You’re half-way through summer. The kids have been busy running through the sprinkler, swimming in the kiddie pool, and washing the dog. The bubbles have been spilled, sidewalk chalk broken (probably because someone stepped on it), and the wagon has some serious miles on it.
And now the kids are bored and asking, “What next, Mom?”
Summer is a great time to create unforgettable family memories, but it can be challenging for parents and caretakers to find free summer activities for toddlers and young children.
You want to keep everyone busy, but you don’t want to break the bank.
We always want to facilitate activities that keep our children learning and busy, and during the summer we want these activities to happen OUTSIDE where that merciless mess can remain.
Are you exhausted? I know I am. Let me help you out with some ideas for free summer activities for toddlers and young children.
Free summer activities for toddlers in your own backyard
1. DIY water table
Fill some buckets or plastic totes with water for a DIY water table and bring out some stuff to throw in them.
I get out utensils for scooping such as kitchen ladles and spoons, measuring spoons and cups. Bonus points if you have a whisk or turkey baster.
I also put in things to scoop or wash such as those plastic balls we seem to always have around, toy farm animals, dinosaurs, or Fisher Price Little People figures. Anything you have around the house that can get wet will work perfectly! There is no right or wrong.
There are some cute water tables on Amazon, but to be honest, they don’t really jazz me. To me, they’re way overpriced for you what you get. Plus, I am always concerned about water toy issues and safety (but that’s another story you can read about here.)
For me, I’d rather do it on the cheap with these easy-to-clean Boon boats or these awesome jumbo eye droppers (which are easy to take apart and clean) and some bucket or large container I already own.
2. Pass the water
My toddler boys love transferring things from one container to another, so a sponge squeeze water transfer is a guaranteed win. I fill one bucket with water and give them a few sponges. They soak up the water and then squeeze it into an empty bucket until all the water is transferred.
Bonus points if you have the energy to create an obstacle course between the buckets with tips from Pre-K Pages.
3. Sponge balls
I’m not a big fan of water balloons because of the waste, cost, and mess of cleaning up rubber bits afterward. I am, however, a HUGE fan of reusing and repurposing stuff that would otherwise be thrown out.
So what I do instead is make reusable sponge balls from old sponges. I run my old sponges through the dishwasher to sanitize them, and then cut them into strips and bind them together in the middle with a zip tie to form a ball. (Hair ties and rubber bands work too but aren’t as durable.)
These sponge balls can be used for the sponge squeeze water transfer in #2 or as a stand in for traditional water balloons. Plus, you can throw them back in the dishwasher if they get dirty outside and reuse over and over again.
AND I’m not in my backyard trying to pick up all the water balloon scraps before my dogs (or children) eat them.
4. Scoop and dump
Similar to the sponge squeeze water transfer, we also love a water scoop and dump. The idea is the same. Fill a bucket with water and give the kids something to scoop it into another container with. Put the buckets across the yard and let them transfer the water from bucket to bucket until the sun goes down!
Depending on age and dexterity, you can make this more or less difficult by choosing different scoops. This is a fun way to practice balance and fine motor skills.
For older toddlers or young kids, try using an upside-down frisbee! Wide, shallow “scoops” are harder to control and take more concentration to balance without spilling.
5. Fill your bucket
Fill your bucket is a fun summer toddler activity classic. Give your little ones a bucket and have them fill it with whatever they want! Grass, flowers (OK they’re called dandelions), pebbles, dirt, leaves, sticks… whatever they can find! (Keep in mind, the bigger the bucket, the longer this activity takes! 😉
After they fill their bucket, they can dump the contents and have a nature sort. Sort by type, color, size, or shape. You can make this into whatever kind of sorting activity you want.
Sometimes we like to sit down in a circle and talk about all of the finds. This is an easy way to learn about nature and nourish appreciation for our local flora.
6. Messy play day
**Save this one for a day you’re feeling particularly caffeinated.
Let the kids just make a big huge mess.
This is the free-est free summer activity for toddlers. It’s also one of their favorites because let’s be honest: our kids are always wanting to make a mess, and we are usually trying to stop them. Being outside during the summer is the best time to let them really get into it.
Get out the slime, Playdoh, glitter and all the things you’ve been hiding from your toddlers, or get a bucket of water and let them make mud pies until their hearts content. The best part about this summer activity: you can just hose them off in the backyard!
7. Science experiments
Speaking of making a big mess, summer is a great time to make baking soda and vinegar explosions with ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen.
This science fair classic is a lot of fun, and doing it outside really cuts down on the mess. Just remember: vinegar tends to kill any plants it comes into contact with, so this might best be carried out in the driveway.
8. Bug hunt
Go on a bug hunt. This can be a great way to teach little ones about insects. What makes an ant different from a butterfly? What can be touched and what should be left alone? Where do worms live? I am always looking for fun opportunities to teach my kids about the world we live in.
Check out this free printable bug hunt checklist from My Mommy Style along with other bug-themed activities for kids.
9. Make your own flag
Round up an old t shirt, tablecloth, sheet, or whatever fabric you have lying around and let your kids decorate a flag to hang in the backyard or in front of the house.
This craft can be very simple with just cutting an old white t shirt into a rectangle and letting your kids decorate it with markers. Of course you can always spice it up with fabric paint, glitter, or whatever else you can find in your craft cabinet.
Make a compost pile or bin and search for worms to add. Here is another great opportunity to teach kids about the cycles of nature and reducing waste.
With all the fruit consumed in my house in the summer months, I could probably feed every worm in my neighborhood. After we have our bananas or watermelon, my kids love taking the scraps out to the worms.
Pinterest is chock full of ideas for DIY compost bins from the very simple to very complex. I like this article from Little Sprouts Learning.
11. Outdoor fort
Create a backyard fort with sheets. Kids just love to have their own place to hide. Pull your sheets out and attach them to a fence, tree, clothesline, deck, or whatever you have to create a cozy little spot.
If your fort’s durable enough, leave it out until nightfall and transition into a popcorn-eating, stargazing, flashlight-wielding adventure!
12. Make popsicles
I always forget about the classic DIY popsicles, and I feel like a pure genius every time I remember this classic summer go-to.
Make popsicles with juice, fruit, applesauce, yogurt, or whatever you have laying around. Kids love to help cook, but this often creates a mess. Assemble DIY popsicles outside using a wide variety of foods you probably already have in your house.
Our favorite way to do this is to use these popsicle bags. I like these because they are easy and can be reused if you feel like washing them. If not, you can dispose them after each use. This set also comes with a funnel which is nice (and fun to use in the DIY water table!)
13. Paint with water
This is my go-to for those days when I am feeling LAZY or just need a very fast activity to redirect my toddlers to avoid a tantrum. This is the easiest of easy activities.
We “paint” on the driveway, sidewalk, fence, patio, or swing set. Simply fill a container with water and give them a paint brush (There is just something toddlers love about having a paint brush!)
The water will change the color of many different surfaces and this free activity can provide hours of creative fun while coming with NO MESS!
14. DIY car track
We all have a bunch of cardboard boxes laying around from those many Amazon deliveries. Why not put them to good use by making a DIY car track?
Simply flatten out your biggest boxes and lay them out on the grass. Draw some basic roads, and let the kids draw in some buildings, trees, ponds, or just scribbles!
Now wrangle up all those Matchbox cars you keep stepping on (they’re as bas as Legos really).
*I love to roll the cars around in the dirt or mulch of the flower bed and then have the kids clean them up in the car wash (AKA DIY water table from #1) before hitting the “road”.
They have a couple of old toothbrushes to scrub with too (just put them through the dishwasher first to make sure they’re free of any bacteria from someone’s mouth).
15. Color mix
Remember these awesome jumbo eyedroppers from #1?
These are perfect for a *very scientific* color mix activity. Fill up a bunch of containers with water and color each one with some food coloring.
Give your toddler a clear cup or bowl and show them how mixing colors together creates new colors.
This is a great activity for learning colors (obviously!) but also for fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
I hope these ideas spur your creativity to dream up your own list of free summer activities for toddlers!
I’ve found that as long as I am enthusiastic and positive about a new activity, my kids will get on board pretty quickly. Even the simplest activity can be fun if you approach it with a level of excitement!
After all, what could be better than having these short precious years to create amazing memories and strong bonds with our little ones?!
I you have more ideas, please share them in comments. Team work makes the dream work.
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