The best, and cheap, materials for sensory play

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.

Oobleck recipe | Free Time with the Kids | Non-Newtonian fluids

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.

You can find lots of water bead activities here. Did you know you can also use them as a fantastic STEM resource? Have a look at my guide to STEM activities using water beads.

Frozen water beads | Free Time with the Kids

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)

Music shakers

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.

cheap sensory play materials and activities | Free Time with the Kids

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.

When you’re out and about on your local walks why not make a sound map? You can find out more about them here. You can also find other ways to make your family walks more interesting here.

Leaves

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.

Food sensory play activities | Free Time with the Kids

Gelli baff

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.

Best cheap sensory play materials | Sensory activities and bins | Cheap toddler activities | Free Time with the Kids

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.

Free Time with the Kids

Paint

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.

Best cheap sensory play materials | Sensory activities and bins | Cheap toddler activities | Free Time with the Kids
Best cheap sensory play materials | Sensory activities and bins | Cheap toddler activities | Free Time with the Kids

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?

Best cheap sensory play materials | Sensory activities and bins | Cheap toddler activities | Free Time with the Kids

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Hi, I’m Vicky. My husband and I live in Aylesbury with out three children; a 10 year old son, an 8 year old son and a 3 year old daughter. I (mostly) love spending time together as a family. We visit all kinds of places and we’re quite happy to drive a fair distance for a decent day out. A few years ago I decided to set up Free Time with the Kids as a way to share our experiences of these family days out. You know, the essential information you need to know before your visit that can be surprisingly hard to find out. Where do I park? How much will it cost me to get in? Are there any discounts available? Are there loos? Can I take a picnic or get food? My aim is to be your go-to guide for all your free and cheap family days out across Bucks, Beds, Oxon, Herts & slightly beyond. I really hope you find the reviews helpful. If there’s anywhere that you’d recommend please get in touch contact@freetimewiththekids.com or get in touch via Facebook