homeschool toddler making paper chains

10 Screen-Free Activities for Toddlers

Screens are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the modern world. They blare commercials at us while we pump our gas, are embedded in the backs of our airline seats to keep us entertained on long flights, and every restaurant seems to have a dozen TV screens exposing us to a nonstop stream of content. I’ve even been to establishments with little screens affixed to bathroom walls above the urinals, forcing men to watch commercials while attending to nature’s call.

We, too, sometimes bend to the influence of the screen in our own homes. When our young child is antsy or bored, how often do we hand them a phone or iPad and let them veg out? I know I have!

However, if you want to try to minimize the amount of time your young child is exposed to screens at home, here are some alternate screen-free activities for toddlers and their siblings…

1. Paper Chains

A fun activity suitable for toddlers is making paper chains. Paper chains can be made for birthdays, holidays (red, white, and blue for Fourth of July), liturgical seasons (purple for Lent, red for Pentecost), seasons (orange and brown for autumn), or just for fun! It’s a lovely tactile activity suitable for toddlers, with a bit of parental oversight. The blog Mom Life Made Easy has an excellent tutorial for how to make paper chains with young children.

2. Printables

I’ve never met a toddler who didn’t enjoy coloring. If your child is tired of his or her coloring books, there are oodles of printables available online. You find a lot of fabulous printables just by doing a Google search for printable coloring pages with specific themes. For example, “medieval coloring pages printable” yields a bunch of great medieval-themed coloring pages, while “autumn coloring pages printable” brings up a collection of seasonal-themed coloring pages to print. Catholic Icing has a collection of Catholic printables. I’ve printed little stacks of these kinds of coloring sheets to have on hand over the years and my kids always enjoyed them.

3. Soap and Water Play

When my kids were little, a favorite activity was to put on their kitchen smock, fill up the sink with soapy, warm water, and let them go to town. They brought their toys and action figures up to the counter, stood on the step stool to reach the sink, and kept themselves amused for a full hour. Granted, there will be a little bit of a mess, but it’s just water, so it’s a pretty simple cleanup. But so long as you are alright with the mess, this is a great way to keep young children occupied and using their hands.

4. Edible Slime

If you are old enough, you might remember the slime craze of the late 80’s/early 90’s. It was popularized by the Ghostbusters franchise. Nickolodeon pretty much built their entire network around shows dumping slime on children. Kids couldn’t get enough slime; it was sold in little play-dough-like canisters in toy stores across America.

Of course, the slime of my childhood was some mysterious synthetic substance that likely came from a plastic factory in Taiwan. But you can introduce your kids to the joys of slime with this recipe for edible slime. Edible slime is made by melting down gummy bears and stirring in sugar and cornstarch (you can get organic gummy bears if you don’t like the junk in regular gummy bears).

5. Beads and String

Assuming your child is past the age where you have to worry about putting random objects into his or her mouth, give your children a set of beads and string to make necklaces and bracelets. Besides being artsy, it’s also a fabulous activity to help them hone their fine motor skills. If your child is too young for beads, here’s a version of the activity you can use with colored tubes instead.

6. Cardboard Tube Rolls

Who didn’t like playing with cardboard tubes as a child? Toddlers love cardboard tubes. They swing them around, look through them, stick their toys in them, and generally let their imaginations run wild. The good news is you don’t have to wait to run out of wrapping paper or toilet paper. Cardboard tubes can be bought online in a variety of sizes and quantities. Having a little supply of cardboard tubes on hand for play is a wonderful way to engage your child’s imagination. If you want ideas for incorporating cardboard tubes into more structured play, check out this page for seven suggestions for cardboard tube games.

7. Fun With Ice Cube Trays

Ice cube trays are endlessly fascinating to children. My kids have amused themselves on many a rainy afternoon playing with ice cube trays. They freeze different liquids with toothpicks in the trays to make little popsicles. Action figures are frozen into the ice trays with their heads stuck in ice blocks. The kids even create homemade molds out of various materials to see if they can get ice blocks of varying shapes. They pour random substances into the trays just to see how different liquids freeze.

If you’re willing to let your child experiment (and make a bit of a mess) with liquids, freezing things is an excellent source of entertainment. And, if you’re interested in ice cube trays as educational tools, From This to That Early Learning (a Montessori blog) has some cool ideas on how to incorporate ice cube trays into various reading and spelling activities.

8. Pillow Fort

If you’re willing to tolerate the couch being entirely dismantled for an hour, encourage your young child to build a pillow fort. If you really want to go all out and have the space, collect every pillow from the house (even from the beds), and let them make it really gigantic. This is a wonderful activity if your toddler has a slightly older sibling who can help them set up the fort and flop around in it with them.

9. Fridge Magnet Sets

Instead of giving your toddler an iPad, get out a box of refrigerator magnets. Refrigerator magnets these days go way beyond the alphabet. If you go on Amazon, you can find an astonishing array of different fridge magnet sets. Buy a couple, mix them together in a Tupperware, and keep them on hand for when your toddler gets antsy.

10. A Good Ole Box

Finally, don’t underestimate the allure of a box. Most parents have had the experience of giving their child Christmas gifts and seeing the child be more interested in playing with the boxes than the gifts. The bigger the box, the better! I have found the sweet spot is if the box is big enough for them to climb inside. Of course, you might not always have a cardboard box lying around, especially a large one. But if you have a large box, keep it on hand. Kids make forts, tunnels, puppet theaters, and various imaginative things out of boxes. My kids were young the last time I bought an appliance, and they would not let me get rid of the box for over a week. By the time I threw it out, it was colored all over and mangled beyond belief. They certainly got their fun out of it!

Conclusion and More Resources

Each of these activities admittedly requires a bit of prep and a little clean-up, but they are vastly more wholesome and stimulating than just handing your toddler an iPhone.

If you’d like to explore Catholic companies that provide toddler books, activities, and free resources, check out these companies:

If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group. We’d love to hear about your favorite resources and tips for screen-free toddler activities!

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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