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Sensory Bins make great homemade gifts for kids!

Updated on September 19, 2014

Make a Sensory Box to stimulate learning!

Young children learn best when all of their senses are involved. Of my seven children, two of them are preschoolers, aged 3 and 4. I'm a stay-at-home-mom. I also homeschool. I need something to keep my little kids occupied while I teach the older ones. I've been researching sensory play. So I decided to make some sensory bins (also called sensory boxes) for my preschool kids to play with and keep them occupied and happy. When the littles are happy, we are all much happier. Read on to find out what a sensory bin is, what it is for, and why preschoolers love them. You will learn how to make them for your kids, your grandkids or to give as homemade gifts. As I introduce these sensory toys to my preschoolers, I will add pictures to this page. I've included pictures and descriptions of the bins we have so far. They are so easy to make, and so easy to use! In the picture is the first sensory box I created. It's a dinosaur themed bin for my 3-year-old.

All photos in this lens are my own original photos, please do not copy them.

What is a sensory bin anyway? - And why use them?

Young children learn best through their senses. The more senses that they involve in exploring something, the more they will learn and remember. Babies explore by putting everything in their mouth. Toddlers and preschooler learn about the world around them by banging, dropping, tasting, and feeling. Young children learn through play. A sensory bin gives young children, babies to preschoolers, a chance to explore and play by touching, listening to, smelling and seeing all kinds of new and familiar objects. A sensory box is simply a container filled with a base (such as dried beans, unpopped popcorn, sand, pepples, water, rice, cotton balls...) and objects to explore. They can be designed with a theme (such as a season, construction, glittery things, a letter of the alphabet, a familiar story, food...) or without a specific theme. After you have filled your box with your base material and objects, you add things such as scoops, small containers, spoons, measuring cups and funnels so that children can pour, mix, touch, measure and actively explore all that is in the sensory bin.They are inexpensive to make and the possibilities are endless!

Start with a container

You can get several containers to make assorted sensory bins. Once you get a few containers, you can create a perfectly customized, homemade gift based on your child's individual interests.

Sterilite 16448012 16 Quart/15 Liter Storage Box, White Lid with Clear Base, 12-Pack
Sterilite 16448012 16 Quart/15 Liter Storage Box, White Lid with Clear Base, 12-Pack

I love the Sterlite 16 quart containers. They are just the right size for my preschoolers. They are not too deep for little arms to reach into, and they are small enough so that they don't take up much space when I store them. These boxes are pretty inexpensive and durable, and my 3 year old can get the lid on and off all by himself.


Add your base material

Fill your container with a base material. I used 3 bags of dried red kidney beans as the base for my dinosaur sensory box (pictured above). Make sure that you use a material that is age appropriate for your child. Since my kids are 3 and 4 and no longer put small objects in their mouths, these dried beans are a great choice! They are inexpensive and they feel smooth. They scoop and pour easily. They make a pleasant sound when they bump up against each other. If you are making a sensory box for a young toddler who still puts things in his mouth, you could use uncooked rolled oats. They are edible and safe for little ones. Other options for your base material are colored rice, cotton balls, cooked spaghetti (I know--messy but fun), uncooked pasta, shredded paper, crinkled tissue paper, foil, ice cubes, pebbles, sand, dirt. Whatever you can come up with is fine! You can store different base materials in large ziplock bags and change them every now and then to keep your sensory boxes new.

Base Materials to use for your Sensory Bin

You can use all sorts of materials for your base material in your bin.. There are dry bases and wet bases. You can use cooked pasta or cooked oatmeal if you don't mind the mess. You could use shaving cream or soap foam. You can even scent your base materials by sprinkling vanilla or cinnamon or another scent. I've listed some ideas below to get you started:

  • Dry beans
  • rice (you can color the rice too!)
  • unpopped popcorn
  • birdseed
  • sand or dirt
  • pebbles
  • marbles
  • cotton balls
  • pom poms
  • silk flower petals
  • pasta--either dry or cooked (the cooked past will add a new texture, but is a one-time experience)
  • shredded mylar
  • water or ice
  • cheerios or colored fruit ring cereal--this one is perfect for toddlers who put things in their mouths
  • rolled oats- also good for toddlers who still put things in their mouths
  • plastic Easter eggs--safe for toddlers

Popcorn is a favorite base material for a sensory box

4204 Great Northern Popcorn Organic Yellow Gourmet Popcorn All Natural, 5 Pounds
4204 Great Northern Popcorn Organic Yellow Gourmet Popcorn All Natural, 5 Pounds

Popcorn kernals are a favorite in our house. They are small enough to slip through funnels and they feel soft and slippery when the kids dig their hands into the sensory bins.


Now add some items to your bin

My little guy loves dinosaurs. Of course we had a variety of toy dinosaurs already. Some are Little People, some are Imaginext and some are from a cheap pack of dinos. In the dinosaur bin pictured above, I added some cups and spoons and the toy dinosaurs. The cups and spoons are for dumping and scooping the beans. The dinosaurs are just for fun. My guy liked pouring the beans over the dinos and burying them, then digging for them in the beans. My older kids played "paleontologist." Add these objects to your bin and you're done! Easy peasy fun.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

— Fred (Mr.) Rogers

They're not just for preschoolers!

Sensory bins are great for kids of all ages

Sensory play is useful for toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids as well. Sensory play is a calming experience for many kids. Even my nine year old loves them. He has always been a very tactile boy and a kinesthetic learner, so he really enjoyed using the bins.

They are used for all kinds of kids to promote learning. Sensory bins are also great play therapy for autistic children or children with a sensory disorder. They are effective for all kinds of kids who learn best through incorporating all their senses. Once our homeschool was done for the day, I even found my 14 year old daughter exploring the bins with her little sisters.

These would make great, inexpensive homemade presents too!

Our Yellow Bin - Use a sensory box to teach a color

The theme of this sensory bin is "Yellow." The base material is unpopped popcorn kernals. You don't necessarily have to have your base material match the theme color, but I happened to have yellow popcorn so I used that. In the box are a few yellow petals from some silk flowers, yellow measuring cups and spoons, yellow play dishes, a few yellow Lego Duplo blocks, some play food (corn, bananas) and some yellow ping pong balls. You can sort through toys you already have and choose items that are all the same color to make a color-themed box.

Plastic funnels are great for sensory bin play!

Set of 4 General Purpose Plastic Funnels. Assorted Sizes Nested Funnel Set
Set of 4 General Purpose Plastic Funnels. Assorted Sizes Nested Funnel Set

Funnels make sensory bin play more fun. My kids love pouring corn kernels through the funnels and watching them fall back into the bin. They also use the funnels to fill up smaller containers. I would recommend a set like this that has different sized funnels for sensory play.


Our Rainbow Bin

Kids can explore all kinds of textures and colors with this bin. For the base material, I took apart a few silk leis. You could also use petals from silk flowers. Then I added some different colored Duplo Legos, some measuring cups and serving spoons in various primary colors, some colored ping pong balls, 2 plastic bath scrunchies, some tongs for picking up the petals, a couple of small bins, a colorful doctor kit, some rainbow colored mini Slinkies, large plastic tweezers, and some plastic food in various colors. I wasn't sure about this bin at first, but my kids loved digging for things buried in the petals. They had a great time sorting the colors, picking up things with the tongs. My 3 year old hid his action figures in the bin, then had a great time finding them under the petals. This one was a hit!

Are Sensory Bins a Great idea? Or are they just messy?

Would you make and use sensory bins with your kids?

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Get the perfect tools for your sensory bins

You don't have to have a theme for your bin. I found that the kids enjoyed playing with dry beans or rice with just the funnels, cups and spoons.

Farberware Color Measuring Cups, Mixed Colors, Set of 4
Farberware Color Measuring Cups, Mixed Colors, Set of 4

My kids love the colorful measuring cups. I use them in all the bins--Great for scooping and dumping!


Our Construction Box

I used dried beans for the base material. For this size box, I used 4 one pound bags of dried black beans. I then added little construction vehicles that we already had.

Our Tea Party Bin

I have two little girls who love tea parties, so I found a cheap tea set to throw in the black beans for them. The shiny silver thing was a bow from a present and I threw in some pink ping pong balls for fun.

Soapy Water Play bowls

One of the easiest sensory activities you can make is a large container full of water, some sponges or scrub brushes and some soap bubbles. I just use a squirt of dish soap and give the kids a whisk to make the bubbles. My kids love to "wash" and rinse their toys. I usually reserve this activity for a warmer day so they can play outside on our front porch.

Give your bin a theme

Here are some of the themes I plan to use as I create more bins.

  • Color bins: put all kinds of things in one color in your bin
  • Letter bins: All of the objects in your bin should start with the same initial sound/letter
  • Book theme: Read a picture book and then put things in the bin from the story
  • Holiday theme: Christmas, Valentines, Patriotic (red, white and blue), Thanksgiving--the possibilities are endless!
  • Animal themes: farm animals, dinosaurs, jungle animals, ocean animals, etc.

How about You?

Have you used or made Sensory Bins?

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Sensory Bin Fun!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
My 3 and 4 year olds playing with the dinosaur boxAs he dug in search of the fruit, he said, "It feels so soft."He found the grapes!"It feels good on my feet too!"Learning to share and cooperate through playBuilding fine motor skills using the tongsLoving the bubbly water binThey played a good 30 minutes together! Not bad for a 3, 4, and 7 year old!
My 3 and 4 year olds playing with the dinosaur box
My 3 and 4 year olds playing with the dinosaur box
As he dug in search of the fruit, he said, "It feels so soft."
As he dug in search of the fruit, he said, "It feels so soft."
He found the grapes!
He found the grapes!
"It feels good on my feet too!"
"It feels good on my feet too!"
Learning to share and cooperate through play
Learning to share and cooperate through play
Building fine motor skills using the tongs
Building fine motor skills using the tongs
Loving the bubbly water bin
Loving the bubbly water bin
They played a good 30 minutes together! Not bad for a 3, 4, and 7 year old!
They played a good 30 minutes together! Not bad for a 3, 4, and 7 year old!

I'd love to hear your comments! Just click the button "add comment" below. Thanks!

Have you ever heard of Sensory Bins? - What do you think of them? I

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    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      There are so many things one can do with sensory bins, and our grandchildren love them. The water bins are especially fun. I like your idea of giving the children a wire whisk to whip the soapy water. I will give that a try next time.


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