Sensory bins are a wonderful activity for young children of all ages — from mobile babies to elementary school kids. They allow children to explore interesting textures and materials, use new language to describe and label their play and develop fine motor skills. It also gives them a chance to experiment with simple science and math concepts like counting, sorting and how different materials behave (does water pour differently than rice?).
While Pinterest has lots of ideas for elaborate sensory bins, they can seem a bit intimidating and make you think “Who has the time to dye rice 12 different colors and make Jell-o molds?” But fear not! Sensory bins do NOT have to be complicated. In fact, some of the most simple bins have been the most engaging for children.
Step 1: Pick your bin. To put your bin together, you’re going to need to first choose your container. Of course standing sensory tables are great, but we don’t all have access to those (and they can be a lot to set up and put away). Personally, I like using just a plastic shoe bin. That way you can put the lid on when you’re done and then use it again and again. I have three bins currently that we rotate through. But I’ve also used a big pot in the kitchen. Basically, any large container works.
Step 2: Pick your base. If you’re creating a bin for a very young child that is still inclined to put everything in their mouth, you’re going to want to use something edible. My favorites are oatmeal, dry rice, cornmeal, or water. These bases are great for older children as well but you could also use sand, dried beans, gravel (like the kind you get for fish tanks), water beads, dried pasta, etc.
Once you have your base, choose some objects to put inside. I really love using a variety of scooping tools—spoons, measuring cups, tongs, bowls, etc. It’s especially great for little ones that are still working on these skills. I also love cheap party favors like little plastic animals — it can be great fun to hide the animals and see if you can find them. Or if you add in some blocks, you can make little homes for the animals. You can also use your beach toys from the summer—water wheels work great for the sensory table as do buckets and shovels.
You don’t even necessarily have to go buy anything. Chances are there is something around your house that will work — I’ve used lots of different kitchen utensils/cups, bath toys, wooden puzzle pieces, LEGOS, etc. Get creative! Even if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, I’m sure your child will find a creative way to interact with it.
And to save yourself a little bit of mess, put out a big sheet underneath so you can easily pick it up and shake it out outside afterwards. Because nothing ruins sensory table fun like being stressed out about the mess.
Meaghan Penrod has her BA and M.S. in child development and works in Connecticut doing developmental therapy for young children.