When you’re elbow deep in food-coloured pasta during playtime with your toddler you’re likely thinking: “Do mess-free activities for kids even exist?” While part of the fun of being a tiny human is discovering, exploring and sensory play, there are plenty of activities for young kids that don’t involve a massive post-activity clean-up session.

We spoke to Simone Delagarde, teaching director at Emmerick Street Community Preschool in Sydney, about her non-messy go-to activities, so you can mix up your style of play. Allowing the child’s imagination to run wild is the best,” she says. “Provide toddlers with different resources, so they can work out what they want to do with them. It’s not always about it being a structured activity.”

Manage Your Expectations Of Play Time

It can take a minute for a little one to adjust their attention span to playtime, so don’t worry if they don’t spend long enjoying all the activities you’ve set up. “A one-year-old has a very different time span to a three-year-old,” says Simone. “So a one-year-old would realistically be focused on an activity for anything up to maybe five to 10 minutes to begin with. For three-year-olds, if you expect a 15-minute window per activity, then anything over or beyond that is a bonus. Whatever happens in the experience, the child is getting something from it.”

Arts and Craft Fun

Bead Stations and Sorting Cubes 

Animated GIF series of assorted kids’ wooden toys, shot from above on a yellow background, including beads and string, pretend food and a zoo scene.

These play items have been a hit with kids for generations and provide perfect learning opportunities as little ones develop their hand-eye coordination. The simple movement of beads sliding around the wire is exciting for them, without the risk of anything going into their mouth. Then, as children get older, you can move onto a sorting cube. This activity will help enhance colour recognition and shape matching. Even better, once they’ve finished playing, the blocks are all back in their box making for easy pack-up.

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SEE ALSO: Your Guide to Fun Activities for Preschoolers

Exploring the Outdoors

Water Pen ‘Painting’

Animated GIF series of a selection of Magic Ink colouring books, shot from above on a yellow background, with an underwater scene progressively coloured in.

These non-paint sets come with a pen with a paint brush tip that you fill with a small amount of water. As kids swipe the pen over the paper, water is released from the brush and the colourful image on the page is revealed. Best of all, as it dries, it fades away again so they can ‘paint’ over and over. It’s a very handy art activity for kids to do indoors, but also small enough to take with you on-the-go to cafes, doctors appointments, car travel and more.

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Nature Spotto

Animated GIF series of an open lined exercise book with doodles of a tree, car and person walking a dog appearing, shot from above next to binoculars, pencils and two closed exercise books, on a yellow background.

If you have a window with a view of nature or even a street outside, little ones will love playing ‘Spotto’, especially with a pair of binoculars. Bigger kids might like to have a piece of paper or sketchbook on hand to draw what they can ‘spot’ like a tree, a car or a person walking by, or they can simply shout out what they see for everyone to hear.

This works just as well on a picnic rug outside and, if you have a tired little one, lying down on the grass and spotting cloud shapes is a great way to unwind after a busy afternoon.

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Scavenger Hunts

Animated GIF series of toys and activities for toddlers, shot from above on a yellow background, including an alphabet puzzle, splat mat, animal counters, plastic droppers, coloured bowls and small coloured plastic counters.

Activities for toddlers (and for any children, really!) don’t have to be extravagant – sometimes accompanying your little one on a simple scavenger hunt can be the perfect way to engage their mind and get them exploring their surroundings. You can even set one up in your own home with their favourite possessions! Search online for scavenger or treasure hunt sheets (or sketch out your own), then print them out and set your child on their quest. Whether you choose to stay indoors or head out with them to the garden or local park, this activity is a wonderful way to entertain and educate without having to pull out toys.

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SEE ALSO: The 10 Best Incidental Learning Activities for Preschoolers

Indoor Activities

Go Back to Basics with Boxes

“Activities that involve all the senses really grab toddlers’ attention,” says Simone. “A favourite activity of mine is to collect cardboard boxes because you can do so much with them, they’re pretty mess-free and you can add so many things to an experience with a box.”

She recommends adding masking tape, coloured markers and stickers for a (slightly) messier box activity. But if you want to keep it simple, cut a hole in the top of a big box, and have your toddler ‘post’ things into it. They can collect goodies from around the house to pop inside, or create their own letters to ‘post’ to family and friends. Also, a wooden spoon or two instantly turns a cardboard box into drums – much quieter than pots and pans!

Bath Time… With Crayons

Kids love a splash session in the bathroom, but how about turning wash time into an art class, too? Make it a fun and interactive activity with the help of some colourful bath crayons. Designed for doodling on tiles, shower walls and bath tubs, they’re completely washable, meaning you can wipe away your little artist’s masterpieces once they’re done and revert your bathroom back to its blank-canvas status. Sure, they’ll make a bit of a mess for a few minutes (albeit a very contained one), but the pay-off of expressing their creativity without the need for paper or paint is worth it.

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Music Time

Animated GIF series of wooden musical instruments for kids including shakers, a xylophone and cymbals, shot from above on a yellow background.

If you have a budding musician on your hands, a small set of instruments to shake, rattle and (drum) roll will keep them enthralled during playtime. Or why not join in the fun, too – you could sing songs or nursery rhymes with them while they add the back-up track or keep the beat! Sure, it’ll be a noisy afternoon but a joy-filled activity for kids all the same. As for clean-up, all that’s needed is a quick whisk away of instruments back into a box, and it’s job done. 

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Easel With a Whiteboard

Investing in an easel is a great activity for kids aged two and up, especially if you have one that folds up and can be slipped into a cupboard if space is scarce. The whiteboard side is a great low-mess option – a simple wipe clean and it’s ready for action all over again. And, if your mini Picasso is drawing on to paper, use water-based and non-toxic markers so any potential stains on their clothes can be washed out.

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Magnetic Activities & Working with Clay

Animated GIF series of magnetic letters, animals and people, assorted balls of coloured playdough, keyrings made from an air dry clay kit, all shot from above on a yellow background.

Simone recommends anything with magnets, as kids “love connecting and putting things together”. You’ll want to start with bigger magnetic pieces for small children. Having a big tub on hand for easy pack-away is important, too. 

Small hands will also love working with play dough or clay. Not only is this tactile material great for inspiring creativity, but it also challenges kids’ fine motor skills, thanks to the shaping and rolling that goes with it. “Dough is always a crowd-pleaser,” says Simone. “Kids need to work a bit harder with clay or polymer clay, so it helps the muscles in the hands more than the softer dough.”

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The Classics

You can start reading to your kids as soon as they’re born – and build from there. “After reading a story with your child, you could take it that step further and make something from the story,” Simone says.

Keeping a dressing-up tub of costumes is an amazing activity for children, especially the younger ones, as it sparks their imagination and creativity, as is dancing. Outside, there are plenty of activities for little kids that are non-messy. Blowing bubbles is fascinating for them, or using the pavement as a canvas – chunky pieces of chalk are great for little hands to grip. Or here’s another cool idea: while you’re outdoors in nature, fasten a thick piece of tape, sticky side outwards, on their wrist. Encourage little ones to collect flowers, leaves, sticks and special nature treasures and stick them to their bracelet. By the end of the walk, it will be a masterpiece.