sheet or baking pan. Good for spelling practice or picture-drawing or practicing A B C’s. (vacuums up!)
  • Colored rice to pour through a colander or funnels.
  • Rice/birdseed/lentil bin:This is a fun alternative to a sand box that can be used indoors or out by children who do not put things in their mouths. Fill a large, shallow plastic box ¼ of the way with rice or birdseed. If you’re using it inside, t’s a good idea to keep an old sheet underneath, or put the whole box inside an old wading pool to keep the spills under control. Add spoons, funnels, measuring cups, a two-liter bottle, a metal strainer, etc. for play. Play figures and toy cars work well, too. Activities: stand the two liter bottle upright. Try to fill it up using the measuring cups, and then the funnel. Compare/learn math: See that two halves equal one cup, etc. Add a container of salt to the mix. Have the children use the strainer and see if they can separate the two. Just playing with the rice/birdseed is soothing to children and will engage them for a long time.
  • Pouring Beads: small tray and 3 different containers and a spoon used to pour small beads.
  • Play-dough with a plastic knife, rolling pin, cookie cutters, small plastic toy, play dishes (my kids love the stuff in the set I linked, but there’s so much you can do on your own)
  • Refrigerated cookie dough and a cookie sheet. They can play with it and you can eat all the results.
  • Using a spoon, tongs, or tweezers, pick up and sort objects such as blocks, spools, coins, beans, marbles, cotton balls, pins, buttons, straws, nails, nuts, bolts, popcorn, etc.. and place them into containers of varying sizes (i.e. egg cartons, cups, mugs, jars, etc.)
  • Rice table: have a mixture of rice and several kinds of beans. Child uses a large slotted spoon and picks up a spoonful of rice mixture. They are to carefully shake the spoon back and forth until the rice falls through the slots and only the beans are left. Pour the beans into a small container. Goal is to continue until the container is filled.
  • Put ping pong balls into a dish tub of water (or bathtub), then have the child tongs to transfer them to another bucket.
  • “rainbow stones”: we have an ice cream bucket full of colored glass stones like you use for silk flower arrangements.  Both boys LOVE playing with these (just running their fingers through them, spooning them into containers, sorting them by color, etc.)

Entertaining Household items

  • Several cardboard boxes (cereal boxes, shoe boxes) to make a train or a town or just to stack and build with.
  • Sticking crayons into an old parmesan cheese container
  • Small cars or super-ball in a wrapping paper tube.
  • A retractable measuring tape to measure with.
  • Game pieces from lost games & cards. Find old games at garage sales if you don’t have lost pieces.
  • Pringles can with a slit cut in the top to drop cardboard or plastic coins.
  • Draw roads, houses, etc. on large paper or cardboard and have them use cars and trucks on it.
  • A large box (that’s all they need – they’ll do the rest).
  • Throw a blanket over a coffee table or card table. Give them clothes pins. They’ll figure it out.
  • A plastic bottle (clean milk jug, well rinsed detergent bottle, etc.) and small items like clothespins, pennies to drop in and shake out again (this can be a little noisy during school).
  • Damp washcloth and wall or window to “clean”. Paper towels and a spray bottle with a little water in it.
  • Let them “wash” a few plastic dishes. Put an egg beater, measuring cup and baster in the water.
  • Soft foam balls or daddy’s matched socks in a ball to pitch into the laundry basket.
  • Poke holes in thick cardboard with a tack. (Just be sure you know where the tack ends up!)
  • Mini-sandbox; Put a layer of sand in a box the size of a banana box. Add trucks, cars, popsicle sticks.
  • Shallow bucket on a towel on the floor. Add water, boats. Plastic fish, measuring cups, etc.
  • Make a tunnel of kitchen chairs.
  • Give them a crochet hook and a length of yarn. Demonstrate chain stitch a few times. This is not for everyone, but if you refuse to do it for them, you’ll be surprised at what they figure out.
  • Scrap wood, hammer, nails.
  • Bucket of water and a paintbrush-for outside painting. Works best on wood or concrete.
  • Chalk on sidewalk or steps.
  • A cup with non-toxic soapy water and a straw to blow bubbles. You may put it on a sheet of paper and add food coloring to the water.
  • Watch a bug ! At the table, at an anthill, wherever.
  • Sort/Stack Poker chips
  • Use sprayer bottles filled with water and sponges to have the child “clean” a desk or table, then squeeze the excess water into a dishpan.

Store-bought Toys

  • Wooden Puzzles (no more than 2 puzzles per activity box)
  • Wooden Train Set
  • Shape Sorter
  • Peg Boards
  • Lace & Link (made by Lauri)
  • Fit-a-Space (made by Lauri)
  • Blocks (my boys like making roads and tunnels out of them more than building up so far, but they’re still a hit!)
  • Beanbags and a bucket.
  • Tops- bought or made with ½ toothpick and cardboard disk.
  • A marble maze – set it in a shallow cardboard box or cookie sheet to cut down on the lost marbles.
  • Ziploc bag or “Toob“of small plastic toys such as farm animals or little people.
  • Little People“- we have various sets (house, school, barn, etc.) from my childhood that entertain for HOURS
  • Have a stuffed-animal tea party with real crackers.
  • Dominoes (my boys especially like our colored set)
  • Toy shopping cart to collect things around the room.
  • Unifix cubes and numbers printed on cardstock. Helps with number recognition and 1:1 correspondence.
  • Arrange blocks by size, color, or shape
  • Cuisenaire rods
  • Felt board play: Betty Lukens Felts makes beautiful, full-color felts for counting, telling stories, and so on, or you can make your own by using a black sharpie to outline or draw shapes, numbers, letters, animals, and so on onto heavy duty interfacing (find it at your local fabric store). Color with pastel crayons and cut out. You can also cut pictures out of magazines or discarded books and apply iron-on interfacing to the back. For the board itself, use a large piece of heavy cardboard, wrap in blue flannel, and secure with tape/hot glue.
  • Nest/stack cups or containers of different sizes. Discovery Toys’ Measure Up Cups are pricier, but have correct measurements and are great to use with sand or water.  We’ve also loved the Fisher Price Stack-and-Roll set
  • pattern blocks (either by themselves or with design cards)
  • Melissa & Doug “See & Spell


  • Books (make sure to pick some out that are ONLY used for special times)
  • Small CD Player, Headphones, & Fun Music or stories to read along

If you want help finding anything let me know!


Posted on September 12, 2011, in Homeschool Resources. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I LOVE YOUR SITE! You have been a huge help for me. This is my first year to homeschool and I needed some tried and true ideas. Plus, you seem to have the same objectives in mind as I do for what we are doing! Thanks for writing this all down!

  2. What a wonderful collection of ideas for activities to keep toddlers busy! Thank you so much for sharing them over at Toddler Idea Tuesdays. I am Featuring your post this week!

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