Sensory Play: A Primer for Parents

A beach-themed sensory bin with tiny sandcastle molds!
A beach-themed sensory bin with tiny sandcastle molds for my three year old students

If you have small children and spend time browsing Pinterest for activities for said children, you’ve probably heard the term Sensory Play before, and may have wondered what it is, why it matters, and how to set it up at home. Fortunately, all these questions have fairly easy answers:

  1. What is sensory play? Sensory play is an activity focused on engaging children using one or more of their five senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, or hearing.
  2. Why does it matter? As parents are well aware, children learn through exploration. All children, but young children especially, are active learners. They learn though doing, observing, and trying things out. Sensory play sends new information to their brain as they learn to categorize and understand the world around them. Equally importantly, it allows them chances to use language in new ways as they talk about their experiences. This article, from PBS, does a great job of explaining the many benefits of sensory play.
  3. How can I set up sensory activities at home? It’s actually really easy and fun to set up sensory explorations for your child at home, often using things you already have around the house. Young children crave this kind of play, as you may notice as your toddler dumps out water, dry pasta, flour, etc, often to the dismay of his or her parents. Sensory exploration provides a productive, controlled outlet for this, and channels that need into a less destructive direction.

Below are some tips for delving into the world of sensory explorations with your toddlers. Of course, use your own judgement about which materials are safe for your individual child; avoid small objects for babies and toddlers for still put things in their mouths, for example. If you have a favorite sensory exploration with your child, I’d love to hear about it!

Shaving Cream Drawing

Cover a lunch tray or cookie sheet in shaving cream. With younger toddlers, encourage exploration of the material: how does it feel, smell, look? Can you hold it in your hands? Scrape it away to find the tray? With older toddlers, you can practice fine motor control with pointer finger, tracing name, shapes, making a person, etc.

Baking Soda and Vinegar Trays

Fill the well in the center of a chip and dip tray with baking soda. Fill the outer wells with vinegar, tinting each a different color using food coloring. Provide an old medicine dropper, and show your child how to move the vinegar from the wells to the baking soda. Watch the chemical reaction as the liquid fizzes and the colors mix. What colors do you see? How did you make new colors? What is happening to the liquid? What do you hear? Smell?

Color Sort Sensory Bin

Fill an under-bed storage bin with an assortment of rainbow objects. Favorites include legos, pom poms, paper strips, blocks, trains, tiny cars, crayons, plastic cutlery, kitchen supplies (measuring cups, spatulas, etc), socks, anything that is a single color. Lay out Red/Orange/Yellow/Green/Blue/Purple construction papers, and tape them to the floor or table. Sort the bin by matching item color to paper color. Talk about colors as you sort items, and encourage your child to talk about the textures they feel, as well. Which objects are hard? Which are soft? Which are squishy?

Cornstarch Slime

Mix cornstarch with water (about 1 cup of water to 1.5 cups cornstarch, but adjust as needed) using a spoon or your hands. This kind of “slime” is often called “Oobleck” after a Dr. Seuss book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck. It’s a liquid if you approach it slowly and a solid if you approach it quickly. Kids love to drip it off spoons from above a large mixing bowl, hold it in their hands, and try to mix it with spoons and popsicle sticks. A fun extension of this activity is to tint the water with food coloring before adding it to the cornstarch to make colored oobleck.

Play-dough Sculpture Station

Put a large ball of play-dough on a tray or cookie sheet for sculpting, and set up an “accessories” tray. Objects you include can be themed (for example, items from nature, holiday items, single colored items for color recognition practice, etc) or simple fun things to add to the play dough to create a sculpture. Favorites include plastic straws, Lego people, fake flowers, beads, large buttons, small toy cars, sequins, and pipe cleaners.

Rice Bin “Eye-Spy”

Rice bins are endless fun for toddlers. I find that large, under-bed storage bins work really well for playing with rice bins and easily storing them after, out of sight and covered. You can fill them with plain, bulk rice, which you can tint by adding a small amount of liquid watercolor (and letting it dry overnight), although it’s just as fun when left naturally colored. Hide items for your child to “find” in the rice bin. Any small items will work, of course, but this can also be a fun letter and phonics project: hide letter magnets and items that match that letter sound, and hunt for pairs, such as a letter “B” and a small ball, or a letter T and a small toy truck. Younger children will love finding any objects and telling you what they found, or simply scooping the rice and watching it fall between their fingers.

Water Bin

Water play is a favorite with almost every toddler I’ve met. Interestingly, there’s a strong correlation between wanting to fill and empty containers and potty training readiness– all the more reason to encourage this exploration! Water bins are easy to set up and provide lots of fun. Fill an under-bed storage bin with about two inches of water. You can tint it with food coloring or liquid water color, and/or add some soap bubbles. Provide scoops, funnels, cups, plastic bottles, squeeze bottles, etc and encourage your child to explore away! Setting out some larger beach towels around the bin will cut down on spills and slips. Be sure to always supervise your child around a water sensory bin, just as you would in the bath tub.

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