What is a sensory bin? – Busy Toddler

What is a sensory bin? Image is a child sitting behind a storage container pouring orange water. Several cups, bowls, and pitchers are in the bin.

Sensory bins are a hands-on and immersive play opportunity for children. A sensory bin is often created inside a container using a variety of different materials and tools. Sensory bins provide children with a chance to develop critical life skills, academic skills, and motor skills in a fun, play-based way.

What is a sensory bin? Image is a child sitting behind a storage container pouring orange water. Several cups, bowls, and pitchers are in the bin.

What is a sensory bin?

A sensory bin is created by placing materials and tools into a container for children to play and interact with. Sensory bins do not have an “end goal” the way a craft project or other structured children’s activity might.

Sensory bins can be used with a wide age range of children, from babies to big kids. These sensory bins can be created with anything from water to rice to bubble foam – and using household items as “tools.”

The most important part of a sensory bin is that it is a tactile experience for children and a safe place for them to have free play and free exploration. This is a chance for the child to engage with materials and form their own learning and knowledge.

RELATED: Why is sensory play important? I’ll get to that in this article, but for a more in-depth look, check out this post.

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How to set-up a sensory bin

Sensory bins vary greatly: from the super messy bin to edible bins safe for tabies and young toddlers.

The first step in creating a sensory bin is to identify the material (or base) that will anchor the sensory bin, but as you select the base – you need to consider how to keep everyone (and everything) successful.

When starting to build a sensory bin, consider the child, the environment, and the container. Some good questions to ask yourself are:

  • What developmental stage is the child in?
  • How many kids are playing with the bin?
  • Where will this sensory play occur?
  • How much of the sensory base is available?
  • How much base is needed to fill the container?
  • How will the container be emptied or cleaned at the end?
  • Can the surroundings or the child get messy?

Always, and I mean always, consider these questions before setting up a sensory bin and choosing the sensory base.

RELATED: Looking for all my sensory activities in one location? Here it is!

Why is sensory play important? Two children play in a sensory bin of oobleck.

What should be in a sensory bin?

Sensory bins first need a good base. This is like the foundation of the house – and a lot about the magic (or mayhem) of a sensory bin comes from the base.

The base of a sensory bin needs to be developmentally appropriate for the child. That’s a really fancy way of saying “this material needs to be either taste safe or not a choking hazard, and something the child can use given their current skills.”

It’s not hard to come up with sensory bases, but it is critical to consider the base before just tossing it into a container and assuming that what worked on Instagram or Pinterest will work perfectly for your child.

Not quite.

Take a second to think about the kids, their safety, their needs, and what will be successful with this crowd (for more information on how to keep sensory bins tidy – don’t miss my entire post on it).

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of sensory bin bases that may work for your sensory bins:

Taste-safe sensory bin bases

Not-taste safe sensory bin bases

A lot of these bases, like rice, beans, cornmeal, and cloud dough, can be saved for years in zipper bags or air tight containers. These materials become a really cost-effective “toy” that the child can play with for years.

REMEMBER: It’s really important to use your best judgment for the child/children that will be playing with the sensory bin and their safety. Always use supervision with sensory bins.

RAINBOW RICE SENSORY BIN ACTIVITY: A toddler playing with rainbow rice in a quick and easy sensory bin activity from Busy Toddler using colored rice, funnels, and scoops for a simple life skills activity

Once you’ve picked your perfect, safe, and just right sensory bin base, next up in the tools for the sensory bin.

The beauty of sensory bins is that you can leave the base and switch out only the tools to create a completely different play and learning experience. The tools in a sensory bin help form the identify of the bin – and kids love switching things up and finding a favorite way to explore the materials.

Best tools for sensory bins

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Storage Container

This is the actual bin that I use in most of my sensory play activities. It’s 28 quarts and can be stored under a bed or couch when not in use.

Funnels

Funnels are an absolute GOAT of sensory play. These give kids a chance to practice scooping, filling, measurement, and imaginary play. Never overlook the simple funnel.

Fine Motor Tool Set

This has been a favorite in our family since 2015 (gasp!). This set is such a work horse and different tools find their way into almost every bin, from rainbow rice to kinetic sand to water play.

Scoops

Absolutely love having a set of scoops for sensory bins. This is a great set of varying sizes – and perfect for scoop, pour and transfer activities.

Simple bowls

I have a dedicated set of small bowls for sensory play – this is where “potions,” “soups,” and other imaginary concoctions are crafted.

Measuring Cups

After losing my measuring cups too many times to sensory bins, I did break down and buy a dedicated set that lives with out materials.

Honorable Mention Sensory Bin Supplies

These are a bit more specific to the kid or the sensory bin than the other basic supplies, but my family would be lost without these:

Small Construction Trucks

These were a major player for my sensory play when I began making bins for my kids… and 8-years-later, these same trucks are being played with right now in a kinetic sand sensory bin (how’s that for breaking the fourth wall?).

Plastic Tea Set

We love having a small plastic tea set (or similar) for water pouring sensory bins. No matter the age, this is a timeless classic.

Small Animal Toys

I don’t know if my daughter has ever played in a sensory bin and not added a handful of tiny animals into it. These are everything for her play.

What’s the purpose of a sensory bin?

There are many reasons to make a sensory bin, but I’ll start here (and of course, I’m speaking in general terms. All kids are unique and different, with different preferences):

Sensory bins have a way of holding a child’s attention unlike any other toy they may own.

They engage more with it. Play longer with it. And sustain interest far exceeding what a traditional toy can offer.

Sensory bins are an incredible catalyst to a child’s independent play – which benefits both the child and the parent/care giver (the sittervising that comes during sensory play is epic).

The amount of time, chores, cooking, life, email answering, etc that I have done while a child played with a sensory bin… well, it’s enough to make me write an entire blog post love letter to them.

But what else? How are sensory bins important?

Sensory bins unlock unbelievable amounts of learning. Here are a few skill children practice and develop in sensory play:

  • Math skills: capacity, estimating
  • Science knowledge: solids, liquids, experimenting
  • Problem solving: hypothesis, looking for solutions
  • Life skills: scooping, pouring, transferring, spoon/cup skills
  • Fine motor development: pinching, turning, coordination
  • Imaginary play: applying, growing skills
The Best Sensory Play Activities: a child leans over a bin of rainbow rice with some in a funnel.

Frequently Asked Questions

What age are sensory bins for?

Sensory bins (depending on the material) can be created for a child once they can sit up on their own. Water in a cookie sheet is a great first sensory exploration option – with supervision of course. Around 12 months old, dry rice is often a first sensory bin option. Children continue to enjoy sensory bins and sensory play past age 10.

Do sensory bins have to be messy?

NO! Sensory bins do not have to be messy for the child to get the full benefit. Set rules. Have boundaries. Teach your child to play with a sensory bin that same way you taught them not to throw food at the table or dump water out of the bath. You didn’t stop serving food because they dumped a plate. You worked with them. You showed them how to eat without dumping. Do the same for sensory bins.

What is the best sensory bin?

Rice. Rice is the most flexible and widely enjoyed sensory material in my history of creating bins for kids. Rice can be used to pour, scoop, bury, and funnel with. Rice also saves for years. It’s cost-effective and the same rice can be reused for 3-5 years, if stored in an airtight container.

Susie Allison, M. Ed

Owner, Creator

Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 1.9 million followers on Instagram. A former teacher and early childhood education advocate, Susie’s parenting book “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” is available on Amazon.



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