By Kathryn Peck
From day one, children use their senses to explore and learn about the world around them. Learning through sensory exploration is critical to brain development. Just about any activity that stimulates a child's sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, and anything that engages movement and balance is considered sensory play. Babies might grab a crinkle toy; toddlers might roll out some playdough; and preschoolers might jingle some bells.
There are countless benefits to sensory play. It can improve focus and concentration, aid in the development of fine motor skills, support language development, and encourage “scientific thinking” and problem-solving skills. Sensory exploration paves the way for the adults that our children will become.
While it’s important to encourage these types of activities, you don’t have to spend a fortune on supplies. Chances are you already have some sensory-rich books and toys in the playroom and the supplies for some DIY sensory activities in your kitchen.
5 DIY Ideas for Sensory Play
DIY Rattles & Shakers. When my son turned 1, my mother made him a dozen different rattles and shakers out of empty plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes. One was an empty cinnamon spice container; another an empty mustard bottle. She filled them with dried rice, beans, and pasta; try popcorn kernels, beads, or rocks. Just be sure the lid is secured tightly and cannot be open by little hands.
Mess-Free Painting. Fill a plastic Ziploc bag with some different colors of finger paint, seal it up, tape it to the highchair, floor, table, or box, and let your little one push the paint around. It’s fun to watch the colors swirl and blend. You can put in colorful beads or googly eyes just waiting to be discovered.
Cardboard Tunnel. Use all those Amazon boxes and make a tunnel for your baby to crawl through.
Above photo credit: iStock.com/SolStock
Pompoms Egg Carton. Place an assortment of different colored pompoms into an egg carton and let your child play with them. Colored ones are fun for older children interested in sorting by color. Offer play jumbo tweezers to grab and place them.
Rice Play. Fill an empty tub with dry rice and let your child dig around with their fingers, spoons, cups, and scoops. If your baby is putting things into his/her mouth, this is a good one to keep an eye on. Check out our recipe for DIY Colored Rice.
Sensory Play from the Toy Bin
Touch-and-feel board books have sensory features that babies love, pull-out tabs, and even scratch-and-sniff panels for toddlers. Our favorites:
- “My First Busy World” by Eric Carle (below) features a padded cover, glitter, lift-up flaps, touch-and-feel features, and a mirror; a must-have for every Eric Carle collection.
- "Roly Poly Panda" by Wee Gallery is a delightful fold-out cloth book soft, padded tactile pages, about panda’s journey.
- “Dear Zoo” Since its first publication in 1982, Rod Campbell's lift-the-flap book, Dear Zoo, has remained a classic for little ones. In a search for the perfect pet, children will uncover not-so-perfect pets like an elephant, a lion, a monkey, and a snake. This book makes a great baby shower of first birthday gift?
Stacking cups offer a variety of sensory play activities. Aside from stacking one on top of the other, try hiding small items under the stacked cups instead. Babies are amazed at finding small toys underneath.
If touch and feel books are a hit, consider tactile puzzles an option, too. MudPuppy’s My First Touch & Feel Puzzles feature the textured pieces in smaller, 3-piece puzzles. Tenderleaf Toys’ Touchy Feely Animal Puzzle features a variety of textures under five different wooden animals.
Busy boards are a wonderful and engaging activity for little ones. Etsy has some fantastic options, but the Melissa & Doug Latches Board—which has lasted through 4 kids in our house —is always a hit with six different latches that hook, snap, click, and slide. DeMoca’s wooden busy board features a door latch, zipper, gears, a shoe lace, and more.
For more sensory play ideas, check out our rundown of 25 Sensory Bin Theme Ideas.
About the author: Kathryn is the owner of Bicycle Pie and mom of 4 little ones. Also a writer, editor, and former owner of one of Boston's premiere baby boutiques, she continues to write about motherhood, children's products, family life, and all other things that test our skills and patience as parents.