FREE SUMMER ACTIVITIES FOR TODDLERS

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?”

bored child

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.

Toddler with paint on hands for free summer activities for toddlers

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.

*Invest in a bug barn and net for extra-close bug inspection. We like this bug barn from Melissa and Doug and these nets because they do double duty for the DIY water table in #1.

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.

10. Compost

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.

compost for free summer activities for toddlers

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.

Popsicle bags for free summer activities for toddlers

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?

jumbo eyedroppers

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.

momming victory for free summer activities for toddlers

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.

Mom on!
Jillian

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TODDLER ROAD TRIP ACTIVITIES: FIVE WAYS TO KEEP A TODDLER BUSY IN THE CAR

Planning a road trip and need some quiet time in the car? Check out my five toddler road trip activities to keep your toddler content, quiet, and busy.
the best road trip toys for toddlers
Sitting in a car with a busy toddler for hours on end can be an anxiety-inducing thought. This is exactly what happened to me moments after booking the Great American Family Vacation. I was sitting at the computer with a hot(ish) cup of coffee daydreaming about my two sweet boys playing together in the sand and uninterrupted, quality family time for one whole week.
I finished up booking our hotel room for the week long stay, and no sooner did I get my confirmation email did a terrifying thought cross my mind: I just committed to spending hours in the car with my toddler and infant. My mind started racing through a list of possible toys and activities I could pack to keep my two year old busy.
My main criteria to consider when choosing toddler road trip activities:

Quiet Toys

I don’t think I need to explain why this was extremely important. No one wants to listen to electronic toys repeat the same song over and over and over and over (if you have a toddler you know that continues about 400 more times). Additionally, we were traveling with our 5 month old who obviously needed a significant amount of quiet time for napping. Bottom line: quiet toys are a MUST. Non-negotiable.

Self-Sufficient Activities

I needed to bring the toddler road trip activities I knew my two year old could do on his own. I did not want to spend most of the 15 hour car ride climbing into the backseat to help with complicated toys. This is also the reason I didn’t pack any books for the car. One of my toddler’s favorite phrases “MOMMY READ THIS!” + motion sickness-prone Mommy = bad time for everyone. I knew the best option would be to find things that would hold his interest and allow him to play independently.

Easy-to-Hold Toys

Two year old hands can be pretty clumsy, and most toddlers are still working hard on developing their fine motor skills. For this reason, I wanted to make sure I packed toys that would be easy for him to keep on his lap and things that wouldn’t easily fall into the car door/carseat crack abyss. I break this rule for #3 and #4, but I had a good reason.
Fast-forward: I am alive! The whole family survived what ended up being a total of 30 hours in the car. I came away with some solid Mom Points and five winning toddler road trip activities to share with you to help keep your little one happy, busy, and quiet!
This post contains affiliate links. If you click a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

1. Magnet Doodle Board

I bought this exact magnet doodle board specifically for this road trip. We had never owned one, but I thought my artistic son might like it. Heck, back in the day, my Wooly Willy would keep me busy for hours. (You remember this thing, don’t you?). So I figured, why not pass the tradition on? Well let me tell you: this is a winner. It now lives permanently in the backseat because my son LOVES playing with it in the car.
I love this one particularly for a couple of reasons: it has 4 color quadrants which encourage little ones to name their colors and think of things associated with that color. For example, I will say, “Let’s draw a tree! What color do you think the tree should be?” or “Can you draw a red circle?” He is so proud of himself when he can remember and identify each color. The other reason I love it is that it’s easy for little hands. It has a wide handle, and the magnetic pen is on the chunky side, so it’s easy to grasp and hold. It’s also attached to the board with a string which is perfect for clumsy hands. The magnetic slider on the bottom is also easy to hold and slide which makes erasing very easy. My son can draw on his own and then erase easily and start over again and again. This means he can spend a serious chunk of time engaged in artistic, independent play.

2. Melissa and Doug Locks and Latches Wooden Activity Board

This is one of my son’s favorite toys at home, and we love Melissa and Doug products, so this was an easy choice for me to bring in the car. This has four compartments that each open and close using a different mechanism. This is perfect for my son’s budding hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Some of the locks and latches are more challenging which is perfect for keeping a little one engaged and interested. Most toddlers have an obsession with keys, and my son is no different. There is a key attached to the board that can be used to open one of the locks. This is PERFECT for the car because THE FREAKING KEY IS ATTACHED. This means it can’t be dropped or lost. I actually just let out a huge sigh of relief.
We play other games with this board as well that target object identification and memory. Once each compartment is opened, there is a unique scene pictured inside. I will say, “Where did that bunny go?! Have you seen the bunny?” He will have to recall which compartment the bunny is in and unlock to reveal it. There is one compartment that unlocks with a combination-style lock, so that also is a great place to practice his numbers. We love this one, and it’s super easy to travel with since all the parts are attached to the board.

3. Stacking Pegs

As you may have guessed, we are fans of Montessori toys in our house which is one of the reasons I love these stacking pegs. They encourage fine motor development, creativity, counting, color identification, understanding and development of patterns, and they are really just good old fashioned fun.
But you’re thinking to yourself: Did you not just say “no toys that are easily dropped”????? You’re right. I did say that. HOWEVER, my reasoning for this choice and my next choice is that with an entire bag of pieces, it takes a lot of dropping before my son is done with the activity. He’s not the kind of kid to dump the whole bag over (they come in a nice carrying pouch), so if he accidentally dropped a few then it was no big deal because there were still a bunch left to play with.

4. Lace-up Apple

We love this classic Montessori toy!  This easy-to-hold design is perfect for the car, and it encourages fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Toddlers can even learn about patterns and basic shapes. MOM WIN! Quiet, interesting, educational. Boom.

*This may not be ideal for a road trip with only one parent as you’re going to need someone to un-loop the string occasionally so your toddler can play again!

5. Kids Kindle

No mom judgement here. I own a Fire 7 Kids’ Edition Tablet from Amazon, and it is my ace in the hole whenever I NEED to keep my two year old occupied. We have strict screen time rules in my house, so my son only gets to use this about 1-3 times a month depending on what’s going on. This is a win-win because we avoid many of the negative effects of too much screen time, and on the rare occasion we bust it out, my son is completely occupied. I have used the Kindle in restaurants when my little one is fussy and I can tell everything is going down hill, and I have also used it when I take both kids to the doctor’s office. (It’s difficult to be present and engaged with the pediatrician who is asking about my infant’s horrible eczema while I am chasing my two year old around and asking him to stop grabbing all the tongue depressors.) I gave him the Kindle, and BOOM. Sitting in the chair. Occupied. Just like that.
Right away I knew I was going to pack the Kindle for the long car ride and only get it out if all the other toys failed. I didn’t need to use it on the 15 hour ride down. The drive home was another story. My son was tired from a week-long beach vacation and DONE being in the car. I gave him the Kindle and he was a happy little clam. His favorite Kindle games right now are the Very Hungry Caterpillar and Dino ABC’s.
I almost always have the Kindle charged and in the diaper bag in case I need a powerful and quick distraction which doesn’t happen too often, but when you need that distraction, YOU NEED THAT DISTRACTION. I get it.

So I am totally not pretending to be perfect on the first shot.

There were some things I brought that didn’t work out so great, and I will share those with you also. I brought some foam puzzle boards which my son loves to play with at home, but these didn’t work out so well in the car when he didn’t have a solid surface to play on. At home, he will put them on the floor and push each piece down but wasn’t able to hold them upright and push the pieces in while in the car. I also packed this Melissa and Doug bead maze which is another favorite toy in our house. My son had the same issue with this. It was hard for him to hold it and play at the same time. No biggie.
Hopefully these ideas give you some inspiration for your own toddler road trip activities, and if you’re currently planning a vacation just know that I am super jealous but wishing you some relaxation, coffee, and quality family time!
Mom on!
Jillian

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