Sensory Play Ideas: Engaging Activities for Early Childhood Development

Sensory play is a critical part of early childhood development that engages children’s senses and supports their learning journey.

Through activities that stimulate touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing, kids can explore their environment and make connections between new and known concepts.

These multisensory experiences not only enhance cognitive growth but also contribute to the development of fine motor skills, problem-solving abilities, and social interaction.

Colorful sensory bins filled with rice, water beads, and kinetic sand. Various textures like feathers, pom-poms, and squishy toys. Bright, natural lighting and a clean, uncluttered space

Incorporating sensory play at home or in the classroom doesn’t have to be complex or expensive. Many sensory activities can be created with everyday materials and can be tailored to suit children of varying needs and interests.

From the simplicity of playing with scented playdough to the excitement of themed sensory bins, these experiences are invaluable in providing safe yet stimulating challenges for kids to navigate.

Educators and parents alike can leverage sensory play to facilitate an interactive learning environment that is both educational and enjoyable.

Key Takeaways

  • Sensory play enriches children’s development across multiple domains.
  • Creative and accessible activities support learning through hands-on experiences.
  • These activities can be easily adapted for different ages and learning objectives.

Understanding Sensory Play

Sensory play is a crucial part of early childhood development, tapping into a child’s senses to promote learning and the acquisition of both fine and gross motor skills. Through this form of play, children from infants to preschool age can explore and naturally make sense of the world around them.

The Role of OT in Sensory Play

Occupational therapists (OTs) often use sensory play as a therapeutic method to address developmental challenges in children. They create tailored sensory activities that aid in the development of sensory processing abilities. For children who struggle with sensory processing disorders, OTs design sensory-rich environments which allow for the safe exploration and enhancement of sensory integration. As a result, sensory activities under the guidance of OTs can significantly support the development of fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil, and gross motor skills, like walking or jumping.

Benefits of Sensory Activities

Sensory activities have a wide array of benefits for children, including but not limited to the support of cognitive growth, language development, social interaction, and emotional regulation. Engaging multiple senses helps children create complex learning experiences, nurturing their cognitive development and increasing their neural pathways. For example, a simple activity like playing with textured balls can enhance their tactile sensations and motor skills. Additionally, sensory play lays a foundation for later learning skills, building up the ability to complete more complex tasks and solve problems.

Sensory Play Ideas for Home

Engaging children in sensory play at home benefits their development across touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. These sensory play ideas are easy to create with household items, providing both educational and calming activities for children.

Creating a Sensory Bin

A sensory bin serves as a contained space for children to explore different textures and materials. To start, one can fill a plastic tub or container with a base like rice, beans, or water beads. Adding items such as measuring spoons, small toys, or natural elements like leaves and twigs enhances the tactile experience. Encourage children to dig, pour, and sort to stimulate fine motor skills and cognitive development.

Messy Play at Home

Messy play encompasses activities that are often gooey, squishy, and delightfully chaotic. Homemade playdough or slime provide a variety of textures for children to squish and mold, integrating the senses of touch and sight. Edible options like pudding or jelly allow for safe taste exploration, especially for younger kids.

Water Play Basics

Water play is a simple yet effective form of sensory play that can involve different temperatures, movements, and sounds. Fill a basin with water and provide cups and funnels for pouring, or float objects to teach concepts of sinking and floating. This form of play not only excites the senses but also introduces basic science principles.

Making Sensory Bottles

Sensory bottles are clear, sealed containers filled with materials that create visual and auditory stimulation when shaken or turned. To create a sensory bottle, one can use items like glitter, beads, or colored water. They are particularly useful as a calming tool for children, helping them focus on the movement within the bottle.

Educational Sensory Activities

Sensory activities are not only enjoyable for children but also crucial for their development. These activities can be expertly tailored to support cognitive growth in areas such as language and mathematics.

Incorporating Sensory Activities into Learning

Sensory activities enrich the learning experience by engaging multiple senses simultaneously. Educators can enhance cognitive skills by weaving these activities into their lesson plans. For preschool children, incorporating textures into storytime can heighten their tactile senses and improve memory retention. An example is using fabric storyboards with varied textures for each character or element of the story.

Sensory Play for Language Development

Language development can be significantly bolstered through sensory activities. Activities such as sound matching games encourage children to listen carefully and differentiate between sounds. Practicing phonetic sounds using scented playdough that corresponds to different letter shapes can both engage the sense of smell and reinforce letter recognition.

Math and Sensory Integration

Sensory activities are exceptionally useful for making abstract mathematical concepts more tangible. For example, creating patterned bead strings can help children recognize and create sequences, which is a fundamental math skill. Additionally, using sensory bins filled with items for counting and sorting can promote numeracy, particularly in sorting objects by size, color, or type for categorization.

Sensory Play Recipes and Materials

Sensory play is essential for children to develop their tactile, olfactory, and visual senses. It often involves materials that are touch-friendly and can be scented or taste-safe, offering a multi-sensory experience. The following subsections offer a variety of recipes and materials to inspire sensory play.

Homemade Play Dough

Materials Required:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3/4 cup of salt
  • 4 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 2 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Food coloring


  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a large pot.
  2. Stir in the water, oil, and desired food coloring.
  3. Cook over medium heat until the mixture forms a doughy ball.
  4. Allow to cool, then knead until smooth.

Homemade play dough provides a safe and tactile material for children to sculpt and manipulate. Its soft texture is ideal for sensory play, and by adding different scents or colors, each batch can offer a new sensory experience.

Safe Slime and Goop

Safe Slime Materials:

  • 1/2 cup non-toxic PVA glue
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon baking soda
  • 2-3 tablespoons saline solution (contact solution)

Safe Slime Instructions:

  1. Mix the glue and baking soda in a bowl.
  2. Add saline solution gradually, stirring until the mixture becomes slimy.
  3. Knead with hands for a stretchier slime.

Goop Materials:

  • Cornstarch
  • Water
  • Food coloring (optional)

Goop Instructions:

  1. Mix cornstarch and water in a 2:1 ratio.
  2. Add food coloring for visual stimulation.
  3. Explore the non-Newtonian fluid with hands, noticing its solid-like behavior under pressure and liquid flow when relaxed.

Slime and goop are sensory materials that provide different tactile experiences. Slime is stretchy and gooey, while goop transitions between solid and liquid, intriguing children as they touch and play.

Cloud Dough and Sand Foam Recipes

Cloud Dough Materials:

  • 8 cups flour
  • 1 cup baby oil or vegetable oil


  1. Mix flour and oil in a large container until well combined.
  2. Mold and shape the cloud dough for an easy, crumbly sensory experience.

Cloud dough mimics the feel of wet sand and is often used for themed sensory bins. Incorporating different toys or objects can extend the sensory exploration.

Sand Foam Materials:

  • 2 cups of clean sand
  • 1 can of shaving cream


  1. Mix sand with shaving cream until it reaches a foamy, semi-solid state.
  2. Engage in sensory play by forming shapes or writing in the foam.

Sand foam offers a unique texture, mixing the graininess of sand with the airy lightness of foam. This material is excellent for tactile exploration and creating three-dimensional forms.

Each of these recipes uses commonly found materials to create sensory play substances that are touch-inviting, often scented, and always engaging. Through these activities, children can safely explore textures and forms, enhancing their sensory experiences.

Themed Sensory Activities

Themed sensory activities provide an engaging way for children to explore the world through their senses while celebrating various seasons, holidays, and cultures. These activities are designed to stimulate the senses of touch, sight, smell, hearing, and sometimes taste, using materials that align with specific themes.

Seasonal Sensory Bins

Winter Sensory Activities: During the colder months, a winter-themed sensory bin can excite young minds with materials like cotton balls for snow, and plastic ice cubes for tactile exploration. Add in some penguins or snowflake confetti to enhance the wintry feel. These activities tap into the chill and beauty of the season, allowing children to experience winter’s unique attributes indoors.

Summer Sensory Activities: Contrastingly, summer sensory bins tend to include bright colors and water play. A bin filled with sand, seashells, and small beach toys can provide a sensory experience reminiscent of a day at the beach. Incorporating water beads can also offer a unique texture that mimics water droplets on a summer day.

Holidays and Sensory Play

Christmas: For a festive December, Christmas sensory activities for kids might feature red and green rice, jingle bells, and scented pine cones. This type of play lets children immerse themselves in the holiday spirit while practicing fine motor skills by sorting and sifting through themed items.

Easter: When Easter approaches, sensory bins can be created with pastel-colored materials—think plastic eggs, shredded paper grass, and small chick figurines. These playful setups not only celebrate the holiday but also encourage children to engage in imaginative play while they search for hidden ‘Easter eggs’.

Cultural Sensory Experiences

Exploring cultures through sensory play can include creating bins that celebrate different countries and their traditions. For example, a cultural sensory experience for a Chinese New Year may involve red and gold rice, dragon figurines, and silk fabric pieces. Sensory activities like these help children learn about and respect various cultural celebrations through hands-on exploration and play.

Sensory Play for Different Needs

Sensory play is a critical aspect of child development that caters to various ages and needs, including those of children with special requirements. It encompasses activities that engage the senses and can be tailored to provide a calming effect, support children from toddlers to preschoolers, and adapt to the individual sensory needs of each child.

Sensory Play for Various Ages

Adapting Activities for Special Needs

Children with special needs often require specific modifications to sensory activities to engage effectively. Adapting textures to be less overwhelming or using visual aids can help children with sensory processing difficulties participate. Sensory play activities like filling sensory bags with various materials can be a non-threatening way for these children to explore sensory input.

Calming Sensory Activities

For children who need help to settle down, calming sensory activities can be incorporated into their daily routine. Examples include:

  • Weighted blankets: These can provide gentle, evenly distributed pressure.
  • Auditory input: Listening to soft music or nature sounds can be soothing for many children and is a key component in creating a serene environment.

Each sensory play activity should be selected with careful consideration of the child’s individual preferences and sensitivities, ensuring a beneficial and enjoyable experience for children with different needs.

Implementing Sensory Play in the Classroom

Children explore a variety of sensory materials, such as sand, water, and playdough, in a brightly lit classroom with colorful, organized shelves

Sensory play is critical for children’s development, aiding in their cognitive growth, fine motor skills, and sensory processing abilities. Integrating sensory play within the classroom environment can be achieved by setting up dedicated areas and incorporating group activities that stimulate the senses.

Setting Up a Sensory Table

Creating a sensory table involves some basic steps. First, ensure that the table is accessible to all children, considering height and reach. Fill the table with various materials that stimulate different senses: tactile elements can include items such as rice, beans, or water beads. Sensory bins can also be rotated regularly to maintain interest and exposure to different textures, scents, and visual elements. Label the bins clearly to assist children in understanding the content and facilitate teaching through sensory exploration.

Sensory Play in Group Settings

Group activities enhance learning experiences and social interaction among children, especially in a preschool setting. Incorporate sensory play in group settings by organizing activities that require collaboration and sharing. For example, create a group mural with mixed materials like fabric swatches and foam shapes to stimulate the sense of touch. This not only promotes tactile exploration but also encourages cooperative learning and creativity.

Utilizing sensory play is an effective strategy for teachers to support a comprehensive learning environment in the classroom, where all children, including those with sensory processing challenges, can thrive in exploring the world around them.

Frequently Asked Questions

These FAQs aim to provide clear and concise information about sensory play activities suitable for children of various ages, as well as best practices for safe and effective sensory play experiences.

What are some suitable sensory activities for infants?

Infants benefit from activities that stimulate their basic senses. Examples include playing with textures and soft toys, gently touching different materials, and listening to various sounds. It’s important to supervise closely to ensure safety.

How can parents introduce sensory play to toddlers aged 1-2 years?

At this age, toddlers can start exploring more hands-on activities like sand and water play. Introducing containers of different shapes and sizes for filling and pouring can enhance their cognitive skills and hand-eye coordination.

What are engaging sensory activities for preschool children aged 3-5 years?

Preschool children enjoy more complex activities. One can set up sensory bins with rice or beans for them to scoop, pour, and find hidden objects. This age group can also handle simple crafts that incorporate a variety of textures and colors.

How does sensory play support development in children with autism?

Sensory play can be highly beneficial for children with autism, as it supports their unique developmental needs. It helps them to process sensory information more effectively, enhancing their focus and ability to interact with their environment.

Can you provide examples of sensory play for 2-year-old children?

Two-year-olds may enjoy sensory bags filled with gel and small items to manipulate, or they might like digging in a sandbox for hidden treasures. Activities that allow them to get messy, like finger painting, are also suitable and fun.

What are the recommended best practices when conducting sensory activities?

When conducting sensory activities, it’s crucial to always supervise children to prevent ingestion of non-edible materials. Use non-toxic, age-appropriate materials, and introduce one sensory activity at a time to prevent overwhelming the child. Providing a calm, inviting space for sensory play is also recommended.

About the author
Daisy is a writer, mom, and expert on all things toddler-related. As a parent of three young children, she's experienced the highs and lows of parenthood firsthand, and she's passionate about sharing her insights with others. Through her website, The Toddler Life, Daisy offers practical advice and tips on everything from potty training to picky eaters. She's not afraid to get real about the challenges of parenting, and her honest and relatable writing style has earned her a loyal following of readers.