Adults often take their five senses for granted and don’t realize how important they are in early childhood development. When kids are little, everything is a new experience. Parents may cringe when babies put objects in their mouths, but they’re actually using their senses to learn what is soft and hard, bumpy and smooth, cold and warm.

The benefits of sensory play

Sensory play is one of the best ways for children to explore the world around them. Sensory play is any activity that stimulates the use of one’s senses (touch, taste, smell, hear, and sight). It feels like fun – squishing play dough through your fingers, popping bubbles, making music, or digging in a sandbox – but it actually aids brain development.

Occupational therapists use sensory play to help children with fine motor skills and sensory integration issues, but it’s beneficial for all children. You don’t have to be a teacher or a therapist to find sensory play activities to encourage your child to explore using his or her senses. Parents can add sensory play into your home life easily and inexpensively. You just have to think with your senses!

10 fun sensory play activities you can do at home

DIY Sensory Boards for Babies and Toddlers

A sensory board is a board with different objects that babies or toddlers can touch and feel. The various objects will feel different because they have different textures. In many cases, sensory boards will also have objects that make noise. A sensory board can easily stimulate the senses of sight, touch, and hearing. To get started, check out 35 Cool And Easy DIY Busy Boards For Toddlers.

DIY Balloon Bongo Drums

Another fun multi-sensory DIY project is the balloon bongo drum (which doubles as a shaker and a guiro). Using a tin can, a rubber band, a balloon, and some dry rice or beans, you can make a colorful bongo drum for your child. Your child can use the drumstick to run across the bumpy ridges of the tin can, beat the balloon top of the drum, or shake the dry goods in the can. You can look up other ideas for homemade musical instruments and start a family band.

Wet and Dry Pasta Exploration

Pasta simply amazes kids – no matter if it is cooked or uncooked!1 They can explore the various shapes of dry pasta, or they can even try to put spaghetti noodles through the holes of a strainer (which will also strengthen their fine motor skills). Then, after the pasta is cooked, cool it with cold water, and let them squish the pasta noodles in their little hands.

Homemade Sensory Bins

A sensory bin is essentially a box or tub designed for kids to explore with their hands. You can be creative and fill these bins with various substances. For instance, you can fill the bin with sand and have kids dig for hidden objects. Fill another with water and see how objects sink or float. Shaving cream, beads, rice, ice cubes, shredded newspaper, gelatin, potting soil, and other substances work well, too. Kids can practice digging, scooping, pouring, and exploring different textures. If you’re handy, try making a slightly larger scale sand or water table.

Bubble Wrap Runway Dancing

Do you remember how much fun you had popping bubble wrap? Your kids are no different! However, what we once thought was just a silly pastime is actually a wonderful sensory activity. For example, tape the sides of bubble wrap to your floor making a runway. Then, watch and listen as your kids dance down the bubble wrap runway. They will feel, hear, and see how the bubble wrap changes with each dance move.

Create a Home Garden

Work with your children to create a home garden. Gardening stimulates multiple senses from the beginning of the experience to the end when you taste the fruits of your labor. Kids will think they are just playing in the dirt, but you will know they are learning science and exploring the natural world using their senses. Add a recycling component by letting your kids help you make your own mulch out of shredded paper, lawn clippings, or cardboard.

Set Up a Stuffed Animal “Emergency Room”

Playing doctor gets a new twist when you set up an emergency room for dolls and stuffed animals and save their lives by performing CPR. Make a stretcher to wheel them in for emergency treatment. Check their “breathing” and do chest compressions on them. (If you need a refresher for authenticity’s sake, check out online CPR tutorials.)

Make S’mores

One of the most fun and tastiest ways to stimulate your child’s senses is to roast marshmallows and make smores. Everything from the campfire to the taste of the gooey warm treat is a sensory experience – and one you can enjoy together! If you want to take it a step further, make a dessert buffet with as many different textures as you can think of – smooth, crunchy, squishy, crispy, cold, warm, soft, and hard. You can include flavored gelatin, homemade ice cream, pretzels dipped in chocolate, banana pudding, Rice Krispie treats, and more.

Write with Baking Ingredients

Using the baking ingredients you have on hand, let kids explore the different ways things feel, smell, look, sound, and taste. Pour some flour on a baking pan and pour sugar on another. Tell kids to use their fingers to draw in the ingredient and describe the differences between the two substances.

Navigate a Living Room Obstacle Course

The next time you’re stuck inside on a rainy day, turn your living room into an indoor obstacle course. Use sofa cushions, laundry baskets, hula hoops, and anything else you have handy to make a course that your kids will have to climb under, over, around, and through. Use painter’s tape to make a “tightrope” on the floor and drape blankets over chairs to create a tunnel. The only limit is your imagination.

Learning disguised as fun

Sensory play feels like fun, but it helps kids to process and understand the world around them. Manipulating clay or play-dough builds the fine motor skills that kids will need later for tasks like writing, buttoning buttons, and tying their own shoes. Discovering the attributes of different items (cold, prickly, smooth) helps to build vocabulary and language. Some children feel calmer after playing in a bath, swinging, or exploring with their senses.

It isn’t always easy for parents to let their kids get messy, but you can often contain it in a sensory bin and the benefits are more than worth it. You also might find that some of these activities are fun for adults, too!