Building a Sensory Stash…from Scratch!

Wanting to get started trying some sensory play activities at home but not sure where to start? This post is just for you! Today I’m going to share ideas on building a stash of sensory play materials from scratch.

This particular topic was inspired by a question from Tara, who asked, “My mom is willing to buy some sensory supplies for Christmas for my 15-month-old. What are the basics I should ask for? I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have bins or craft supplies lying around. Thanks!”

I thought there might be others out there that would appreciate reading my answer to this question, so without further adieu…

Suggestions for building a sensory play stash for any budget.

*This post contains affiliate links for your convenience*

First off, let’s review what sensory play is.  Sensory play is simply play that encourages children to use one or more of the senses.  Often called “messy play,” sensory play experiences focus on stimulating childrens’ senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, and movement.  Research has shown us that sensory play supports growth in a variety of different developmental areas.  Read more about the benefits of sensory play at my recent post Sensory Play: Is This Really Necessary?

If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know that although I occasionally plan more elaborate sensory experiences for my kiddos and their friends, I am a big believer in keeping sensory play simple most of the time.  Why? Sensory activities that are cheap (or even free) and easy to prepare are more likely to be repeated by parents, and most important, they are just as fun and developmentally stimulating as their flashier counterparts!

So, back to Tara’s question…what are the basic supplies for a sensory stash?  To answer this question, I came up with a list of all the different types of supplies we have used (or plan on using) for sensory play.  Some are free, most are cheap, and those that cost a little more money are fun but not essential.  This way, if you are like Tara and wondering where to begin building your stash, you can evaluate what you already have, decide what you still need/want, and use your funds accordingly.  You certainly don’t need all of these things (or even half of them) to have a good stash…pick a few from each category to start with and then add more over time.

Category #1: Setting the Stage

Before you start choosing materials, decide where you are going to be doing the bulk of your sensory play.  Here in Texas, the weather is warm most of the year, so we do a lot of our messy play outside on the back porch. But when it’s too hot (or occasionally chilly) to play outside, we move indoors and take a few precautions to protect our floors and contain the mess as best we can.

You probably already have towels that you wouldn’t mind getting a little dirty in the name of developmental stimulation 😉 Other items that work well to contain messes include old blankets (best for dry materials like rice), inexpensive vinyl or plastic tablecloths (our favorite), drop cloths, or shower curtains.  If your little ones are squeamish about getting their clothes messy, a small apron might encourage them to participate.  We have also used baby pools and large, shallow cardboard boxes as sensory play areas for our kiddos.  Some people use sensory tables (DIY or store bought) for sensory play, but we have yet to invest in one.  *Update: We were gifted this Step2 Water Table and it is AWESOME for sensory play- I love how there are different sections and levels that can be used for different materials that the kids can mix themselves. Don’t forget, the shower or bathtub is a great place to play with materials that go down the drain easily, too! Just play away and then stay put for a quick rinse!

Category #2: Containers/Storage

Most of the time we use plastic tubs in various sizes as our sensory bins.  I like using these because they are transparent and you can easily store the contents when you are done just by snapping on the lid.  You can also use plastic baggies and empty plastic water bottles as containers for less messy sensory play or sensory play for babies.  Before you start accumulating your materials, think about where you might want to store your sensory supplies.  Do you have an empty cabinet with room for bins? Is there a place in your house or garage where you could place a small shelving unit or cubby dedicated to your sensory materials?  The more organized you can keep your materials, the longer you can preserve them and ultimately the less money you will spend.  I will admit, I learned this the hard way!

Easy DIY sensory bottles

Easy DIY sensory bottles- fill with some interesting items (water is optional) and make sure the cap is glued on tight!

Category #3: Sensory Materials

And now, the fun part!  Here are some ideas for sensory materials for your bins and/or baggies.  These elements can be played with alone or combined with others on the list for new experiences.  You can make sensory bins as simple as you want (i.e. pinto beans with a scoop and a bowl) or you can create them with themes in mind.  Older toddlers and children enjoy small world sensory play, which is a great imagination booster to go along with the sensory stimulation.  Please note, these are just the things I was able to jot down in a few minutes; do a Google or Pinterest search for toddler sensory play and no doubt there will be tons more inspiration for you!

**Please use common sense when planning sensory play for your little ones; mine still try to sneak things in their mouths occasionally that they shouldn’t!  Never leave young children alone with small objects or liquids, and choose larger items for baby sensory play!**

Dry Materials

  • Leaves
  • Pasta (dry)
  • Oats
  • Cornmeal
  • Rice (natural or dyed)
  • Dried corn
  • Lentils
  • Couscous
  • Cereal (we like Cheerios and Rice Crispies)
  • Sequins
  • Beads
  • Marbles or “Gems”
  • Feathers
  • Fabric scraps of different textures
  • Easter grass
  • Torn or shredded paper
  • Ribbon pieces
  • Sand
  • Sandpaper squares
  • Packing peanuts
  • Cotton balls
  • Pom poms
  • Ping pong balls
  • Buttons
  • Pipe cleaner pieces or corkscrews (wrap around pencils and slide off)
  • Cloud dough
  • Acorns
  • Coffee grounds
  • Seashells

Ocean Ice

Wet Materials

  • Water (plain or colored with food coloring or Fizzy Bath Tablets)
  • Ice (plain, colored, shaped, or with objects frozen inside)
  • Cooked pasta
  • Shaving cream
  • Bubbles
  • Water beads 
  • Non-toxic paint (store bought or DIY)
  • Jello
  • Jam/Jelly
  • Pudding
  • Yogurt
  • Play dough 
  • Hair gel (best in a plastic baggie; very fun with glitter added!)
  • Essential oils (add a few drops to scent various sensory materials, be sure to buy “therapeutic grade” if you have a child who is still mouthing)
  • Oobleck/Goop
Goo Bags

Glittery goo bags taped in the window!

Category #4: Tools of the Trade

Although they aren’t essential to sensory play, adding “tools” can take the experience to a whole new level by encouraging little ones to explore sensory materials in new and different ways.  I define a sensory tool as any item you can add to sensory materials that encourages manipulation (dumping, filling, scooping, pouring, stirring, poking, etc.) and/or imaginative play.  Many sensory tools can be found in your kitchen cabinets, and I must admit that many of our cooking utensils are used more by our children during play time than for their intended purpose!  You might consider investing in duplicates of very frequently used kitchen items such as wooden spoons or dollar store mixing cups in the interest of preserving the ones from your kitchen.

  • Containers of various sizes for dumping and filling
  • Wooden spoons
  • Whisks
  • Shovels/Rakes
  • Cardboard toilet paper/paper towel tubes
  • Scoops
  • Tongs
  • Funnels (cut off the tops of plastic bottles for DIY version)
  • Measuring cups
  • Small toys (animals, figurines, matchbox cars; these are especially fun for themed or small world sensory bins)
  • Empty egg cartons
  • Empty ice cube trays
  • Muffin tins, mini-muffin tins
  • Cookie cutters
  • Strainer
  • Child-size (unsharp) cutlery for pretend cooking/eating
  • Paintbrushes
  • Cardboard boxes with small holes for poking items in
  • Empty wipes containers (perfect for pulling items out/pushing them in through the opening on top)
  • Empty squeeze bottles for squirting

Category #5: Other Sensory Items

Here are a few more items that didn’t quite fit in any other category that can be used for sensory play.  I had to turn my brain off at this point because this post was getting incredibly long!

  • Light box (DIY or store bought)- We don’t have one of these yet, but oh, the possibilities!  The commercial version is on the expensive side, but there are several DIY versions out there that can be constructed for a more reasonable price.  We’ll see what Santa brings this year! **Update: We now own this light panel from Constructive Playthings and we absolutely love it.
  • Child-sized musical instruments
  • Play silks/scarvesMy children LOVE these, especially my daughter!
  • Contact Paper We use this quite a bit with sensory materials for creating collages and much more!
  • Bubble wrap- If you have never seen twin toddlers playing with a sheet of bubble wrap, you are missing out.  Or maybe you aren’t 😉  Either way, try it with your little ones!
Rainbow Bubble Wrap Tree

Rainbow Bubble Wrap Tree

Well, there you have it! I hope this answers your question, Tara, and I hope others find it useful, too.  I know there is a lot of information in this post…it wasn’t meant to be overwhelming, but rather to show you that building a sensory play stash really isn’t as difficult as it may sound.  Keep the questions coming, ya’ll!

If you liked this post, you might enjoy 30 Colorful Activities for Toddlers which is full of more fun sensory play ideas.

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Comments

  1. I just found this on Pinterest. Thank you soooo much. We just started our first sensory bin… it has rice, beans, a cup, and a small picture book. I definitely needed more ideas! :-)

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