Activities To Keep Toddlers Busy While You Cook

Getting things done in the kitchen is somewhat challenging when you have young children in the house. With 2 boys of my own, who are 2 and 4 at the time, I can certainly relate.

Their attention spans are short, they need a lot of attention and they still require a significant amount of hands-on care most of the time. They are always underfoot, once they learn to talk, they jabber nonstop and they like being right next to you all the time.

They do keep each other somewhat entertained, but that also requires a lot of supervision, because peaceful and calm they are not:). My sweet little cherubs sure are adorable, but they get into their fair share of whining, fighting and also create tons of messes and get into everything the moment you are distracted with something else.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned to do that will keep them entertained for a little while so that I can get SOME things done. All of these activities are what my children ACTUALLY do, not a compilation of random ideas I collected.

Disclaimer! Everything will never get done, but at least you can make a little bit of a headway.

Independant Play

I’m a huge believer that it’s healthy for children to learn how to play independently. I don’t think a parent should have to keep a child entertained 24/7.
It’s great that today parents are really involved in their children’s lives, and do all sorts of activities with them, provide them with lots of stimulating amusement all the time, but if you look back even a little, I think most of us remember our own parents mostly left us to find our own activities.

I don’t remember my Dad or Mom doing crafts with us, taking us on all kinds of “field trips”, etc, and they were both wonderful parents. They provided enough attention, but weren’t hovering over us all hours of the day. We were expected to find things to do on our own and we sure got creative. We had plenty of time that they spent with us or we spent all together as a family, but when they needed to get things done, we were expected to find something to do and as soon as we were slightly old enough, we joined in the work too.

Honestly, my boys do great playing on their own and the older they are, the more creative they get. This is a list of things that they do that keeps them busy for awhile.

Please remember that even though all of these things are fun and entertaining, it won’t keep them occupied for hours – they are toddlers after all. I’ve learned that the key is to be ready to suggest something new when they start to get bored. Variety is the key here.

Ideas For Different Independent Play Activities

  • Play Dough

My boys have always loved play dough and the older they get, the more I can leave them with it on their own and it keeps them busy for quite a while. They love helping me make it,, it lasts us a really long time and it keeps them busy for hours (not at a time, but overall).

Homemade Play Dough RECIPE

I store the Play Dough in THESE containers. *

  • Sensory Bins

Ever heard of Sensory Bins? They are activities, usually in a box, bin or some sort of container, where children get to explore things with their different senses – touch, smell, sight, sound, etc.

For example, rice, beans, chickpeas, shredded paper, pompoms, water, sand. Then you place other items in there that they use to explore and interact in different ways – spoons, cups, funnels, cars. Do some research – sensory bins are so good for children!

  • Rainbow Rice – a type of sensory bin that is extra fun because the rice is different colors. RAINBOW RICE RECIPE

  • Chickpeas/Beans

I use these in sensory bins, but my boys also like to pretend they are “rocks” and play Construction Zone with cars, spoons, cups, etc.

  • Cars, trains – my boys’ favorite toys are cars, trucks, trains and any other type of transportation toys. They have quite a collection and they don’t get tired of playing with them every day.
  • Building Forts/play under the table
  • Building a Train Out of Chairs or Boxes
  • Boxes (boxes give children a chance to get really creative and let their imaginations soar)
  • Sorting Activities

My boys love sorting things, and we do so many different variations of this. I have colorful pompons that we use for lots of things and one of them is to sort them by color, by putting the different colors into the corresponding colored bowls. They will sort anything, matchbox cars and wooden cars. Cars and toy animals, etc. The possibilities are endless:).

We’ve also sorted apples and other food items into different colors and sizes, sorted legos by color, cars, stuffed animals, etc.

  • Painter’s Tape

Use painter’s tape (easy to use and won’t damage your floors) to make a road so they can play with their cars, trains, etc. Or build a town and they can build it and pretend play.

  • Puzzles
  • Magnatiles* (I talk about this toy all the time, but it’s one of the best ones we own. It’s very educational, they play with it all the time and it keeps them busy.)
  • Legos – also very creative, classic and fun
  • Pull things around in a cart or box
  • Plastic bikes/cars in the house – we have one for each of the boys that stays inside the house, so they are clean and don’t damage our floors. The boys zoom around the house on them EVERY SINGLE DAY.
  • Pompoms* If you’re going to be using pompoms for multiple activities, buy good quality ones so they will last you for awhile.
  • We use ours for sorting, playing many games with them, play with them in water and they are still in great shape. Place different colored balls into the same colored bowls, match with the same color legos, etc.

Coloring, Drawing, Arts and Crafts

The kinds of arts and crafts will depend on how old you child is and how much supervision they need. One of my children never drew on anything except a coloring book or notebook, the other one doesn’t hesitate to draw on everything – walls, furniture, clothes, himself, etc.

Messier projects may be something you keep for times when you can supervise more closely, but some children will be great at painting by themselves too.

Actually, the child that draws all over everything is also wonderful at painting and will be mesmerized and paint for at least half an hour and rarely paint on anything not appropriate. You just have to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

Simple Schoolwork

My 4 year old loves working on worksheet, practicing finding letters, writing them, etc. Most of the time, we do schoolwork together, but simple things that he’s done with me before, I’ll let him work on it on his own.

When my 2 year old sees him working, he wants to join in too, so I give him something that looks similar to what his brother is doing and even though he’s not really doing schoolwork, he feels like he’s part of it too. I’ve also been surprised how much he’s catching on, even without really trying.

Other simple school related activities:

  • Glue, scissors, tape art
  • Drawing on Chalkboard/Dry Erase Board
  • Stickers 

Start Giving Them Chores At An Early Age

The great thing about this age is that they actually WANT to help and are excited to do chores. It’s something new and exciting for them, so even though it takes much longer to teach them and/or let them do it versus just doing it yourself, it will pay off in the long run, because eventually, you will work yourself out of some jobs.

Easy Jobs For Little Ones

  • Dusting
  • Vacuum
  • Pick up their toys, tidy up the house
  • Set the table
  • Put clean dishes away out of the dishwasher

You’d be surprised how good they are at this chore. My youngest knew exactly where everything went when he wasn’t even two. They watch and learn so much more than we realize. Both of them know exactly where everything goes now and I hardly ever have to correct them.

It will be far from perfect, you may have to redo many things after them, but they will learn over time and it will pay off after eventually. You are instilling the understanding in them that we all pitch in as a family to make our household run.

Quiet Time

Children need time to regroup, relax and have some quiet time.

My boys have learned what quiet time is and now they know exactly what is expected of them. They never really resisted me when I started implementing this, they just didn’t understand what we were doing and why, but I kept explaining it, and they just went along with it.

Now, they go sit on the couch or in their room quietly, read most of time or play with their cars or stuffed animals. It’s actually really, really nice and I’m so glad I started doing this. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, it’s a good start, and mine can now do it for 30 minutes at a time.

Let Them Cook/Play In the Kitchen With You

  • Often times, they just want to be near you.

My boys will bring their books, coloring books, toys, legos, etc. and sit on the floor in the kitchen next to me. Sometimes they just play, other times, I interact with them a bit, telling them a story, goofing around, singing, etc. if I’m not really short on time or don’t need to concentrate too much.

My 4 year old just loves to talk and will tell me all sorts of things, his imagination is incredible, so he just wants me to listen, interact, even though I am cooking or cleaning at the same time.

  • Magnets on Refrigerator/Dishwasher

One of the ways that both my boys learned their letters was with a magnetic alphabet* that we have. They would put the letters on the refrigerator or dishwasher and ask me which letter it was, or I would have them tell me the letters that they were holding.

  • Stack cans, Play with Potatoes and Onions

The kitchen has lots of amusing “toys” for little ones to play with. My boys have loved playing with potatoes and onions, stacking cans, pretending that they are at the store, pulling around the groceries in one of their carts or cardboard boxes.

  • Picnic – spread out a blanket on the kitchen floor, give them snacks and let them have a picnic while you work. My boys love this and request it often.
  • Play With Kitchen Tools

Bowls, wooden spoons, whisks, plastic knives – they all hold so much appeal to children.

  • Play in the Sink

Children and water are a magical combination. They love splashing, pouring, floating things, so this is perfect. You are supervising them, since you are in the kitchen all together, but you get to get something done while they play nearby.

  • If you’re in a good mood and have a little extra time, let them Cook With You.

I wrote all about this in my post – Stress Free Cooking With Kids – Tips To Make Time In the Kitchen a Good Experience For You and Your Child.

Alphabet/Numbers Game With Post It Notes

This one takes a little bit of prep, but it will keep them busy for a while. Tape some paper to the wall and write down letters or numbers. Write the letters or numbers on post it noters and place them on another wall. Have the child take the post it note and attach it on top of the matching letter on the paper. This “game” is one of their favorites. They race each other and even though I’ve never really actively taught Josh anything yet, it’s surprising how much he comprehends and matches many of the letters and numbers and recognizes them in books or signs on the road and points them out to us.

I got this idea as well as the sensory bins from The Busy Toddler on Instagram. If you have little ones, this is a great account to follow for lots of great ideas.

Take Out Stashed Toys That They Don’t Play With All the Time

We store a good amount of the boys’ toys in a separate bin where they can’t reach them. It helps to cut down on the mess and clutter – I tend to hide all the toys with little parts, like puzzles, railroad tracks, toys with multiple pieces, etc. and every once in a while, I’ll take down a bin and they will be so excited to play with the “new” toys.

Accept That Perfection Is Unattainable

Somedays, you just have to get things done and your children will create a giant mess that makes you want to cry. Other days, you may choose to turn on some tv for them to watch to get them out of your hair.

If all else fails, order takeout and sit on the couch, ignore the mess and resign yourself that you are a human being. Tomorrow will be better. Go outside and leave the dishes in the sink. Make some tuna or PBJ sandwiches and have a picnic on your lawn.

I know this post is very long and detailed, but I wanted to include as many ideas as I could, so you would have many things to try out. Children are all very different, so what works for our family may now work for yours and vice versa.

Please share your own ideas too – I’m sure you have many brilliant ones to share too. I often share what my boys are doing on my Instagram stories, so if you want to get new ideas and see all of this in real life, be sure to follow me there.

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  • Inna

    I love this! So many great ideas! Thank you for this post:) my husband built a little wooden table for my boys in the garage and got them little hammers, drills, nails, saw, etc. and we collect all the scraps and they just do whatever they want there. Paint/hot glue. They come up with such cool ideas 😉 and they can spend so much time there!

  • Lilly

    I absolutely love these ideas! Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy your blog- you are probably my favorite blogger.

  • Oksana

    These are such great ideas, Olga. I agree 100% that children don’t need to be entertained by parents all the time. Or the electronics either. Once they get hold of a phone or other device more than once (parent gives toddler to get them out of their hair) , it seems like that’s the only thing that they’ll be pulled towards. It’s very tempting to do, and then very hard to have them be motivated to play with other toys. I love that most your ideas listed are “open-ended ” for imaginative play. You’re so right not to restrict them to just battery operated toys. I’ve learned my lesson on that, my kids lose interest the quickest on something that runs on batteries.

  • Zhenia

    Great ideas, love the painters tape for cars as I have 5 boys under 10 and it’s a challenge to keep their attention on one thing for long. This will keep them busy if only for a while . Also, your boys are SO adorable! God bless

  • Ilona

    Thank you for the post! I picked up an idea or two! My girls also love picnics on the blanket – reminded me that we haven’t done it in a while!

  • Anna Davis

    I like the idea of stashing toys and pulling them out every once in a while so they feel new. My sister has a 2-year-old and has really been struggling with him this month. I will pass this advice along to her so she can start looking for some good toddler activities.

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