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What Are Sensory Bins? (And Six Bin Ideas!)

Sensory bins are a fun activity for all toddlers no matter what their interests are. This open-ended and creative game may seem daunting to start out at home, but have no fear because we are about to dive into the basics of sensory bins and their benefits.

A young girl with brown hair in a pony tail plays with a clear bin holding sand and tools like spoons and small cups.

What are sensory bins? A sensory bin is an open-ended style of game that essentially involves a container, some loose contents, and toys or tools to play with those contents. There’s no right or wrong way to play with sensory bins which creates endless possibilities of games.

Benefits of sensory bins: Sensory bins are beneficial because they focus on fine motor skills by encouraging kids to pick up and manipulate small toys/objects. They also help promote imaginative play by encouraging your child to decide how to play with these objects. You can promote vocabulary by labeling the objects and colors during your play. Your child will also practice problem-solving as they learn how to manipulate objects/toys and measure/pour contents. Last but not least, they provide sensory input which allows your kid to learn from touching and feeling different types of materials and can be used to help meet the sensory needs of a child.

The Basic Materials:

  • Medium or large container

  • Fillable content: rice, cereal, pasta, corn, beans, kinetic sand, shaving cream, oatmeal, waterbeads, pom poms, ice cubes, water, etc.

  • Any additional toys: toy trucks, spoons, toy shovels, figurines, flashcards, cups, bowls, funnels, toy animals, measuring cups, ladles, or any toy your kid loves!

  • Optional: tablecloth, towels, or newspapers underneath to minimize messes

  • Optional: container lids for afterwards so you can securely close and store your bin for next time

Instructions: Get your container, choose one fillable content of your choice, and 1-3 toys/tools of your choice and voila! You’ve created your first sensory bin!

Sensory bin ideas:

  • Basic: Take a medium sized plastic container, fill it about a quarter of the way with rice, and add some cups and bowls. Show your child how they can scoop up the rice with a cup and put in the bowl or simply pour the rice out. It sounds simple, but young children especially love this concept!

  • Dump truck play: Take a plastic container, your choice of fillable content, and toy dump trucks. Encourage your child to fill up the dump trucks with their hands or by scooping with a cup and dump the contents out. You can also encourage them to push the dirt/sand/beans with their dump truck.

  • Prehistoric fun: Gather your child’s dinosaur toys, some plants, rocks, and your choice of fillable content. Encourage your child to find the dinosaurs under the sand/rice/beans, eat the plants, or stomp through their habitat.

  • Hidden puzzle pieces: Hide puzzle pieces in your sensory bin and encourage your little one to find them. This is a great idea if you are working on vocabulary such as animals sounds or colors because you can talk about the puzzle pieces as your toddler finds more.

  • Old McDonald had a farm: You can do this idea with real mud/dirt or kinetic sand/beans (if you prefer less mess!). Gather your child’s farm animals and add them to the bin. Have the pigs roll in the “mud”, have the horses run around, and find any animal who might be “hiding”.

  • Water play: Bring a container outside and fill it with water and small objects that float (or ice). Hand your child a ladle or cup and encourage them to scoop out the contents. You can also encourage them to put waterproof toys in. Be sure to have a towel nearby!

  • Think outside the box: What will your toddler play with if you add in leaves, beans, poms poms, ice cream scooper, and an ice tray? Who knows but we can’t wait to find out! You don’t need a “theme” for your sensory bin for it to be valuable. Even when you put only objects that you have readily available, your child will learn through the open-ended way of exploring.

Last minute tips:

  • Follow your kid’s lead: If your child would rather bury the trucks, rather than fill them up…go with it! If your child wants to add their own toy in, that’s ok too. Remember there is no right or wrong way to play so by following your child’s lead, you are encouraging them to use their imagination.

  • Set clear expectations in the beginning and supervise to ensure safety and reinforce house rules. For example, “You can scoop and pour the rice in the bowls, on your toys, and in the bin, but no dumping rice on the floor”.

  • Younger children generally do well with simple sensory bins that involve scooping and dumping, while older toddlers generally enjoy pretend play with more related items.

We can’t wait for you to start (or continue) playing with sensory bins because activities that are open ended and promotes creativity are a major win for toddlers’ development. These are just a few ideas to get you started but feel free to create your own!

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