Sensory Bin 101

Sensory bins are one of the few things which keep my children playing independently for a solid hour.  As such I’m all for them! Read on for a basic guide on how to create your own…

A sensory bin is formed from any safe, tactile material which encourages children to play while engaging the senses. They don’t have to be messy – although that can be part of the fun – because their contained nature largely stops the integral parts spreading too far a field.

The possibilities of what to put in a sensory bin are endless.  Sometimes I chose things just for the fun of pouring, scooping and sticking your hands in them!  Other times I try to think of materials which are more geared to imaginary (small world) play.  I’ll be posting more specific ideas soon but choosing from the following elements will help you put together fun sensory bin experiences.

Choose your containers:

What you put the materials in is totally up to you. I tend to choose from tubs we already own depending on who’s playing (and how many kids) and what’s going inside them.

  • Plastic storage bins – deep and rectangular, often handily have a lid…
  • Under bed storage bin – This is my favorite! Great for more than one child and shallow so easy to lean over and play in. Also have lids.
  • Water table – obviously ideal for summer and liquids, but also good for messier items too.
  • Roasting tin or disposable foil trays – ideal for small scale play, one child and when you are on your travels.


Pick your basic material:

  • Dry Rice (see below for how to color)
  • Beans or pulses
  • Dried or cooked pasta (also can be dyed easily)
  • Oats
  • Corn kernels
  • Water – and ice
  • Sand
  • Salt (Takes scent and color well)
  • Cotton wool balls
  • Packing peanuts
  • Natural materials such as dirt, straw, gravel
  • Jello!
  • Water beads
  • Just about anything else you can think of…


Add your Extras:

Mix and match a suitable combination from:

  • Scoops, jugs and cups
  • Ladles, spoons and whisks
  • Scent- cinnamon sticks, lemons, limes, candy canes…
  • Fine motor practice – tweezers (UK link), handy scoops and droppers (UK link)
  • Small toys – such as Duplo, Play Mobil, vehicles
  • Model animals
  • Shapes, letters or numbers (wooden, foam or whatever you have)


How to dye rice or pasta:

This really is pretty straight forward! Tip the cheapest bag of rice into a mixing bowl. Squirt in a few pumps of hand sanitizer and a little food color gel (UK link) (maybe an eighth of a tea spoon to start with). Stir with a big spoon until its evenly colored.

Alternatively (although I’m trying to avoid single use plastics) you can put everything into a baggie/freezer bag seal, and smoosh it around with your hands.

To dry, spread the rice or pasta onto shallow trays and wait.  It shouldn’t take too long because the hand sanitizer helps evaporation.

You can also try using water color dyes (UK link) without the hand sanitizer to dye pasta – dried or cooked.  It may take a quite a lot in order to get a strong color though.

Rice and Bats Sensory Bin


Unleashing the play and keeping things contained…

If your family is new to sensory bins you may want to want to spend a little time explaining the rules of play.  While I often put the sensory bin or a sheet or outside I do explain that they need try and pour over and keep play within the container. I point out that if they put the materials all over the place they’ll run out of things to play with and that’s no fun!

As with any new game I don’t assume that children know how to play with it.  Sometimes they just want to get stuck in but normally I’ll play along side for the first 5 or 10 minutes modelling ideas for things that they can do with the materials or helping make up stories to act out. After that their imaginations and desire to explore takes over and I can get on with other things while keeping one eye on the fun. (But this is a call you need to make for yourself, if your child is likely to eat the mud or any other creative joy you should stay with them!)

And my best advice. Have a lid! Know when to call time on the activity and explain that they can play again when you say it’s ok.  Our sensory bins are not on the shelf for use whenever they feel like it, they are for when it suits me.


And finally, yes there may be a little mess. I wait until everything is dry and sweep or vacuum up.  It never takes as long as I might think and it is totally worth it for the children’s delight and the hour off it buys me!


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