10 Non-Messy Toddler Activities

posted by Andrea | 04/13/2015
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10 non messy toddler activities

About a month ago, I googled “non-messy crafts and activities for toddlers” and came up almost empty-handed. So apparently, I’m not the only one struggling to come up with fun ways to occupy young children without creating a huge mess!

I had a few ideas that Nora and I had been incorporating into our daily schedule, but thanks to many of the ideas you shared with me on Facebook, I’ve added several more non-messy crafts and activities to our repertoire!

For the record, I do NOT think our children need US to entertain them all the time. As I’ve mentioned many times on the blog, Nora watches plenty of TV each day, we read books, we play outside, we go for walks… and she’s actually getting very good at playing by herself or “playing” with Simon now that he’s more active.

That said, my little girl’s love language is “quality time” and she LOVES spending time doing crafts with me (or with Dave). So since we’re home for the better part of every day, I don’t mind coming up with a few extra-special ways to make Simon’s nap-time fun for her 🙂

Below are 10 of our favorite, relatively simple, not super creative, non-messy activities for toddlers and young children. I feel like most of them use common household items you will most likely have on-hand, and best of all, these activities don’t require constant supervision or “help from mom” once you get them started (at least in my opinion!)

1. DIY Jewelry

Nora will stay busy with this one for a pretty long time — as long as I have everything ready to go for her.

I put the noodles or Froot Loops in a bowl and have pre-cut lengths of yarn ready to go, with one end tied to the first noodle/Froot Loop (so everything doesn’t fall off) and the other end wrapped with a piece of tape so she can more easily thread it through the opening.

She calls these her “charm necklaces” and frequently makes them for friends or family if we’re going to someone’s house. It’s a great way to occupy her at the table when I’m feeding Simon breakfast or lunch.

2. Paper Plate “Light Catchers”

This is another craft that Nora gets SO excited about, and although it really doesn’t make any mess, it does require a bit of prep work on my part.

I usually take about 10 minutes the night before to cut the center out of a bunch of paper plates, put contact paper inside, and rip up tissue paper. Then the next morning, she can get right to work sticking scraps of tissue paper to the sticky side of the contact paper.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why we call them “Light Catchers” instead of “Sun Catchers”, it’s because Nora pointed out that they do not actually catch the sun, so she won’t call them “Sun Catchers” 🙂

3. Puzzles

Nora has just recently started getting more into doing puzzles — and although she often does like me to help her, she is also getting better and doing them on her own too.

We don’t have a ton of tiny-piece puzzles yet, but if you do (and if you’re looking for a good storage method) I’d suggest gallon-size zip-top bags and then store the puzzles pieces from one puzzle in each bag.

4. Gak

While this might sound messy — let me assure you, it’s not! Gak is NOTHING like PlayDoh. It doesn’t leave a sticky residue (at least our homemade version doesn’t). It doesn’t break apart or leave crumbs everywhere. And it doesn’t dry out.

We’ve been using the same batch of homemade gak since well before Christmas and it’s still as good as new. It’s super portable, she can play with it anywhere, and it leaves no mess.

5. Coloring + Stickers

I realize these aren’t the most creative activities, but both coloring and doing stickers really are quite mess-free in my opinion — and they both keep Nora busy FOREVER. She absolutely LOVES doing stickers, and once we got past the “let’s stick them everywhere” phase, it’s been completely mess-free.

She also enjoys coloring — but prefers it when I color with her… which I secretly love doing 🙂

I love how portable these activities are — especially since we will often take small coloring books along, color the picture, and then stick stickers over the picture we just colored.

Puffy and/or textured stickers are always a bonus around our house… along with sparkly crayons.

And if we want to be able to reuse the stickers, we just stick them to sheets of wax paper. They usually come off pretty easily and can be re-stuck again and again!

6. Cutting Paper Strips

Maybe I’m more lenient than most parents, but I have no issue letting Nora use a child’s safety scissors without my supervision. She LOVES “cutting” as she calls it and I figure it’s a good skill to learn.

I just give her scrap paper and she practices cutting strips, or whatever else she wants to cut.

After Christmas, I gave her all our photo cards and let her cut out the smaller pictures within each card and even individual faces. She thought that was SO much fun!

Another fun thing we do with cut paper is to make “Count-down chains”. We will count down almost anything and everything — birthdays, holidays, vacations, the weekend, a special event, Thursdays… you name it!

I figure it’s good counting practice, it helps Nora think about days of the week, and the actual craft keeps her busy for a while gluing up all the links 🙂

7. “Washing” Anything

This has the potential to be the messiest activity on my list — but it’s also a great summer-time activity when it’s hot outside.

Nora loves washing her bike and her car outside — or just washing rocks, sticks, and pinecones in buckets of water.

She also will wash just about ANYTHING in our bathroom sink (her play cups, her dolls, the sink itself!) She will often occupy herself in the bathroom for over 30 minutes doing this… and the worst thing that happens is I need to wipe up the floor around the sink when she’s finished.

8. Tracing with Bagged Sugar

As long as you have a tightly sealed zip-top bag, this activity should be pretty mess-free.

I give Nora flash cards or sticky notes with words on them and a gallon-size zip-top bag with some sugar inside (I use granulated sugar or colored decorating sugar over brown sugar as that can get clumpy) and she can practice tracing her letters in the sugar.

This would also work well with sand, ketchup, mustard, mayo, etc. but I figured I’d rather have sugar spilled in my house than some of those other options 🙂

9. Water Painting

We paint with water both inside and outside — on our black asphalt driveway, on cardboard, on construction paper, or in those paint-with-water books.

This is one of my FAVORITE mess-free activities because she feels like she is painting a beautiful masterpiece but I don’t have to worry about paint splatters everywhere.

We did have one spilled water incident, but I don’t give her much water so it wasn’t that big of a mess.

10. Decorate a cardboard box.

This activity is pretty self-explanatory… but it’s another one of our favorite activities / crafts. Since I do a lot of online shopping and get a lot of deliveries from various companies, we ALWAYS have a good supply of larger cardboard boxes.

I usually help Nora get started by cutting the box into a certain shape. Then she will stay busy coloring for a while.

Diaper boxes work well too — just cover them with craft paper (or any paper) and let them color away.

The best part about this project is that the box becomes a toy after it’s colored! (And for the record, the box usually “disappears” a few days later. We don’t keep them indefinitely!)

That’s our list… for now. I’m sure we’ll keep adding to it as Nora grows and is able to do more and more things on her own.

However, I’d love to know if you have any other ideas to add to our list?

What are your favorite non-messy activities for young kids?

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28 comments

  1. Allie

    09/22/2017

    My boys both love our kinetic sand box. I bought a larger Tupperware box, filled it with two-three bags of kinetic sand and bought the inexpensive cat construction vehicals to go inside. So about a $30 initial investment but they have played with it over a year at least once a day. We have a lid for the box and it slides under a dresser. Pretty much mess free and lots of entertainment!!!

    [Reply]

    Allie Reply:

    I also love making scanvenger hunts with pictures and sending my 4 year old to find the different objects in the house (red sock, blue train, spoon, etc). It’s pretty much hands off by me and he gets a little prize at the end which motivates him! He loves it!

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    Andrea Reply:

    This is a fun idea — we used to do this with one of our babysitters when I was little and we LOVED it. Might have to come up with one for our house!

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  2. Marianne

    10/18/2016

    I have been searching for good easy mess free crafts for a couple of hours now and this list is definitely the most reasonable and useful by far! THANK YOU!
    There are so many “silly” crafts out there that would take me hours to prepare and that would entertain the kids max 5 min. I do not have that kind of time. So thank you!

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  3. Sara parr

    02/14/2016

    I love painting with toddlers.
    Choose a clear plastic tub.
    Put in marbles or anything similar that you can shake.
    Pop in paper, a squirt of your toddlers favourite colours and screw on the lid.
    Shake, roll around on the floor, go wild.
    Get out your artwork.
    It always comes out different with the colours used and no mess!

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  4. Laura

    04/19/2015

    Thanks so much for this post! A question – we mixed up our first batch of gak, but it just won’t hold it’s shape – it just falls into a puddle. As far as we can recall, we followed the directions exactly. Have you or anyone else ever had this problem? It has been raining here a lot, so maybe the increased humidity is causing a problem. I left it out, uncovered, overnight to see if this would help, but it’s about the same. Thank you again for all of the great ideas.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Hey Laura, did you use Elmer’s glue?

    I know it might sound weird, but Elmer’s glue definitely works the best for this gak. I’m not sure if it’s made differently or something, but I know others who have used off-brand glue and the gak didn’t turn out as well.

    Whenever I make gak, it literally firms up INSTANTLY when I mix in the Borax… so I’m not sure what to tell you. Sorry!

    [Reply]

    Laura Reply:

    Hi Again – Yes, I did use Elmer’s glue. It had been in a cabinet in my laundry room for quite a while, though. I’m thinking that may be the problem – it was just too old. It still worked fine for gluing paper, but maybe not the best for gak. Thanks for your help – think I will buy some new glue and try it again!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    hmmm that’s weird. I’ve never heard of it not turning out with Elmer’s glue. Maybe it was too old I guess 🙁

    Sorry! Hope it works better next time!

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  5. Michelle

    04/17/2015

    My 12 year old just walked over to see what I am reading. She said this post is like finding a pot of gold! My grand daughter, her 2 year old niece, is a busy messy sweetie! Thank you for pulling these activities all together and sharing!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yay — hopefully some of these activities will work for you guys too!

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  6. Ruth

    04/16/2015

    Another activity I have used is….get a big tupperware and fill it half way with dried beans. Then I get out my old plastic measuring cups/spoons that I don’t care about and give them to the kids. Super simple and not too messy but (depending on the child) sometimes I can get an hour out of it where they play happily. Usually they don’t even ask for me to play with them. Plus, if I need to I could always wash the beans off, then soak them and use them for cooking the next day.

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  7. Lori

    04/15/2015

    Andrea. Love all these ideas! Just wondering, awhile back you made some busy bags for Nora at a party. Wondering if you still use those or did she or Simon loose interest? If so, which ended up being favorites? Also, any menu plans planned for spring/summer ?

    Love your blog!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes — here is the link to the post about the Busy Bags. I’ll be honest, several of them got ruined soon after that post 🙁 We also threw a couple away because they had too many tiny parts that people kept putting in their mouths!

    Our favorites were / are the fishing one, the pool noodle one, and the pompom one. We still have those and use them regularly.

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  8. Kristen @ Joyfully Thriving

    04/15/2015

    Great list, Andrea! And as a former preschool teacher, THANK YOU for letting your child use scissors! It’s such an important fine motor skill for them to learn! Have you ever combined your ideas and let Nora water paint on the sidewalk? My preschoolers loved trying to paint a picture before it disappeared in the sun. It’s a perfect spring and summer activity!

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  9. JJ

    04/14/2015

    What a great list! My kiddos love putting Pom Poms and Buttons(bought a bag at Hobby Lobby…you can use the 40% off mobile coupon) in and out of their snack cups. I just keep them in storage bags, so I can use them whenever I need some time.

    I had gotten some foam blocks that both of my kids can play for long lengths of time with. My son even used some of them as drumsticks and a drum.

    Today while making lunch, I filled it with a roasting pan with a little water, and grabbed some of their toys that can handle being wet. They had a BLAST. They got a little wet, but it was worth it for me to make lunch so easily while they played so well.

    Another fun activity is taking painter’s tape and letting them decorate the floor. It did not affect our Tarkett flooring, and if you have the pieces cut off for them, that can be fun to see what they make. She can use her dolls to “walk” along the paths she makes. I put letters on the floor and let my son trace them with his cars. Fun! My little one had fun peeling it off the floor, which also kept them busy.

    String. Long string. I know some may consider it a choking hazard, but if you’re watching, they will have fun just walking it around. Simple, but it works!

    A couch fort. We put all of our cushions on the floor(much to the dogs’ dismay), and they have so much fun rearranging them and playing on them. I may or may not partake in such activities. 😉

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yes, the string!

    You know I can’t actually write that in my post because I’d get about 500 emails from people telling me I’m a horrible mom to let my kids play with string — but Nora currently has a long string of yarn tied around Simon’s waste and she is “walking her dog” around the house as I type 🙂

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    JJ Reply:

    Yes you probably would! That cracks me up about Nora!!! I love her imagination and how she includes Simon. 😀 That’s a win-win for you, since he’s being entertained and working his gross motor skills–wahoo!

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  10. Abbey

    04/13/2015

    Awesome ideas! Why did I never let think of wax paper for reusing stickers?! My daughter is always wanting to peel them off to use again. 🙂
    And she’s just almost 3, and I let her use child scissors all the time. You’re not the only one! (My youngest is more of a handful though, I imagine she won’t have free reign on the scissors as early in life… depends on the kid!)

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  11. Trisha G

    04/13/2015

    My kids love play doh, but I don’t love them eating it nor all the salt it requires to make it. So one day when I was running low on salt and my kids asked me to make them some, I googled salt free playdough and found one made with 2 cups of flour, 3 Tbs olive oil, and 1/2-1 cup of water. Just add the water until you reach the desired consistency. I don’t think I’ll go back to salt dough because it doesn’t crumble, break off, and dry up and stick to my carpet. And it’s not sticky or leave those salt crystals on my fingers but is really smooth and feels nice on my skin. Oh and no cooking required! It will dry up if left out and it needs to be refrigerated and won’t last as long as the salted one, but the pros outweigh the cons for me. Thanks for all of your great ideas! I’m so excited to try them out.

    [Reply]

  12. Jaime

    04/13/2015

    I had no idea there were any non-messy toddler activities, thank you so much for this post! Such great ideas! I love reading your blog, your posts are always so insightful and helpful!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Jaime! And yes, SOMETIMES it is possible to entertain a toddler without a gigantic mess to clean up afterward 🙂

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  13. shalomew

    04/13/2015

    Andrea-

    Google “Busy Bags” and you will find a gazillion ideas. The nice thing is they should all fit in a large ziploc bag and can be reused and stored easily. WIth your third on the way it would be worth it to put a bunch together to just have on hand. There used to even be yahoo groups that do Busy Bag swaps with. So you might make 20 of one kind of busy bag and then everyone swaps and you end up with 20 different. They were awesome to have when my kids were younger.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes, we’ve done Busy Bags (I actually have a few posts about them on my blog) but they usually seem to require ME to be involved the entire time — and the point of many of the activities in this post is that Nora can do them all by herself while I’m feeding Simon or otherwise occupied.

    I’ve done a busy bag swap too (and blogged about it as well!)

    [Reply]

    shalomew Reply:

    I must have missed those posts or found you after them 🙂

    The busy bags I had didn’t require anything from me at all. I had a milk crate full of them and would tell my daughter/son to go choose one and she/he got it out and could do it all by herself. We must have had different types.

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  14. April Haines

    04/13/2015

    Love your ideas. You are such a great mom.

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  15. Abbie Burch

    04/13/2015

    Love the distinction between sun catchers and light catchers. Nora is a thinking little girl!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    haha — I know! I was dying of laughter when she explained why she was refusing to call them “sun catchers”! 🙂

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