Raising children is exciting, terrifying, exhausting, and so rewarding. No matter the stage a child is in, there are wonders to be found and lessons to be learned. Newborns capture our hearts, tweens test the limits, and teenagers think they don’t need us.
But what about those toddlers? Don’t think I’m weird, but this is my favorite stage. They’re curious about the world around them, they mimic everything you do and say, and I love it when they put their little chubby hands on your cheek and gaze into your eyes like you are the most important person in the world.
Yet, as I am sure you know, with each of those stages come challenges . . . and toddlers can be a handful when they get bored. The secret is not to let them! Well, that and wear them out. . . and early bedtime is a life saver. Outdoors is a toddler’s happy place. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Year Round Outdoor Activities for Toddlers
Making Bird Feeders
Bird feeders are great for little hands to make and the best place to make a mess is outside. Collect a few pine cones, tie a piece of string around one, spread peanut butter on, roll in bird seed, and you have a feeder. Or your toddler can thread some Cheerios on 3 pieces of string, tie those to a paper bowl, fill it with bird seed, and you have another feeder. Be sure to watch the birds enjoy the treat.
Playing “I Spy With My Little Eye”
This is a great game to play outside (or in line at Costco) because it helps build awareness of this great big world. Once you are outside, look around and choose an object (like a red wagon in the driveway) and then say, “I spy with my little eye something red.”
At first, and especially with toddlers, you might need to look in the direction of the object. Besides helping toddlers develop thinking skills, it’s a great way to practice colors and shapes. Give as many clues as needed for the little guy.
Looking for Animal Tracks
Since toddlers are close to the ground, it’s easy for them to spot animal tracks. Around your neighborhood, she might be able to find tracks that belong to dogs, cats, birds, and who knows what else!
Or you can take her on a hike to look for other kinds of tracks – like deer, squirrels, and rabbits. Be sure to guide her to places that are likely to have tracks such as snow, mud, sand, and dirt. Kids also enjoy making their own tracks as well as create replicas of the animal tracks they see.
Outdoor Snow Activities for Toddlers
A great way to spend an afternoon in the winter is to bundle up and head outside for a sled ride. For toddlers, I especially like the sleds that have a rope so I can pull them around the yard or neighborhood. This is just a fun way to enjoy nature, the beauty of winter, and get a little exercise.
Who doesn’t love a good snowman? But have you thought about what is gained in the process? Fine and gross motor skills, symmetry (what happens if the snowballs aren’t even?), geometry (circles, squares, triangles), and colors (what color is the nose, the scarf, the snow?) just to name a few.
Invest in a child size snow shovel (you won’t regret it) and you will have an activity anytime it snows. Toddlers love to help, and it is a great time to let them. It’s fun to see how seriously they take it and where they decide to put the snow. You might be surprised to see your toddler’s imagination working as he’s making a small pile of snow.
Completing an Obstacle Course in the Snow
Obstacle courses are a great activity for toddlers. It not only is a great release of energy, but it works different muscles and builds coordination.
If you are wondering what a snow obstacle looks like, well, imagine this: make a snow angel, throw a snowball through a hula hoop (have some snowballs already made or have your child make some), pack snow into a small container and make a snow castle, crawl from one point to another, roll a snowball a few feet (again, have one pre-made or have the child make it), do a belly slide down a small hill . . . you get the idea.
Be prepared that she might stop at the first obstacle and be content with that for several minutes.
Making Snow Ice Cream
The next snow storm you have, bundle up your toddler and head outside to gather up some clean snow. You won’t find a quicker, cheaper treat than snow ice cream. It’s easy to make – just google it and you will find several recipes. Of course, it goes without saying–don’t eat yellow snow!
All you need for this fun activity is some kind of bottle – a spray bottle, empty dish soap container, or anything that has a lid that you can poke a hole in – and some food color. Just add a drop or two of color to the water and your toddler is ready to create a masterpiece!
Building a Snow Fort
Kids of all ages love forts – inside, outside, warm weather or cold. Toddlers aren’t very big so this fort doesn’t have to be elaborate. Kids this age love to fill up buckets, sand pails, or any kind of container, so get him involved in the process; he fills and you pack it down.Turn it upside down and you have part of a wall. Or you can just use your hands to form a wall. Remember that a toddler would be happy with just a snow wall to hide behind.
Outdoor Toddler Activities for Warm Weather
It’s hard not to love bubbles . . . there are so many different ways to play with them. A toddler can be entertained for quite a while running after those magical, floating balls of air. They never seem to tire of trying to pop them. If you want to add a little learning to this fun activity, try counting how many bubbles he pops.
Swimming in a Pool
See how many pools are within driving distance and make a goal to visit as many as you can during the summer. Or play in a kid size plastic pool in your backyard.
Playing Caterpillar Hopscotch
Draw a large circle with sidewalk chalk, then add 7 to 10 smaller circles on one side . . . and you have a caterpillar! Your toddler can hop in each square, counting as she goes or you can time how fast it takes her to run from one end to the other. Bring Eric Carle’s book A Very Hungry Caterpillar and enjoy reading under a tree.
Building a Fort
Grab some blankets and head outside. Find something you can use to drape the blankets over (think lawn chairs, step stools, ladders) and she will have a new play area. Bring out some of her favorite toys and she will be entertained for quite a while. Or story time in the fort can be so fun.
Going on a Bear Hunt
One of the all time best sing along songs is “We’re Going On a Bear Hunt.” It is also an adorable picture book by Michael Rosen. And it is a favorite activity for toddlers. Once both of you know the song (maybe throw in some actions), it’s time to take the hunt outside. Find a place that has some space and includes things like rocks, logs, and objects to climb over: You are ready to go on your very own “Bear Hunt” – he will love it!
Visiting a Nearby Pond
If you wake up with a lot of energy, pack a lunch, grab some poles, and head to a nearby pond. Your toddler will get a kick out of fishing (well, for a few minutes). Some ponds have ducks that can be fed which will amuse him. Take a ball in case there is some room to kick it around.
Going to a Park
How many parks are in your town? Make a goal to visit as many as you can and see which is your toddler’s favorite.
Playing in Water
Toddlers get a kick out of playing in the water and they don’t care if it is a little kiddie pool, sprinklers, or a water table, so mix it up every week or so. Check to see if there are any splash pads near you – such a fun way to spend some time.
Searching for Bugs
Toddlers can spend a lot of time looking for insects, worms and rolly pollies and I don’t think they ever get tired of it. When kids observe, catch and yes, play with bugs, they begin to understand how things in nature work together. They see a creepy spider but marvel at the beautiful web it created to catch pesky things like flies. The earthworm is slimy but it helps plants grow. Where do those rolly pollies go?
Playing in Sand
If you can, it is always nice to have sand in the yard – either in a traditional sandbox or in a sand table. This is a great activity for toddlers since it is a great sensory experience and it entertains them for quite a while.
You might consider finding an inexpensive or second hand tent and putting sand in the bottom – and voila! You have a sandbox out of the sun. If you don’t have an option for a sandbox, consider getting some kinetic sand from a craft store or on Amazon and storing it in a bin. Trust me, even this is better played outside – sand gets everywhere.
Shaving Cream Painting
If the thought of painting with a toddler makes you shudder, then try painting with shaving cream. It smells really good, it’s cheap, and it’s an easy clean up. Spray it directly on an outside table, a container, or in muffin tins. Try finger painting for a great sensory experience or use a brush. Add food color or liquid watercolors to help with color recognition. Paint on paper, a table, or even a window. By the way, cleaning up is almost as fun as painting.
Having a Ride-on/Car Wash
Toddlers love their ride-ons and so it stands to reason that they would love to wash them on a hot summer day. Who knows? Maybe someday they will love washing your car!
Growing a Garden
This is an activity you and your toddler can enjoy all summer. The whole process is fun: preparing the area, planting the seeds, checking how big the plants are … everyday, and of course harvesting. Notice I didn’t mention weeding – You might be on your own for that.
Running an Obstacle Course
This is one of my favorite activities to do with kids of all ages, inside or out. Don’t worry about any special equipment, just use what you have. An ordinary bucket becomes something to throw a beanbag in; a step stool becomes something to climb up and over; a box turns into a tunnel. . . you get the idea. The best part is you never have the same obstacle course, although your toddler will let you know what obstacles he likes best.
Hiking with a toddler can be both frustrating and rewarding. Instead of setting out for a hike with a destination in mind, have a set amount of time. For example, hike 30 minutes and then turn around and head back to the car. This way your little one can enjoy nature on her time schedule and you aren’t trying to hurry her along to get to the waterfall. Or maybe start with the objective of gathering 10 rocks and then turn back.
Riding through a Maze
Get your chalk out and draw a maze for your toddler to follow on her favorite ride-on. Consider it her first driving opportunity. Have her help you draw trees, and stop signs. She will have her own town to scoot around.
Going on a Scavenger Hunt
This activity takes just a few minutes to prepare for and then you are out the door for an adventure of a scavenger hunt. Simply make a list of things to find on your walk and draw a simple picture of them. Hand it to your toddler and he will take his responsibility very seriously. To get you thinking about what to put on your list, here are some ideas: bird, worm, dog, tree, car, truck, etc.
Creating a Worm Home
If your toddler is into all things bugs, then this activity is for him. A worm home is fairly easy to make – you just need a container with a lid (a jar would be ideal since he could see the worms), shredded newspaper, a mixture of soil, sand, and rocks, and of course worms.
And this is where your toddler comes in… catching worms (I always needed to take a deep breath during this part). This is a simple pet because worms have just a few needs: food (microbes from dirt and rotting material), a moist (not wet) dark environment, and air-so be sure to poke some holes in the lid.
Playing with Sidewalk Chalk
Bring out the artist in your toddler at an early age. Who knows, you might find that your interest in drawing is rekindled.
Floating Paper Boats
“Float” by Daniel MiyaresIs, is a cute book that tells the story of a little boy who takes a paper boat out to float on a rainy day. The boat gets lost when he lets it float down a gutter stream. It’s a fun book that can lead to a great adventure for a toddler.
So Google how to build a paper boat (you can find some easy step by step instructions), grab a piece of paper (or maybe a few), and head out for a fun morning. Just a heads up – you might want to practice building the boat before so the process goes smoothly when you sit down with your little one.
There is something about puddles and kids . . . they go together like peanut butter and jelly. There is no need to stay inside on a rainy day, just grab some boots and a raincoat and start splashing. Try a game of “follow the leader” through all the puddles in the neighborhood. Try introducing a little science while you are out . . . have your toddler use a stick to measure how deep each puddle is before they jump. Perhaps they will decide to do a huge jump, a tiny one, or not jump at all.
Benefits of Toddlers Playing Outside
Did you know that there are a lot of benefits from encouraging kids to play outside? Besides the benefits of vitamin D, they naturally develop fine and gross motor skills and build coordination skills playing outside. Unfortunately, studies show that kids are spending less and less time outside and more time in front of screens.
In his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder”, Richard Louv recounts the words of a child he interviewed. When asked why he liked to play indoors more than outside, he replied “Cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”
I have to admit it was tempting to keep kids inside so I could get some things done – you know, things like putting toys away from yesterday, the dishes from last night, and oh yeah, the never ending pile of laundry. However, studies show that children who play outside not only sleep longer, they go to bed earlier. To help your day go smoother, and an early bedtime, keep a running list of ideas of what you can do outside. You will be glad you did!
However you choose to spend time outside, just remember that your toddler might find things he likes to do that are different from what you have planned. And that independence is what you are trying to develop. Every day is a new adventure; what he loves today might not be what he loves tomorrow or then again, it could be what he wants to do every single day. Whatever kind of activity he enjoys doing, embrace it: you are getting a glimpse into the little human he is developing into.