Sensory bins are a way to set the stage for play for your child. The most ancient form of a sensory bin was a called a “sand box.” The second incarnations were simple plastic tubs full of rice or beans. As an occupational therapist, I often use this kind of play with kids who have sensory processing disorder to help them get more of the sensory input they need. However, this form of play is so engaging that homeschool parents began creating themed bins to reinforce the lesson themes they were teaching. Both the kids and parents really enjoyed them.
The idea is simple. Take the theme you are exploring and create a free play bin that lets your child explore the ideas from your songs, stories and lessons. This idea is so popular, you can even buy pre-made kits like this one. However, it’s not hard to make your own, and you probably already have most of what you need! Let me tell you how.
Sensory bin recipe:
- Decide on a bin or tub. You can go all in and use a sand or water table. However, most shallow storage boxes work just fine. If the box is too deep, your child’s short arms may have trouble reaching over the sides.
- Choose a base material. This is usually rice, dry beans, sand or water. But there are other possibilities. Water beads, small rocks, moon sand or feed corn all work too. If you are going to create a theme, like a seasonal bin, this is where that starts. Black beans can be fun for a night theme or deep space. Pink sand can be part of a Valentine theme. Water beads make a fun little ocean. You can also mix and match here, adding a few rocks or seashells to your beans for interest.
- Toss in some toys. A trip to the bottom of our toy bin often reveals little men, tiny cars, space ships or other toys that go with the theme of the month. Farm animals, LEGO people, and bath toys are all possibilities. Stick to your theme and keep a limit to how many items you use. You want the toys to be able to hide in the base material. Too many extras make it hard to know what to play with.
- Add something to scoop and pour with. Ladles, measuring cups or spoons, small bottles or a random coffee scoop are all options. I usually supply two different size scoops. Tongs or tweezers to grab bugs or animals with can be fun too. No need to buy something special. Your kitchen probably has lots to choose from. I do prefer smaller scoops, just in case it gets scooped onto the floor.
Whatever you put in this bin, it won’t all stay in there. This is why parents often set up bigger sensory bins outside, otherwise known as sand boxes and water tables. However, smaller boxes can work inside when the weather isn’t cooperating. My mess catcher of choice was always to put down a big beach towel or bed sheet under both the bin and the child. The spilled beans or filler could then be gently folded into the towel and poured back into the bin when play time was over.
One important word of advice, don’t leave this activity unsupervised. As a woman who has found beans in corners of many rooms over the years…. just don’t. This is a wonderful childhood activity, and you don’t have to play, but don’t leave the room. Stay close and read your book, crochet a hat, write an email or pay the bills. But stay where you can see what is going on, and redirect your child when the temptation to do something strange happens.
Changing it Up
When my kids were small and I made sensory bins regularly, I found that changing the theme monthly was good for me. If you want to change themes often, keeping a stack of tubs with different base materials ready to go can make that easy. I used to have a high shelf where these bins lived. One had rice, two had beans in different colors, and one was often empty because it has housed something that I ended up throwing away after a month. I could pull out a bin and throw in a set of toys and scoops and change over to a new bin fairly easily that way.
Also, I found that making a specific time of day “sensory bin time” was a sanity saver for myself. This semi-supervised play that I didn’t need to engage in was a good time to have coffee, or read to my older child in the same room as the bin. Figuring out how you can use this bin to not only help your child learn, but make better use of your day is a win. Even if you are going to be vacuuming rice up…. a lot.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.