What Is Sensory Play? THE Ultimate Guide and Play Ideas

What is sensory play? Why is sensory play important in the development from birth to early childhood? Learn all about how sensory play works plus sensory play bin ideas you can easily make at home in this ultimate guide and resource.

Sensory Play ideas for kids

When I was a kid, we used to have a patch of big fir trees on the side of my neighbours house. I remember these trees being so big and tall. The way that they grew together formed the perfect little forest for us kids from the street to play in. 

We called it “The Bears”. Inside, my best friend Robin and I made a lot of mud pies together, we went pretend camping, we looked for wild animals, and anything else we could come up with. Those adventures were some of my favourite memories as a child.

Even now as an adult, I can still picture The Bears so vividly in my mind. I can almost smell the dampness in the air, feel the mild chill. I can see the sunlight poking through the fir trees. I can feel the cold gooey mud squish through my hands as I made mud pies. It felt like the most magical place.

As a mom, I understand the importance of my experiences back then. Being able to explore and use all of my senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, movement - all combined to create some of the most powerful memories of my childhood.

This is what sensory play is all about. Using play to explore multiple senses at once.

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is any activity that stimulates the senses. It can include any of the five main senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. But it also includes the two senses that aren’t as often mentioned involving: balance, and body awareness. 

And truthfully, almost all play activities include sensory play. But, there are some that will engage more senses than others. That’s what I want to focus on in this post, because using multiple sensory experiences at once can be oh-so-wonderful and beneficial for a child’s development.

Do all kids need SENSORY PLAY?

From the day that your child is born, their instincts kick in and they start experiencing the world around them through their senses.

  • They hear your voice saying hello to them for the first time

  • They begin to crawl. They put things in their mouths, and grab it with their hands. That’s how they learn what different textures feel like.

  • A toddler makes silly noises and giggles.

  • In the bath, they’ll pour water from cup to cup, over and over and over again.

  • All of these things are examples of sensory play being used in everyday life without us even thinking about it.

sensory play

Why is SENSORY PLAY important?

There are so many benefits to sensory play. It encourages a child’s development in many different ways. Here is a list of some of those benefits:

  • Communication Skills: Children learn how to communicate what they’re doing through their experiences.

  • Fine Motor Skills: Fine motor skills require the coordination of small muscle groups. Using small objects to do things like pouring, pinching, and grabbing they help to develop their fine motor skills.

  • Gross Motor Skills: Gross motor skills involve the coordination of large muscle groups, like squatting, balancing, jumping, reaching, and generally moving their bodies.

  • Practical Life Skills: Children learn valuable play skills including how to play well with others.

  • Creative Problem Solving Skills: They learn how to investigate, examine, categorize, and discover - all vital skills they will take and use daily into many aspects of adulthood.

  • Encourages Scientific Thinking: Children learn about cause and effect through playing with these materials.

  • Can Help Relax And Calm a Child: Sensory play can help to calm anxiety and frustration in a child. Sensory play requires them to concentrate on a specific task, which in turn helps to channel their emotions.

sensory play

HOW TO USE Sensory play in nature

Before I go in to the amazingness of sensory bins (I talk about that next), one of the simplest ways to experience a variety of senses is to just play outside in nature. This is the best, most ultimate way for your child to truly connect and learn about the world around them. In nature, a child’s senses are awakened to the fullest. Nature is full of vivid colors, smells, sounds, movement and textures. And they will develop memories that stick with them for a lifetime - just like the memories of making mud pies in The Bears did for me.

The next time you’re outside with your kids, crouch down together and look for tiny insects. Hunt for fairies, and find tiny sticks to stack and build a fairy house. Collect the leaves and match colors together. Discuss the difference between the shapes of leaves from different types of trees. Make a mud pie! Throw rocks in the river. Lie in the grass and listen to the sounds around you. Feeling the wind blow over you. Talk about the clouds and the shapes they make.

Nature is all about slowing down and using your senses. These simple moments are when the magic happens.

rainbow chickpea sensory play

WHAT ARE Sensory Play Bins?

Have you explored sensory play bins with your kids before? These aren’t just for babies or toddlers. Bigger kids love them too! These usually involve a plastic container filled with objects that stimulate the senses. Things like crumpled paper, sand, water, beans, or rice.

I gotta be honest. When I first discovered sensory play bins, I thought they were a little crazy. I mean, WHY on earth would you want your kid to play with a big box of rice, mud, or shaving foam inside your house!?!?! That just sounds like a messy disaster waiting to happen, right?

But if you lay down two ground rules before your kids get started, you’ll be okay:

  • Rule #1: Everything stays inside the bin.

  • Rule #2: Nothing goes in their mouths (unless it’s meant to - for example if it’s a food-related sensory bin)

My daughter is well aware of these two rules when she’s playing with her sensory bins, and she happily follows them.

Plus, sensory play bins are the only time my daughter will play by herself for more than an hour.

Let me repeat that. They are the ONLY type of play that she will do by herself for a long period of time! No toys that she has have even come close!

So what does that mean for you, mama? It means FREE TIME while they play!! You can get some things done around the house, do some work, or just relax. Sounds divine, doesn’t it? Yep, I knew I would convince you.

How Do You Make A Sensory PLAY Bin?

Once you learn the basic concept, you’ll be coming up with your own combinations in no time. Here’s how it works:

  • Choose A Bin or Tray - Depending on the project, you can use a deep clear bin or a smaller tray to hold the sensory play project. Ideally you want your container to be waterproof incase things get messy. I like to use a clear bin that’s big enough for kids to have fun and play in, and nothing will splash out. Use whatever you have on hand, or grab something second-hand from a thrift store. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

  • Add Fillers - These are the main materials your kids will interact with. You can use dry fillers or wet fillers. Here’s a simple guide of materials you can use, but feel free to use your imagination:

    • Wet Fillers: yogurt, pudding, cooked pasta, jello, water, bubbles, water, mud or dirt, shaving cream.

    • Dry Fillers: dried rice or grains, dried beans, uncooked pasta, popcorn kernels, sand, shredded paper, cereal, buttons, pom poms, pipe cleaners, stones, leaves, acorns, bird seed, salt.

  • Add Scoops, Bowls, and Containers - Add plastic cups, bowls, scoops, shovels, measuring spoons, cupcake liners, and anything else you can think of.

  • Create a Theme (optional) - Choosing a theme is a great way for kids to learn more about the world around them. Some examples are an underwater sea adventure, trucks or dinosaurs in the mud. You can also use themes to incorporate learning, such as a sensory bin created with letters of the alphabet, sorting colors, or learning numbers. You don’t have to have a theme, but they’re fun to add from time to time.

  • Keep it Clean - For wet projects you can lay a shower curtain underneath (I have one from the dollar store that I bring out for all of Lue’s craft projects). For dry projects, a towel or bed sheet will do the trick.

  • Storage Tip: When your child is done playing, don’t throw the sensory play materials out! Store them in a plastic bag for later. That way you don’t have a dozen large plastic bins all over the house. Plus, it’ll feel like a brand new toy in a couple of weeks when they haven’t seen it for a while.


In most cases, I like to have my daughter create the sensory bin with me. This way she is instantly curious with the sensory bin right from the start. This might not work for every child, especially the first time you make a sensory bin. But don’t give up! Try getting them to help with the second or third sensory bin and see what happens.

Some parents like to prepare the sensory bin and leave it out for their kids to discover all by themselves. There is no right or wrong way to introduce a sensory bin to your kids. You’ll know what will work best for your children. Whatever you decide is a great choice.

It’s okay to join in on the fun, especially if kids are hesitant to do it by themselves. You can show them a few simple ways to explore the bin by scooping and pouring, but it’s also great if you don’t control the play. Try to let them discover it for themselves.

So where do you start with sensory bins? I recommend trying the rainbow chickpea sensory bin I created recently with Lue. It’s an easy and inexpensive project. Plus it’s really fun to make together. Kids love shaking up the bags of chickpeas to create each color.

Sensory bins are such a great way to communicate with your child. Ask questions about what they’re doing: How they feel about it? What do they see? You might be surprised where their imagination goes with your sensory play bin. The options are endless!

So now that you know the basics of what sensory play is all about and how to create your own sensory bins, it’s time to get started with your own kids!

I’m going to give you a challenge: Try creating your first sensory bin together in the next few days: grab a big clear container, add the fillers, cups and scoops, and have some fun! Remember, it doesn’t have to be expensive. And I know that as soon as you give this a try, you’ll be just as excited to create new sensory bin ideas as I am.

Happy creating friends!


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