The toddler years from one to three are a time of tremendous growth. Kids learn to walk, run, and explore their worlds. They are curious, and both their minds and bodies are developing rapidly. As a parent, giving your children safe ways to play and explore is important to their development. At this age, you can find plenty of frugal ways to encourage toddler play without breaking the bank.
There are so many low-cost supplies that you can stock your shelves with that will keep your child happy for hours.
For less than $5, you can pick up a small set of Play-Doh for your toddler. Play-Doh has definitely gotten fancier since my kids were toddlers. Now you can buy Play-Doh with glitter in it and in a large variety of color. Kids are usually happy playing with just Play-Doh, but if you want to spend a bit more, you can buy Play-Doh toys like a hair dresser shop or a gravel construction yard, for example. You can also try your hand at making homemade playdough.
If you have $8, you can buy a 6 pack of finger paint that will provide your child with artistic and sensory expression. All of my children loved to finger paint when they were toddlers, but my middle child easily wanted to finger paint several times a week. She still enjoys art, and I attribute it to all the time she spent finger painting when she was young.
This is likely the best way to encourage toddler play without breaking the bank. Bubbles are ridiculously cheap, less than $1 for a small bottle, and yet your child can likely use them for at least a month. He can experiment with how hard to blow to form the bubble or run and try to get the bubble to form. Even better, mom or dad can blow bubbles while your toddler tries to catch them without popping them or runs through them.
Sidewalk chalk is yet another way to let your little artist express herself. You can get a box of 48 pieces of chunky chalk (perfect for little hands) for around $5. These will last all summer, and your sidewalk or driveway is the perfect canvas.
After finger painting, my younger two kids’ favorite activity was taking a bath. They loved to have the tub filled with bubbles to play in. When the bubbles dissipated, they liked to play with their bath toys. They could easily spend 45 minutes to an hour in the tub. (Just make sure a parent stays in the room with them.) You could buy the bubbles and a few toys for your kids for less than $20. My girls’ favorite bath activity was using bath crayons to draw on the tub walls.
Many toddlers like playing doctor. They take the stethoscope to your chest to check your breathing, they check your reflexes, and then they give you their diagnosis. They also love it when you give them an exam. These kits are a bit more expensive, around $20, but your child will likely use them quite a bit. (We bought ours used at a garage sale for $1, which is another great way to save money).
Make It Yourself
There are other ways to encourage toddler play without breaking the bank. Namely, instead of buying something, make it yourself!
Many toddlers are fascinated with calm/glitter bottles and can spend a surprising amount of time tipping them from side to side. Making a calm bottle is not difficult; there are plenty of tutorials online.
Once you buy the ingredients, you likely have enough to make several bottles. Once your child tires of one, make a new one in a different color with different items inside. Even though this tutorial only had glitter, I’ve seen calm bottles filled with a variety of items like large stars to give them some more visual appeal.
Another idea for outdoor fun is to make a toddler bowling set. You’ll need some empty water bottles and a ball. Your toddler can practice knocking them down. He’ll love it if you play with him.
The nice thing about a homemade bowling set is not only that it’s frugal, but if one bowling pin gets damaged, it’s easy to replace.
There are a host of reasons why sensory play is beneficial for kids, not the least of which is that it helps develop connections in the brain and encourages imaginative play.
Probably the easiest one is to buy a can of shaving cream. When my kids were about three, I’d put a light layer of shaving cream on a cookie sheet, and they practiced writing their letters in the shaving cream. They loved the sensation, and they were learning at the same time.
Another less messy way to do this is to put a bit of shaving cream and a drop or two of dye in a gallon plastic freezer bag. (Don’t fill it too much!) Then kids can write their letters in the cream, but they do so on top of the bag so they still get sensory input, but there’s no mess for parents to clean up.
There are plenty of sensory play ideas online.
Don’t Forget the Books!
While it’s very important to encourage play in your toddlers, don’t forget to also read aloud to your child daily, the more the better. The stories that you read aloud to your child now will eventually lead to imaginative play later.
I read aloud to my children frequently, and when my girls were in first and second grade, we read the entire Little House on the Prairie series. They had the discipline to sit through those books because they were used to being read to. For the next few years, much of their imaginative play was based on what they learned through those books.
Children under the age of three experience a phenomenal amount of brain and body growth in these important years. Starting now, make sure to give your child plenty of safe opportunities to play and learn.
Melissa is a writer and virtual assistant. She earned her Master’s from Southern Illinois University, and her Bachelor’s in English from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working, you can find her homeschooling her kids, reading a good book, or cooking. She resides in Arizona where she dislikes the summer heat but loves the natural beauty of the area.