Sensory bins are a favorite activity at our house. A sensory bin is a container filled with things to touch and explore. Young children learn through touch, and sensory bins are a wonderful way to let them explore different objects and materials. When using a sensory bin, kids learn through play as they use different senses, figure out the world around them, problem solve, work on their fine motor skills, and play collaboratively with others.
As an elementary teacher turned stay-at-home mama, making sensory bins is right up my alley. I loved making activities for my students, and creating sensory bins for my toddlers has helped me get back in touch with my creative side. I know it can be daunting to set up activities like this if it’s not your thing, but trust me when I say they’re easy to make. The beauty of sensory bins is that they can be as simple or complex as you want, you can use things you find around the house, and you can tweak them to your child’s interests or concepts they are learning.
Here are five simple sensory bins that are easy to set up and will provide both opportunities to learn through play and hours of entertainment (always a plus for busy moms!). I recommend using a 28 quart storage bin, but I have also used smaller and larger bins. Really, any container will work. I usually use a beach blanket under the bins for easy cleanup.
Water play is the easiest, cheapest sensory bin of all. I fill our bin with water and different objects from around the house. I include bath toys, measuring cups, animals, sponges, and balls. I’ve made color-themed bins where I pick a color and gather cups, spoons, containers, and toys in that color from around the house and throw them in. You can do the same with shapes or textures. Then the kids get busy pouring water from one cup to another, taking the objects out and putting them back in, testing what floats or sinks. Water play is very easy to mix up. In the winter, I added snow and we watched it melt. For St. Patrick’s Day, I added green food coloring to a green-and-gold themed bin. I’ve even added food — blueberries bob around, and it takes a lot of focus and fine motor skills to fish them out and eat them!
Oatmeal is a great option if you have a little one who might want to taste everything in sight. I fill our bin with oatmeal and add scoops and cups, farm animals, or dinosaurs. I expect this will be a great base for playing as they get more interested in imaginative pretend play with their animals.
Rice is my favorite filler for sensory bins. It feels neat in your hands, it’s relatively inexpensive to buy in bulk, and it’s easy to dye if you want to make it colorful. We have a bin of rainbow rice that we use all the time. Rice is fun to scoop and pour, it makes interesting noises, and it’s great for burying items for kids to find. Try hiding puzzle pieces, letters, or shapes for your kids to dig up!
Sand is an outdoor sensory bin for our family. My kids love the beach, and this is like a little beach in a box. Add shovels, scoops, and spoons for digging. Make patterns and prints with shells, molds, animals, and cookie cutters. Regular old sand, colored sand, or kinetic sand are all fun options.
Themed sensory bins
I love making themed sensory bins for my toddlers to explore. It’s like an arts and crafts project for me. The dollar store and good old Target’s Dollar Spot make it easy for me to find things to make holiday and seasonal sensory bins. First I choose a base, like crinkly paper, faux grass, foil tissue paper, or even our rainbow rice. Then I add anything that goes with the theme I have in mind. For a spring garden bin, I used silk flowers, insects, pompoms, and any butterfly toys we had. For Valentine’s day, it was all our heart shaped toys, anything pink or red, and a bin filled with snow.
Sensory bins offer endless possibilities for play and exploration. I love watching my kids play, explore, and make sense of the world through sensory bins. I’d love to hear your favorite messy play or sensory play activities!