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Easy Sensory Play Ideas for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers

December 10, 2020

Sensory play is any type of play that fully engages one or more of the 5 senses: hearing, touch, smell, sight, and taste. Through sensory play your child is making connections in their brain that help develop memory, language, problem solving skills and more. In this article, you will find some ideas and examples you can try with your baby, toddler, or preschooler!

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Sensory Play for Babies can be Simple, Rewarding, and Fun

You may not know it but you have most likely been engaging in sensory play with your baby already! Research has shown that sensory play happens every time you talk to your baby, snuggle them close, or wiggle their toes! So, sensory play will look very different for babies than it would for toddlers and preschoolers.

1) Story Telling

Reading a story, making one up, or talking about the people and objects in the room are all great ways to tell stories to babies!

Babies are making connections between the words you are saying and the things they are seeing and experiencing; you can enhance your story using pictures, art, or your surroundings. You can also play with how you use your voice to tell a story; for example, change your tone of voice and volume to engage their sense of hearing.

(left) Mother rubs the chest of their infant. (right) mother reading a picture book to their baby during storytelling.

2) Singing

Singing songs is beneficial at any age, and that’s no exception for babies! When you’re singing with your baby it’s helpful to do the actions to the songs and to make lots of facial expressions. Your baby is not only listening to the songs, but they are watching as your facial expressions change and following your fingers as the itsy-bitsy spider moves up and down, or feeling your hand on their skin as you sing Head and Shoulders. 

Check out Jbrary on YouTube for a wide selection of songs with actions.

Two mothers play with infants using fingers to visually demonstrate counting and facilitate cognitive development

3) Mouthing Toys

This one your baby probably does naturally! Since their mouth is much more sensitive than their fingers, many babies will explore their toys by mouthing them to better explore the shapes and textures. Visit our Instagram to find out more about the benefits of mouthing toys!

Infant chews on a mouthing toy to explore shape and texture through touch. Image link to the BridgeWay Family Centre Instagram post describing mouthing toys.

4) Paint in a Bag

Paint in a bag is a great way for babies to engage their sense of sight. To try this out, simply place a piece of paper and a bit of children’s paint in a clear zip bag. Babies will explore their sense of sight with different colours and watch as they mix together!

Baby playing with paint in a bag,

5) Sensory Bottles

Use a clear plastic bottle or container filled with toys and objects for sensory play that engages your baby’s sense of sound and sight. Simply add a toy to a plastic container for your baby to explore in a new way, or put some water in a clear bottle!

Plastic and reusable water bottles filled with pompoms, elastic bands, sand, and rocks for visual sensory play.

Toddlers & Sensory Play: Explore a wide variety of experiences

Sensory play can start to look more complex as babies move into the toddler stage. Toddlers may expand their play by exploring materials like paint, play dough, sand, and more … in new ways! At this stage, your child might be hesitant to explore or they might throw themselves right into the sensory play. Either way, toddlers will get the most out of their sensory play experiences when you give them the freedom to explore while you stay close by.

Sensory play allows children to build their vocabulary as they hear new words—“Is the ice cold?”, “I see you’re playing with the red play dough.”, “Are those beads loud in the bottle?”—and connect them to other experiences.

1) Goop and Slime

This activity is famous for a reason! If you’re prepared for messy hands, exploring the sense of touch with goop and slime is an excellent way to try sensory play. Goop can be made easily by mixing water with cornstarch until you get a thick but squishy texture! Feel how the cornstarch changes from solid to liquid the more you play with it.

Toddlers play with pink cornstarch goop to explore touch and sight through sensory play.

2) Musical Instruments

Whether you have musical instruments at home or you’re making some of your own, instruments are a great way to engage the sense of sound! Encourage your toddler to explore the difference between how pots and pans sound compared to wooden bowls when you bang them with a wooden spoon. Fill a cup with rice or dry beans to make a shaker. Can you find some objects in your home that make no sound at all? You can also encourage your child play along to their favourite music!

Pots and pans can be used with wooden or metal utensils as musical instruments for auditory sensory play with toddlers and pre-schoolers.

3) Sensory Bags 

Sensory bags can be a lot of fun to explore! This is a great option for children who like to explore through touch but are hesitant to get their hands dirty or may be more sensitive to touch. Visit our Instagram to learn about different ways to make sensory bags! 

Image link to the BridgeWay Family Centre Instagram post describing ways to make sensory bags.

4) Sensory Play in Nature

When you step outside there is an endless supply of sensory play activities right at your feet! Exploring the different textures of rocks, playing in the snow, splashing in puddles, and smelling the flowers are just some of the sensory play activities found outside! Bring scoops and buckets to collect rocks, leaves and sticks or to dig in the snow or dirt to further engage in sensory play outdoors. 

Outdoor sensory play is a great opportunity to establish an early relationship between your baby and nature. The Riverwood Conservancy in Mississauga currently offers a Nature Babies program where you can discover their environment. 

5) Coffee Grounds

Coffee Grounds introduce a different scent, texture and sound than other sensory materials. Listen to the sounds the coffee grounds make as you wheel toy cars over them, crunch them with a potato masher, or rub them between your hands!

Toy cars and shells sit on sand and coffee grounds as a way to explore texture and sound through sensory play.

Preschoolers & Sensory Play: Moving towards investigation!

Preschoolers begin using sensory play to explore imaginative play, experiment with different materials, develop problem-solving skills, and more! They may enjoy many of the same sensory activities as toddlers; you can also add a few elements to challenge them to explore in new ways. Watch your preschooler explore the sensory materials and develop all sorts of skills, from moulding play dough into a yummy pizza to discovering what happens when you add oil to water. 

At this stage, you can use sensory play to teach your child about science! Ask questions like “What do you think will happen when we mix these ingredients?” or “Why do you think this material makes that noise?” to help your child develop skills like asking questions, coming up with predictions, and experimenting based on assumptions. Talking about what happened after play time is over can also help children practice reflection and developing conclusions about the world based on what they observed.

1) “Lava” Sensory Play

Make a “lava” sensory bottle with oil, water, and food colouring! Watch as the oil and water move through each other and separate over time. Use this time to experiment with adding more water or more oil and mixing different colours! 

(left) a child makes play lava by dropping coloured oil into a jar of water with a pipette or dropper. (right) a child drops food colouring into wells of oil and water on a tray.

2) Play Dough 

Making and playing with play dough is a great way to engage in sensory play! Add additional sensory elements by giving your play dough a different scent or adding texture to the dough.

A child sculpts green play dough into different shapes, using a cork to shape the play dough.

3) Sounds at Home 

This activity is much like the musical instruments activity we mentioned earlier, with added elements of exploration and inquiry. What sorts of sounds can you find in your home? What makes a loud noise or a quiet one? Listen closely to the different ways you can make sounds in your home! Cup your ear with your hand to make the noises even louder. To add a challenge for your preschooler, you can make a scavenger hunt for them to explore your home for different unique sounds.

A child explores sound by using the chain lock on a door, tapping a pen on a blue mug, turning a bolt lock, and turning a door handle.

Try some of our favourite sensory play recipes at home!

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