My Favorite Toddler Learning Activities

As I mentioned, one of the best parts of speech therapy has been the ideas it has inspired regarding how to more effectively play with T1. Throwing a ball back and forth is fun, but I needed more than that throughout the day to keep my attention. Otherwise I got bored doing the same things over and over with no goal in mind. And that is what the speech therapist helped me realize, that I was missing an objective. Below are some of T1′s favorite activities at 18 months, and they are things I love to do with him as well because I clearly understand the part I am playing in our interaction (that of the teacher, which I very much enjoy).

I’m looking for a few things in a puzzle. The pegs help him develop his fine motor skills as he pinches the pieces to set them down, and I wanted it to have animals or another common object he could work on identifying. To start I set out the puzzle board but keep all the pieces off to the side, turned upside down so they are less distracting. I grab one, hold it near my mouth, and say both the name of the animal, and the sound it makes. “Sheep”, “Baaaaaaaahhh”. At some point he won’t get to have the piece until he makes one of those sounds, but for now he signs the word please to let me know he wants to put it in. He sometimes tries to put it in the right spot, and sometimes not. He’s learning and getting better with each try though! I only step in to help if I think he’s going to get too frustrated and throw a tantrum. Then he signs that he wants more, and I repeat the process with another puzzle piece.

This is something I found while browsing Pinterest. Buy some pip cleaners, take an oatmeal can, and cut holes in the top. Let your toddler stick the pipe cleaners in and help you open the lid to get them out. It teaches object permanence, and I say “in, in, in” each time he puts one inside as well to try to work on his language. When they are all inside I ask if if he wants to get them out.

If you’re worried about sharp edges, stick your fingers in all the holes to make sure they won’t hurt your toddler. That’s how I tested mine out and they are all fine (I know, they don’t look pretty).

Another activity that gives me a chance to emphasize the words in and out. Mini poms can be found at a craft store, take a plastic container, and cut holes in the top. T1 loves throwing the poms around almost as much as he loves poking them through the holes.

I picked up a little rabbit at a craft store, found an empty jar, filled it with quinoa, and stuck the rabbit inside. I’d like to get a little collection of animals and switch them out so he can discover new friends hiding inside. This is yet another chance to work on language, as I say “rabbit, rabbit” excitedly whenever we find the rabbit’s head. I also can work on things like ears and feet when those things are poking out.

This one doesn’t have many opportunities to teach language (other than the names of colors, which the speech therapist said is a bit too abstract for him now) but coloring on the windows together is really fun!

My favorite game, and his, is fishing. I gathered up a pencil, some twine, a magnet, felt, and paper clips. I cut two fish shapes out of each color of felt, laid them on top of each other, and glued a paper clip inside. The twine was tied around the pencil and a glued a magnet on the end. Voila! We could go fishing.

When we’re going fishing I say the words fish and fishing, the colors of the fish he is picking up, and make a fish face along with the sound “whawp whawp whahp” in the hope that he will imitate me in some way.

These are all things I keep in a special paper bag away from him, and whenever I bring the bag out he gets so excited! I really enjoy having our learning time each day, and I’m starting to see little bits of progress. The last time we played before we Chicago, he said “mmmmm” when I picked up the cow and “bahhh” when I picked up the sheep. Watching him learning, and helping him take part in that process, is one of my favorite parts of being a parent.

Next on my list of things to get him is this play food set. When the speech therapist comes over he will excitedly ask for the “pebpah” and the “abble”. His words make me so happy.

If you have more ideas for activities I can use to play with T1 that will also help him to develop his language, fine, and gross motor skills, please comment below!

56 thoughts on “My Favorite Toddler Learning Activities

  1. I have never commented on your log before, Jenna! I just have to say that this is a great post. Very helpful as I am totally clueless on how to teach c. Thanks!

  2. This is wonderful! I’m so glad you were able to identify some ways for both of you to enjoy playing more. Keep up the good work.

  3. I was going to suggest that food set! I am giving it to the 2 year old boy I babysit for Christmas. Our local children’s museum has a set. He loves cutting the food and serving it to people, and I think it makes a great toy for fine motor skills, learning to share and learning the different foods. I hope T1 likes it!

  4. My sister is going through similar activities with her two year old. They have started having a speech therapist come to their house and it sounds like they are doing very similar activities. Putting a ball in a bucket, making him ask/sign for more and repeating BALL BALL BALL the whole time. Keep up the good work with T1! He will get so much out of these activities.

  5. Love this post — thanks for the great ideas! One thing that we do with Claire is to point out letters of the alphabet constantly. It certainly seems to be working so far, because she already knows 4 letters (and even points them out to us) at 14 months of age.

    Jenna Reply:

    Wow. That is phenomenal!

  6. I’m adding all these activities to our activity list. Thanks! I think I may put them in a box for Christmas and wrap it as a gift. I think she’d love it.

    Anyways, when I clean I say, “Bean! Come help Mommy clean!” and she says, “Okay! I help. I help you.” and I tell her to pick things up and put them in her own garbage bag (like a grocery store bag).

    She holds things up (like gum wrappers) and says, “Whats that?” and I explain them to her and tell her to put the items in her bag.
    So this is a great activity because
    1. I’m teaching her chores
    2. She knows that helping Mommy is a good exciting thing 3. She is discovering new items all the time (she picked up a pine needle and I said, “It is a pine needle on the tree!” and she looked to our Christmas tree and said “Tee!”)
    4. It really helps me out because I don’t have to always bend down and pick up the small stuff.

    When I dust or clean with a rag I always give her one and she says “I help. I do it” and she actually cleans with me. So even though cleaning doesn’t sound fun, it’s fun to little kids and she’s only 21 months old

    Jenna Reply:

    T1 loves helping with household stuff as well! Taking out the trash, unloading the silverware from the dishwasher, sweeping, putting the laundry in the machine. It’s adorable.

    Unfortunately he doesn’t like picking up his toys and putting them away :)

  7. This reminds me of working at a day care!

    Don’t underestimate “traditional” games. Peek-a-boo teaches object permanence and kids (for whatever reason) love it. Or songs like “the wheels on the bus go round and round.” If you do the hand motions with it, he will pick them up too. Kid music can be kind of painful to listen to, but if you haven’t tried it – kids love it. They will really bounce along more than they to just whatever Pandora station you have.

    You know those hippopotamus books that are popular? There’s one called Barnyard dance that is good because it has lots of directions (stomp your feet, clap your hands). It may take a lot longer to get through, but try reading it and doing it along with him.

    Jenna Reply:

    We have the Barnyard dance one. I like it b/c it has lots of farmyard animals to point out. He still doesn’t like sitting through books very much though. That will come with time.

    Molly P Reply:

    Have you tried any books that are more interactive? My little one has more patience for books that have flaps (check out Peek-A-Moo), mirrors, different textures, pop-ups & music….For example, there’s one with a space person attached by ribbon to the book and on each page he has to insert the person into a rocket. We get almost all of these from the local library.

    Jenna Reply:

    The speech therapist has a barnyard animal one that sounds very similar! I need to find one for him.

    Piper Reply:

    Bath and mealtimes are perfect for reading when they are at the too-wiggly-to-sit ages :) At that age, my boys would remind me to get a book so I could read to them while they played in the bath or finished their meal.

  8. Many of those activities look familiar as ones that Grant did with various speech and occupational therapists. He loves puzzles! That’s one of two things I love to buy for him: puzzles and books. He’s really good at them now too!

    Of course, when asked, I can’t think of any other activities Grant has done – - but if any come to mind today I’ll come back and post!

    Looks like he’s having fun with all those simple, stimulating activities!

  9. The blog Chasing Cheerios (link below) has some great activities for kids. I know T1 is young for some of them, but there are others that you might like or could modify to do with T1 now.

    Rachel Reply:

    I just checked out this blog, thanks for sharing the link! I already found some fun ideas for my own kids. :)

    Jenna Reply:

    I just spent like an hour pinning ideas from her blog. Thank you so much!

  10. This is a great post. I’m far from kids, but I can’t wait to try all sorts of activities like this with them. I love the pictures of T1 fishing. He is so focused!

  11. Fantastic! I love this post and can’t wait to use these same projects when I have a little one. I totally LOVED fishing like that when I was little (especially in primary when each fish had a song to sing in sharing time). Thank you for the reminder!

  12. I work in an elementary school as a special education teacher. We have OT (occupational therapy) kits we use with students who have fine motor difficulties. I would be happy to copy off the list of the things we have in the kit, as well as activities to do with each item. Let me know if you’d be interested!

    Sara Reply:

    I am interested!

    Natalie Reply:

    Would you mind sending me your email address? Mine is natgat(at)gmail(dot)com

  13. A trick that I think really helped my daughter was simply to turn her to face me while we read books. Typically you think to put them facing away from you, facing the book in your hands. Instead, I have her face me and hold the book to the side or sometimes right next to my face so she can watch my mouth as well as the book. I think it helps her to see my mouth moving as a guide how to form the words.

    Sometimes I’d prompt her to say the words, pointing at my own mouth when I said them. Or ask her what was pictured in the book- even if she couldn’t answer, I’d respond.

  14. I love these activities. I especially enjoyed fishing as a kid too. How about screwing a nut to a bolt? Boys would love that and that would definately get his motor skills going. There are toy ones but you could probably find a large one at a local hardware store for less than $1.

    Btw, BB has the same shirt and I love it on him. :) Makes me smile.

    Jenna Reply:

    One of the few shirts with phrases that I actually like. There’s something really funny about it huh?

    Anita Reply:

    I couldn’t help myself.

  15. I think you could absolutely use coloring on the windows as a language can draw pictures of objects/animals and work on labeling their names/voices and just describing them.

    If you have toy cars that he likes you can have him ask you for them, talk about pushing the cars..say one two three push! or they can go in/out a box, over/under a chair, etc.

    You could also make a touchy/feely bag…put different household objects/toys in the bag and he can reach in and pull one out. then, you can label the item (spoon, spoon out, you took out the spoon) and describe their function/color — even if he’s just working on labeling objects you can certainly give him more language about the items.

    or, gross motor activities…you could get a piece of paper/hoola hoop or another item and practice jumping/stepping on,off, over, next to the item. musical chairs…sit on the chair when the music stops, stand up once it starts..what did we do? we stood up! or london bridges/ring around the rosy…

    just a few ideas, maybe you’re already doing them…but I’d also narrate so many activities as you do them. your foot goes IN the shoe, now we’re brushing your hair .. or even if he’s playing by himself….oh, you picked up the crayon, you’re coloring with the blue crayon…just to give him the language so he hears it over and over and over again.

    seems like you’re doing a wonderful job!

  16. Sounds like a fun and productive time for both you and T1!

    Also, that first picture of T1 is GORGEOUS :)

  17. aww… this is one of the things that I think I would love the most about having kids.. getting to teach them things and seeing their little minds connect the dots would be so exciting.

    Being without kids I’m not that experienced at giving advice, but another blogger I follow likes to do “preschool time” with her 3 year old and has written some posts on it:

    Though her son’s a year older than T1, I think some of the activities would apply pretty well. The “I spy” game would make it fun to learn new words by identifying objects, and she shows a fishing game like the one you do, using magentized letters – that seems like a perfect way to progress into learning the alphabet, when T1 gets to that point. She also has a pinterest board with more activities, linked from her blog. So much fun that I had to pass it on! :)

    Rachel Reply:

    I love her idea of making music instruments from household items. I think my kids would love that.

  18. I want to second (or third?) the suggestion of singing songs with him! Kids love songs that have movements that go along with the words and it is a great way to work on language and gross motor at the same time. The kids I’ve worked with are especially fond of I’m Happy and I Know It, the Hokey Pokey, The Wheels on the Bus, etc.

  19. One of my favorite posts! I like to take my little one in the bathroom with a flashlight. I turn the lights off and say “dark!” then turn on the flashlight and say “light!” We love making puppets on the wall. “dark” is one of his best/clearest words.

  20. My sister’s youngest child was wrapped in the cord while in the womb and so because of the position it held her in her head was slightly misshapen (had to wear a helmet actually) and she has hearing loss in her right ear. She’s delayed slightly and she gets angry sometimes because of it but she’s VERY smart (I’m not just saying that either).

    But the awesome thing is my sister worked as assistant in a special needs class so she had friends who were therapists who were able to come over and help (now my sister is finally finishing her art degree to become an art therapist for children). Some of the things you’re doing she was already doing but this is what she was told to add:

    Chatter with words and hands. Sign as much as you can while speaking or pointing. (She did this with her first child also and they both could articulate what they wanted or needed very quickly.) Also talk about everything…one day my niece just started speaking in full sentences, because that’s what everyone was doing around her.

    Create charts or books of pictures of family, everyday items, foods…and have your child point, sign, speak the names of things (depending on where they are in development). This really helped when she couldn’t pronounce names (I was Nen or Wen for the longest time) but she wanted to show us she knew what she was saying.

    Art. The more tactile the better. Clay or saltdough, paint, sand art/castles/boxes…when they’re older you can make scratch art, trace objects, do rubbings of textures etc. Baking cookies or bread (the dough is fun!) or helping make dinner was very fun for her too.

    Montessori style preschool activities (just order a free supplies catalog…lots of ideas in there for activities to improve motor skills and language that you can use supplies from home to make…for example: the one she had was set of bowls, spoons and small objects. You were supposed to scoop all the objects from one bowl to the other. Really easy to duplicate at home.)

    Toy and home organization. Some of my nieces’ jobs were to pick up toys, feed the dogs and fish, and sweep the floors (my sister usually went over with a mop later too). To help my niece identify what she was supposed to do my sister organized things into totes or buckets (or drawers). Then she took those things out and made a neat pile and took a picture, the picture then went into a clear sleeve on the front of the tote or drawer.
    So teeth brushing supplies and her night time lotion went in a drawer in the bathroom with a picture of those things and drawing of a bed on the front of the drawer, to let her know when to brush her teeth and have mommy rub lotion on her excema.
    Baby dolls and clothes in one bucket on a shelf in her room. Books in another. Blocks in another.
    Pictures of the dogs on the front of their bowls, and another picture on the cupboard with the dog food in it that showed a full measuring cup of dog food and a drawing of a dog’s face.
    The girls also had chore charts with pictures of the things they were supposed to do. The dog’s together with a full bowl of food and water. A messy room together with a picture of full toy buckets. A floor together with a broom and dustpan. Toothbrush and toothpaste together with a smiling niece.

    Hope that gives you some ideas!

    Rachel Reply:

    I’d just like to second the Montessori style learning activities. I do tot school with my 2 1/2 year old and 1 1/2 year old and I base a lot of our activities on it. I get a lot of ideas from blogs like and I don’t think I’m probably as ‘hard core’ as they are at all this though. I went through their archives and looked for activity ideas and made of list of things I thought we would enjoy.

    Our ‘school time’ may last 15 minutes or it may last over an hour depending on how interested they are in what I’ve put out for them (and what our schedule looks like). I have 5 or so activities in bins on a bookshelf as well as books. The activities get changed out every week or so depending on how tired of them the kids or I get or how well they worked out.

    The activities might be puzzles, sorting by color, shape, or size, a craft type activity, or just free form playing with blocks. I’d like to start doing sensory bins that involve an upcoming holiday or a color or letter we are working on. We also do things like the pipe cleaners or straws in different containers like you do. For my 2 1/2 year old I’ve started coloring around the circles in the lid and he matches the pipe cleaner to the right color on the circle. That gets frustrating for him at this point. An activity they both enjoy right now is moving beans or pompoms from a bowl to another container (I’ve got a few ice cube trays that make mini ice cubes that I found in the $1 aisle at Target) with a spoon of mini tongs that I found at Ikea for cheap.

    When they want to do an activity they go to the bookshelf and pick a bin and take it to their school area (which is just a throw rug in the corner of the room for now but we are getting a little table for them for Christmas) and they sit down and play with it or I help them if it’s a goal specific activity. Then they have to help put everything back in the bin and put it back on the shelf before they can choose another activity. This is aggravating for the 1 1/2 year old but my 2 1/2 year old has finally started to understand that’s how it works.

    We also do songs and things too. Sometimes we’ll just do a bunch of songs and no other activities or we’ll read 10 books and do nothing else. As long as they are still having fun and interacting with me, I don’t care that we didn’t accomplish whatever activities I had thought of.

    It sounds like you and T1 are getting some good things out of all of this! I’m looking forward to everyone else’s ideas and to keep hearing how things are going for you and T1.

    Jenna Reply:

    This clear sleeve/picture/tote/bucket idea is AMAZING. We don’t really have our house set up for it right now (and he’s not quite old enough to get it) but when we move and set up a bedroom/play space for him I am absolutely doing this. Thank you for the great idea! (I just wish I could find a picture on Pinterest to remind me of it)

    Gwendolyn Langan Reply:

    Here’s the pin for the website my sister used for inspiration:


    Jenna Reply:

    Pinned it! Thank you.

  21. A lot of these are games Addie already likes from our busy bag exchange ( ) but the animal in the jar one is new to me and I bet she’d really dig it. She’s so into animals right now. It’s amazing to me how my narrating everything we do is suddenly showing up in her vocabulary. She was such a reluctant talker that I never thought my labeling and talking was doing much but now she says words and responds to commands for things I never knew she knew the name for. It’s a really exciting age they’re at right now!

    Jenna Reply:

    I got most of these ideas from you (or things I saw on your Pinterest page :) )

  22. So interesting to see the different games you’re playing with him! I used to work in an Early Intervention Pre-school and wanted to also suggest songs! Especially for cleanup, this might make cleanup more fun. We also gave warnings for when play time was over (2 more minutes!) The song we did, I think was a Barney song? “Clean up Clean up, everybody everywhere! Clean up Clean up, everybody do your share!”
    An Early Intervention Preschool might be really good for him too, for the interaction, the consistency, frustration tolerance and the speech therapy that is incorporated. We saw kids 1.5-3 years of age. I really saw some great improvements.

    Jenna Reply:

    Is that where that song comes from? I had no idea, but EVERYONE knows it. We sing it at church when it’s time to clean up after nursery :). I sing it to him at home as well, but it’s still not effective. He just stares at me blankly :)

  23. Jenna~

    I read your previous posts about therapy and wondered do you think T1 is “behind” because he stays with you all day? I ask because I just don’t feel like i am doing enough for my 10 week old. I give him all the attention he needs, but I just feel like I personal don’t have the skills to teach him what he needs. I head back to work at the beginning of the year, and picked a private daycare where I know the lady has taken classes to create a learning environment.

    The new games are great! And I love that you create them rather than buying them from a store, and I think T1 appreciates it more also! Glad to see that he is improving and the games are working!

    Jenna Reply:

    I think there are two factors: Staying with me all day, and hearing two languages. But I figure that now I have these tools to work with him, so he can get really personalized focused attention that just can’t be given in a daycare setting. So it will even out in the end?

    Daycare would be great for him because he would get to play with his friends a lot though! He loves that. I’ve been working to swap more often with a mom in my building and it’s been great.

  24. Jenna, this is a great and helpful post and I’m so glad to see T1 is improving. He seems to be LOVING the games and activities you’ve made for him. I for one… LOVE the go fish.

    For us, counting is really part of our daily routine. So numbers with colors maybe in the bath could be fun. We count, 1,2,3,4,5 … GO! and we throw some water down in the cup Mavi is holding. He loves is and now he says 2 and 3 :)

  25. These are some great activities! I’d also like to recommend some learning songs – this is a great cd that many teachers I know love

    A great blog I like to read for inspiration is Especially check out her posts “Family Shape Puzzle,” “ABC Box,” and her sensory box ideas! Her kids are older than T1 but she’s been blogging for a while, so you can click in the tags “18 mos-2 yrs” to find more activities.

    Sounds like you’re doing great! Wish I had more suggestions but I don’t typically work with kids as young as T1, so.. More posts like this please! I loved reading the other suggestions!

    Kira Reply:

    And Play Doh, how did I forget that? You can make your own for pennies and it is the BEST. Help T1 make “food” – pizza, ice cream, etc. and pretend to eat it. Roll it out flat so he can drive his toy cars over it. Make letters and practice their sounds. I am a 24 year old Play Doh lover!

  26. I’m so glad you posted this, because my 16-month-old isn’t talking at all yet, and I’m having a hard time thinking up good learning games to play with him. This is a fantastic start. :)

  27. He’s such a cute boy. So happy to hear it’s going well. One other fine motor activity is threading things, Cheerios, metal washers, beads, etc.

    Jenna Reply:

    We have some threading toys, but I think he needs some time to grow into them. Right now he’s still a bit active for them.

  28. THis was SOOO interesting for me to read. I loved all of the activities. You are such an amazing mother and I am constantly in complete AWE of the various things you do on a daily basis.

  29. love these sweet homemade activities. will definitely be doing a few of these soon. thanks for reminding me how easy and wonderful it is to entertain AND educate. xo.

    Jenna Reply:

    I was just pinning all sorts of activities from your site!

  30. Love that you are working so hard! Great job! I too have the cutting food set and the kids I work with LOVE it. They have a second set with different foods so I switch them out and we cut, label, pretend to eat, and share them. I also cut out shapes from construction paper (right now Christmas trees) and laminate them (put a piece of velcro on the back to keep them from sliding on carpet) and we hop or step on each one and count them or just say hop or step. I have the My First Touch and Feel flash cards, they have different textures that make them a bit more interesting and fun. Also a block train that they put the big pieces “on”, request “more please”. I have a huge book for every quarter and make and laminate a lot of my own things. I can e-mail share my templates with you if you’d like.

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