5 Low Key, Low Cost Indoor Activities for Toddlers When You’re Cooped Up


We’ve turned back our clocks and with this change, the sun now sets earlier. By the time the workday is done, night has already been summoned. I drive to pick up my son from daycare in the dark and feel like putting on pajamas as soon as we arrive home. My internal clock also seems to have shifted.

Our evenings are now filled with indoor activities instead of after work jaunts to the park or playground or a stroll in the neighborhood. There’s no more splashing in puddles, collecting twigs, or interviewing strangers we meet outside.

While the weekends allow more time to enjoy some light, this fall has been wet, dreary, and cold. There have been plenty of days where chilling rain or snow have dominated most of the daylight hours. My son and I have found ourselves cooped up more frequently than usual for this time of year. Though I am not against heading outside to splash in the puddles when the weather is warmer or pulling him in the wagon for a walk, he’s cycled through one cold after another already this season, making exposing him to the elements less appealing than ever.

As a result, I am feeling particularly cabin-fevered already. A look at the checkbook frequently identifies there isn’t much wiggle for anything extravagant by way of activities. But we also seem to be getting a little bored with our usual routine of indoor activities.

The same toys he plays with day in and day out are no longer keeping his attention as long. Nor mine.

With his birthday and Christmas just around the corner, a whole new plethora of toys is coming his way to refresh the stock. We’ll comb through what we have and give away anything no longer age appropriate or compelling. Still, at some point, even the new toys will become stale and we’ll be in this state once again. The cold season in Vermont is long and who knows how many weekend days there will be with weather cooperative enough to drag my little man outside.

I need to get creative. I think to my own childhood, pushing myself to remember the types of low cost indoor activities my siblings and I engaged in. Certainly, we played things that pushed us to think outside the box. I think about being at home, at school, and at daycare. What kinds of things did we do? Would any of them be age appropriate for my almost three-year-old or could any be adapted to suit him?

When I began to survey the enormous variety of things I engaged in as a kid, I realized that there were a whole bunch of low key and low cost indoor activities that I had been failing to recognize already at my fingertips.

Here are five that low cost indoor activities been particularly successful to keep my busy toddler entertained:

1. Paper Chains

If you went to elementary schools like mine, you probably created a red and green paper chain around Christmas. I’m not sure creating festive decorations is even allowed in school anymore. But I still remember making them. Recently, my son was really excited about helping to decorate for Halloween. So, I selected paper from my craft stash that was in golds, oranges, and browns. I cut the strips and he helped me close the loops with tape and stickers. Then I gave him ownership of where we hung them when we were done. He was proud of having made something and, “helping Mommy decorate the house.” The best part was that it didn’t cost me anything as I already had all the supplies (construction paper; scissors; tape; and stickers) and it kept him entertained.

Paper chains, one of five indoor activities.

2. Cardboard Railway & Raceway

At daycare, all of us kids would get seriously excited thinking up what we could turn any cardboard box into. It could become a house or a car or a baby doll crib. Recently, when on a hunt for something new and interesting to do, I found a cardboard box I had saved tucked under my bed. I dragged it out and looked at its shape. It rolled out straight, and the bottom and top already cut so it would fold and store.

My son has been into train tracks lately. As in, anytime he can line anything up in a row, he calls it a train track even though he only has one actual train toy and no books about trains. I drew a train track down the center of the cardboard. He asked for a train to go on the track. I made each of the flaps a different car. While he was happy to watch the train be drawn, I engaged him in the process by asking him what color he wanted each car to be. Then we took out all his stickers and he decorated the cars and the track. Once our track was decorated, we moved it to the floor and it became a raceway for any truck or car we could find.

Again, we had everything already in the house. This activity focused on creativity (designing the train), dexterity (peeling and placing the stickers), colors and numbers (identifying colors of train cars and counting them), and finally movement/action as we zipped our cars down the track and watched them go. We probably spent two hours playing – a really long time to engage a toddler in one-sitting. But that box came out, again and again, the rest of the weekend. It was one of the most brilliant indoor activities I’ve ever come up with and so simple. I wish I had thought of it sooner.

Cardboard boxes make for great indoor activities

3. Pillow Mountain

I take no credit for this low cost indoor activity. My son can have all the credit. He loves heaps of pillows. He runs around the condo and collects all of the pillows he can find and tosses them into a mound that he then calls Pillow Mountain. Sometimes he buries himself in them and tells me to find him. Sometimes he stacks them as high as he can until they fall, like a giant tower of soft blocks. Other times he wants me to gently toss him into them. All of these are so simple and yet he is tickled by every single iteration of his own made-up game.

Pillow Mountain, our newest game among our indoor activities.

4. Drumming to Beat the Band

When I was a little girl, my mom would give us wooden spoons and pots to bang on like drums while she got food ready. Here at my house, we use the bottoms of plastic Rubbermaid containers, the ottoman, pots, Tupperware, or whatever else we can find as the drums. Our drumsticks, however, are plastic bowling pins. I don’t own any wooden spoons. We aren’t going out buying anything to make this activity happen.

We don’t stop at just drumming. My little guy loves music and loves to sing. We pick a song and drum while we sing. Sometimes he asks to hear something from a playlist, so we choose a particular song to drum to. Lately, we do a lot of the Moana soundtrack. The only problem with this activity is that it can rile him up and pretty soon the drumsticks become weapons of face destruction. I mean, he is a toddler after all.   

Indoor activities including drumming on things.

5. Cook Something Up

Lastly, probably the most frequent of our indoor activities is anything we can do together in the kitchen – either the real one or his playset. As far as the real kitchen goes, right now it’s mostly fetching utensils or ingredients; dumping, stirring, mixing ingredients; or taste testing (the best part, obviously). But we take our time. Make a mess. Talk kitchen-words. And I let him be as hands-on as possible while also keeping him safe. It’s a life lesson and fun and takes up time. More often than not, while I have had to buy the groceries at some point when it comes to actually cooking or baking, we aren’t going back out to buy anything new. We’ve got everything we need a stone’s throw away in a cabinet or the fridge. Plus, this activity gets dinner, tomorrow’s lunch, the baked dessert for the family get together, or whatever out of the way while not having to wait for naptime or bedtime when really, let’s face it, I would rather be doing something else with those precious quiet moments.

Need indoor activities? Cook or bake.

Another couple of activities that I have yet to try with my son but am excited to start are mirror drawing and baking soda and vinegar tray activities. For mirror drawing, I plan on putting a medium mirror I own on the floor or possibly on the wall at my son’s height, and letting him use washable markers we own to give himself silly features. I think this activity will make him laugh. For the baking soda tray, I’ll put a pile of baking soda on a cookie sheet, and give him a few small bowls with white vinegar dyed with food coloring. If I can find a dropper, he can use that to drop the vinegar onto the baking soda, otherwise, we can use a straw. This activity is sure to please, and the cookie sheet keeps the mess well contained.

What are your favorite indoor activities that are low key and low cost?



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