Children use all of their senses to explore, learn boundaries, and find out how their bodies move. Touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste are how we perceive the world, form memories, and build new skills. From infancy to toddler years and beyond, how we learn is rooted in how we played as a child. Help your child form a strong foundation of understanding through sensory play.

Caregivers are always looking for something to keep little hands busy. This is especially true right now as we are stuck inside for winter and quarantine.

Sensory Play Benefits

vector illustration of different sensory toys and motor skills tools for brain and thinking development

Sensory play helps babies and toddlers develop fine motor skills and build a foundation for activities of daily living (like tying shoes and buttoning buttons). It also introduces pretend play, experimentation, and math concepts.

Sensory play doesn't have to be super involved or expensive. You probably already have everything needed. Obstacle courses, scavenger hunts, DIY sensory bins, and sensory bottles all have benefits for kids and are easy and typically cheap to make. Read ahead for our favorite sensory experiences for babies, toddlers, kindergarten kids, and beyond.

Disclaimer: Always supervise children, especially infants and toddlers while engaging in sensory play. Babies explore toys by putting them into their mouths, so only allow safe edible items for your infant to explore.

At What Age Should My Baby Start Sensory Play?

Close up shot of a little boy in a mother and baby sensory play group. They are playing with a textured fabric sheet.

From birth, babies use their senses to understand the world around them. Helping a baby engage in sensory play doesn't have to be complicated. Around six months of age, you can help your baby explore different textures and explain the differences. Sing to them, gently dance with them, expose them to different smells. Allow them to touch different textures: soft (think feather boa), bumpy (balls with texture), fuzzy, scaly, smooth, velvety.

Sensory Bins

Sensory box with rainbow rice inside. Children's hands touch the texture and pour. Tool for sorting tongs and spoon. Montessori material baby

Entertaining sensory bins can be customized to fit any age, from 12 months to kindergarten and older. Lay a sheet or towel down underneath the bins to make for easy (easier?) cleanup. It's a good idea to keep the dust buster handy too.

Babies

Materials for bins: Fill containers with crumpled up colored construction paper, ribbons, and shapes made from felt. Let baby explore, rip up and crumple up paper. Watch baby closely, because they will put things in their mouths!

Senses involved: Touch, sight

Pros: Baby will learn how to manipulate different types of materials and will begin to connect words with objects. As you chat to your baby about the different types textures and the ways they feel, your baby may start to prefer different types of materials.

Toddlers

Materials for bin: Rainbow rice, measuring cups, wooden spoon

Senses involved: Sight, touch, smell, hearing

Pros: This pretty bin gives toddlers an introduction to everyday activities like learning to pour and mix. Letting them explore the texture of the rice, mixing up the different colors, pouring the rice into different containers, and using spoons and measuring cups will likely keep them entertained for a while.

Kindergarten

Materials for bin: Discarded pieces of wrapping paper, safety scissors, tape, small toys to wrap

Senses involved: Touch, sight, hearing

Pros: Kindergarteners and older kids can practice new skills like using scissors, measuring wrapping paper, folding paper, etc. Busy Toddler has a slew of other great sensory ideas too!

Outdoor Play

sensory garden

Infants

Materials needed: Tupperware with a small amount of water and stacking cups

Senses involved: Sight, touch, hearing

Pros: During the warmer months, water play is a fun way to cool off and let baby have new experiences. If baby isn't sitting up yet, put her in a Bumbo seat and let her splash her toys around in a plastic bin with cool water. Water play helps babies develop motor skills, especially hand-eye coordination.

Toddlers

Materials needed: Bin, soap, sponges, brushes, water

Senses involved: Touch, smell, sight

Pros: A washing station is a great way to introduce chores to kiddos. Pretend play will help with their language skills, coordination, and imagination. The great part is they just think it's fun to play with bubbles and squish sponges.

Kindergarten

Materials needed: Make a nature scavenger hunt yourself (or print one), clipboards, pencils

Senses involved: Sight, smell, touch, hearing

Pros: Have your kiddo use as many senses as possible in a nature scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts help little ones develop critical thinking skills, observation skills, and other early learner readiness skills.

Edible Sensory Bins

Toddler sensory bin full of colored spaghetti noodles

Infants

Materials needed: Cornmeal or flour, figurines: dinos, princesses, insects

Senses involved: Touch, sight, smell, taste

Pros: Let your baby feel the smooth texture of cornmeal or flour. Adding toys to the mixture will add to the fun.

Toddlers

Materials needed: Bin, water, sliced oranges, orange food coloring, orange blocks, orange rings

Senses involved: Sight, smell, taste, touch

Pros: This activity will work well with several different fruits and color-scapes. Make a yellow bin with lemons, a blue bin with blueberries, a red bin with strawberries, or mix them all together for a fun rainbow bin. Imaginary play, and fine and gross motor skills, will benefit which will help foster language development during this fun activity.

Kindergarten

Materials needed: Jell-O, bin, different colored toys, spoon

Senses involved: Touch, smell, taste

Pros: Letting kiddos play with their food and experience different textures is a fun way to let them explore. Let them use a spoon or test out different silicone kitchen utensils (i.e. tongs, spatula, scraper). They will have fun exploring how the Jell-o wiggles and feels in their hands, digging out the toys, and sorting.

Sensory Bottles

Adorable Asian toddler boy playing with sensory bottle of water beads. Cute child pours a plastic bottle, pouring orbiting into a white basin.

Infants

Materials needed: Water bottle, feathers, buttons,

Senses involved: Sight, hearing, touch

Pros: Like a homemade rattle, your baby will love hearing the sound the buttons make. The floating feathers will likely fascinate them, too.

Toddlers

Materials needed: Water bottle, sequins, glitter, clear glue, water

Senses involved: Sight, hearing, touch

Pros: Glitter sensory bottles are a great calming tool for toddler meltdowns.

Kindergarten

Materials needed: Water bottle, water, dish soap

Senses involved: Touch, sight, sound

Pros: Science sensory bottles are a great way to introduce more complex concepts. This tornado in a bottle will give a close-up view of tornadic activity in a safe environment and allow your child to ask questions, boosting language development, higher-level learning, and curiosity.

Related Reading

  1. What is Sensory Play?
  2. How We Survived Virtual Learning in 2020
  3. How to Survive a 10+ Hour Road Trip with Kids
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