21 Ways to Exhaust Your Toddler Before Sundown

kid lying down in grass after fun toddler activities Michelle Mildenberg (Artist)
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The first clue that you’re getting close to that most coveted of all parenting coups, the Total Toddler Bedtime Knockout, is the uncontrollable laughter. It comes right after sweaty head territory but before hilarity turns into hysteria. And, if you’ve worn out your toddler from sunup to sundown, you can bypass the hysterical stage of the evening altogether and sail smoothly into bedtime. Keep reading for our list of parent-approved ways to joyfully exhaust your tiny human(s).

Plan a scavenger hunt. Whether you pull a pre-organized list off the internet or create your own, enjoy watching your toddler expend some serious energy while hunting for one item after item. Our favorite way to wear them out is simple: Number ten squares of paper and take a close-up photo of the area where it’s hidden. These should be recognizable but make them think—sticking out from under doormats with bright patterns, underneath dog bowls, or in dad’s shoe are all good spots.

Then let her flip one image at a time through your photo roll as she collects each of the squares of paper. When she finds them all, let her trade them in for a prize of your choosing. This works especially well for kids who are non-readers because the photos are easy clues (and what toddler doesn’t know how to work an iPhone)?

Play hopscotch. Between drawing the board with chalk on your driveway, numbering the squares, finding the perfect rock and then hopping through a few rounds, this is a solid bet. Try it in the morning when the heat hasn’t set in. They’ll play for longer and burn more energy.

Hang water balloons outdoors and let them try to pop them with lightweight t-ball bats or broomsticks. Regular balloons work well here, too, because they can hold more water and make for easier targets. Just tie a string around the end of the balloon and tie the other end to monkey bars, a low-hanging branch of a tree or to the top of a swing set. Just be sure to back everyone away from the one taking his turn swinging!

Make homemade ice cream. I know. Sugar. Kids. Doesn’t seem like the best way to tire them out, right? But with nothing but two Ziploc bags, heavy whipping cream, sugar (or fruit), ice, and rock salt—and the most important ingredient here: elbow grease—you can make it happen. Just place the ice cream ingredients into a smaller bag, then place that bag inside of a larger one that’s filled with ice and a handful of rock salt. Then shake, shake, shake to create their (and your) new favorite treat.

Make a mess with shaving cream. Whether you’re inside (stick to the bathroom in this case) or outside, shaving cream is an easy and inexpensive way to have sensory play. Let them paint on their legs, give themselves mustaches or even fill a baby pool with it to squish between their toes. It’s easy to wipe off and wash out in a bathtub.

Make bird feeders using peanut butter (or sun butter), pine cones and bird food. Tie a string to the bottom of the pine cone and hang it from a tree that’s easy to see from inside. For older kids, keep a log of every type of bird you see and make a chart of which ones visit most.

Color rice with food coloring, dry it and then let them create mosaics using construction paper (or coloring books) and glue sticks. This is a good outdoor activity unless you’re really into the feeling of uncooked rice on your bare feet all summer long. Or so we’ve heard.

Fill a kiddie swimming pool with a few scoops of dirt, turn on the hose and make mud! Add a couple of construction trucks and you’re set for hours of messy, happy play.

Let them build anything they want out of cardboard boxes. To amp up the fun, give them tissue paper, glue and other found objects to decorate.

Paint rocks. Turn them into ladybugs, the Earth, hearts or load them up with abstract designs. Then send your kid(s) out into the yard to find the rocks a perfect home.

Play freeze tag. The person who is “it” tries to tag the others. Once you’ve been tagged, you have to stand (frozen in the position you were in when you were tagged) until another “untagged” person can tag you to free you.

Fill small, handheld water pistols with diluted non-toxic paint. Let them shoot their pistols at a canvas (or perhaps, a shower curtain) to create awesome abstract art.

Freeze small objects (matchbox cars, doll shoes, marbles, keys, etc.) in bowls of ice. Let the bowl sit in a lukewarm bath to loosen the block of ice, then turn it out onto a cookie sheet. Encourage them to be ice archaeologists, chipping away with spoons and forks to reveal what’s frozen inside. This is especially fun to do in the afternoon when it’s too hot to run around but you still need some outdoor activities. A set of gloves will help keep hands from getting too cold.

Wash your car or your dog or their outdoor ride-on toys. Toddlers love a good soap bucket, rag, and hose—not to mention a sense of accomplishment.

For the littlest artists, provide cotton balls, a bowl of water, and construction paper for lots of easy and mess-free entertainment. They’ll love dipping the cotton balls into the water, squeezing them out, and making designs. The trick here is to keep them from over-saturating the paper to the point of tearing—which is no fun for anyone.

Set up a tent in the back yard, build a “fire pit” and pretend to be on a campout.

Create an obstacle course and time them as they complete it. Simple obstacles work best, so look for a tree to race around and back, set up some outdoor pillow cushions to jump over, draw a start and finish line with chalk for tricycle or scooter racing and incorporate climbing and going down a slide in your back yard.

Have your little monkey stay in character when you play a quick game of animal charades. No prep necessary for this easy guessing game. Just pick your favorite animal and go for it! With each successful guess, trade places and start again. Ee-i-ee-i-o!

Have a superhero showdown. You might be ducking to avoid Batman’s (imaginary) gadgets and Spidey’s web all afternoon but the nonstop giggle-fest will be worth the effort.

Use windows as a creative space. Give your kids brushes and spray bottles, and watch them paint, clear, and paint again. (Washing windows was never so fun.)

Catch lightning bugs. If you can.

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