Sensory Bin 101

Awhile back I did a little virtual tour of our kids’ art studio and at the time I showed how we stored a 5 gallon bucket at the back of a closet. Today I’m gonna let you peek at what we keep inside that bucket.

Our sensory stash.
Sensory Bin 101 from Suzy Homeschooler (2)
We use these items to create our various sensory bins.

Now if you don’t already know, a sensory bin is small, usually plastic, bin or tub with materials inside that stimulate the various senses. Often times these bins have a theme, they don’t have to have a theme but I like a theme.

There are many benefits to sensory play for children, and sensory bins are a great way of exploring those benefits without letting your house get trashed because, unlike other sensory play options, the contents of the bin stay inside the bin. Thats basically the only rule of the sensory bin.
I give my children sensory bins because, besides keeping them quietly occupied long enough that I can do the dishes or check my email in peace, sensory bins are good for developing their fine motor skills, their concentration/ability to focus, their vocabulary, and also because it’s just plain fun. Its a fun creative outlet for me to make their bins and it’s fun for them playing with the bins.
For more in depth information about why sensory play is beneficial to developing children, see this post on pbs.org

There are 3 basic components that make up a sensory bin:
1- the base (or filler)
2- the tools
3- the fun extras (or icing on the cake)

Sensory Bin 101 from Suzy Homeschooler (1)
The base (or filler) is the bulk of the bin. The possibilities for this are endless but I’ll list a few that we’ve used:
– plain uncooked rice
– uncooked rice that has been dyed or scented, such as in this tutorial from Play Create Explore
– flower petals (real or silk)
– foil shred (the kind used to fill gift bags)
– shredded paper
– paper scraps or paper that has been cut into squares
– fake snow
– uncooked pasta noodles
– oats
– dried beans
– popcorn kernels
– rock or ice cream salt
– cereal, such as cherrios or fruit loops
– bird seed
– dry dog kibble
– sand
– gravel
– leaves (real or silk)
– fabric scraps
– lengths of ribbon
– pom poms
– buttons
– beads
– jigsaw puzzle pieces
– playdough
– waterbeads
– water
– shaving cream

Sensory Bin 101 from Suzy Homeschooler (3)
The tools are the things your child uses to scoop, pour, pick up, sort, etc.. Again, there are too many possibilities to list them all but here are some examples of things we have used:
– cupcake liners
– ice cube trays
– muffin tins
– egg cartons
– small bowls
– measuring cups
– regular drinking cups
– measuring spoons
– regular eating or serving spoons
– regular eating or serving forks
– tongs, large or small
– chop sticks
– funnels
Its ok to think outside the box on this! For our melted snowman sensory bin, my son used a fingerless glove as a funnel. For our play doctor sensory bin, he used an empty vitamin bottle as a cup.

The extras (or the icing on the cake) is the most fun part of a sensory bin. They aren’t necessary, but they can really kick a bin up a notch. Literally ANYTHING GOES for this. Depending on the theme we have used board game pieces, toy animals, action figures, legos, hair clips, popsicle sticks, magnets, pom poms, foam stickers, buttons, beads, costume jewelry, pine cones, pipe cleaners, feathers, fabric scraps, hot wheels cars, jingle bells, silk flowers, etc…

Sensory Bin 101 from Suzy Homeschooler (4)
Now if you have an older baby or a toddler who hasn’t outgrown the mouthing phase, you might be thinking that sensory bins aren’t a possibility for you because of the risk of choking, nothing could be further from the truth. You just have to think larger items and remember supervision. SunnyGirl grew up in a home that always had sensory bins because of her older brother and she’s been able to actively participate in some of the bins because we made the conscious effort to choose larger items such as short strings of textured beads, wooden blocks, wooden puzzle pieces, felt food, hacky sacks, wooden instruments, large sea shells, large pine cones, textured rubber balls (many light up when bounced), various textured fabrics, or small objects within a well sealed clear container.
For children still in the mouthy phase, I recommend either using no base in the bin, or using shredded paper as the base. If the baby is old enough for dry cereal, this is also an option for a base.

Some bins might have a very simple theme such as “soft” or “red” while other bins might have a more complex theme such as “counting” or “dinosaurs.” Still other bins don’t have a theme at all.

As I mentioned before, teaching children with an age gap can be a real challenge but sensory bins are a great common ground where my 4 year old and my 1 year old can (and frequently do) peacefully play and learn together.
Here’s a bin I created to teach SunnyGirl about the color yellow, and to review numbers and counting with LittleMan:
Teaching with an age gap, numbers and yellow sensory bin from Suzy Homeschooler
There’s 1 peg doll, 2 foam blocks, 3 paint swatches, 4 hair ties, 5 butterfly hair clips, 6 toy animals, 7 legos, 8 wooden tangram triangles, 9 pom poms, a silicone numbers ice cube tray, and foam number stickers 0-9 which are all yellow. LittleMan can search through the beans for the items and count them up, match the foam stickers to the ice cube tray, count beans, exercise his fine motor skills by picking up beans using chop sticks, etc.. Meanwhile SunnyGirl can learn what is yellow, explore the different textures (soft pom poms, spongy foam pieces, hard wood), exercise her fine motor development by picking up beans with her pincher grip and scooping them with spoons, etc..

But bins don’t have to be so “educational” in order for the child to benefit from them!
Here’s another bin I created with a Captain America theme:
Captain America Sensory bin from Suzy Homeschooler
Red white and blue paper shred, red white and blue pom poms, red and blue mega bloks, a Captain America shield and American flag from our Build-A-Bear costume stash, and a couple Captain America figurines. (The lower figurine was bought at Dollar Tree, they currently have a whole range of superhero figurines for $1 each which have no movable parts so they are great for the younger fans.) In this bin LittleMan can exercise his pre-reading skills by using the figurines to act out tid bits of the Captain America comic books we’ve read to him, and SunnyGirl can continue her work on texture concepts (soft pom poms, hard mega blocks, scratchy paper shred) as well as work on her fine motor skills stacking the mega blocks.

The biggest thing is just to remember to have fun with it.
When we first started making sensory bins for LittleMan (over 18 months ago), we didn’t have the big sensory stash we have now. We started off with what we had in our kitchen cabinets and slowly expanded our collection. Over time, $1 here and $1 there have gotten us to where we are now that we have more options at our finger tips when we create our sensory bins. They have truly become a creative outlet that my husband and I enjoy designing, as well as a wonderful addition to our children’s playthings. The concentration on their faces as they manipulate the aspects of the bin, the wonder in their eyes as they discover a new sensation, the inevitable giggling when they sit together to play with a bin- I almost didn’t make that first sensory bin 18 months ago because I felt overwhelmed and unsure. Also because I didn’t want to deal with a mess if it got spilled (which actually rarely happens, and the kids help clean it up when it does happen). I am SO GLAD that I took the plunge and now I couldn’t imagine our home without them.

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12 Comments to Sensory Bin 101

  1. Great list.

    I would love for you to link up this – and your other sensory play posts – at the Sensory Play link up on Empty Your Archive, Alice @ Mums Make Lists x

    • Alice, my apologies for not seeing and responding to your post earlier. Somehow wordpress labeled your comment as spam and I don’t clean out my spam folder nearly as often as I should.
      I’ve checked out Empty Your Archive and it seems great. I’d love to participate in the link up! Thank you for telling me about it.

  2. Debs says:

    Thanks for linking this to Tuesday Tots. Just letting you know that I’ve featured it this week on Learn with Play at home. You’re welcome to grab a featured button if you like. Hope to see more from you next week. 🙂

  3. Debs says:

    Thanks for linking this to Tuesday Tots. Just letting you know that I’ve featured it this week on Learn with Play at home. You’re welcome to grab a featured button if you like. Hope to see more from you next week. Cheers, Debs 🙂

  4. Bronwyn Moorton says:

    Hi Suzy
    Thanks for your site and ideas.
    I have made a coloured rice ‘sandpit/box” for my grandkids. I add lots of different utensils to play with. Last time it was out I had rice in my bed because the 1 1/2 year old was throwing rice on the dog. LOL. It is very hard to not have it spread through the room/house. Can you explain
    the way your children play with the sensory box. I would love to do it with them too.
    Regards
    Bronwyn

    • Absolutely, Bronwyn!
      My children both know that the only real rule of sensory bin is “what is in the bin stays in the bin.” The very first time I gave my son a bin to play with, he was about your grandchild’s age (1 1/2 years) and when he spilled a bit of rice outside the bin I simply told him “no, what is in the bin stays in the bin.” Then I took his hand in mine and showed him how to clean up the mess. In the beginning he needed me to remind him clean up the mess and sometimes to help him clean up the mess, but now that he’s older (4 years) he generally understands and usually cleans it up by himself without reminder whenever he has an accidental spill. He also helps teach his younger sister (just alittle over 1 year) the rule and how to clean up spills. She is starting to clean up spills without reminder earlier than her brother did and I believe thats because she’s has his good example to follow.
      If they decide to limit test or throw things on purpose then, besides making them clean the mess, I also put the bin away for at least a few hours. Limit testing happened a few times in the very beginning but less than I expected it would.
      It took a bit of effort in the beginning to teach them the one rule, however we are now to the point where I feel comfortable leaving certain sensory bins within their reach so they can just grab it and play whenever. In fact, we have one larger sensory bin that is left out to play with just like any other toy.
      Now, this is just what works for my family. If for any reason you don’t feel that this is a viable option for your family, then there is one “easier” way to clean up spills but it won’t protect you from throwing of rice: drop cloth. Put a large tarp or blanket under the bin so that when they finish playing you can simply pour spills back into the bin. Like I said though, no matter how large the tarp is, its not going to protect you from things being thrown, only from spills.
      I hope this helps!
      – Suzy

  5. Jessica Roberts says:

    How big are the bins you use? They are AWESOMe by the way! 🙂

    • Thank you. I use a 15 quart bin. The base is about 17in x 12in and they are 6in tall. My two children fit comfortably around this size bin, but it is a bit on the small side when they have friends over.

  6. […] July 4th Themed Sensory Tub from Suzy Homeschooler […]

  7. Ana Mariana Mcclanahan says:

    GREAT IDEAS! I used to teach and the sensory project is awesome. We did similar projects, but yours rock. Welcome to the USA!

  8. […] Sensory bins (so easy to make your own!)– Create themes for the child’s current interest or reinforce school curriculum/units. […]

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