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Do you want to include more sensory experiences in your preschooler’s regular activities? Here’s a big list of different sensory play ideas that are perfect for preschoolers, whether you’re working with them at home or in a preschool setting.
What Is Sensory Play?
If you’ve spent any time on Pinterest looking at preschool activities, you’ll have come across hundreds of pins for different sensory play ideas for children of all ages.
Often these activities are of the gloopy, sticky, messy variety – they’re the things you might be tempted to say ‘no’ to because you don’t want to deal with the mess.
Really, though, sensory play encompasses anything that stimulates your child’s senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Of course, that covers every single play experience you’ve ever provided, every play experience your child has invented for himself, and everything they’ve ever done.
Life is just one big sensory experience.
So why is sensory play so important?
Sensory play helps develop those senses and fine-tune them. When they’re fully engaged with sensory play activities children are constantly refining their skills and using all their senses to observe the world around them.
It encourages language development by exposing children to a huge range of different things to talk about.
Play, in general, is incredibly important for children’s speech and language development. Sometimes you’ll be involved in their talk, sometimes you’ll be listening as they play with friends, or you’ll hear their internal monologue (because for many children, it’s not an internal monologue just yet).
Sensory play provides a lot of opportunities to introduce new vocabulary to your child.
You’ll want words to describe the way things feel, or to talk about how you’re playing with the different materials. Playing alongside your child and joining in with their world will pay dividends when it comes to their language development.
When you type ‘sensory play’ into Pinterest a lot of what you’ll get will be aimed at the sense of touch. These are the messy-play activities that preschoolers adore. Think oobleck, mud pies, or cold cooked spaghetti (or all three at once if you’re really aiming for super-mama status!).
There are four other senses though, and it’s important that you keep them in mind if you want to offer a balanced sensory diet for your child.
That sounds kind of formal, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t have to be.
You’re probably already providing what your child needs, without even thinking about it.
No activity offers input on only one of the senses.
When you’re playing with cold, cooked spaghetti, you’re feeling it, and a lot of your experience will be around touch for sure. You’re also experiencing it, as you do everything else in life, through your other senses as well:
- You’re also looking at it, talking about it, maybe trying to make it look straight rather than tangled, or making patterns with it.
- You can hear the sound it makes when you pick up a huge handful and let it slither back into the tray, or when you squish it up in your hands until it turns to mush.
- You can taste it if you like, because it’s just spaghetti. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everything, and you need to be careful to keep an eye on how children explore their sense of taste, but there are lots of safe ways to do it.
- Different play materials smell different. Even the things you wouldn’t think of as having a smell. Some of the buttons in my button tin, for example, smell really clearly and strongly of my grandmothers’ houses. They’re just buttons, mostly plastic, but I could pick which ones came from which grandmother, even if I was blindfolded and not allowed to touch them. (Does that make me weird? Quite possibly.)
The point is, everything is a sensory experience, and nothing is targeting just one sense.
Your job is to offer a banquet and then stand back and let them get on with it.
I just think it’s good to be aware, sometimes, of the activities you’re choosing.
Actively look for things that will expose them to different sounds – the bird-house at the zoo, a music concert, the garden in summer when it’s alive with insects.
Do the same for the other senses. Let them try new foods, see new things. Let them notice how the smells change in different areas of your hometown, and let them wonder why.
All of these tie into one another. Once you’ve noticed the smell of the Chinese restaurant, maybe they’ll be keen to make and taste some Chinese food? Once you’ve heard a grasshopper, you’ll probably want to spend some time hunting to see if you can spot it and watch it jump.
This post aims to offer you lots of easy options for specific sensory play experiences for your children.
It’s not a must-do list, just a huge list of ideas you might like.
You’ll find lots of these ideas will also work beautifully for slightly older, or slightly younger children, but I’ve tried to pick things that are most suitable for children aged between three and five.
Some of them will be kind of obvious, you’ll look at them and wonder why anyone needs a list to tell them this stuff.
The thing is, we all forget things. Even if you’ve got a few children, and you’ve been happily engaged in their play throughout, there will be things your older kids loved, but you haven’t yet tried with your younger ones.
With each of my children there’s been a phase where cooking dinner has seemed nearly impossible, and then, after a while of struggling, I’ve remembered the magic of water. With them stood on a chair at the sink, well-supplied with safe things to wash, and a big towel on the floor, suddenly dinner prep is so much easier.
So, here’s a big list of sensory play ideas for toddlers, most of them not new, or innovative, or unique. Hopefully some of them will be things you haven’t tried, or haven’t tried in a while.
Why is water play such a staple of preschool sensory play?
Lots of reasons. I always first think of this lovely poster from Sark, and her advice to ‘put them in water’.
There’s something innately calming about water, and not just for children. Think of the power of a quiet soak in the bath, or a peaceful swim, for you? (When was the last time you actually experienced either of those things?!)
Water play also offers great fine motor practice. Washing dishes with a cloth or brush, scooping water from one container to another. The water table or kitchen sink is a safe place to practice and refine those movements.
Stand and watch them as they figure out how to pour.
To start with, very little of the water will make it from one container to the next. It doesn’t take them long though, tweaking the way they do things, maybe changing the containers they use.
Activities like water play can help develop their inner scientist.
Anyway, on with the list of water play ideas for preschoolers.
1. Kitchen Sink.
I talked about this already, but want to give a quick run-down of how I set things up. No-one wants a huge puddle on the kitchen floor when they’re trying to cook dinner!
- Clear the area – everything within reach is going to end up in the sink, and your preschooler’s reach is way longer than you probably realise!
- Gather safe items – we like measuring cups and spoons, cups, plates and bowls, small bottles, funnels, dish brushes and cloths. You need to judge whether you need to go down the plastic-only route. All of my children have been safe to play with china mugs and Pyrex measuring jugs in the sink at this age. You know your own children best though, and if in doubt, stick to unbreakable things.
- Put a big towel on the floor – maybe a couple of big towels. Slippery floors aren’t safe, especially in kitchens. The towel will absorb the worst of the puddles.
- Have another big towel ready for scooping up your soggy child and getting them warm and dry after their water play.
- Minimise clothing – (your child, not you, unless naked cooking is your thing, in which case, no judgement here). Whatever your child is wearing when they start this activity is going to be soaked by the time they finish. Dress them accordingly.
- Use a sturdy chair – you don’t want a chair with a cushion on it because that cushion will get soaked. You don’t want a rickety, wobbly chair. So, pick your sturdiest dining chair, or pick up something like this.
- Bring out new items gradually – if you’re hoping to get a decent length of time to get stuff done in the kitchen, then you’ll want to spin out the water play for as long as possible. Set out just a few items to start with, and wait for their interest to begin to wane before you introduce something else.
A lot of the advice above applies to pretty much any water play activity for preschoolers, so I won’t rehash it all for the activities listed below. The main point is to make sure you do what you can to stop the floor ending up dangerously slippery, and make sure you’re supervising closely.
2. Car Wash.
There are a few different ways to set this up. I like to use a tuff tray for outdoor play, or the kitchen draining board if I’m trying to keep someone busy while I get dinner in the slow cooker.
- Small toy vehicles that won’t be damaged by water.
- Dish brush, cloth, and/or sponge.
- Soapy water.
- Container large enough to put your vehicles in.
- Towel or rack to park the vehicles on so they can dry.
Do you need me to tell you what to do? Probably not.
Put the soapy water in the container.
Stand the container on the draining board or tuff tray.
Show your child how to wash their vehicles and then set them aside to dry.
It’s also fun to wash toy animals, plastic dolls or figures, any kind of toy that won’t be damaged by the water.
3. Measuring And Pouring.
Back to that thing about children being scientists.
Give them opportunities to play with measuring implements, and to figure out for themselves how to transfer liquid from one container to another.
Funnels are good fun, and getting a few in different sizes is a good idea.
4. Water Beads.
Water beads are a fun addition to your water play, and another great way to develop those fine motor skills.
You can simply put out a big bowl of water beads in the middle of a tuff tray or similar, and let your children play with them. If they’ve not encountered them before they’ll probably be happy to just enjoy them for a while without any direction or guidance.
It’s fun to just scoop them up in your hands and let them fall back into the ball over and over. They’re a bit bouncy, they look beautiful, and you can squish them in your hands.
After a memorable experience involving a toddler, his wellies, some water beads, a carpet, and said toddler’s curious, scientific approach to life, we no longer allow water beads in carpeted areas.
Clear water beads in a clear container of water are interesting – they virtually disappear, so that you can feel them but not see them.
Orbeez present a whole new challenge when it comes to scooping and pouring, because of their bouncy nature.
You can also try colour sorting activities, digger play, and plenty of other things with your water beads.
Dry Sensory Play Ideas.
Water play is fun, and usually pretty clean. There’s still the potential for a big wet mess that takes a while to clean up though, and sometimes that’s not what you want.
These sensory play ideas all use dry materials that you’ll find easy to scoop or sweep up after use. A tuff tray or large shallow container makes a good surface for this kind of sensory play.
I’m going to start with a list of ideas for things to do with the different sensory play materials, and then follow up with a list of the materials themselves.
What To Provide Alongside Dry Sensory Play Materials.
It’s good to gather a collection of things you can use to scoop and transfer things from one container to another. Things like measuring scoops and cups, small plastic containers, and spoons. Try to offer a good variety of different sizes and shapes to allow your children to experiment and figure out what works best.
Bigger containers for holding larger amounts of whatever sensory play material you’re using.
Small figures or other toys. Children often enjoy burying toys in sand, or cereal, or whatever sensory material you’ve provided. They can also make mountains and roads, a whole playscape with just very simple supplies and their imagination.
Small dustpan and brush, useful for cleaning up at the end, but also good for moving the material during play.
Vehicles for driving through and making tracks, or small diggers and dumper trucks for moving things around.
Perfect for children who might still be tempted to put things into their mouth, because you know it’s safe to eat. You could give them small bowls and spoons, and invite some teddies to a breakfast party.
Rice is a great sensory play material. The small grains make it easy for children to transfer using spoons and scoops. You can leave it as it is, or you can dye it to make rainbow rice – but then you’ll have to squash your desire to keep all the colours separate.
Bigger pieces, but the same principles as rice.
Try a mixture of different shapes, paving the way for shape sorting activities.
Add pipe cleaners to a tray of tube pasta and see what threaded sculptures emerge.
You can also dye pasta in the same way as rice – and the bigger pieces make it much easier to sort back into separate colours again at the end of play.
Our button tin is part of my inheritance from both my grandmothers, and it’s full of all kinds of different buttons and fastenings.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a family button tin, you can kick-start the process by buying a huge bag of buttons to set out as a sensory play experience for your children.
There’s a lot of fun in just looking at the buttons and talking about them.
This is especially true with family button tins. Mine has the ladybird buttons from my childhood dressing gown, and duck buttons from a jumper my brother had when he was tiny. Most of the buttons fall into the ‘white shirt button’ category, but there are plenty of treasures in there too.
If you’ve got some buttons with large enough holes, try putting out some pipe cleaners alongside them. Your children can thread them to make jewellery or sculptures.
Water, in all its states, is fascinating.
The reversible change from water to ice and back again is like magic to little children, and playing with ice can be great fun.
9. Ice Rescue.
This sensory play activity needs a little bit of forward planning, but it’s nothing too onerous, I promise.
- Large container that fits in your freezer. Try a mixing bowl or plastic storage container.
- Small toys that will survive being frozen. (This is a great use for the little plastic figures that come home in party bags, or for plastic animals).
- Water, maybe with a drop or two of food colouring.
- Spray bottles, pipettes, scoops – anything you can use to move small amounts of water around.
- Salt can be a fun addition too.
- Safe tools for trying to rescue the toys – you need to decide what’s safe for your children. Tongs can be fun, spoons for scraping at the ice, little hammers for bashing it.
- A play surface with edges to catch the water – a tuff tray, or water table would be perfect.
- Put a few centimetres of water into the bottom, and let it freeze.
- Once it’s frozen, add a few small toys, another few centimetres of water, and let it all freeze again.
- Repeat the last step until your container is full (or until you’re fed up, whichever comes first) of toys frozen in a block of ice.
When you’re ready to play, get the container out of the freezer and set it in the sink while you gather everything else.
Hopefully, by the time you’re ready to play, the ice block will slip easily out of its container. If not, just run the base of the container under the cold tap for a moment, until you hear it start to release.
Put the ice block out on the play surface, and let them try to rescue the toys.
If you’re learning about a specific topic, you can theme the toys in the ice block to help encourage their learning in that area. It’s fine, though, for this to be all about the process.
If they need some help, show them how to sprinkle salt, spray water, and use the other tools you’ve provided. Let them see how, once the ice starts to break up, things get easier.
10. Ice Painting.
This one’s messy! Best done outside, and wearing clothes you don’t mind getting covered in paint and potentially permanently stained.
Start by making coloured ice cubes.
I’ve found liquid watercolours to be the best way of doing this since they give a decent colour even when watered down.
You can also use liquid food colouring.
I put a pipette full of colour into each section of an ice cube tray, and then carefully top up with water. It’s worth noting that some liquid watercolours will stain the ice tray as well, so it makes sense to keep a separate tray for art use.
Freeze your paint cubes overnight and get them out when you’re ready to paint.
Use paper that’s reasonably thick and sturdy enough to take the water as it melts.
Children can paint with the paint cubes using their hands, or by pushing them around with brushes, sticks, cutlery etc. Tongs are a good addition to this activity, and a great way to develop fine motor skills – although they can be frustrating with slippery materials like ice.
(One of our favourite tools is a set of sugar tongs like this that was given to us in a box of old pots and pans for our mud kitchen).
If you enjoyed this art activity, you might be interested in my post on easy preschool art projects as well.
11. Building With Ice Cubes.
This is a fun STEM activity that preschoolers love.
It’s great for cooling down on hot days, making it the perfect summer sensory activity.
Ice cube building is really easy to set up. You just need to spend some time ahead of the activity to get a lot of ice cubes made.
Usually, I just do this by making a tray or two every day, and emptying into a big box in the freezer. Obviously you could also just buy big bags of ice.
- LOTS of ice cubes.
- Plenty of salt.
- Teaspoons or similar (for sprinkling the salt).
- A surface to build on – plastic trays work well for individual ice sculptures or a tuff tray.
- Optional – pipettes and coloured water (just because pipettes are always fun.)
Set out the ice cubes on the tray first, and ask the children to try building with them.
Give them a few minutes to figure out that they’re too slippery to stack easily.
Then bring out the salt.
Get them to sprinkle salt onto the top surface of an ice cube, and then try stacking another one on top.
They should stick together pretty well now.
Why does this work? Because the salt lowers the freezing temperature of the water, so it melts the ice a little and makes a less slippery surface. When you put the next ice cube on top, the water refreezes around it, sticking the two cubes together.
Once they’ve mastered the basic technique, let them build whatever they want with their ice blocks.
If you’re adding pipettes of coloured water then wait until the interest in the building starts to ebb a little before bringing them out.
It’s usually best to let children fully explore and engage with one phase of an activity, or one art material, before bringing out something else.
They can decorate their sculptures by squeezing coloured water over them.
Remember to take plenty of photos so they can remember these beautiful, transient pieces of art after they’ve melted.
So far we’ve focused on activities that revolve around the sense of touch. As mentioned in the introduction to this post, though, sensory play can, and should, cover all of the senses.
Here are a few ideas for exposing your children to different tastes, and encouraging them to develop their sense of taste.
A quick note about fussy eaters:
Please don’t avoid these activities if your child is a ‘fussy eater’. (Actually, I don’t like that term at all, but that’s a whole other story).
It’s easy to assume that, since they have a very limited range of foods they’ll eat happily, exposing them to unusual flavours in this way is a waste of time.
When you know they’ll only eat potato waffles and fromage frais, why would you put anything else in front of them?
If you can make these activities about play rather than food, then you might see more success.
Yes, I’ve put these activities under the heading of taste, but that’s not their only value. Set aside your own ‘stuff’ around their eating habits, just for a while, and let them experience the food in whatever way works for them.
If that means they haven’t even considered tasting anything by the end of the activity, then that’s fine. The point is to simply offer it.
Please don’t try to force children to taste things if they don’t want to. It’s easy to get hung up on the time and money you’ve spent setting up an activity, and there’s something about food that a lot of people find particularly triggering.
If you’d set out paint, and your child didn’t want to paint, that would be okay, wouldn’t it? You’d just clear the paint away and try again another day. It can be just the same with food.
12. Smoothie Fun.
Take a trip to somewhere with a good range of different fruits and let your child choose some.
Aim for around half a dozen different types of fruit. (You’re going to be blending each one separately, so make sure you get enough of each to be able to do that).
When you get home, print out a photo of each type of fruit (or draw them, if you can draw recognisable fruit, or just write the names on sticky notes if your child is able to read them).
Blend each fruit separately, and pour into a clear glass.
Set the glasses out on the table, and spread the pictures or labels alongside (without matching them up).
Let your child look at, smell, and taste each smoothie (teaspoons are the easiest way to do this with multiple children).
- Can they work out which fruits are in which glass?
- Could they tell just by looking?
- What senses did they use?
- Is there anything surprising about how the fruits taste once they’re blended?
Once you’ve exhausted their interest in the individual fruits, see if they’d like to become smoothie scientists and create their own recipes.
Talk about which tastes they think will go well together. Have they had smoothies before that tasted really good? What was in them?
Let them decide on a combination (even if you think it’s going to taste awful), and help them mix a little of each fruit together to taste.
Explain that real recipe developers sometimes have to try lots of different things before they find a combination that they love, and encourage the children to try different combinations if they don’t see success at first.
Once they find a winning taste combination, help them make a bigger glass of it to enjoy.
13. Preschool Taste Tests.
This one’s simple. Gather a range of foods to cover the basic categories of taste, and set them out for the children to investigate.
Main taste categories:
- Umami (savoury)
Ideas for foods to taste:
- Sweet – sugar, honey, ripe banana.
- Sour – lemon, sherbet
- Umami – soy sauce, strong cheese.
Creating A Rich Sensory Play Experience
In addition to sensory play activities like the ones above, I think it’s important to filter these experiences into everyday life whenever possible.
Yes, make time for painting with ice, and building with ice. But, also make space in your life for just playing with the ice cubes left in a water glass on a hot day, or bringing bowlsfull of snow indoors just to see what happens.
Make playdough, and also make bread dough, and pastry, and let your children join in.
The leaf litter at the base of trees in the woods is just as much a sensory play material as a sand tray or a bowl of coloured rice.
I want to urge you to bring sensory play into your life as an everyday thing, not just as sanitised, pre-planned activities that feel separate from anything else.
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