Early childhood teachers know that hands-on learning is essential. Sensory play encourages open-ended thinking, language development, collaboration, and builds fine motor skills. Sensory materials are magically both engaging and calming.
The great thing about sensory tables and bins is that reinventing the wheel is not required. Tried-and-true materials like sand, beans, rice, and water will always delight children. But, since mixing it up is fun, too, we’ve gathered some of our favorite next-level sensory play ideas below. If you need even more inspo, we suggest grabbing a copy of Exciting Sensory Bins for Curious Kids by Mandisa Watts. She’s the creator of Happy Toddler Playtime (see #19) and she knows her (ooey, gooey, squishy) stuff.
Worried about kids swapping germs while they scoop and pour? Check out the end of the post for some ideas for when you need to keep sensory play extra squeaky clean.
1. Confetti and Eggs
What kiddo wouldn’t go wild for an entire bin of confetti? Eggs for opening, closing, scooping, and hiding “treasure” make it extra fun.
Source: Wildly Charmed
2. Gems in Epsom Salt
3. Colored Ice Blocks
Freeze water and food coloring into ice cube trays and any containers you have handy. (For super cool balls, freeze colored water balloons!) Add a few utensils, and play away!
4. Mini “Skating Rink”
A pan of frozen water + figurines frozen into ice cube “skates” = miniaturized skating fun!
5. Itsy Bitsy Spiders and a Spout
Investigate water in motion while singing the classic nursery rhyme.
6. Iceberg Ahead!
Hop on! Freeze a couple of pans of water and float them in your sensory table with some Arctic animals.
7. Gourd Wash
Washing pumpkins is a preschool fall staple. Adding colored water and fun-shaped sponges definitely adds some oomph!
Source: @friendsartlab/Gourd Wash
8. Button Boats
Buttons are fun, foil and container “boats” are really fun…together, LOTS of fun!
9. Floating Flower Petal Fun
Deconstruct a spent bouquet, or bring in some clippings from outside. Just add water and utensils for hours of flower-themed fun. (It’s also amazing to freeze flower petals in ice cube trays or muffin tins of water!)
10. Magic Puffing Snow
Okay, so you will need one unusual ingredient (citric acid powder) to make this Magic Puffing Snow, but it’s so, so worth it. Check out the whole Fun at Home With Kids site for every other kind of slime, dough, and foam you could ever want to make, too.
Source: Fun At Home With Kids
11. Shaving Cream and Blocks
Shaving cream “glue” adds new possibilities to block play!
12. Shaving Cream and Water Beads
Water beads are tons of fun on their own. When they start to get a little slimy and ready for the trash, squirt some shaving cream into your sensory table with them for one last hurrah!
13. Birds and Nests
Tweet, tweet! Sandi at Rubber Boots and Elf Shoes is your guru for themed sensory bins. Be sure to check out her entire A to Z list.
Source: Rubber Boots and Elf Shoes
14. Rainbow Pom Pom Fun
How can you not smile when you see this colored rice sensory table with giant pompoms and cupcake liners? (No time to dye rainbow rice? Check out readymade kidfetti for a similar feel. It’s even washable!)
Source: @friendsartlab/Rainbow Pom Pom Fun
15. Hot Cocoa Bar
There are many variations of this activity across the web, but how cute and fun is this simple one? All you need are some pinto beans, mugs, spoons and cotton ball marshmallows!
16. Three Billy Goats Gruff
Trip, trap, trip, trap! Retell a favorite story with fun props. Growing Book By Book has lots more ideas for book-themed sensory tables, too.
Source: Growing Book by Book
17. Grassy Playground
Curriculum for days! Plant grass in the sensory table and play with it once it grows. Genius!
18. Ramps and Chutes
Raid your recycling pile and get kids thinking out of the box about how to move sensory materials around, like with this corn chute setup!
Source: Fairy Dust Teaching
19. Acorn Drop
Add an element of mystery to your sensory bin simply by adding a cardboard box with holes on top. Drop, plop, retrieve, repeat!
20. “Bake” Up a Pie
Doesn’t this apple pie look good enough to eat? You could vary the pie recipe based on the season.
Tips for Keeping Sensory Play Good, Clean Fun
The only trouble with friends’ little hands digging into a bin of fun is … that’s a lot of germy little hands. You can always station a bottle of hand sanitizer next to your sensory table to clean hands before and after playing. If that’s not enough, here are some other strategies to try.
(Note: We definitely aren’t the CDC. Please defer to any regulations or guidance put forth by your district or state!)
21. Add soap!
Move hand washing right on over to the water table. You can soap up pretty much anything in a sensory table and kids will love it, but this pumpkin potions setup is especially cool. Bubble, boil, and brew!
22. Individual Mini-Trays
Play together, separately. How cute are these individual labeled trays? (Though dollar-store lasagna pans or other budget options would work just as well!) You could periodically sanitize and trade the accessories around.
23. Take Turns
Set up a table of individual sensory bins and mark each child’s spot with their photo. Sanitize or quarantine the bin contents before inviting a different set of children to use them.
24. Sensory Bags
Yeah, it’s more fun to get your hands messy. But bags can easily be wiped down between kids, so they could be the next best thing. Plus, these may get some sensory-cautious kids to play when they otherwise wouldn’t! You could go in so many directions with these seek-and-find examples.
25. Multi-Bin Table
Major props to the person who figured out this cheap and easy DIY PVC solution for a four-bin sensory table. In the classroom, you could set up a simple water play center in each bin. When one kid moves on, swap in clean water and toys, and the next kiddo is good to go!
How do you use sensory tables in your classroom? Share your favorite sensory table ideas in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.
Plus, our favorite preschool games and activities.