Sensory play is a blanket term that theoretically covers any type of play that engages a child’s senses. When you think about it, though, it’s not like there are toys out there that absolutely engage no senses whatsoever, so I think of sensory play mainly as toys that introduce unusual touch, smell, and sound experiences.
Sensory bins and sensory tables are popular at preschool programs, but they’re also very easy to put together at home. Granted, they can get a little messy but over time your kids will learn how to play with them without getting muck all over your home and, if nothing else, it’s a good introduction to using the broom and dustpan.
I’ve seen sensory bins go two different ways. Some people use large tables that have bins in them to have a permanent sensory experience out in the house. That’s what we have right now, although I opted for a water table from Step 2 instead of making my own. We have it full of rice, beans, and different tools the kids can use to scoop and pour. In a few months, after their interest has dulled, we’ll put something else in the table like dried oatmeal or split peas.
If you’re more ambitious or simply more organized than I am, you can swap out sensory experiences more often by using a plastic bin and keeping different sensory items in plastic bags. This way, you can just pour the bag into the bin, let your kids play for a while, and then pour everything back into the bag to clean up. I have a friend who keeps a bin packed with plastic bags full of oatmeal, rice, beans, cloud dough, cornstarch, and other items like that so her kids never know what they’re going to get. She also uses water beads, which we experimented with, but since they’re a choking hazard and Calvin is still on the young side we don’t use those.
The perk of using the bin method is that she can also use short term materials without worrying about them sitting around the house for too long, like spaghetti or shaving cream.
Ideas for sensory experiences: dry rice, dried beans, dried peas, cornstarch + water, water beads, cooked pasta, cooked rice, cloud dough, kinetic sand, dried oatmeal, dry cereal, birdseed (but not if you have an allergy kid like Eva), small puff balls, ping pong balls, Jello, snow, shaving cream, instant mashed potatoes.
Ten sensory experiences you can do beyond just setting the bin out:
1 /// Provide disposable plates, bowls, and utensils and challenge them to “serve lunch” using their sensory material. Just be sure that they’re clear on the fact that it’s a pretend meal!
2 /// Hide a plastic alphabet in the muck and challenge them to find all the letters.
3 /// Give them toy cars and tell them to make roads, parking lots, and a race track.
4 /// Give them small dolls or animals and ask them to make everyone a home.
5 /// Add foam blocks and see how they can incorporate the sensory material when making buildings.
6 /// Offer paintbrushes and colored paper and see what kind of patterns they can make using the sensory materials (fingerpainting works too!).
7 /// Pull the measuring cups and spoons out of the kitchen and talk about the different measurements.
8 /// Add empty cardboard boxes and toilet paper tubes as tools and try to make a tower.
9 /// Use paper and white glue to make patterns when playing with dried materials.
10 /// Make a list of descriptive words about the sensory material, like “sticky”, “wet”, “hard”, or “fuzzy”.