Outdoor Games for Toddlers

Toddler play in mud

It’s warm. You’ve got your natural sunscreen ready. And, your toddler is itching to go outside.

What to do? Especially if your toddler is solo, you might want to start with everyday games that are interesting and engaging. Reinvent the familiar in an unfamiliar space. Create an opportunity for hours of open play.

Open-ended play works well as toddlers are learning to push the boundaries very quickly. So, I have come up with a few prompts that encourage your toddler to play without much structure.

Inside Out

Take your inside play things outside. Do you have a play kitchen? Take it outside. Do you have a bunch of stuffed animals? Outside they could become wild animals for your budding young Jane Goodall to meet and study. Musical instruments—or even a collection of pots and spoons—outside become very interesting because little people can make big sounds.

Mudpie Kitchen. You don’t need a specific piece of play kitchen equipment to set up your own mudpie bakery. Set up a work space at toddler arm level with a variety of containers within reach. Provide a bucket of dirt and a basin of water. Go exploring for rocks, sticks, flowers, leaves, and other decorations, and it’s time to bake.

Outside Already

What do you already have outside? Is there anything that could be transformed? Your sandbox could become a treasure chest or an archaeological dig. Your furniture could become an obstacle course when extreme running, jumping, and climbing is called for.

Tricycle Obstacle Course. A toddler who has already learned the basics of peddling a trike or some other wheeled contraption might be looking for a new place to practice this skill. Set up your outdoor furniture, a tree stump, a collection of 5-gallon buckets, and whatever other large treasures you find in your garage. Leave plenty of space to get between the obstacles. Make it interesting enough that there is more than one way to get through. My mother’s method with games like this was to start my children at the beginning and tell them she would count. They would run or ride far away then rush back to her to hear how far she had counted. Both my mother and my children seemed to find this very engaging. They could occupy themselves for an hour as the numbers themselves became part of the exploration when they ask, “If I do this, does it make my time faster or slower?”


Sometimes painting can be messy business. Outdoor painting is a worry free business that can get as messy as it needs to get. Finger painting? That’s for indoors. Outside, how about toe painting–or belly painting for extra giggles. Sidewalk chalk gives a great big canvas. My children loved to use sidewalk chalk on our dark brick house

Big Paint. Sometimes a paint brush just isn’t big enough to capture the wave of color we need. Giant sponges and cleaning brushes, however, make nice, big paint brushes for little hands. Mix sidewalk chalk or powdered paint in buckets of water, making very thin paint, and you have color that your toddler can spread all over the sidewalk, driveway, or wooden fence.


Most outdoor painting leads to outdoor water because it will get messy. Water can be big with a hose or a sprikler or small with a water wall. A water wall is a collection of old containers and tubes screwed onto a back board. When the child pours water in the top, the containers dump water into other containers. What makes a water wall or any outdoor day even better is bubbles. Bubbles are very nearly a requirement for toddlers. Big snaking bubbles and tiny, foamy bubbles.

Car wash. Did your mudpie bakery or your big paint get combined with your tricycle obstacle course? It might be time for a car wash. Set up a bucket of soapy water and a big sponge then line up the trike, toy cars, and anything on wheels that won’t suffer too much from some attentive cleaning. Drive the vehicles to a pile of rags for the final stage of drying. You might call it clean up, but your toddler doesn’t need to think of it that way.

Open Play

Whatever you are doing outdoors with your toddler, don’t fill in time so tightlythat you create stress. Toddlers have new-found ideas and physical abilities to explore. They are driven to explore. Sometimes just going outside together and looking around is enough to spark a deep need in a toddler to explore.

A couple of my favorite gentle reminders for open play and open exploration are:

“Summer in Nature for Your Children” – How simple prompts can launch a child into their own explorations.

“Make Sure You Leave Space” – Importance of our role as parents in doing little or nothing as our children find their way, including finding their own play.

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Exercise with a Toddler

Toddler playing at a playground

Running around after your energetic toddler might seem like enough exercise, but you still need focused activity for full fitness. Exercising with your toddler can benefit you both.

There are several good reasons to exercise with your young child. First, you need the exercise for stamina, fitness, and stress relief. Second, your child needs it as a way to deal with all of the energy that comes with the new-found freedom of walking and running. Finally, you are creating habits for life. Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines suggest that children need at least 90 minutes per day of activity, and adults need at least 30 minutes of activity a day, including muscle strengthening. We all need to get active to stay healthy.

Make deliberate exercise a part of your child’s routine every day, and activity will become part of the fabric of your child’s life. You are creating patterns of health and fitness both through your child’s experience and through the behavior you model.

Exercising with a toddler differs from exercising with a baby. Your toddler can stand, so your activities can be separate. Your toddler can drift away, so you need to make the activities interesting enough to keep a busy little person’s attention. Your toddler has begun to develop personal preferences, so you need to tailor activities to each child.

Tips for Toddler Exercises

  • Make it developmentally appropriate. Don’t rely on memorizing anything, and be prepared to be silly.
  • Keep it short. A very young child probably won’t stay interested longer than 10-15 minutes, so you might want to do your own warm up and cool down alone and the vigorous exercise together.
  • Alternate bursts of activity with quieter periods. Yoga can be a great tool to help a busy toddler slow down, but some will get bored and resistant if you spend too much time on one slow activity. Try a slow-paced stretching activity or visualization exercise after a tiring activity.
  • Keep it interesting. Don’t do the same routine every day. Show up with surprises to keep attention and vary the activity.
  • Keep it playful. Don’t make this like work for your child. Everything is play for a very young child. Turn on the music and dance. Make it fun.

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Toddler Birthday Party Ideas

Toddler with birthday cake

Toddlers are ready to have a good time. Even those children who would rather sit on their mothers’ laps during a party will often have a good time observing the fun from that safe spot.

The secret to a successful birthday party for toddlers is flexibility. Have a plan B and plan C to accommodate the ever changing moods of your little guests.

Toddler Birthday Party Themes

Toddlers are not ready to follow a metaphor too far, so keep the theme simple until they are older. Choose one of your child’s favorite things and nudge it just a little further to create some unexpected fun.

Very Hungry Toddlerpillars

Bug Lunch Bag from Mimi the Sardine

Decorations. Bugs can lean toward fun and icky or dressing up like lady bugs. Bugs are easy shapes to draw or cut out for bright decorations. If you have stuffed animal bugs, place them around the party—but remember that toddlers may want to claim them. They might be better placed out of reach but within sight.

Games & Activities. The Grouchy Ladybug, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or several other Eric Carle books can be a wind-down activity that leads into an art project. If you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the children can act out eating different kinds of food then act out wrapping themselves into a cocoon then flying around as butterflies. You could also go for a traditional game of stick the spot on the lady bug.

Food. Cupcakes can be lined up to look like a caterpillar for the birthday cake. You could even space out snacks throughout the party as your little caterpillars eat their way through a variety of small snacks.

Favors. A board book or a soft bug toy would make perfect party favors. A wooden earthworm can still be a fascinating quiet toy for a toddler as they figure out why the worm changes shape as they twist it. For a practical party favor, you could fill a Mimi the Sardine bug print lunch bag with popcorn like Nature Mom did for her recent party.

Wooden worms baby toys

Gift. If you want to follow the party with a gift, Wheely Bugs are great for toddlers who may not quite be ready for tricycles.

Bug riding toy for toddlers

Dance Party

Child dancing with silk streamers

Decorations. Think of what your child associates with dance. Ballet? Disco ball? Dress up and spin? Follow your child’s interests. Play silks are always helpful in creating a beautiful atmosphere for a young child.

Games & Activities. Once you gather your guests, explain that when the music starts, there will be a dance party. This can be a useful distraction from typical toddler discussions of “It’s mine!” and “Give it back to me.” Drop everything because it’s dance time. The dancing can give toddlers a positive outlet for their energy, and it can be a segue between activities.

Food. Create a simple cake with dancing figures made of marzipan or modeling chocolate, or make the cake in the shape of a pair of dancing shoes.

Favors. For another activity, you can add whistles and rattles for a dancing, musical jam session. These simple musical instruments can also be your party favors. Silk streamers can also be both dancing accessory and party favor.

train whistle

Tips for Toddler Parties

  • Invite Parents. Toddlers still need enough comfort and general guidance that you will probably need extra adult hands for trips to the toilet or soothing of bumps. Invite parents to attend the party. This is a must for toddlers!
  • Dress Up. Toddlers love to dress up. Either ask them to come dressed up or pull out the dress-up box once the guests arrive.
  • Following Directions. Plan games if your child likes them, but don’t make them complicated and don’t be disappointed if you can’t get the guests to follow directions or cooperate with others. Have a back-up plan that encourages happy chaos (such as catching bubbles or wild dancing).
  • Leave Time for Discovery. On my daughter’s 2nd birthday, we let her explore each present before moving on. I didn’t want to encourage her to expect an endless stream of gifts, so that meant reading a whole book before moving on to try on a whole new outfit. Let your child savor the moment if the moment captures her attention.
  • Last-minute Food. Don’t put the food out until you are ready to eat. Toddlers won’t understand the idea of waiting for the right time. NOW is the right time!
  • Embrace the Mess. You may not expect cake in the face as with a 1st birthday party, but 2- and 3-year olds can still be messy. This is about the age that I realized my white couch wasn’t a good long-term plan. Hold the party outside or in a space that is easy to clean up—and don’t worry too much about the children getting messy. They will. It’s OK.
  • Keep It Short. Toddlers can fall apart spectacularly. Keep the party short, and let it end before the guests forget how much fun they are having. End on a high.

Image © Oksana Tumeniuk | Dreamstime.com

Playing Indoors with Your Busy Toddler

Toddler playing with cushions

If it’s just too cold to be outside much and your toddler is restless, grab whatever you have and create a game out of it. Present an old toy or a piece of furniture in a new way. Challenge yourself to find a new game in every room to keep yourself engaged as you find ways to help your toddler burn through energy and have a good time.

When my first child was learning to crawl, I hit on a theme we came back to over and over: drag out the cushions, blankets, pillows, and anything that can be piled up and crawled on. We started by creating soft steps that helped her learn how to negotiate stairs safely. She’s a teenager now, and she still takes all of the cushions off the couches and creates interesting spaces for hiding and playing.

Where to Start?

  • Pile cushions on the floor to create mountains. If the cushion mountain works for your children, keep bringing it back.
  • Go sock skating into the cushion mountains.
  • Dress up as animals who live amongst the cushion mountains.
  • Crawl through cushion tunnels.
  • Set up train tracks through pillow landscapes.
  • Create mazes or obstacle courses for rolling balls.
  • Give towel rides for smaller children if you have hardwood floors. Be careful! This can get wild.
  • Chase bubbles.
  • Cover a table with play cloths to create a house or castle or space ship under the table.

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Breastfeeding Your Toddler

Family with breastfeeding toddler

When you want to give your child the long-term benefits of extended breastfeeding, it helps when you have confidence to respond to others.

Every woman needs support. That support can range from family support to hearing about research that explains the benefits of long-term nursing to workplace policies that allow continuation of the breastfeeding relationship. Organizations like the World Health Organization work to support extended breastfeeding on a global scale, and La Leche League International volunteers provide woman-to-woman support.

Extended Breastfeeding Benefits the Child

In addition to positive physical effects, breastfeeding toddlers can have a positive effect on a child’s later social adjustment.

“Research reports on the psychological aspects of nursing are scarce. One study that dealt specifically with babies nursed longer than a year showed a significant link between the duration of nursing and mothers’ and teachers’ ratings of social adjustment in six- to eight-year-old children (Ferguson et al, 1987). In the words of the researchers, ‘There are statistically significant tendencies for conduct disorder scores to decline with increasing duration of breastfeeding.’”

Sally Kneidel, “Nursing Beyond One Year,” New Beginnings, July-August 1990, 6/4: 99-103 (via KellyMom.com).

Successfully Breastfeeding a Toddler Requires Support

The World Health Organization (WHO), as part of their Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, has created specific targets to support breastfeeding for at least the first 24 months of a child’s life. The targets are meant to help create national policies and action plans to support breastfeeding.

“Ensure that the health and other relevant sectors protect, promote and support exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond, while providing women access to the support they require – in the family, community and workplace – to achieve this goal.”

Planning Guide for national implementation of the Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” World Health Organization, 2007.

Responding to Criticism about Breastfeeding a Toddler

Even when we are sure that we can trust our instincts as parents, we know that we will have better success when we have support. More important, we need to have confidence in our own choices. If you anticipate the kind of questions you might get, it can be easier to respond with confidence.

“It always helps to look for what has been called ‘the question behind the question,’ that is, the motivating factor. The reasons vary, but generally people question your parenting style when you have made a choice that is different from the perceived norm. They may be confused about what you’re doing or worried about your baby. Usually, the people who comment on a mother’s choices care about her and her babies.”

“Confidence is contagious. When we believe in our parenting choices, we express ourselves with confidence. Expressing confidence can be the best way to prevent unwanted criticism and questioning.”

Marianne Vakiener, “Responding to Criticism,” New Beginnings, 16/4: 116-119, July-August 1999.

Still need help with your responses? Try a few of these breastfeeding responses.

Your Breastfeeding Questions

Customers ask a lot of specific questions about breastfeeding. We’ve kept track of your questions, and we are looking to reliable sources to answer your questions each Wednesday this month. If you need answers now, breastfeeding support groups bring experienced mothers together with those who need help, and La Leche League always has reliable breastfeeding resources.

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