I’m a work-at-home Mom, and I’ve had to come up with some genius ways (non-screen time activities) to entertain a toddler so that I can actually get my work done.
I’m a work-at-home mom to a just-turned-4-year-old. And you know what? Building a business (you’re reading it, right now) while being a Mommy to a toddler has been rough.
Maybe I should sugar coat that, and say that it’s been “challenging”.
I’m going to be really honest with you. Because as a fellow Mama, I believe you deserve that.
In other words, I’m not about to falsely sell you a magic bullet. You know the posts – where they promise that the 27 activities they’re about to share with you (that you have to buy 73 gadgets to do) will keep your toddler engaged by themselves for something like 1 or 3 hours?
It just doesn’t happen.
Toddlers don’t have the attention span to remain engaged with something for that long. Maybe a few do, but the majority (and my own son) do not.
In fact, on average, attention span is between 3 to 5 minutes per year of age. So, a 2-year-old should have around a 6 to 8-minute attention span, and a 3-year old should be able to concentrate on one thing for about 9 to 15 minutes.
Yikes! That doesn’t bode well for us working-from-home Mamas, now does it?
I’ve tried and tested out many, many activities with my own little guy. Lots of them have failed (and by “failed”, I mean that the prep time of 15 minutes and trip down an extra aisle at the grocery store to buy the materials took wayyyy longer than the 2.5 minutes they spent actually doing it).
Some of them were great (I’ll be sharing those below).
And many of them are my own.
Today? I want to share with you the activities that worked with my own son to get me anywhere from 10 minutes to 25 minutes to myself so that I could work on a small part of my business.
Because that’s the reality – small chunks of time are what you’re looking for here.
All activities are CHEAP, because it turns out that most of what keeps toddlers busy while you’re working from home are things you already own!
Not only that, but these are NON-SCREEN activities – I assume you know full-well how absorbed a toddler can get while watching something on-screen, so I don’t need to give you more examples of how to do so. And, while I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I prefer to keep my little guy’s screen-time down as much as possible – I don’t consider sacrificing his development for another hour of work time to be a solution.
Can You Work from Home and Look After a Child?
I’m a firm believer that yes, you can work from home while looking after a child. HOWEVER, it’s going to look very different then what most people think it does (and even what you might have thought it would).
For starters, the guilt that you had while working in an office setting? It doesn’t go away. At least, not for me. In fact, there’s two sets of guilt I grapple with now:
- Guilt for not spending more engaged time with our son
- Guilt for not spending more time working on my business
Both of these types of guilts can be managed – and I’ve gotten to a point now with efficiency and knowledge that there’s wayyyy less guilt for either sides of my life.
But, it does take awhile to get routines down, to understand how you work best when working from home, to make the most efficient use of your time, and to learn how to be a Mommy (or Daddy) while working from home.
In other words, it’s a tough gig.
And yet, there’s hope!
Before I bust out a list of real life activities and that have kept my toddler merrily engaged at age 2 and age 3 while I got bits of work time in, I’ve got a few tips I want to share so that you can maximize this list to your greatest advantage.
For the best success, you need to align the time and focus you need for each work task with the kind of activity that will result in equal parts time + engagement for your toddler.
For starters, you want to categorize your work tasks in the following way:
- Ones that you need complete focus on
- Ones that you need complete quiet on (say, an important client phone call or zoom call)
- Ones that you can do while you are partially engaged with your little one
You also will want to divide up your typical weekly/daily tasks by approximately how long each one will take.
- 5-minute tasks: Examples from my own life include writing down my to-do lists for the following day or week, responding to an email, sending a product review email request for something that caught my eye, cleaning up my digital life (putting files where they actually belong, cleaning off my desktop so that I can actually see the image again, deleting favorites, reading a saved article and implementing, etc.), capturing an idea I’m excited to write about in my Airtable dashboard, printing a worksheet out in prep to work on it later, checking emails, etc.
- 15-minute tasks: Examples from my own life include researching keywords for an article, checking my stats from yesterday (Google Analytics + each of my affiliate program stats), figuring out what I want to write next, cleaning up Pinterest boards, going through a training module, pick out images for blog posts I’m almost finished with, etc.
- 25-minute tasks: Hopping on a call with an affiliate manager, going through my Pinterest marketing tasks for the day for both of my brands, create images for my blog posts that are optimized for Pinterest, do some content planning, work on business planning, implement course work, optimize an old article for SEO, etc.
- 1-hour tasks: Zoom meetings, getting substantial work done on writing a blog post, work on creating emails to send to my subscribers, batch image creation for Pinterest, etc.
By getting clear on what you need to do, and then categorizing it by how long it will take you, you can then choose your activities from below accordingly.
Because let’s face it – some of your business activities will require only part of attention to get done (for example – I can choose images while talking to my child), while others will require much more of your attention (like writing a research-intensive article).
I’ve noted below which of the activities bought me 5-10 minutes of time, and which reaped me 25+ minutes. Note, though, that of course it depends on your child’s interests.
Which leads me to a final tip: have a back-up plan.
You might want to try something new, and that’s awesome! That’s how I figured out which activities worked and which didn’t. BUT, some won’t work for you and your child. Or they won’t work right now, but you should try them again in a month. In those cases, you want to have a back-up activity to try.
Ready for my list of tried-and-true, indoor toddler activities so that you can get a bit more work done during the day? Here ya go!
Indoor Home Activities for 2-Year-Olds
So, your little one is 2 years old and you need to come up with home activities to keep them engaged (for some much-needed work time!).
Here are the specific activities that worked with my son when he was 2.
Remember to keep them close to you when setting them up for individual play, as some of these activities might contain small parts, be messy, or create other hazards. Use your discretion!
Bubble Wrap Hammering
Got some bubble wrap, heavy-duty tape, and a wooden crab mallet (or a play hammer might work)?
That’s what I used to set up this bubble-wrap hammer session for my 2-year old.
Estimated work time: I was rewarded with 10 minutes of work time.
Kinetic Sand Box Play
I absolutely love kinetic sand. Turns out, my son does, too. It’s way cooler than normal sand!
I took our trusty wrapping paper container (looks like this one – I’ll bet you can find one at the dollar store), put in a few pounds of the stuff, and he got to work playing with various toys (trucks, a shark with an open mouth he loves to “feed” sand, dinosaurs that leave cool dino-prints, etc.).
That thing hasn’t stored wrapping paper in over a year!
And a new way we've come up with (since writing this post just a few weeks ago) to play with kinetic sand in that wrapping paper container? Use your Play Doh toys! This introduced a whole new way of playing with the sand, and it's like it's a new toy (meaning, more time for you and me to work!).
He's making sand bricks, steam rolling the sand flat, and stamping all kinds of things into the sand.
Hint: you’ll want to put the container on a floor that can be easily swept up afterwards, and actually sweep the floor ahead of time. That way, when you sweep up the kinetic sand during clean-up, you can add it back in with the other sand because it won’t be filled with dirt.
Estimated work time: This activity was easily a 15-minute to 25-minute one.
Dinosaur Foot Prints
Break out the play doh, plus a few dinosaurs (here’s the dinosaur set we have – I’ll bet you already have some at home!). Let your 2-year old make dinosaur foot prints in the play doh, over, and over, and over again.
Estimated work time: 5-10 minutes.
Bust out that wrapping paper container again, put it on the kitchen floor, and blend yourself up some foam (just using water and dish soap).
Let your child bring various toys into the container, as you merrily work from the breakfast counter or kitchen table (for me, this activity lasted 30 minutes! Golden opportunity, right there).
Estimated work time: 25-30 minutes (sometimes, 45!).
It’s no secret – and I’m sure you’ve realized this by now, as well – that little kids LOVE real, actual objects more than they love toys.
Things like kitchen whisks, pipe cleaners, set of spare (old) keys, and lots of other things will keep your toddler MUCH more fascinated than toys.
I keep a basket in a closet in our home, and periodically throw some objects in there. Then, when I’m in a pinch and need some work time, I simply tell our son that he gets to play with the “Discovery Basket” (think: eyes lighting up, as he knows the treasures he’s about to get). Then I whip it out near me, sit him down next to it, and we both get to work.
Objects I’ve put in ours (use your discretion):
- Old (disinfected) fish tank net
- Cardboard paper towel/toilet paper roll
- Old set of keys (cleaned) + keyring that we no longer use
- Kitchen whisk
- Old (disinfected) remote control that no longer works
Estimated work time: 25-45 minutes (depending on how often you bring this out – keep it for only special work occasions? And you might get closer to the 45-minute mark).
Water Play (Indoor AND Outdoor)
My son is huge on the water play. Yes, it can get messy. But it’s also one of the few things that will keep him merrily engaged in a non-screen activity without me having to be doing it with him.
Favorite water play ideas that I’ve set up for him:
- Car Wash on the Coffee Table: I would lay out a bath towel, fill a small metal bowl with some water, and toss a few of his matchbox cars in. Then, I hand him an old toothbrush. Bonus was when I let him pick from about five different kitchen utensils to use with the bowl (and sometimes I add in a few pieces of ice). There’s 20 minutes, right there!
- Ice Play: Our wrapping-paper container (that I bought in my mid-20s) has been the perfect tool when keeping my toddler stimulated. I put it on the kitchen floor, put a kitchen rug down my son can sit on, then add in some water, ice, a drainer, and a few kitchen tools. Viola! He’s happy for a while. In recent months, we started adding in a food color – he just loves that! You can reasonably get between 15-25 minutes of work time with this.
- Washable Paint in the Bathtub: A time or two, I’ve taken my laptop into the bathroom, sat on the toilet (seat down, I assure you), and got some work done. This was possible because I would get my kid naked like he was taking a bath, squirt a few different puddles of washable paints in the bath tub, and let him paint the bath tub + walls. Washes clean, and afterwards, I simply give him a bath! Estimated work time = 20 minutes.
- Water Painting: This one is so simple, I nearly slapped myself over the head as to why I didn’t think of it earlier. Just give your toddler a clean paint brush, and a bucket or bowl of water. Let him “paint” the outdoor patio, sidewalk, side of house – whatever. Doesn’t really matter, as it dries quickly! Estimated work time = 15-20 minutes.
- Scrub the Water Table: Oddly enough, if you hand your little guy an old toothbrush and perhaps a scrub brush, put some water in their water table, and a squirt of soap…they might just spend 10 minutes scrubbing it clean for you. While smiling. We live in Houston, so ours grows algae pretty quickly. This was such a fun activity for my son! Estimated work time = 5-10 minutes.
Next up, I’ll share with you the activities that kept my 3-year-old toddler entertained (buying me bits of work time, here and there).
Home Activities for 3-Year-Olds That’ll Buy You Work Time
Again, 3-year-olds tend to be different from 2-year-olds. I’m listing out the best home activities that worked for my 3-year-old (which means, they worked for me because they gave me some focused work time).
Tape Roll Play
Got some duct tape, masking tape, and/or electrical tape at home? Let your little guy roll these suckers across the floor. For 10-15 minutes. He might even chase it, like mine did, which also provided a great workout!
Ahhhh the peals of laughter.
Estimated work time: 10-15 minutes.
I happened to pick up a set of Valentine-colored Pom-Poms from Target one afternoon. Little did I know, these suckers would be an awesome tool in engaging my toddler!
You see, kids love to throw things. And normally I don’t let my kid throw things in the house (he gets to throw a few things outside).
But when I saw these medium-sized Pom-Poms? I knew they couldn’t harm anything. So, I put him near a wall, and let him have at it. Since he felt like he was getting away with something – throwing things in the house – this was a 25-30-minute activity where I could actually work (and the peals of giggles was very worth it, too!).
Estimated work time: 25-30 minutes.
Laser Pointer Book Play
With a little guidance on rules (the rule being, you can’t shine the laser pointer on someone), my 3-year-old got very good with a laser pointer. He found it endlessly fascinating.
And when I paired it with this book activity? It was a hit for my work schedule, as well.
We picked up The Backyardigans Look and Find book from the Little Free Library at our park. It’s one of those books where you’re supposed to point out the changes/differences between the picture on the left and the picture on the right.
What we used it for instead (because that’s a little advanced for a toddler) is I would just ask where a certain object is, or a certain color is, etc., and our little guy would point to it with the laser pointer.
Pair this with work by setting the book up near you, giving your little guy the laser pointer, and then calling out various objects on the pages for him to point to.
True – this one won’t give you 100% focus. But it can help in a pinch (on tasks where you don’t have to think too much).
Estimated work time: 10-15 minutes.
Kid’s Song Play
I have a small basket of musical instruments for our little guy, and while he would play with them here and there at 2, I found that he was much more interested in them at 3 years of age.
What’s inside? A triangle, a jingle bell, a rain stick, etc. And almost all of these instruments I got in the $1 section at Target.
I pair this with a Kid’s song CD on our stereo (yes…I still have my purple Sony boombox that I got as a gift at 16. Man am I glad I hung onto it!).
Here’s our favorite Kid’s Song CDs (hint: I got them all for free in a Facebook Mom group, or as gifts):
- Putumayo Kids Presents Folk Playground
- Wiggle Bay
- 50 Super Songs
- 50 Silly Songs
Estimated work time: 20-25 minutes.
I call this activity Sticker Faces, and it has kept my boy from 2-3 years of age merrily engaged for 20 minutes and more.
Granted, this one you might have to help them peel the stickers off (just an FYI).
I found these sticker books at half-off during a sale once, and haven’t looked back.
Best Toys to Keep Toddlers Busy – Resource Section
Here’s the thing: we both know not all toys are created equal.
In fact, I laugh now, but before I had a child? I assumed you bought a toy and the toy obviously kept your child entertained.
How very wrong I was.
There are few toys that actually will entertain a toddler all by themselves. Because they crave our engagement, don’t they?
Still, I’d like to share with you the best toys to keep toddlers busy that I have found. As in, we OWN these toys, have tried them out, and they consistently “worked”.
Melissa and Doug Locks & Latches
Our little guy didn’t become super interested in this locks and latch toy until he was about 3.5 years old. All of the sudden, he picked it up from the corner it had been collecting dust in, and he engaged with it for a good 25 minutes (without me doing anything!).
Sticker Face Pads
I don’t know about your household, but in our household? Sticker face pads are a huge hit with my toddler.
I hope I've shown you some fantastic (and cheap) solutions for how to keep toddler busy while working from home. With some prep work, a lot of patience, and time, you will get your work done, Mama Bear! I promise.