{Play} How to Set Up Successful Sensory Play Activities

August 8, 2012 in All Posts, Play, Toddler Activities

How to set up a sensory bin

The first rule in setting up a successful sensory play activity: DON’T do what I did.

I’m half-joking and you’ll see my fail in a minute, but let me back up to something really basic and define what sensory play means. Then I’ll let you in on my big secret on how to set up successful sensory play activities.

What is sensory play?

In the simplest sense, sensory play is touching stuff, smelling stuff, looking at stuff, listening to stuff, tasting stuff.  It’s any type of play that engages one or more of the five senses and also includes play involving your child’s sense of balance, learning the way her body works, and understanding her body’s relationship to objects and space. (Find a more technical definition here).  It doesn’t have to be playing with a sensory bin full of rice grains (although that’s super fun), but going for a nature walk also can be a rich sensory experience you don’t even need materials for.

Why is it such a big deal?

Well, anytime your little one is exploring with his body and senses, he is learning about his body and its abilities, as well as more about the world around him.

Benefits of sensory play – beyond just being the most fun ever (like making homemade marshmallows) – include:

  • Developing fine and gross motor skills
  • Enhancing cognitive ability
  • Emotional development, including building self-confidence and independence
  • Learning and enjoying creative and physical freedom

Amanda of Not Just Cute wrote a post about the benefits of sensory play which you can read here.

How can I set up a successful sensory play activity?

Okay, here’s the big secret:  Follow your child’s lead.  And don’t be disappointed if the activity you set up doesn’t engage your child or he flat out screams and runs away from it.

Take comfort in the fact that most activities will benefit your child’s sensory development and there are no rules.  My best advice, having experienced plenty of “fails” from the parent’s perspective, is not every child likes every type of material (or material combination) so just go with it if what you thought was a great idea turns out to be a total flop.  Tweak things or just give up.  Just like with your child’s play, sometimes you learn more from the process than the end product.  You might find that your child prefers engaging in these activities alone or standing up instead of sitting down.  Play around and don’t be afraid to fail.

Exhibit A…

I set up what I thought would be an awesome sensory bin around Easter:  leftover easter grass, dried beans, and our Fisher Price animals in a baking pan.  The kids watched and played with animals as I added the beans.

The second I added the easter grass, my son flipped out, screaming that it was “TERRIBLE!

Sensory Play

My daughter, on the other hand, thought it was cool, and made nests for her little bean babies and fed the animals some hay.Sensory Play

At least I got them to work on their cooperation skills as the two worked double time to take all the grass out of the pan.  Sensory Play

And my son was at peace when the pan was put back to its pristine condition.Sensory Play

To see this idea perfectly executed several times over, check out Arlee @ Small Potatoes‘ post on Building a World in a Box.  (See the first two photos of this post to see what does NOT qualify as a successful sensory activity…and make yourself feel better about any of your fails).

Where can I find more sensory play activity ideas and resources (since I won’t be doing the one you post about here)?

I’ve got you covered, friends! Here are some amazing resources for sensory play activity ideas that will get you going:



And these blogs are chock full of posts on sensory play:

If you’re freaked out by the idea of all the mess associated with many sensory play activities, check out this great post by The Monko @ Taming the Goblin and overcome those fears!

Have a child who touches everything? This post from Rebekah @ The Golden Gleam has thoughtful ideas on managing your expectations as a parent and how to channel your child’s tactile desires towards appropriate sensory activities.

What advice do you have about setting up successful sensory play activities?  Please feel free to share fails, too!

LEARN! Sensory play


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Chrissy – who has written posts on The Outlaw Mom® Blog – Creative Living in a Conventional World.

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