One of the silver linings of spending so much time at home this past year has been a nudge to be more creative and proactive in promoting indoor play for my children. (Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.) Keeping art supplies (specifically watercolors and crayons, i.e., the two least-likely-to-stain media I could find) easy for my children to access has always been a priority of mine. We keep pads of paper, coloring books, and watercolor sets in a Hinza bin under the play table and a little cosmetics organizer with a small selection of crayons and other drawing tools like Ooly paint sticks out on top of the table at all times. But it wasn’t until the dawn of the pandemic that I started testing the sensory play waters. I was always intimidated by the likelihood of messes and wasn’t sure how to even model playing with the materials!
On the first point: yep, it is messy. Let me just be clear about that. I am always finding stray pinto beans and granules of dyed rice under the radiator or rug! But I have had to let go of those fears and, in the end, I’d say the tradeoff is worth it. The kids love (!) and never tire of (!!) playing with sand, water, beans, etc! There are therapeutic and educational benefits to sensory play that we can cite (Myriam says that sensory play helped her daughter overcome food texture sensitivities, too!), and I am impressed with micro’s fine motor skills after a lot of this kind of play over the last year, but the bottom line is that my children are engaged and happy when presented with sensory materials, and is there anything more satisfying than two quiet, absorbed, peaceful little faces sitting still together at a table? Depending on the activity, I will lay out towels, a sheet, or a Gathre mat beneath the play area, and sometimes I will move them and their trays into the bath tub entirely, to prevent too much chaos. If we are using anything with liquid or dye, we also put on these smocks, which I love (!) because you can wipe them clean and also toss them in the washing machine if a total mess.
Beyond that, I am always perched right next to micro to intervene if things get too hairy and then I just have to remind myself that rice can be swept up off the floor and water is just water.
On the second point: my children don’t need me to model play! I give them a tray of ice cubes, some animal figurines from the North Pole, and a couple implements and they are off and running in no time. I am consistently astonished at the little vignettes and conversations mini creates on her own, and micro is obsessed with pouring one thing into another thing and can do that for an impressive amount of time.
One suggestion I have is to reuse and rotate the medium/bases. I will stow the dried pinto bins/rice/pasta/cotton balls/figurines in pouches in my closet and pull them out in new combinations on the weekends. It’s startling how “new” figurines can seem if they haven’t been accessible for a few weeks, or if they are presented with play-doh versus water or beans.
For sensory play bases, we have used…
PLAY DOH (OF COURSE YOU CAN ALSO MAKE YOUR OWN)
COTTON BALLS AND/OR POM POMS
JELLO OR JELLO SLIME*
PANTRY STAPLES (SOMETIMES I’LL ORGANIZE LITTLE MOUNDS OF FLOUR, COCOA POWDER, POWDERED SUGAR, OATS, SPRINKLES, AND OTHER GRAINS)
COLORED FOAM (MIX A FEW DROPS OF DISH SOAP WITH WARM WATER AND A LITTLE FOOD COLORING IN BLENDER AND BLEND UNTIL IT TURNS INTO FOAM)
BAKING SODA (FOR USING WITH VINEGAR)
*I thought this would be great for little hands since it’s taste-safe, but it is very messy and kind of pain to clean since it hardens quickly and then you have to scrub. Mini loved it. But just a full disclosure here.
**This kit is nice since it comes with utensils! But, a caveat: mini has always been VERY into “growing” the waterbeads — she loves to check in on them as they expand in size — and then has fun playing with them, too, but I find she tires of these much more quickly than other materials and that they are a pain to clean since they roll away, off tables, under furniture, etc so easily and then can be smashed underfoot (or with tiny hands). If using, I strongly suggest this for inside the bath tub!
Here are a few of my favorite tools and supplies for our sensory play cabinet. Many of these items you probably already own, or own substitutes for, which is great if you’re just starting out and want to get going ASAP:
RESIN LETTERS (ALSO THESE — GREAT FOR LETTER RECOGNITION ACTIVITIES WITH LITTLE ONES, I.E. BURY THEM IN SAND/GRAINS/FOAM — WE HAVE ALSO USED THE LETTERS FROM THIS PUZZLE AND THIS SEE AND SPELL SET TO SIMILAR EFFECT)
SILICON TRAY FOR KEEPING INGREDIENTS OR WATER/VINEGAR DYED DIFFERENT COLORS SEPARATE (ESPECIALLY FUN WHEN USING ICE CUBES OR BAKING SODA AS BASE)
COOKIE CUTTERS (GOOD FOR PLAY DOH, MAKING SHAPES IN SAND, OR JUST FOR USE AS FIGURINES)
THESE REUSABLE PLASTIC BAGS FOR STOWING DRIED BEANS, DYED RICE, FIGURINES, SCOOPS, ETC WHEN NOT IN USE
MELISSA AND DOUG POTS AND PANS (EMORY LOVED USING THESE WITH THE DYED PASTA, AND HILL LOVES POURING ITEMS INTO THESE BOWLS — PLUS, THE WOODEN UTENSILS ARE GREAT FOR STIRRING)
Pre-Assembled Sensory Play Kits.
If you want to just dip your toe in the water, there are several great brands that sell pre-fabbed sensory play kits. I’ve personally gifted or used sets from these three vendors and have only the best things to say about them:
HOME WITH ELIZABETH (A GIRLFRIEND OF MINE FROM MY CHICAGO DAYS!)
P.S. A roundup of more great indoor activities for toddlers here.
P.P.S. Musings on grappling with mom guilt and a letter to the new mom nursing her baby at 3:11 a.m.