What is a sensory bin?
Think back to your favorite preschool memories; you were probably playing with something messy, gooey, and utterly creative. Look at your children now at their most cherished play activities. It usually uses all or almost all of their senses at the same time. Young children benefit from using multiple senses while playing. They do it naturally, so combining different sights, sounds, smells, and textures in containers for your child to play with is great for their development. To build a sensory bin, try using different size containers, materials, and tools for your child’s play. Please see the examples below for more detailed information and examples.
I included links below for some materials I have found helpful when building sensory bins at home. I’m an Amazon Associate and earn from qualifying purchases from the amazon links on this site.
Different Sensory Bin Containers & Tables
You can use small plastic shoe containers, large clear plastic storage bins, or even metal tins for sensory play. When deciding which vessel to use, think about how deep you need the container to be based on the materials you will include.
For sensory play with water, I like to use a shoebox-size container and make one bin for each child instead of one LARGE bin. When we do use a large compartment of water, I prefer to let them play outside, so we don’t have to worry about the giant waves of creativity that occur.
For materials like rice or sand, I found the metal round tin to be the easiest for setting up, play, and clean up. I bought my tin at Target for $10. We also use various size IKEA containers because of how high the sides are, and the lids make it easy to keep the sensory bin ready for multiple days of play with the same materials. We kept our fake snow in a container for over a month and then repurposed it for Valentine’s Day by adding pink food coloring and a little more shaving cream.
Then there is the beloved and often photographed IKEA FLISAT table that I’m sure you have seen on Instagram and Pinterest. When I saw this table in person, I thought it was too small. So a few years ago I bought the MAMMUT table instead. We have used this table outside and inside everyday. But this year we bought the IKEA LACK large coffee table. It’s my favorite purchase! We have that table in the middle of the playroom and use it for storing the sensory materials below and for almost ALL our activities throughout the day. The table is large enough for all the mess the children make to stay on the table. The height is great for the kids to stand and play or kneel while they play. They sometimes bring the chairs from the MAMMUT series to the LACK table to sit while crafting.
Our local IKEA has been sold out of the FLISAT table for months now. But this incredible children’s table is finally back in stock, so I’ll update this post after our table arrives next week. But no matter what table and type of container you use, your children will LOVE getting to play and get messy using their senses!
Sensory Bin Fillers
There are endless possibilities with making, buying, and creating materials to use as the sensory bin base. My favorite is colored rice. My children’s favorite is water with foam paint added. Try various materials with your child and don’t be afraid to layer materials and let them feel the differences in textures. I recommend going through the grocery store’s dried beans section for even more varieties than listed below. I use about 16 oz of filler for the sensory tray. I like to hold these materials in jars for easy assess, but I use to use zip-lock bags that work well too.
- Water (Soap, foam paint add extra fun to this material)
- Kinetic sand
- Water beads
- Play-doh (My kids love the smell of the dough from Young Wild & Friedman)
- Slime (We love the set from Lakeshore Learning)
- Butter Slime (We are excited to try this next!)
Sensory Play Materials to Layer
Think of the sensory bin as possible layers for exploration. I like to hide elements before I add the filler to the crate. Then extra materials are added to the top of the bin. Lately, I use smaller containers and a tool bin to hold additional materials for play. I stagger giving children these extra materials as they play. Great places to find treasures for these smaller items include Dollar Tree, and Target.
- Magnetic chips
- Counting items (for example, counting bears)
- Wooden toys (For example, peg people)
- Pom poms
- Wooden letters
- Magnetic letters
- ABC letter beads
- Animal figurines (Ocean unit Figurines)
- Foam shapes
- Mini erasers
- Pipe cleaners
- Math manipulatives (links, unified cubes, etc.)
- Gel-filled injury ice packs (Dollar tree had heart-shaped ones this month)
Hidden Elements For Sensory Play
To add extra excitement to the sensory play, try hiding small items under the filler in the bin. I like to include 20+ magnetic things for a simple math counting practice activity as a game. I use paper clips and magnetic bingo chips.
Tools for Sensory Play
Including simple science tools for your child to use for their sensory play allows them to learn and play simultaneously. Here are some essential tools that are fun for your child to use. Etsy has great shops for wooden tools as well. Companies like Learning Resources and Lakeshore Learning also have beginning kits for your young explorer. Try a variety of sizes for the devices as well. Using these tools is excellent for developing fine motor skills for your child.
- Scoops & spoons
- Wooden bins, containers
- Silicone cupcake cups
- Magnetic wands
- Balance beam
- Cups or jars
- Letter/word cards (try writing these on index cards or sticky notes)
- Measuring cups & spoons
- Mini plates, serving ware (We are going to try these next)
- Eye droppers
- Collider/ sifter
How to Store Sensory Play Materials
If your container you use for sensory play has a lid, your clean up will be as simple as cleaning the tools and put away your bin. But I have found that using cylinder tubes works best for my closet to store the containers’ filler materials. Zip-lock bags are also an incredible way to keep a larger quantity of materials. Silicone reusable pouches, Tupperware you already have may also be a good option for you. I have reorganized the playroom closet countless times. I found the best bins were from IKEA KUGGIS series. We bought all different sizes, and the smallest ones are ideal for math manipulatives and filler materials. Sometimes clean-up time is short, and the closet becomes a disaster! Seeing the excitement and joy on your child’s face, knowing that they are learning and developing critical skills through play, makes the extra time you might have to spend later reorganizing worth it.
Connect Sensory Play to Literacy Learning
Plan a sensory bin around a picture book your child enjoys reading. You can add animal figurines like the characters in the story or make a scene from the book to retell the story with materials that relate to the reader.
Use wooden letters or magnetic letters to add a word/letter search while they play. Make notecards with words your child is learning and find letters in the bin to spell out the card’s name or sight words.
For more detailed examples of sensory activities please see my article for Audrey Wood books and Ocean Books & Activities.
Connect Sensory Play to Math Skills
Your child will love counting, sorting, categorizing, adding, subtracting, and making patterns using sensory bin finds. I don’t even initiate counting any longer with my daughter; she now naturally grabs containers and wants to sort materials and count them out. For added math focus, try using ice cube tray, small divider trays, or base ten chart for focus skill play. For example, your child can find all the mini erasers and sort them on the base ten chart. Then you can help them practice adding and subtracting with their materials. I recommend laminating any charts you use for durability.
Connect Sensory Play to Science Exploration
To help your child practice science skills:
- Pause and talk about your little one’s observations while they play.
- For added reinforcement of this skill, let your child draw or write down comments in a journal. If your child is too little to respond, you can always model your observations for them.
- Try having them make connections from their current activity to the one they did earlier or the day before to find similarities and differences in the materials and how they played with the materials.
Pre-K vs. Toddler Sensory Bin
Try making a toddler-friendly bin with oversized items that would not be hazardous for their fast moving hands. Examples of more toddler friendly play would be using playdough, large animal figurines, texture playdough tools, and colored pipe cleaners. We love the Mix & Match Sensory spheres and Tutti Frutti dough from Lakeshore Learning! Watch for smaller items that can become choking hazards for your younger toddlers who want to play with their preschool sibling. I keep all the smaller materials in sensory bins away from my toddler. Try using your toddler’s nap time, earlier bedtime, for sensory play with smaller items.
Set Up Sensory Play Activities
Setting up for your sensory play might take a few minutes, and other days it will take longer depending on any extra elements added. I set up the sensory play after kids go to bed. Then I have time to lay everything we will need out on the table. The more organized your materials are, the faster your set up and clean up will be, which is easier said than done though! Little hands are great for reorganizing too. We use a spider colander to separate items and then clean them off quickly. I like to also always have baby wipes, magic erasers, and microfiber towels on the counter ready for fast clean-up before we start to play.
Start by thinking of your goal for the sensory play for the day. Then start gathering materials to layer into your container. I plan out the hidden elements first, then the filler material. Add extra textures, smell, and pieces to the top layer. For additional items, try letters, figurines, or mini erasers. Lastly, set up the tools that would be best for the bin you made. Before your kids start to enjoy, check for are any books, math, or science skills that might relate to your activity that you already have materials for around the house.
Hopefully you found some helpful insights about sensory play for your little one. Please see other ideas your child might enjoy playing with in my previous posts.
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