Sensory play has become huge over the past few years. I’m not sure it was a “thing” when Biggest Child was small, but it’s certainly a big part of Smallest Child’s play activities. We’ve amassed quite a store of different resources so I thought I’d share what I think are the best, cheap, materials for sensory play. Quite a few of these are things that you can make at home, quickly and easily. You’ll need a couple of store-cupboard basics like flour, cornflour, food colouring, rice, pasta, oil and water.
Dyed rice and pasta (and all the other dyed foods)
Rainbow rice and pasta are classic sensory play materials. They form the basis of 1,000s of sensory bins. We’ve never actually used it in a bin but we have a whole busy box of resources that the kids use with our dyed rice and pasta. The busy box includes; silicon cake cases, funnels, jugs, toddler tweezers, spoons, scoopers and various sized bottles. The pasta and rice are stored in tins so it takes just a few seconds to get everything set up for play time! You can find lots of ways to play with rainbow rice (and instructions on how to dye it) here. There are almost unlimited numbers of food items that you can dye. Beans, cooked spaghetti, chick peas and oats are just a few examples.
Oobleck (a non-newtonian fluid)
If you have read my easy science experiments to do at home with the kids you’ll have seen a video where the kids got to run up and down on oobleck in its solid state, before sinking into it as it turned to liquid. We even hit it with a hammer (breaking the tray in the process). Oobleck (or cornflower and water) also makes a wonderful, and very cheap, sensory play material. All you need to approximately two cups of cornflower for each cup of water. If you want to add food colouring to the oobleck then add it to the water before mixing rather than to the cornstarch. Make sure you add the water slowly as it can turn quite quickly and you don’t want it to be too sloppy. This one does get quite messy (particularly as the cornstarch turns back into powder) but it’s nothing a quick hoover won’t fix and it does wash well out of clothes.
Water beads (big, little or even frozen)
Water beads may well be my favourite sensory play material. I just find it really therapeutic putting my hands through a big bowl of them! Stick them in a jug with plenty of water overnight and you’ll wake up to mess free water play! We play with ours all the time, and a single bottle lasts for a very long time if you’re sensible. I’ve tried out the big ones and I was incredibly disappointed. They took days to fully inflate and then disintegrated really quickly. We only got to play with them for one day, whereas we have days and days of play with the normal sized ones. I won’t be buying them again.
Sand (and some similar alternatives)
Most kids love playing on a sandy beach and the sand pit is usually a massive draw in our house during the summer. There are endless sensory play activities using sand. For something on a smaller scale, you could set up a little beach in a storage box or create a construction site sensory bin.
Smallest Child is also a big fan of her kinetic sand. Yes, it works completely differently from “normal” sand, but it’s also a lot less hassle to clean up than something like play-dough. Another similar alternative is cloud dough. It only takes a couple of ingredients to make (there’s a really good recipe here)
Sensory play materials tend to focus on touch and sight rather than your other senses, which has always annoyed me a bit. Sound is such a good sense to explore as the ability to properly listen has a huge impact on later learning. We’ve made various musical instruments together but I particularly liked making shakers as a really quick and cheap sensory activity. All you need is a loo roll tube, tape and stuff to put in them. Smallest Child wanted to decorate hers, but that’s optional. I put different things into each shaker so that they make different noises.
Singing and other sounds
OK so your voice isn’t a material but I’m sure you’ll let me off! I love a good sing-along. Driving along, singing at the top of my voice is one of my favourite things to do. Add in dancing around the lounge with my best mum-dancing moves and I’m in heaven! It’s also great for the kids! The BBC website has got some great songs that combine singing and various sensory activities and material. You can also just play around with different volumes and speeds etc, what noises can you make, animal sounds etc.
Sensory play materials don’t just have to be at home. Leaves are the basis of lots of my Autumn craft ideas, but you can use them in many sensory activities as well. Dried leaves make such a brilliant sound, as can walking through them and kicking them around. You can explore the different textures on each side and between different trees.
Herbs and spices
This one is a great way to explore smell (apparently it’s not a good idea to eat raw herbs and spices). Just go though your spice cupboard. What do they smell and look like? Which is their favourite? You can also use spices in play-dough or essential oils in rainbow rice and cloud dough. You even make “potions” using a variety of herbs and spices with a little water. Smallest Child loves making “soup” using different herbs and vegetables. This is an idea I originally got from one of the Home is where you start is boxes.
I think the reason I particularly like Gelli Baff is that it can form the basis of so many different sensory play activities. You’ll find hundreds of different sensory bins using Gelli Baff but I’ve also put together some suggestions of other ways to use it. The fact that you can make it into the full range of textures from a thick, moldable jelly to a slimy goo makes it incredibly versatile. There’s also lots of different colours available to add to the play options.
Ice & snow
Obviously we don’t have access to snow that often, but when we do it’s great to get the kids to explore the snow. Put out a black sheet of paper so you can see all of the different snow flakes. You could bring some inside to play. There are so many ways you can introduce ice to your sensory play. We’ve added it to Gelli Baff, made ice globes, frozen little dinosaurs inside it, made ice decorations and done science experiments with it.
It’s quite rare in this house that we just use paintbrushes when the paints come out. There are so many different ways that you can play with paint. Here are just a few; bubble painting, using cotton buds and cotton balls, sponges, potato printing, footprints & hand prints, using materials like foil and bubble wrap, make your own “paintbrushes” using natural materials like sticks. You can find 50 different painting methods on this post! That’s pretty impressive.
You can change the sensory experience of paints by adding sand, putting different colours in a zip-lock bag for them to squash together, making puff paint and just having a large tray for them to explore and mix the colours.
We’ve done painting using droppers and cotton pads recently. Water the paint down slowly and then just drop it on to the pads to paint them. It’s a different way to explore colours and Smallest Child absolutely loved doing this! In fact we did a couple of versions.
The benefits of good sensory play materials
The thing about sensory play is that it allows young children to develop a huge range of skills in a really fun and engaging way. The activities that Smallest Child concentrate on for the longest times always have a sensory element. She can genuinely play with things like water beads for hours. There aren’t many children’s activities that can do that! It can help with the development of both fine motor and large muscle skills, hand-eye co-ordination, writing skills, creativity, social skills, concentration, language development… The list goes on and on. I hope you’ve found this collection of sensory play materials. Are there any you would add?
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