Parenting blogs talk a lot about the importance of sensory play for young children. But, what actually is sensory play? Isn’t everything sensory - why do we need specific types of activities, toys, and sensory bins? And why is it so useful for babies and toddlers?

These are all good questions that a lot of parents ask before investing in sensory activities for their children. In this article, we’ll outline the benefits and types of sensory play for young children as well as provide some of our favorite sensory bin ideas, games, and activities for toddlers.

Sensory activities for toddlers

Why is sensory play important?

The Cleveland Clinic explains, “Sensory play focuses on activities that engage your child’s senses, helping them develop language skills and motor skills. It also helps with cognitive growth, fosters social interactions and encourages experimentation.”

Increased awareness

They also explain that sensory play helps toddlers get a better sense of their own body. This awareness of one’s self in space is called our proprioception sense. When toddlers participate in sensory play, they get the opportunity to learn how much force they need to lift, hold, squish, push, and pull objects. They learn where they need to be to reach items, how many things they can hold in their hands at one time, and what different types of materials feel like.

Important brain development for problem solving

These learnings help build nerve connections between the synapses, or pathways, in their brains. These cognitive processing connections can be used later as your child begins to take on more complex tasks. Plus, when children explore the variety of materials available to them during sensory play, they get the opportunity to think about how things connect to one another, ask questions, discover the world around them, and do experiments. This type of learning helps them become better problem solvers.

Stronger language skills

Play always increases language skills because it requires children to communicate their wants and needs. While your child engages in sensory play, talk to them and let them reciprocate. Ask them what they are doing and why. Explain what each item is and see if they repeat the names back to you. Even if they don’t that time, they will learn the names and remember them moving forward.

More developed fine motor skills

When children explore different types of material, which is common with sensory play, they are developing their fine motor skills. Many sensory bins and activities include items like dry pasta, sand, slime, rice, and even blocks. When toddlers handle these items, they practice using their fingers and hands more specifically. Developing these fine motor skills will help them later as they do more complicated tasks like tying their shoes, using a pencil, and zipping up a coat.

Sensory play for toddlers

When you read or hear about sensory play, most people and experts are talking about toddlers. Toddlers benefit the most from sensory play because they are in a very explorative part of their development. You know how hard it is to stop a toddler from touching everything, even the dirtiest and grossest things. And don’t even get started with putting things in their mouths! 

Therefore, when you plan sensory activities for your toddler, remember to keep everything as safe as possible. You need to keep a close eye on them throughout the play period. Plus, try as hard as you can to use safe materials that they could ingest if it happens.

Examples of sensory play

  1. Sensory bin exploration (see below for sensory bin ideas)
  2. Building with blocks
  3. Finger painting
  4. Playing in the bath
  5. Listening to music, dancing, and “playing instruments” like banging spoons, shaking noisemakers, and singing
  6. Blowing and catching bubbles
  7. Rolling in the grass
  8. Playing in the sandbox
  9. Swimming (check out our guide to learn when to start swimming lessons)
  10. Going on the swings

Sensory bins for toddlers

When you think about sensory activities, sensory bins are one of the most common. Sensory bins help children explore many different types of items and materials. Likewise, many children, especially those who are more hyperactive than others, can find running their fingers through the materials in a sensory bin to be very relaxing and calming. Check out some of our favorite sensory bin ideas and then make your own!

Sensory bin ideas

  1. Water sensory bin. Summer is calling and with it, more outdoor play! Set up a water sensory bin, or buy a water table, and your toddler will be happy as a clam. Not only will they enjoy putting their hands in the water and experiencing that feeling, but they can also explore which of their toys sink or float, what it looks like when something absorbs water, and more!
  2. Rice or sand sensory bin. Is your child a digger? If they love the feeling of dirty hands, a rice or sand sensory bin might be a great option. You can fill a Tupperware container, bucket, or even a can with rice or sand and watch your child have fun. Let them bury small toys and dig them out or close up the can and let them shake it around to hear what it sounds like! Looking for more beach crafts and activities at the beach? Check out our full guide.
  3. Shaving cream or whipped cream sensory bin. The feeling of shaving cream or whipped cream is not one your toddler has likely felt before. If you are worried that they will put their hands in their mouth, opt for whipped cream, but do not encourage them to eat it! Instead, let them explore the sensation. This is another outdoor craft because it could make a mess.
  4. Slime sensory bin. If old school Nickelodeon taught us anything, it was that young children love slime! You can either make the slime together or you can buy it. Then, let your child have fun pulling it apart, sticking their toys in, and watching it change shapes.
  5. Mixed sensory bin. Combine all or some of the above with beads, buttons, pebbles, cotton balls, dried beans, and more! Let your child excavate different items with a small shovel or their hands and get a feel for all of the different textures and materials. Just make sure you keep a very close eye on them so they don’t put anything in their mouth because small items like these can be choking hazards.

Sensory activities are great for toddlers’ development, plus they are just plain fun! We hope this article has given you some helpful tips and ideas for sensory play with your family this spring and summer. If you are looking for in-person and online sensory activities for toddlers and young children, check out Sawyer and see what our wonderful educators have to offer!

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