Toddler Activity Center DIY!

So, you know when you’re a parent and you have a baby/kid need but you keep putting it off because all the options out there are ugly and you don’t want to have to look at them every day? I know not every parents cares about that (e.g. my husband!), but my brain definitely does and that’s one reason I like to make as many custom baby things as I can (besides it just being fun!). Todd watches Lola at home while I work and we realized that we could definitely use an activity center-type toy to keep her busy during certain times of the day while we cooked or folded laundry nearby. But I just couldn’t find any that fit in with our decor and color scheme, so I decided to make my own! Lola has seen and played with a few different activity centers before at other houses and whatnot, so I kept an eye on what types of things she likes to do and added those elements into one for her (along with some new items, too!). Depending on the age and interests of your toddler, you can tweak yours however you like, but this is what I added to hers!

General Supplies:
-12” x 3/4″ board cut into four 15” long pieces for the sides
large round wooden circle (I got a baltic birch plywood 19″ x 3/4″ circle)
-drill and drill bits
-wood glue
-nails and a hammer

Supplies for door and latch side:
-various door latches and hinges (check the hardware section of a Home Depot-type store)
-3-4 squares of wood about 3″ wide and about 1/2″ thick (these would work great)
thin elastic cord
-patches or stickers to decorate doors
-sandpaper

Supplies for magnetic board side:
-magnetic dry erase board (I used this one)
felt and matching embroidery thread
small magnets
-cotton stuffing or batting

Supplies for abacus side:
1″ wooden beads
1/8” brass tube (x5) and tube cutter
non-toxic paints (check your local craft store or get some sample colors from this company)
-1 1/2″ x 3/4″ trim board for abacus frame

Supplies for spinner side:
-wooden shapes for spinners (I used these and these flowers)
-machine screws and corresponding sized bolts and washers (a 3/16″ x 1 1/2″ long screw should be a good size)

Supplies for top:
-small bead maze (I used this one but this and this are also cute)
-wooden pull-apart shape toy (I got this rainbow unpainted and painted it myself with non-toxic paint)
small wooden animals that are about 1″ thick
food-grade mineral oil
spring doorstops

To make your base, stand up your four 15” tall sides to make a tall rectangle and wood glue and nail the sides together. Sand any rough or sharp edges to soften and paint the base your desired color.

Steps for the door and latch side: Buy a few squares of wood that are 3-4” wide (or cut some to size yourself) and use your drill bit to drill a small hole all the way through one side of the wood about ¼” from the edge. If your drill bit isn’t long enough to go all the way through, measure and mark a hole the same distance from the edge on the top and bottom and drill from both sides to make a hole the whole way through. Place your doors and your desired latches and hinges on the designated side of your activity center where you want them to go and install the hardware in place.

Then using a small drill bit, drill a hole into your wood panel right above and below where the holes for your doors will sit, and thread a long piece of elastic cord from the back, through the wood, and back into the center of the cube. Tie the cord so the elastic is tight enough that the door will open easily and snap back into place when closed (I repainted the doors for a different look after these photos).You can decorate the outside and inside of your doors with stickers or patches (I used a glue gun to attach flower patches on the outside of the doors) to give baby something to see when they open the doors!

Steps for the magnetic board side: Attach your board with glue or whatever adhesive pads your board may have come with to the cube. Fold your felt in half and cut out shapes or letters from your felt so you have two matching sides and stitch around the edge stuffing with cotton batting and 2-3 small magnets spread throughout so the 3D felt letter/shape will stick to the board. I would recommend securing the magnets inside the felt letter rather than gluing them on the outside so they don’t come off and become a choking hazard. You can also buy a set of whatever kind of magnets you want to use as well! They do make a lot of play magnets that kids can use on the fridge, but I liked that I could make hers with custom colors if I went the felt route!

Steps for the spinner side: Take your wooden shapes and glue 2-3 of them together if your wood shapes are really thin to make them sturdier. Paint the shapes your desired colors (I punched out glitter centers and used ModPodge to adhere them to the fronts with another coat on top to seal it). Place your shapes onto the cube, making sure they all have enough room to spin and drill a hole into each shape and through the cube as well. Place a washer onto your machine screw, then put on your wooden shape, and add a nut to the other side of the shape like above. Place that into your hole in your cube and add another nut onto the other side to secure. Tighten the two nuts toward each other but leave a little room so that the shape can spin freely.So sweet and they spin really well!

Steps to make the abacus side: Cut 2 boards from your trim that are 7 1/2″ long and 2 that are 11 1/2″ long. Place your longer pieces on the outside of your shorter boards to make a rectangle and mark 5 evenly spaced holes on the long sides of where to drill for your metal rods. You can see that I cut my boards at a 45° angle to make them fit together like a picture frame, but if you don’t have a miter saw and are using a jig saw or a hand saw, you don’t have to do that part. Use a 1/4″ drill bit to drill 1/2″ into each hole (you can wrap some tape 1/2″ up on your drill bit so you know how far to go in). Use the pipe cutter and cut your 5 rods 8 1/2″ long. Paint your beads your desired colors (you can put them on straws to handle them more easily and I used my bottle drying rack to set them on while they dried) and your 4 frame boards white. Place your beads onto the rods, slip the rods into the holes you drilled, and use wood glue and nails to attach your frame together. Wood glue usually bonds best when it’s bare wood touching bare wood, so I painted the inside area of the abacus first, glued the abacus on, and then painted around the outside to complete that side.I love all the different colors on this side—so pretty! You can also buy your own mini one to save time or mount one on top instead.

Steps to make the top side: For the top, I didn’t want to use a polyurethane since it’s a part of the toy that baby would be touching a lot. So I did a coat of food-grade mineral oil (it prevents the growth of bacteria) instead and let it dry. Then I used wood glue to glue the top to the bottom cube and glued on the bead maze and the cloud bases of the rainbows. To make the springy animals, I drilled holes into the bottom of three wooden animals the width of the end of a doorstop spring (I took the white rubber top off first), drilled small holes where I wanted to mount them on the circle and screwed the bases into place. Then I used some super glue to secure the animals on top of the springs and they were ready to bounce around!The little animals “boing” faster and the big ones go slower, but both are fun to play with!

This. Kills. Me!! Not only is it sooo much cuter than all the other ones I’d been looking at (IMHO), but it’s totally functional and you can customize the activities to whatever your toddler is into now or you can add a few things for later for them to grow to like. It’s fun to watch them use things differently than you thought they would, like she loves to spin the beads on the abacus more than move to them from side to side, but that’s all fine as long as she is having fun.

And as a note of caution with pretty much all kid toys, I would let them play with this under adult supervision only just to be safe. Lola is able to pull herself up to standing on this without it tipping over, but even with all the other activity cubes I’ve seen, I think a kid could pull it over if they were really determined to, so you want to keep an eye on them for safe play. And since this is not meant to be a teething toy, I went with paints that were non-toxic but not fully food-grade (food-grade paints are meant to be put in the mouth like on teethers), so if your kiddo is still in the phase where they have to taste and chew on everything, I would wait a bit to use this item.

My favorite part about this so far is when Lola “boings” the wooden animals on the springs and then sways back and forth herself while she watches them sway—it’s SO cute!! Hope this inspires you to make something fun for your toddler! xo. Laura

Credits // Author and Photography: Laura Gummerman. Project Assistant: Collin DuPree. Photos edited with A Color Story Desktop.
  • Your creativity amazes me. I love the way you can take an idea and completely remake it to fit your style.

  • This is beyond perfection. I wonder how many hours it took to make it- from planning, shopping for everything, to building to finish? I know making these things is your full time job, but I wonder if this may be a bit too time consuming and complicated for a working parent. I would love to make some of the beautiful things you make but it would be better if some of the projects (this one specifically) were a little simpler, maybe using already made things.
    Another suggestion- you guys should but an overview on top of each DIY post with how much time it takes to make something and the approximate budget range. That would give me an insight right away if it’s in my wheelhouse or not. 🙂
    Xx, Marketa

    • Hi Marketa!
      Yes, this is definitely a longer project for sure with so many sides on it. We also have lots of projects that don’t take very long if you look in our kiddo section if you are limited on time. I am also a working parent (as you can see) and I also do DIYs that don’t appear on this blog so if another working parent wants to make this, or any other project really, then just do it little by little (I work on my other projects during weekend nap time or at night). And I do mention throughout the post that you can buy a lot of the items already made as well, you don’t have to make everything yourself if you don’t want to, so I would just go that route if you have less time. We do put each item into a price and time category when we write posts but that feature isn’t showing up right now with some blog updates happening so we are working on getting those back up soon! Thanks!

      Laura

  • WOW! This is so cool! So much cuter than the ones you see in stores and I love that it’s customizable!

  • I read this post this morning and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I had to come tell you how lovely it is. Our son already has an activity center, but I oh-so wish we could make him this one instead!

  • This is amazing! You are so creative – you need your own store!!! 😉

  • This is crazy amazing!! Laura always comes up with awesome DIYs that fall into the “never even considered I could make my own” category, which I love, because I am also very particular haha. Looks so fun I wanna play with it myself 🙂

  • You are amazing! I am so impressed with this (and really, every thing you make). Well Done!!

  • May I ask how much this all added up to cost wise? It’s so beautiful!

    • This one is probably in the $125 range but there were a few things (like that bead maze) where there were cheaper options out there but I was super particular about getting a certain color or whatever. So, it could be a really wide budget range depending on which items you pick as all expensive or all thrifty items will totally change the price (and you may already have some wooden animals you could use for the top, etc).

      Laura 🙂

  • Laura, this is AMAZING!!!! What a fun & special project to make for your daughter, I am so inspired!!!

  • Wow!!! So beautiful!!! I know you already have enough in your plate but man I wish someone would take note and sell something like this on Etsy.

  • I am truly in awe with what you made! I am no DIY-er myself (too afraid to mess things up) but this project is something I would love to do (might not be the best project to start with though, if I look at my current skill set ;))
    All the best!

    • Don’t ever let fear of messing up stop you! Even on this I had to redo a few things because I found a better way to do it or I measured wrong or something, so it happens! Just work through the mistakes and don’t be afraid to try!

      Laura 🙂

  • Oooohhhhmmmmyyyyggggoooooddddddd…..THANK YOU for sharing this! I know a precious little someone turning a year this coming fall and this would be the perfect gift!

  • This is brilliant! It would be a little ambitious for me to tackle I think, but it reminds me of the weeks-long search we just completed for a baby activity center that is not hideous and doesn’t take up half the space of our apartment. I found one I liked, but before my wife and I decided to buy it new, I set an alert for it in the Facebook Marketplace – and today we’re picking up a gently used one and saving $40!

  • As someone with no kids and no plans to ever have kids, this is still THE COOLEST thing. Constantly impressed by Laura’s content.

  • What kind of magnets did you use and how did you secure them inside the felt letters?

    • I just used 1/2″ round magnets and put them inside of two layers of a cut out letter (along with some cotton stuffing) and sewed all around the edge so the magnet is inside. Look at that photo in the steps and you’ll see what I mean 🙂

      Laura

  • WOW!!! So much work and love put into this. And it really looks fantastic. Really really great job, Laura!
    Much love
    Eva

  • I am so obsessed with this. I am working on recreating it for my daughter for her first birthday. Can I ask did you use something specific to trace the letter? My handwriting is horrible and I will definitely need to trace something!!

  • Super cute! I would just worry that the spring animals would pinch those little fingers. I’ve seen several kids get hurt from trying to play with those springy door stops.

  • Hi Laura, can you pls advise what brand the paint is that you have used here? Loving the colours.
    Thanks a lot!

  • I absolutely love this and am hoping to make some something similar for my daughter and niece.
    What wood did you use? Did you use a primer before painting?

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