What is a sensory bin?
Sensory boxes or bins are containers filled with sensory items that engage one or more of children’s senses. This can be as simple as a plastic tub filled with dry rice and a few measuring cups for pouring. The sensory bin offers hands-on learning and exploration of the sensory materials. These are an easy and fun way to engage children in open-ended play.
Sensory bins consist of a filler and add ins. Sensory bin fillers are materials of all different textures that can be easily transferred, poured, and held by little hands. The add ins are small objects used to enhance the play and help develop fine motor skills. These can include anything from cups to race cars to shovels to plastic animals.
From preschool teachers to occupational therapist, sensory bins are a favorite tool for development. A fun sensory bin can keep a child engaged for hours even in the early years while helping in multiple areas of development.
What are the benefits of sensory bins?
Sensory play engage all a child’s senses for as much touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing as possible. Our favorite parts to add in are constantly changing as sensory bins can be so versatile. The best part about sensory bins is that kids of all ages receive developmental benefits while having so much fun. The benefits of sensory play include helping kids fine motor skills, sensory exploration, language development, and problem solving skills.
Younger children learn different textures, feels, and sights. You can even use food coloring to make different colors. All you need is a simple bin of rice! Older kids can still benefit as well through cause and effect, critical thinking, and language skills. There’s so many different ways to use sensory bins that allow for growth. They can squish, grab, pinch, and poke new materials with feeling out new pouring tools and toys as well. The more variation, the better!
Here’s a few great ideas to optimize sensory play in your own sensory bins. Try adding something for smell like cinnamon, nutmeg, or other spices. Remember to add objects that are different colors, sizes, and textures. Occasionally make bin with edible material that your child is allowed to eat for taste. And if you spend a lot of time outside, consider investing in a water table. This doesn’t have to be anything too fancy, either. You can probably find most of this stuff at your local dollar store.
Fine Motor Skills
As children pour, squish, and pinch the different materials in the sensory bin, they work the small muscles of their wrist, hand, and fingers. They are building coordination at the same time. Think about adding small items with tongs or tweezers to practice fine motor skills. These muscles are essential down the road for holding a pencil and writing.
Sensory play activities like these are great places to work in extra language skills by talking with your child. Ask them questions about what they’re feeling, seeing, or smelling. Talk them through what they’re doing in the bin. And try adding new objects to the bin to help learn new words.
Problem Solving Skills
Open-ended play encourages children to develop their problem solving skills. They begin learning cause and effect by what happens when they pour, scoop, or transfer materials. Then they learn how to achieve their play goals with the different tools they have in the sensory bin. This is the basis for critical thinking and problem solving.
Is my child old enough for a sensory bin?
Young children can greatly benefit from sensory bins even from a very young age. We’ve seen 1 year olds get the hang of the sensory bin, although most will either try to dump it or eat it at first. A great place to start with very young children is water play. Try a small container of water with a few cups for pouring either outside or in the bathtub. And read all our tips on teaching kids to use a sensory bin first.
Why homemade sensory bins?
While there are many great sensory bins you can buy, most times it’s much cheaper and easier to make your own. Plus, kids will love helping you make one and being part of the process! A great way to get them involved in this process is to make them responsible to set up and clean up. If there’s prep work involved like dying rice, get them in on that, too. For a themed sensory bin, brainstorm with your child on what to add (even if you already bought the materials).
What do I need to make a sensory bin or sensory table?
All you need to make your own sensory experience is either a bin like a plastic tub or a sensory table. Then follow these simple steps: Fill the sensory tub or table up with your favorite sensory bin filler material (see below for ideas), add some great additions for sensory play like spoons, cups, sifters, small pvc pipe, or figurine toys, and let your kids explore! At the beginning, they’ll need more guidance, so keep reading for our guide on teaching your kids to use the sensory bin.
23 DIY Sensory Bin Filler Materials
- Pom Poms
- Water Beads
- Shaving Cream
- White Rice (or dyed rainbow rice!)
- Black Beans
- Kinetic Sand
- Cotton Balls
- Dry Pasta
- Cut Up Pipe Cleaners
- Plastic Gold Coins
- Pine Cones
- Popcorn Seeds
- Cloud Dough
- Shredded Paper
- Bird Seed
- Crushed Cheerios
How to teach your child to use a sensory bin
We don’t like to think of this as ‘teaching’, but rather ‘guiding’ your child to use a sensory bin. Because this is open-ended play, children need room to explore without strict constraints to follow. This is also a form of messy play (which doesn’t have to be dirty or all over the place!), but the messy part of the activity is what’s helping them learn. That being said, there are still ways to help them understand how to use sensory bins while making less of a mess. So here are our guide when starting sensory bins or using them with very young children.
The absolute best way to guide your child on how to use a sensory bin is to model it for them. Start playing with it yourself and show them examples of what each tool or object could possibly be used for. Show them how to pour into cups, scoop using utensils, or dig out toys hidden under the filler. Invite them to join by first asking them to feel the materials, and then try some pouring, scooping, or digging themselves.
With beginners or very young children, it helps if you are playing with them at the beginning. They learn from you and get new ideas from watching you. Having you next to them also helps them follow the rules you set. You can also model cleaning up, so they can learn that from you and help out!
Talk through it
As you show them how to scoop, pour, or dig, narrate what you are doing for them. Say things like, “I’m using this cup to pour the rice” or “Look how I can scoop the water with this spoon”. Hearing it verbally and visually seeing it at the same time helps them internalize it faster as well as helps their own language development. For their language development, use texture words as well such as soft, hard, squishy, rough, and slimy. Ask them what objects feel like to them or what they want to try.
Make a physical boundary
Put their sensory bin on a towel or a sheet, so they can see a physical boundary. Tell them that the materials have to stay on the towel or sheet. Not only does this make cleaning up easier, but a visual boundary helps them better understand to keep the mess contained.
Set a few rules (and repeat them!)
The rules you set are basic guidelines that contain most of the mess and keep them safe without hindering their play too much. We keep it simple with three rules: “No throwing, no dumping the bin, and no putting things in our mouth.” We continually repeat these at the beginning and whenever the rules get broken.
There are hundreds of simple sensory bin ideas out there, but, when you’re first starting out, keep it super simple. We recommend starting with something that is non-toxic and technically edible but not tasty like dry rice. This way if some does end up in the mouth, it’s not harmful, but also will taste bad enough they won’t want to try it again. For babies, toddlers, or preschoolers that may still put things in their mouths this is much safer. And don’t include anything small that could be a choking hazard.
Start with a smaller bin. Try the 16 quart plastic container with just a few add ins like a measuring cup and some spoons. Once your child has more experience, our favorite tub to use is the 41 quart plastic tub. These have more room to play with low sides for an easier reach.
Stay close by
With more experience, children will get to a point that you can trust them not to make a huge mess with sensory bins or eat anything they shouldn’t. But it takes a lot of practice! So until that time, make sure you stay close by. Keep reiterating the boundaries you set, and try to keep the focus on playing inside the bin. You may even have to take the bin away and try another day, but that’s alright! Just keep practicing.
Remember mess happen
The bottom line is that mess will happen. It’s not an ‘if’, but a ‘when’. Tell yourself right now there will be a mess, but that’s okay because this is messy play. Children are learning through the mess. Even older kids who have a lot of experience with sensory bins make a mess. We tend to stick to filler material thats easy to sweep or vacuum up like dry beans or popcorn kernels. And whenever possible, we take our sensory bins outside!
How do I make a sensory bin more fun?
One of the best ways to make a sensory bin more fun is to create a themed sensory bin! The best sensory bins are the that keep kids engaged and continually exploring. Even older children can enjoy this type of fun sensory activity. Try creating a themed bin around one of their main interests or favorite things. For example, if your child’s favorite animal is dolphins, make an ocean theme sensory bin! Or try one of these amazing sensory bin theme ideas:
35 Creative and Awesome Sensory Bin Themes
- Outer Space
- Treasure Hunt
- Christmas decorations (think jingle bells!)
- Sea Creatures
- Construction Sites
- Shark Week
- Ice Cream
- St. Patrick’s Day
- Valentine’s Day
- 4th of July
Is there a mess-free sensory bin?
While almost all open sensory bins come with the risk of a mess, you can try a sensory bag for mess-free sensory activities. Take the same filler material and small add ins and fill up a large plastic bag. Then glue the bag shut to prevent any leaks or spills. While these don’t have the full benefits of a sensory bin, sensory bags make great on the go or less mess sensory activities.
What are the safety concerns of a sensory bin?
The biggest safety concern of a sensory bin is the potential choking hazard. With young children, constant supervision is required when any kind of small object is been used. We recommend either starting with water or rice as the first base material with no small toys added in when you’re first beginning. Read through our guide of how to teach your child to use the sensory bin first. With the use of food items as well it’s important to always specify what can be put in your mouth and what cannot.
Build your own sensory table
Sensory tables are a great way for children to enjoy their sensory bins, and make clean up and storage a bit easier. But sensory tables from the store are pretty expensive. Here’s our full instructions to make your own PVC pipe sensory table that’s simple and easy.
Check out these other ideas for sensory play:
All things play dough
Play Dough is an all time favorite and can be a little less of a mess than sensory bins. Check out all our tips and ideas here.
Try painting without paint
Paint is great sensory activity, but here’s a fun twist on your everyday painting. Check out everything you can use to paint that isn’t actually paint here.