Good news: The 6 best brain-boosting activities for toddlers are free!

A developmental psychologist’s 6 easy ways to engage your busy baby.

Good news: The 6 best brain-boosting activities for  toddlers are free!

When babies are new to this world, it isn’t very difficult to pique their interest. Tummy time, toys with textures and contrasting colors, and a few good books are all a Mama really needs to keep baby engaged. I even kept my newborn’s attention long enough to read Dr. Seuss’ entire Horton Hears a Who! complete with over-the-top character voices.


As my infant grows closer to toddler status, squeezing in structured playtime for cognitive development becomes more challenging every day. Once baby becomes mobile, it can be difficult to hold that attention for mere seconds, let alone enough time to read what now feels like a Dr. Seuss novella. Providing an active baby with meaningful stimulation can be a daunting task. If you find yourself facing the toughest audience of all (a toddler), try the following ideas for keeping baby engaged:

  • Let your little one take the lead. If your tot would prefer to bang blocks together than read a board book, go with the flow! What seems like a simple activity can develop hand-eye coordination and might even turn into a rhythmic concert for baby’s audience of stuffed animals. If baby is engrossed in an activity, it is a fool’s errand to turn that attention elsewhere. Instead, try to squeeze every last drop of cognitive stimulation from the activity that baby is relishing. For instance, if baby is playing with blocks and balls, try sorting them by color and talking about the colors of the rainbow—or the electromagnetic spectrum for you nerds out there.
  • Provide necessary structure. Once open to a new suggestion, try focusing baby’s attention on a structured activity for a few minutes. This is a great opportunity to read a book together, put on a puppet show, work on a puzzle, or play hand games (Patty-Cake or Itsy-Bitsy Spider, anyone?). It is important for children to learn how to follow along with cooperative activities. Pity the Kindergarten teacher with a classroom of children who refuse to sit still for any organized activities.
  • Let playtime happen organically. A baby can find magic in almost any household item. Take advantage of this during seemingly humdrum activities. If you are changing baby’s diaper, play Peek-a-Boo with a (preferably clean) diaper. If you are folding laundry while baby is busy unfolding laundry, turn over the laundry basket and use it as a drum. If you are cleaning the kitchen, designate a cabinet with baby-safe pots and pans and let baby explore (always with a watchful eye, of course). If you find fascination in the everyday things, baby will too!
  • Talk to your child. Ad nauseam. Label everything baby sees and ask tons of questions. Don’t forget to give baby a chance to respond—they will start very soon! What would you like for lunch? When should we go for a walk? Do you see the puppy outside your window? In addition to asking questions, ask baby to make choices when possible. Would you rather play with the train or the stacking rings? Would you prefer spinach or bell pepper? What color shoes do you want to wear today? Respect baby’s answer, even if it’s the mustard yellow shoes gifted by Aunt Gladys. By giving weight to baby’s opinions, you are fostering the self-confidence baby needs to develop cognitively, socially, and physically. Plus, recent research explains that exposing your little one to as many spoken words as possible is one of the crucial elements in developing the brain in early childhood. Keep talking!
  • Give baby independent playtime. Even if it seems like little one is staring blankly out the window, that mind is working at the speed of light—if morning coffee is still brewing, I bet baby’s mind is working faster than yours! Perhaps your tot is listening to the birds chirping outside and beginning to connect that sound to the “tweet tweet” in a favorite animal book. This might be a good time to fold laundry or take a much needed breather. Feel free to start a dialogue with baby during independent playtime (even if it is still mostly a monologue).
  • Keep your child active. If your tot’s energy seems to be bursting at the seams, play games that will exhaust some of that exuberance. If baby wants to dance, Ring Around the Rosies is always a good choice (and can teach the concepts of up and down). If baby would rather play with toys, build towers with blocks and let baby play demolition (a fun way to teach cause and effect).

By the time you are both tired of playtime, it will undoubtedly be time for a grocery run, baby’s next nap, or dinner. Just remember to keep playtime fun and pressure-free for everyone. You are the perfect Mama for your baby, and you will provide the ideal environment for your baby’s unique development!

In This Article