Child interacts with empty containers and bottles.

Active Play

5 Open-Ended, Child-Led Activities for Toddlers

Jan 25, 2018

Winter is in full swing, and between the short days, freezing temperatures and seemingly never-ending sicknesses, getting through the days can be a challenge for those with young kids.

Now, while I’m a big advocate of getting outside with kids despite the weather conditions, the reality is that you can’t be outdoors as much as you’d like to be during the winter months (#lifeincanada — am I right?).

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My solution? Super simple play invitations that use things we have in the house. No elaborate materials and very little prep work required — just good old-fashioned play with what we already have on hand.

So what is an invitation to play?

It’s simply a purposeful setup of materials that invites the child over to play and explore in an open-ended, child-led way. The materials set out can be anything found around the house, and the goal is to select and arrange the materials in a way that’s both interesting and engaging.

In many cases, the person setting out the play invitations will have an idea of how the child might use the materials, but they may be used in a way that’s completely unexpected — which is not only OK, but encouraged (as long as it’s safe, of course).

Let’s take a look at a few play invitations for toddlers that require nothing more than everyday household items.

Oat Sensory Play Invitation

Child plays with dry oatmeal in containers.

What you’ll need: A small shallow bin, dry oats, a couple of small containers or bowls and scoops and/or spoons.

What you might expect to see: Your toddler may use a scoop (or their hands!) to fill the containers with oats; they may pour the oats back and forth between the containers; or they may simply run their hands through the oats for a full sensorial experience.

Container and Lid Play Invitation

Child plays with various containers and bottles with and without lids.

What you’ll need: Various containers and bottles, plus their lids and caps. Go for variety in colour and shape here, if possible! I often present the containers separate from their lids for this one, but you can present it however you like.

What you might expect to see: Your toddler might try matching the lids with the containers; they may try stacking the containers in tower formations; they may pretend to eat or drink from the containers; or they might fill them with objects from around the house.

Water Pouring Invitation

Child pours purple liquid from one container into another.

What you’ll need: A shallow bin, various bottles and containers, water and food colouring if desired. I like to set a mix of empty and half-filled bottles of water.

What you might see: Your toddler may dump all of the water out into the bin; they may attempt to pour the water from one container into another; or they may simply play with their hands and splash in the water.

Water Painting Invitation

Child uses paint brush to

What you’ll need: Construction paper, tape, a small cup of water and a paintbrush. Tape the paper down onto the floor, onto a table top or onto a wall — your choice!

What you might see: Your toddler may stir the water with their finger or the paintbrush; dip their hands into the water and press or wipe them onto the paper; or they might use the wet brush to paint the paper.

Straw, Spaghetti and Spice Container Invitation

Child sits on couch while focused on the colourful straws in a container.

What you’ll need: An empty spice bottle with a shaker-style lid, thin straws and spaghetti noodles.

What you might see: Your toddler might explore the spice jar and attempt to unscrew the lid; they might explore the straws or noodles and try to bend them; they might try to feed the noodles through the straws; or they may drop the noodles and/or straws through the holes in the shaker lid. 

Of course by no means are the possibilities of what you might see listed here exhaustive. 

The beauty of play invitations is that they’re open to your little one’s interpretation and imagination! 

Want to know my best advice for successfully using play invitations in your home? Sit back and patiently observe before jumping in and interacting with the materials yourself. Trust your toddler’s ability to explore and play. You’ve provided them with safe, interesting materials and you’re right there supervising. So, just let them do their thing!

Article Author Jen Kossowan
Jen Kossowan

See all of Jen's posts.

Jen is a teacher, blogger, and mama to a spirited little lady and a preemie baby boy. She's passionate about play, loves a good DIY project, adores travelling, and can often be found in the kitchen creating recipes that meet her crunchy mama criteria. You can follow Jen on her blog, Mama.Papa.Bubba, and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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