The Ultimate Parent’s Guide to Sensory Activities

The Ultimate Parent’s Guide to Sensory Activities
Photo: Natee K Jindakum, Shutterstock
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Sensory activities play a critical role in the development of a young child. It’s not just for children who have challenges with sensory integration: It’s good for all kids to explore the world with their senses. In fact, they do this instinctually almost immediately without any help from us. Babies grab at your silky hair or shiny necklace. Toddlers explore any item they can get their hands on by sticking it straight into their mouths.

The best sensory activities don’t just allow little kids to explore with their sense of touch, though. Whenever you can add in crinkling sounds or earthy smells or colours that mix and change, you’re engaging multiple senses and, therefore, helping their developing brains build nerve connections.

Creating sensory experiences for kids isn’t complicated once you know where to look and what to look for. Let’s get started — within your own home.

Look around your home

Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert

You do not need to leave the comfort and safety of your own home in order to create rich sensory experiences for your kids — all you really need is some type of plastic bin or large bowl and any variety of materials you’ve already got lying around including:

  • Dried pasta
  • Cooked pasta
  • Dried rice
  • Shredded paper
  • Packing peanuts
  • Bubblewrap

Just make sure nothing you include in a sensory activity is a choking hazard, of course, and supervise them while they explore.

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OK, now that you’ve exhausted all your in-home options, let’s hit the next stop.

Visit the Dollar Store

Photo: Benoit Daoust, Shutterstock Photo: Benoit Daoust, Shutterstock

Eventually, the dried pasta noodles get a little tiresome, and you want to switch things up a bit — without spending a fortune. Get thee to a dollar store, I say, and delight in all the cheap, sensory items available to us.

You’ll find scented bathtub paints, seasonal or holiday-themed squishies, and any number of slime and slime-adjacent materials that they’ll love.

Now you’ve got so many options that you’re ready for your very own sensory activity centre.

Go all out by creating a sensory activity centre

Photo: Carlos Amarillo, Shutterstock Photo: Carlos Amarillo, Shutterstock

Do you have to repurpose that old IKEA bookcase that has been collecting basement dust into a sensory activity centre for your toddler? Well, no, I suppose not. But if you want to, all you need to do is lay it flat on the floor in the location of your choosing, dump in a variety of sensory materials, hand over some utensils (such as ladles or kitchen tongs), and bask in your hero status.

Oh, you know what you haven’t tried yet?

Birdseed is excellent

Photo: Anakumka, Shutterstock Photo: Anakumka, Shutterstock

Yes, birdseed. It wasn’t the first sensory material that popped into my mind, either, but it’s actually quite perfect — assuming they play with it outside. Birdseed is small enough to not be a choking hazard and clean-up is a non-issue (that’s what the birds are for).

You’ll want to discourage them from chowing down on the store-bought stuff, though, so if you know that’s likely to be an issue, you could make your own at home.

Let Your Toddler Play With Birdseed

If you’re the parent of a toddler or preschooler, chances are you’ve discovered the joy (and the mess) that sensory activities can bring. When my son was that age, a bin full of strange material would occupy him for many minutes at a time — certainly more than plastic toys...

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You know what else you could make at home?

You’re ready to level-up to homemade play dough

Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert

You probably already have a least a few containers of the name-brand stuff, but it doesn’t compare to this homemade recipe, which creates the softest and fluffiest of all doughs for kids to play with. You just need flour, salt, cream of tartar, vegetable oil, water, and food colouring (if you like).

You can also add a couple of drops of extracts, such as almond, vanilla, or peppermint, to engage another sense in the activity.

Now it’s time for a popsicle — of sorts.

If you can do play dough, you can do paint popsicles

Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert Photo: Meghan Moravcik Walbert

You can always pull out some finger paints, lay down some paper, and let your little kids create original masterpieces. It’s a classic activity, and it’s great. But when you want to switch it up bit, they can help you take it one step further by creating a little something called ice cube paints.

You’ll need some paints, an ice cube tray, water, and popsicle sticks or — as I once improvised — the broken handles of plastic utensils (what? it worked fine). What’s great about this is that it’s actually two activities in one: The creating of the paints is a sensory experience, as is the actual painting part.

It feels like it’s time now to head back into nature.

Two words: Mud kitchen

Photo: MNStudio, Shutterstock Photo: MNStudio, Shutterstock

This is something that never occurred to me to do when my own son was young enough to enjoy it — and enjoy it, he would have. Kids are hardwired to get a thrill out of mixing dirt with water to create an incredible mess — and engage both their senses and their imaginations.

I’ve got ideas here for how (and where) to set up their very own “mud kitchen” in your backyard.

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And finally…

When in doubt, just add water

Photo: greenaperture, Shutterstock Photo: greenaperture, Shutterstock

If you’re not in the mood for a full-on mud experience (or if the weather isn’t permitting it), the quickest and easiest way to engage our kids’ senses — and often, calm them down — is by adding water to the situation.

Sure, that might be as simple as offering them a drink of water (a dehydrated child is a cranky child), but there are loads of ways for them to play with water, even if they’re stuck indoors. Luckily we have a full list of water play ideas here.

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