What is sensory play?
Sensory play is play that engages or stimulates the senses - touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Sensory play supports cognitive development in early childhood with physical, language, creativity, emotional, social, and mathematical development.
What is a sensory bin?
A sensory bin is a container that holds different materials for children to explore sensory play. Sensory bins don't need to have a theme, but themes can be a great way to continue exploring a subject or introduce a new concept. According to a report from the Official Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics, children should be allowed to have unstructured time to play and educators are also being encouraged to recognize playful learning as an important complement to didactic learning.
Have multiple children at different ages? Younger children can explore touch and sound in an open-ended way, while older children can explore sorting, counting, number and letter recognition, creating a story with the materials, and work on fine motor skills. Playing alongside one another is a great opportunity for cooperative play and can help children learn social skills as they practice how to be patient, take turns, and share.
Do I need a bin for sensory play?
No! Sensory play can happen anywhere! For example, babies are experiencing sensory play when they are introduced to their first foods. Washing hands, washing dishes, and bathtime can be sensory play. Helping in the garden, playing at the beach, and building forts in the snow can be sensory play. The opportunities are endless!
But isn't sensory play messy?
We hear you, but we think it's so worth it!
Want to contain the messy play? Place an old sheet on the ground under the tray. When play is finished, you can wash the sheet and keep your floor clean! Depending on the weather, the outdoors are a great place for sensory play, especially for those learning how to pour water or other liquids. A picnic blanket, towel, or tarp also work great for containing sensory bin materials. The bathtub is another great place to have sensory bin play!
Is your child in the pick it up and dump it out phase? Consider using a larger bin that is more difficult for them to pick up by themselves (maybe a large tote or tub? maybe a container within a container?), and provide lots of different sizes and shapes of scoops and bowls within the container for filling and dumping exploration. A small plastic kiddie pool is another great idea to contain messy play!
It's okay to have rules to set clear boundaries regarding sensory bin play. Rules might be that the contents must stay inside the bin, no throwing, and the materials always get put away when play is finished. Children are great helpers, and learning to use a broom and dustpan is great for fine motor skill development.
There are mess-free options for sensory play as well. Sensory bottles are a great alternative. Simply add rice and small objects to a clear bottle and observe the sound the rice makes as you manipulate the bottle. Sensory bags are a great sensory play idea for babies as an introduction to color mixing and different textures. Simply add different colored liquid materials (try shaving cream + paint, or oil, water, + food coloring!) to a ziploc bag and tape to the floor (pro-tip: tape the bag closed, all the edges of the bag, AND tape it to the floor). This is great for tummy time!
Keep in mind the age of your child for choosing which objects to place in your bin. If your child is in the stage of life where they explore the world by tasting or mouthing objects, make sure to stick to taste-safe recipes, supervise play (or even better, play alongside!), and monitor the size and shape of objects to prevent choking hazards. As a friendly reminder, always make sure to check the ingredients of sensory bin materials to make sure they are non-toxic and safe for play.
Many recipes for sensory play contain food coloring. If this is a concern, consider using natural dyes as an alternative coloring agent. Beet powder, turmeric powder, freeze dried strawberries, various teas, spinach, cinnamon, cocoa powder, hibiscus, and purple cabbage are all vibrant edible options to add some color to sensory play recipes. There are also conventional natural food coloring sets available on the market.
Questions to further sensory play...?
Sensory bins present an opportunity for independent play. New to independent play? Sometimes the best way to encourage the growth of independent child-led open-ended play is to just be present and observe. After observing, you might be surprised and learn something new about your child! Some children may crave more direction to get started - and that is okay, too! Maybe you can try modeling play by scooping and pouring alongside them. If you notice that your child doesn't want to get messy, that is okay, too! If they are experiencing a tactile aversion to something, don't be afraid to take it slow and don't force them to touch anything they don't want to. You know your child best! At GRCM, we love to ask open-ended questions to let the child take the lead in play. Here are some ideas to get you started!
• How many ______ do you see? Can you count them?
• Can you sort them by color?
• Eye spy ______.
• What does that look like? Have you seen anything that looks like this before? Tell me about it! How would you describe it to someone who hasn't seen it before? How would you draw a picture of this?
• What does that smell like to you? What does that scent remind you of? Where would you smell that smell? Does it remind you of a place you have been before? How would you describe it to someone who has never smelled it before?
• What does that feel like? Have you ever felt anything like that before? Is it the same as___ ? Or different than ___? Tell me how you would describe the texture? Is it ___ or ___? What does it feel similar to? On a scale of 1-10, would you like to feel that again? What did you like about it? Didn't like?
• The ingredients to make this are ___. Do you think that would be safe to eat? What do you imagine that to taste like?
• What does that sound like to you? How could we make it louder? More quiet? Have you heard anything like that before?
• What other tools could we use to explore this?
• What could we build with this?
• How could we make this more fun?
• Do you know anyone who would like to explore this material with you? Do you know anyone who would dislike this?
• What is your favorite part of this material? Your least favorite?
big list of ideas
What should you put in a sensory bin? Here's a big list of some ideas to get you started.
A Bar of Soap with water
Balloons (filled with sand, rice, beans, or liquid)
Boba / Tapioca Pearls
Bowls for sorting / pouring
Chia Seeds (soaked in water)
Citrus Slices & Water
Cooked Rainbow Spaghetti
Fake spider webs
Natural objects collected from the outdoors
Nuts & Bolts
Paperclips (great for learning about magnets!)
Plastic bottle tops
Pool noodle segments
Small rubber or plastic toys
Wood - cut into small sections or discs
big list of tools
What should you use to play with a sensory bin? Here's a big list of some ideas to get you started.
Brushes - paintbrushes, pastry brushes,
Droppers (turkey basters work great!)
Ice Cream Scoop
Ice cube trays or egg cartons
Small scrub brushes
Small strainers / colanders
Tweezers or tongs
big gallery of ideas
how to videos
sensory play resources
We love reading about the power of play and its incredible impact of cognitive development! Below we've listed some reading resources. Dive in!
Read The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children from The Official Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics here.
Read more about the power of play and its affect on cognitive development in this study by The Minnesota Children's Museum
Check out this MSU extension article about Cognitive development and sensory play
Read more about the benefits of messy play by The Early Childhood Development Association