Outdoor Physical Activities for Toddlers

Couple walking and swinging toddler between them

 Hilary Helton / Getty Images

For health and development, toddlers need three hours of active playtime every day. Little ones don't tend to need too much encouragement to run around and move. However, providing them with some outdoor games makes playtime even more fun.

Some toddlers may be more drawn to gross motor activities, like running and jumping, while others are into messy play or discovering nature. Let your child's interests be your guide. Each of these options may only last 10 minutes or so (thanks to toddlers' short attention spans), so be prepared to rotate through a bunch of them during an outdoor play session.

Junior Gardening

Toddlers probably don't realize how much work it is to pull weeds, dig in the dirt, harvest vegetables, sweep porches, rake leaves, or refill birdbaths and feeders. For them, it's not yard work; it's outdoor fun.

Get little hands involved with the jobs that you might perform yourself. Not only will you be helping your toddler be more active, but you'll also be laying the groundwork for them to be able to perform these tasks independently one day.

Sand Play

If you've got a few hours to spare and some ambition, build your child a sandbox. But if that's not practical, a large plastic container or a kiddie swimming pool will work, too.

Provide plenty of props, like cups, shovels, plastic molds, dump trucks, and other vehicles for moving sand around. Playing with sand helps your child build strength in their hands, which will be important for school tasks like cutting with scissors and writing with a pencil.

Outdoor Art

Art is usually a fine motor activity, but when you take it outside it can become a gross motor activity as well. Your toddler will be able to use their whole body when coloring with sidewalk chalk since they won't be confined to just a piece of paper.

Take turns tracing each other's bodies in funny positions. Grab a bucket of water and some paintbrushes and let your child paint the fence, driveway, or side of the house. You can paint with spray bottles of water, too. If you have an easel, consider taking it outside once in a while for a more active art experience.

Parades

There's no need to wait until the Fourth of July. You and your child can have a parade anytime, anywhere! Grab a portable speaker, sing a happy tune, or grab some kid-friendly instruments and march around your yard, a park, or all the way around the block. You might even decorate a wagon or ride-on toy (like a balance bike or toddler-friendly scooter) to make your parade even more festive.

Scavenger Hunts

Pick several toys or other objects (large plastic eggs, pieces of sidewalk chalk, even recyclables such as clean plastic bottles or cardboard egg cartons) and hide them around your yard or the immediate surrounding area in a park. Make them easy to find. Create a list with drawings or pictures of the objects and help your toddler cross them off as they find them.

Bubbles

Purchase some bubble solution or make your own homemade bubbles and bubble wands and head outside. Young toddlers will enjoy chasing the bubbles and popping them, while older toddlers can blow on the bubbles to see how long they can keep one in the air. Keep moving and your toddler will follow.

Obstacle Courses

Use whatever you have on hand, including boxes, mats, or large toys. Your toddler can crawl under a lawn chair followed by a roll through the grass, a circle around a tree stump, and finally a dash around the edge of the patio. After you suggest some courses, see if your child has any ideas of their own, or wants to challenge you to try the game yourself.

Sticky Nature Art

Tape a piece of clear contact paper or press-and-seal wrap to an outdoor wall or the ground, sticky side up. Your toddler can add leaves, flower petals, bits of bark, and other natural items to the surface to create their own artwork. Just be vigilant about keeping these small items out of your child's mouth. If you want to preserve their art after it is finished, cover with a second piece of contact paper or press-and-seal.

Red Light, Green Light

Most toddlers have been in the car or on walks through city streets enough to notice traffic signs and lights. They are beginning to understand that red means stop and green means go. This is a great first game for toddlers and it's one that all ages can enjoy together. Keep it simple by just having kids stop and go when you call out red and green (instead of making it a competition).

Hide and Seek

Some toddlers might be frightened by hiding or not being able to find you if you hide, so exercise caution when playing this game. You also need to be sure you can see and supervise your toddler when you are playing outside. However, hide and seek is a fun, active game that most kids enjoy.

Hide in obvious areas, especially at first. You might need to talk or sing to yourself to help your toddler find you. And establish boundaries so that your child doesn't wander away or hide someplace unsafe. This will also help your toddler find you if you are the one hiding.

Ball Games

If your toddler picks something up inside the house and throws it, take this as the perfect cue to head outside and have some fun with balls. You can take turns kicking and throwing, set up baskets with plastic containers or boxes and create targets with hula hoops.

Walks

A daily walk can be a great morning, after-lunch, or evening routine for you and your toddler. Even if it's just a trip around the block, you'll be that much closer to meeting your child's activity needs for the day. Walks afford many teachable opportunities and since the environment changes every day, there's no end to the variety of things to talk about and explore.

If your toddler isn't walking well or tires easily, resist the urge to carry them or let them ride in a stroller. Make your walk short enough that they can finish on their own.

Toys With Wheels

Wheeled toys are an outdoor play essential. New walkers can build strength and confidence with the help of a push toy, such as a grocery cart, kiddie lawnmower, or doll stroller. Older toddlers can try out ride-on toys like balance bikes that help them get ready for trikes and bikes with pedals.

Water Play

If the weather permits, get your toddler involved in some water play. A small child's pool (with proper supervision and safety in mind, of course) or even just a sprinkler, hose, or water table will provide lots of ways for your toddler to move. Water play is also one activity that toddlers seem to enjoy much longer than just playing with a ball or toy, so be sure to make it a regular part of your days when you can.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do children need?.