Maybe your Occupational Therapist (OT) told you about them or maybe you saw them on Pinterest, but we are going to go through everything you need to know on how to make your own sensory bin.
Why sensory bins?
Early play is definitely about sensory experiences. It is how children learn about their environment. Touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, moving and doing is how the brain learns how to interact with its surroundings. Read more about how that happens here. The more early experiences a child has with sensory experiences, the more the brain can lay down “tracks” of how to process and respond to those sensations. You can read more about that here. But no worries! If you feel that you are coming in late to the game, sensory bins can still make an impact no matter the age.
For kids with Sensory Processing Disorder or certain texture intolerances, sensory bins are the perfect tool. Besides building the nervous system tracks that help them process tactile input, you can target your bin towards those challenges. This should be done in a slow and fun way. Finding the right level of challenge is key.
I also love using sensory bins as a tool for calming. There is something soothing about letting grains slip between your fingers reminiscent of sitting on a warm beach. Now, watch your child, as not every child responds to tactile input in this way. Some kids do become more “wound-up” with this input. In this case you may save this activity for when you need to have them more alert. And possibly outside as it can get messy for kids that respond this way!
One of the other reasons that therapists use sensory bins is for the skills it can build. OTs find it the perfect place to practice fine motor control and tool use. Improving pinching, grasping, pouring, using tools and even handwriting are great reasons to break out the sensory bin.
Do you want to know the other secret reason OTs love sensory bins? Engagement. It is really a fancy way of saying that children (and adults) love them. A sensory bin can hold the attention of a child for quite awhile. As a parent this should be exciting you too! There is nothing like setting up a sensory bin at the kitchen table and actually getting through that pile of dishes before your child looks up.
Alright, lets make those sensory bins!
DIY sensory bins
Sensory bins are not complicated. You really only need three things: a container, a filler, and some fun tools and toys. But inside of those three things there are so many options to really make sensory bins your own. I will break down some of the choices below.
The best advice I can give you for your sensory bin container is one that has a well fastening lid. There is nothing worse than having your child grab a sensory container and watching the lid slip off and a thousand grains of rice dance deep into your carpet! Let me save you some heartache—get a good lid. You may also want to consider keeping a sheet handy to spread out on the floor for easy clean up.
Next, I really like a clear plastic bin. You can label your opaque bins, but just being able to look in and see which toys are there is so handy. If you keep these bins where your child can reach them, a clear bin means a pre-reader can make a choice without opening the lids of 4 bins to find the right one.
Now you really don’t need to put your sensory bin in a box (literally). There are some great choices for sensory activities that don’t even really need to involve a bin. I keep a tray or a cookie sheet with low edges handy for when I want to work on handwriting.
Consider playing with shaving cream or other messy options straight in the sink or bathtub. Both the sink and the bathtub are natural options for a really great tactile sensory tool-water. Add some bubbles, a couple little toys, and voila! Sensory bin complete. Complete with easy clean up!
You can think big, too. Another “bin” you may want to consider for sensory play is a small kiddie pool. It doesn’t have to only hold water. You can always do the ultimate classic sensory bin, the sandbox. And while we are on an outdoor kick, don’t forget that there are many other sensory options out your back door.
Now that you know where to put it, let’s talk about what to put in it.
I am so excited here I don’t know where to start first! There are so many choices. But let’s start with some classics, the things most people have already on hand. Go to your cupboard or pantry. Take a look at your dried goods and stop thinking about it as food. Have some rice or beans? Good. Poor it in one of those bins we talked about. You can consider this step complete or keep reading if you like to be unique or simply have some more choices.
Want to add another layer of complexity? As you read the suggested fillers, consider mixing multiple textures. Another great idea is to add an olfactory element. Many of the ideas listed below can add a smell component by adding a drop or two of an essential oil.
These are the things that are generally easiest for clean up. Besides the rice and beans, there is a nearly infinite number of choices. I’ve used coffee beans, garbanzos, lentils, black beans, pasta, nuts (in the shell and out), rock salt, regular salt, sand, pebbles, shells, shredded paper, beads, feathers, dirt, tree bark and moss. I’ve always wanted to try buckwheat (something about that triangular shape intrigues me). Really, walking down the bulk dried goods section of your grocery store would give you some phenomenal ways to provide sensory experiences.
Try going to the craft store. Sensory opportunities abound there as well. Scraps of fabric, notions and craft materials are great fillers. Maybe you already have this stuff at home. My favorite thing as a child was going through my mother’s button collection that she had in an old cookie tin. See what you already have and use that.
You can also try things like a powder. Cornstarch, cocoa or baby powder would work well. Beware the mess factor on these if your kiddo plays big, though!
Another fun thing you can try is to color your own rice. I did this last week with my kiddo with the rice I used to rescue my wet cell phone. (I love multipurpose things!) Put a cup of rice in a baggie or dish. Add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice and food coloring to preference. Mix it up then lay it out to dry overnight. We used this for handwriting/spelling practice the next day and no color transferred to little fingers.
Wet and sticky stuff
We’ve already mentioned a few great choices like shaving cream, water and bubbles. Other great things to try are slimes, playdohs, clay, cornstarch and water and a whole host of DIY textures. Make sure you get your child involved in the making and mixing!
Food things also fall into this category. If you are making bread, cookies or pie, have your child help with the mixing and kneeding. These are great sensory opportunities. Especially if your kiddo is putting a lot of things in their mouth, maybe you want to use even more food items for sensory play, like whipped cream, jello, applesauce, cooked noodles, and whatever cereal you have on hand.
Other great ideas for wet and sticky textures are using waterbeads, fingerpaint, wiki sticks, and kinetic sand.
You can also add another sensory element with temperature. Kneeding warm dough or playing with ice can be great exposure.
Adding toys and tools
You don’t need to add anything from this category. I don’t when I am working on handwriting and spelling. Sometimes just keeping it simple is good. There are reasons to add tools and toys, though.
Want your child to have better fine motor control or strength? Add tongs, tweezers and chopsticks. Have them pick up some of the filler or other little toys or pom poms that you add. Sort things into an empty ice cube tray.
One of the great ways to work on self feeding can be done with a sensory bin. Hand them a spoon and have them scoop items and put it in cups. Pour from the cup into other cups. Sometimes keeping it new and fun and breaking up from a normal mealtime routine can really help.
Putting toys in your sensory bin can be just for fun, or they can be a tool as well. For some sensory avoiding kids, a sensory bin may be a total “no!”. Adding toys and other mediums that they can use to “avoid” touching the filler can get them to engage. Remember sensory experiences layer on themselves. It isn’t just that they are avoiding the texture. They have probably visually become accustomed to disliking that texture as well. Handing them a tool to interact without even touching a texture breaks barriers. They are getting gentle exposure. Someday they might poke a finger in. Keep providing that just right challenge and opportunities galore.
Sensory bins have nearly infinite ways of making them your own. Even more than learning a cool new thing that you can add to your sensory bin, I hope you just start. Start providing sensory opportunities now, with whatever you have. Your child’s nervous system will thank you.