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5 Simple Brain-Building Games to Play with Your Toddler

A man and a toddler playing with blocks.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

If your toddler is bored and restless, try some of these easy, fun brain-building games. You can do them all at home with minimal supplies, and no gadgets or screen time are required.

We don’t often think of the subtle things happening when our kids engage in their favorite play activities. That’s because our brains are done growing, and we’re no longer stimulated by such basic, creative play. But for toddlers, so much is happening beneath the surface, even if they’re just squashing lumps of Play-Doh.

So, don’t underestimate the simplicity of these toddler games. They help your child grow stronger, smarter, and more independent. Hopefully, you’ll have some fun, too!

Break Out the Blocks

Who knew something as simple as building blocks, Duplos, or even dominoes could help your kiddo’s brain grow?

Blocks are a classic for a reason—they’re the perfect tool to build eye-hand coordination and more.

You can stack blocks into a teetering tower that your toddler can knock down. Or push different sized cars into the tower and see which of them successfully knock it over. This teaches your toddler about stability, gravity, and cause and effect. Plus, it’s tons of fun!

You can make patterns and shapes together with Duplo blocks. Help your child sort them by color, size, and shape, or count them into piles. You can build a house, a bird, a plane—you name it!

Another fun way to learn about objects in space is to create a line of dominoes, and then watch them fall down. If you have a traditional set, you can count the numbers on the dominoes. You can build things, make raceways, and more with a set of stacking dominoes.

Puzzles and Memory Cards

When you introduce puzzles to your toddler, it really gets their brain neurons firing. Puzzles also help kids learn about shapes and sizes, and how the pieces fit together. You can also teach them about the topic of the puzzle (cats and dogs, farm animals, etc.) while you work.

If your toddler gets frustrated when she can’t get the pieces to fit, guide her hand. This way, she still does it herself—you just provide a bit of support. Try to avoid doing it for her, though, or she won’t learn the eye-hand coordination aspect of this activity.

Toddlers love matching colors, shapes, and objects. It’s hard to go wrong if you challenge them to “find all the red ones!” or “show me where all the animals are.”

You can also introduce matching memory games at an early age. If your child isn’t ready to play a full game, you can just talk about the objects on the cards, sort them by color, or stack them into piles.

If you prefer a game that grows with your child, pick up a tin of Spot It! cards. Playing the game by the rules is an activity best reserved for slightly older kids, but the round, picture-laden cards are great for playing find-the-object games with your toddler.

Spot It! (Color/Packaging May Vary)

Boost visual perception with this simple card game.

Hide and Seek or Find That Object

Even though hide and seek seems like a simple, silly game, it offers a great lesson in spatial awareness. You hide first, let your toddler find you, and then encourage him to hide. He’ll probably “hide” in plain view, which is all part of the learning process.

A little girl's legs showing beneath a curtain.
Chris JG White/Shutterstock

You can also hide a stuffed animal or a toy and search for it together. To get started, just place the object under a blanket, and then watch to see how your toddler uncovers it. You can also hide a ball down the front of your shirt. See if your child claws at the lump, or if she goes for the top or bottom of your shirt to find it. Then, put the ball down her shirt and let her figure out how to retrieve it.

Obstacle Course

Exploring different environments stimulates little brains, and it doesn’t have to be complex. You can put a prize at the end of an expandable tunnel and encourage your child to crawl through it. Or build a pillow fort, with different entry and exit points for your toddler to explore. Give her a flashlight to use inside the fort and show her the difference between light and dark.

Go outside and see what you can create in your backyard. Even something as simple as scattered bowls, chairs, and cardboard boxes can change an ordinary back porch.

Jumping around your backyard on one leg or running in circles around some cones might not sound like fun to you, but an energetic toddler can do it all day (and night, if you let him).

Get colorful stacking cones and show your child how to unstack them, carry them to the other side of the room, and then stack them again. You can sort them by color, too.

If your child rides a bike or tricycle, have him ride around the cones. Start with a simple pattern, and then make it more difficult as he gains more skills.

You can also toss some hoops on the ground, play dance music, and encourage your kids to run around. When you pause the music, everybody has to run and stand inside a hoop. Don’t worry about having a “winner” or anything; just make the game easy, fun, and lighthearted, so everyone enjoys it.

Masking Tape

Pull that masking tape out of your drawer and have some creative fun with it!

Lay some strips of masking tape on a flat surface (the floor, coffee table, etc.) and make sure they overlap. Show your toddler how to peel them off slowly, and then watch as she masters this skill. You can use different colors and patterns to make it visually more exciting. Let her play with the tape ball at the end.

You can also make squares, circles, triangles, and straight lines on the floor with the tape. Then, tell your child to go to the circle, or walk on the line, or sit in the square. If you have older children, encourage them to call out the instructions to their younger siblings.

And it doesn’t matter if your child goes to the wrong shape—it’s all about expanding their knowledge in a fun, playful way.

When it comes to child development, the simplest activities often have the most lasting effect. These easy games will engage and excite your toddler—and help him learn, too!

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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