Kids

7 Tips for Parenting an Active Toddler

If you read the words “active toddler” and wondered if that applied to your little one, let me save you some time. 

It doesn’t.

However, if you read the term “active toddler,” snort-laughed, and thought something along the lines of “yeah, try toddlernado,” or “I hadn’t realized terrorizing the villagers was an activity” this post is for you.

The Active Toddler, A Species Overview

The active toddler is a not-so-rare, mythical beast whose powers include growing extra arms when in any kind of store, needing less sleep than a college student in finals week, destroying an entire room in less time than it takes to microwave leftovers, and the ability to cry on the spot because it simultaneously both does and does not want a purple bubble bath.

Most intriguing (and infuriating), the active toddler is just as cute as its less hyperactive peers. 

It is perfectly capable of great feats of manners, verbal acuity, and loving behavior, these moments are just sandwiched between bouts of sprinting around the house like a stampeding wildebeest.

Our Job as Mom

As the parent of an active toddler, we have our work cut out for us. 

We know this because it has been mentioned numerous times by family members, coaches, and strangers we pass in the grocery store.

Yes, our toddler is a handful.  No, it’s not because we lack discipline. 

Yes, they do hold still sometimes…when they’re unconscious.

However, despite my apparent joy in complaining about my toddler’s, “maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s a wayward encounter with radioactive waste,” levels of energy, it is my firm belief that our active toddlers are going to grow up to do amazing things.

Yes, she’s sprinting in circles around the kitchen island now, but later that energy is going to make her excel at whatever sport she chooses. 

It’s going to keep her awake and mentally engaged when she has to pull an all-nighter to study for that important exam. It’s going to drag her adult self out of bed at 5am to work on her passion project before she has to get ready for work at her actual job.

I wouldn’t trade my daughter’s demonic energy for anything, because I know it’s going to give her a leg up in life.

Tips for Parenting Your Active Toddler

Despite my firm belief that I’m glad my daughter falls into the “active toddler” category, I have had to develop some coping mechanisms, momming hacks, and common sense rules for making our day to day life more pleasant (read: I hopefully don’t cry before 10am).

These seven strategies have helped me go from overwhelmed, frazzled, and in need of some serious electrolytes to actually enjoying (gasp) my daughter’s energetic ways.

1. Create Safe Zones

There is a huge difference between parenting and making sure your kid doesn’t break anything (including themselves).

Parenting includes play, engagement, exploration, hands-on discovery, and the occasional hug-tackle.

None of this can happen if you’re constantly having to play defense to make sure nothing gets destroyed.  If you don’t believe me, think of trying to teach your kid the alphabet in the middle of a fancy restaurant during the 7 pm dinner rush.

Now, once you’ve picked yourself up off the floor and finished laughing, you’ll see my point. 

You can’t really get quality engagement with your child if you’re also trying to control their behavior, make sure they’re not being too loud or disruptive, or keeping them from going in certain areas.

We have our house cordoned off (with a system of many baby gates) to include three, “toddler proof zones.”

These are areas in which my daughter can run wild without me worrying she’s going to fall off anything high, find anything breakable (or sharp enough to turn into a makeshift weapon), or find a way to escape without my knowledge.

It should go without saying that discipline and teaching your child the manners they need to be controllable in the real world are still critical. However, there should also be places you can just let your active kiddo run wild.

In these safe haven spaces, you are now free to engage in rough-and-tumble play, let them bounce off walls (yes, literally), and focus on actual engagement rather than playing man-on-man defense in hopes they don’t break anything too expensive.

2. Be Strict About Routine (But Have Backup Plans)

This one took me a while to figure out.

At first, I tried scheduling our time into a school-like day, trying to create the most productive (for me) and enriching (for my toddler) day possible.

I can hear you veteran moms out there laughing your yoga pants off. Shush. I was new to this parenting thing, okay?

Toddlers, it would appear, are lawless beasts that feed off the carcasses of failed parental plans.

They don’t understand sentences that start with “at 8:15 we have to…”.  And, if you think about it, clock time is not something that’s intuitive to humans.

When we lived in caves and hunted for our survival, we didn’t have “three o’clock,” we just had “after sunrise,” or “while the lions that would like to eat us are napping.”

This type of before/after scheduling is called event-based time and it’s how kids are initially programmed (before we socialize them into functional, punctual, adult humans.).

I go over this in more detail in my post on how to create a routine your kids will actually follow, but one of the keys to surviving life with an active toddler is to create a regular, sequential routine so they learn to translate “event-based time,” into “clock time.”

They might be active, but they are not immune to the massive power of routine.

If you do the same thing, at the same time every day, eventually it will become second nature. Similarly, if they get used to certain activities following each other, they will naturally begin internalizing that as the “normal” way to do things.

This means that if you get them used to running around like a banshee every day after lunch but that after their allotted crazy time they have quiet/nap time, then they will (after an initial period of resistance) learn that that is the way things go. 

Pretty soon, they’ll start gravitating towards their routine without even knowing it.

The backup part of things comes in handy because, as you may have learned, nothing ever goes according to plan. Literally. Nothing. Ever.

Having a backup plan will help you roll with the punches, instead of texting your husband just how much money you think you could get for your kids on eBay.

For instance, if you have “walk to the park” in your routine and it happens to rain, you’ll end up a frustrated mom with a spracky speed demon of a toddler. 

However, if you can mentally adjust that event to “do something active,” a freak rainstorm just changes a walk to the park to a game of indoor tag or hide and seek.

Need help thinking up backup activities?  Funny you should ask…

3. Develop an Activity Menu

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body.

Seriously. My husband and I joke that I can only be spontaneous if I have a week and a half to plan for it.

Unfortunately, kids are some of the most spontaneous creatures in the world, toddlers even more so.

If you need help coming up with activities that will both enrich your kiddos but also keep them entertained (and therefore less likely to pull a Kool Aid man through your wall), then you aren’t alone.

I’ve solved this issue in the way I solve everything: copious amounts of research.

I spent about a week culling through every internet wormhole and corner I could find looking for different ways to amuse my toddlernado. 

I narrowed my search specifically to things I could do indoors, because when we’re outside she’s usually plenty happy to chase imaginary butterflies or go wherever else the weird wind blows her.

Now, I have a rather severe addiction to lists, so I literally compiled all my research into a massive list of indoor activities for toddlers that lists out all the things I can possibly do to entertain my kids. It’s categorized and color-coded (like all good things are) and hanging on my fridge in case I ever run out of ideas.

Take a look for yourself (you can download it here). I seriously can’t count the number of times it’s been the difference between a good day and a total mommy meltdown.

4. Be Careful What You Make Fun

I learned this one the hard way.

It was a normal Tuesday. I was changing the bedsheets and we had an extra sheet laying out on the floor, so I put my toddler in it like a hammock and swung her with one end in each hand. She giggled like mad. 

I felt like an awesome, spontaneous (for a change) mom. Whimsical music played in the background. No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong.

Cut to five minutes later when my arms are exhausted from swinging her over and over again. My Fitbit’s heart rate sensor is beeping at me like I’m running a marathon or having a heart attack. 

The toddlernado is now screaming bloody murder because she doesn’t understand why Mommy Noodlearms can’t keep playing our fun new game.

I had fallen into one of the age-old traps: I made a fun game I [physically] couldn’t play over and over again.

This is a humorous example (in retrospect), but the problem of making the wrong things fun is especially potent with an active toddler.

A lot of raucous games, loud or dangerous behavior, or other things our active toddlers do is incredibly fun (or funny) the first time they do it. 

I’ll be the first one to admit how hard it is not to laugh when your barely-one-year-old clocks you in the jaw with a perfect right hook and a spot-on Mike Tyson facial impression.

You’re kind of proud of how ridiculously strong and precocious they are but you’re also not sure if you’re bleeding, so you can’t help but let out a giggle out of sheer surprise.

Wrong move, mamma. Guess what their new favorite game is now?

If you accidentally make bad behavior fun, you could be reinforcing it for the long term (Just ask Pavlov.).

Toddlers will repeatedly perform behaviors that get a fun reaction from us. 

Unfortunately, the spectrum of “fun” reactions doesn’t just include laughing and praise…it also includes shouting (Yay, loud noises by mom!), angry hand waving (Hey, cool gestures!), and getting put in time out (Wow, one on one time with mom!  Nice!).

If you really want to make a behavior disappear, the best response is an aloof, disdainful look of disapproval and a subtle redirection into better behavior.

5.  Seek Out a Productive Activity

Even though my little one is three, I’m just learning how to really use this one.

Toddlers are in that magic zone where they are old enough to be capable of helping out, but young enough to still think it’s fun to do so.

You might get eye rolls or tacit resistance if you ask a tween to help you sort and fold the laundry. Being asked to help mom with one of her “big person” tasks will make a toddler’s day.

I’ve started compiling a list of tasks my toddler can successfully do by herself and it’s shockingly long. So far, she can:

  • Put away non-breakable dishes from the dishwasher (at least the ones in the lower cabinets…she has a shockingly good memory for where stuff “lives” in our kitchen)
  • Grab dirty laundry from Dad’s closet floor or big sister’s laundry hamper and sort it into the correct bin (darks vs. whites)
  • Sort clean laundry based on whose clothes they are (sister’s pile, mommy’s pile, my pile, etc.)
  • Find dog drool on the wall and wipe it off with a wet rag (we have a Great Dane…he drools…a lot…)
  • Windexing mirrors (with supervision, as this one involves chemicals, but it’s her absolute favorite “game” so I can’t say no…)
  • Cleaning up spills with a rag and spray bottle of water
  • Grabbing things I need (a water bottle or book) that are across the room

I always joke about how she causes more disaster than good when she tries to “help,” which is sometimes true, but I’m actually quite shocked by how actually helpful she is becoming.

By giving her real tasks with real value, I’ve watched her not only embrace her role as a helpful member of the family, but I’ve seen her grow way more capable as to what she can actually do.

Try it out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

6. Vitamin D, Baby

I had been a mom for a shameful amount of time before I finally figured out that on days when I went for my morning run, my toddlernado’s nap almost doubled in length. 

It wasn’t that she was getting extra exercise (she was in the stroller the whole time), but the extra sunshine did magical things for her ability to nap.

Now, for those of you who aren’t parents, naps are a sugar-dipped, majestic, unicorn-like gifts from the gods. 

It’s not that we don’t love our kids, it’s that (since we became moms) we now have to cram 24 hours worth of “adult tasks” into whatever period of time our kids deign to be unconscious.

Seriously, talk to any mom and if you ask her how long a task will take her, she will most likely answer using “naptimes” as a unit of measurement.  It no longer takes 3 hours to pay the bills, it takes 2.35 naps.

Therefore, if getting your kid a few rays of sunshine turns a 1-hour nap into a 2-hour nap, you can get more done, they’ll wake up happier and more rested, and then you both get to approach the rest of the day with a better attitude.

When in doubt, take them outside.

7. Find What Works for Your Kid

At the end of the day, every kid has got their own special wiring.

Just like you were the only one that could tell that “wamooo” meant “I want more orange juice,” you’ll have the inside scoop at how to harness your child’s particular breed of chaotic energy.

Take note of the days that go particularly well. 

What was it that worked? What activities are the most likely to be met with riotous giggles? Which things does your little tornado request to do over and over again?

There’s probably some common ground between the activities they like best. 

Once you start noticing what their preferences are, you can find more activities like the ones they like.

Pretty soon, instead of wrangling a squirming toddler into things they don’t really enjoy, you can have a full menu of activities they can’t wait to do.

Once you’re at this point, your days will get less hectic and frustrating (for both of you) and you can start actually enjoying your momming time.

Liz is a wife, mom, blogger, coder/unabashed digital nerd, PhD student/huge psychology geek, workout masochist, and occasional human being.

She founded The Stay Sane Mom after marrying into the role of 'stepmom' to a preteen and shortly thereafter having her first bio kid. Her goal is to provide tools and support to help other capable, sleep-deprived, soul-hungry moms master their domains so they have the time and energy to be more than just 'mom'.

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