17 Simple Sensory Play Ideas for Toddlers and Babies
Love to bake cookies with your toddler, or let the baby bang on pots and pans while you cook dinner? That’s sensory play! And while it can get messy (think sensory bins full of rice or sand), there are so many creative ideas that don’t involve tons of clean-up. From foam baths to light play, here are 15 super simple sensory activities you can try with your little one at home.
- Interview By
- Elizabeth Mitchell Kadar
What is sensory play?
So much of what little kids do everyday, from playing with playdough to jumping off furniture, is sensory play. It’s really just a fancy word for any hands-on activity that stimulates and engages any (or all) of our senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. “There are also two lesser known sensory systems: the proprioceptive system, which is our internal sense of where our body is in space, and the vestibular system (balance), which is located in the inner ear and is affected by movement,” explains Pediatric Occupational Therapist OTR/L, CLC.
“Children, especially young children, learn about the world through their senses,” says child development expert and founder of , Allison Klein. Sensory play fosters kids’ curiosity and creativity, supports cognitive growth and language development, encourages problem solving, and helps kids develop their fine and gross motor skills.
“When you allow children time to explore their senses, it opens a whole new world for them,” adds Ashley Harrison, Associate Director of Public Programs & Outreach at . “For example, if your child doesn't like the feel of something slimy, letting them play with a variety of slimy textures in a playful setting can help them overcome that aversion.” Same goes for exposing them to different smells and foods through play!
There’s a reason many experts recommend making baby massage and bathtime—a form of sensory play—part of your bedtime routine too: it has a major calming effect on kids. Toddler bouncing off the walls? Throw ‘em in the bath to relax. Works every time.
Physical sensory play can help kids focus better and de-stress as well—just don’t wait until your toddler is mid-meltdown to suggest a trampoline jump session.
Simple sensory play ideas for toddlers
Whether they’re more into water play or play dough, engage growing brains and bring a little zen to your day with these 15 simple sensory activities for babies and toddlers.
1. Whip up a foam bath
Better than a foam party, trust us. All you need is some baby soap, water and food coloring (if you have it), notes Newman. Mix with a handheld blender and you get a great, stiff foam the consistency of whipped cream. “This activity is great for tactile input and helping toddlers learn cause and effect. Add some kitchen utensils to watch their imaginary play take off.” Warning: this activity can get slippery, so Newman recommends making sure your toddler stays seated or placing a towel down inside the tub to prevent slipping.
2. Set up a shoe box sensory bin
One of the best sensory activities for toddlers! Simply fill a shallow bin (place it inside a larger bin to help contain the mess) with a base material such as rice, sand or water beads, and add small items like shells, tiny toys, or foam letters, suggests Harrison. “This gives children a chance to dig through the bin and feel various textures. A spoon or shovel can heighten the experience and practice fine motor skills.” Be sure to keep an eye on your toddler as they explore though, especially if they still like to put everything in their mouth.
3. Push a push toy
And go pretend shopping. If your toddler has a baby stroller or shopping cart, Newman recommends adding in a book to weigh it down a little. “The extra weight adds extra proprioceptive input,” he says. You can also set up some pretend food or any items to “shop” for. “This will encourage imaginary play, visual perceptual skills, and lots of squatting to pick up items, which builds gross motor skills.”
4. Make frozen paint popsicles
According to Klein, all you need is an ice cube tray, some popsicle sticks and some non-toxic, child-safe paint. “Use them to paint once they're frozen and—as the popsicles defrost—the paint will look and feel different.”
5. Create a couch cushion crash course
Because what kid doesn’t love jumping off furniture? Movement is Newman’s go-to when you’re stuck inside on a cold or rainy day. “Set up some couch cushions to climb over or crash into. You can crawl, log roll or jump for extra movement,” he says. “This will give your toddler great proprioceptive and vestibular input.” We love building out a kids' rec room toys that kids can climb or jump onto for chilly, rainy days.
6. Play sink or float
Bored of the bath toys? Mix things up by gathering some regular household objects (spoons, sponges, animal toys, empty plastic bottles, etc.) to play a game of “sink or float” in the tub with, advises Klein.
7. Make a no-mess paint experience
Get some big energy out with this super fun, , courtesy of early childhood educator and co-founder of , . To start, tape down a clear shower curtain liner using painters tape along every edge, and pour medium size dots of different-colored paint all around the surface of the liner. “Add a bit of water to each pile of paint (for easier spreading). Next, tape a second clear shower curtain liner down on top of the paint. Then allow your child to step, pat, smack, stomp and use their entire bodies to spread the paint around,” she says.
8. Bathe the baby
People often think sensory play for babies isn't appropriate, but according to Monness, using something as simple as water is super engaging. Put out some sponges, sensory bins and waterproof baby dolls for your little one to wash. “This setup fosters imagination and empathy, and allows for babies to play in water, plus practice several practical life skills (washing, wiping, drying, squeezing, scrubbing), along with learning to care for ‘others’.”
9. Play with paper
Snag the packing paper out of that package that was just delivered, and crinkle it into large balls of paper for your baby to crawl to and explore. “Young babies love to experience materials that can change form,” notes Monness. “Picture the sensation of squeezing a sponge, smooshing dough, or crinkling paper for the first time.”
10. Let there be…light play!
When the sun goes down, turn on some soothing music in a dark room and make shadows using flashlights, suggests Harrison. “You can also use colored lights, or create your own colored lights with transparent toys like Magna-Tiles.”
11. Set up an obstacle course
Use whatever you have handy: balance boards as bridges, baby tunnels to crawl through, stepping stones to hop on, hula hoops, slides, ball pits, large foam blocks, couch cushions…you get the point. You can even make up rules, like jump like a bunny or bear crawl to the next part. Get creative, and have fun with it.
12. Find the fishies
What’s under the sea!? All you need for this simple sensory activity is a big bowl of water, some colorful bath tablets and little animal figurines. Add a tablet (or two) to your water to turn it a dark blue. “Drop in some toy fishies, and then use a metal strainer spoon—which adds a layer of sensory experience when it clangs to the sides of the bowl—to scoop water and find fish,” says Monness.
13. Make your own play dough
One of Newman’s all-time favorite sensory play ideas is homemade play dough—and no surprise, toddlers love it too! Plus, the texture is just better than the store bought stuff. Use our go-to playdough recipe or pick up a kit, and add different colors or scents (like vanilla, lavender or cinnamon) to it to further stimulate the senses, he suggests. Pair with little figurines, like dinos or little lego people, to build fine motor skills.
14. Bake some cookies
Sensory play for toddlers doesn’t have to be extravagant; it can be as simple as baking cookies together. “You can allow them to play with the dough (what does that feel like?), smell the dough, and once the cookies are done baking, taste the cookie,” says Harrison. “And through this process, your child is observing the ingredients, dough and final product.”
15. Roll the cabasa
Feel the music…literally! According to Therapist Hannah Hershman, MA, LCAT, MT-BC, families looking to engage in sensory-oriented music-making at home should try a cabasa. “Consisting of a wooden base and handle with beading on the outside, the cabasa is played by rolling the beads, allowing your child to hear and feel the sound being produced simultaneously. Rolling the cabasa on various parts of the body can provide sensory and tactile input, similar to a sensory brush,” she says. “The vibrotactile experience of play can also have a calming and soothing effect.”
16. Cover a baking tray in shaving cream
Shaving cream is so much fun to play with! “Invite your little one to write letters, explore with kitchen tools or simply feel and explore,” suggests Klein.
17. Take a colorful bubble bath
One of the easiest sensory activities to set up, and kids love it! To create your colorful bubble bath, Klein says to combine 1 cup of children’s shampoo with 1.5 cups water, and very tiny amounts of food coloring. “Essential oils are a bonus!”
Elizabeth Mitchell Kadar
Elizabeth Mitchell Kadar is a seasoned freelance fashion, beauty and lifestyle writer and also a mom of three littles living in sunny California. She’s written for Brides, YouBeauty, She Knows, The Fashion Spot and many more.