Getting Started With Sensory Boxes

21 Mar

sensory boxes

Sensory boxes. Sensory bins. Play tubs. Treasure boxes. Whatever you call it, there’s no denying it’s a key parenting tool. Yes, tool. It’s educational. It’s fun. And it keeps Littles occupied long enough to fold the laundry and pee by yourself.

While no well-kept secret of Supermoms, apparently sensory boxes are not as common as I once thought.  I got into a discussion with some other moms at Storytime last week about keeping our kids occupied during cold, snowy days indoors.  I was one of few who’d heard of them—let alone using them!  Of course, there were cries of “too messy” or “too expensive” or “takes up too much room”.  To which I reply “NO!” (imagine that in a very emphatic toddler voice).

So let’s talk about sensory boxes, shall we?

What are sensory boxes?

Well, just that. A  box, bin, bag, or container that is filled with manipulatives to stimulate the senses of budding young minds.  They can be simple to complex.  While most focus on touch and sight, there are definitely ways to incorporate smell, sound, and even taste.  Toddlers get a lot of chances to practice gross motor skills, but dumping, scooping and trying to pick up a grain of rice really develops those fine motor skills!  Stimulating the senses and getting kids moving are key to cognitive development (aka, learning).

Step 1: Containers

Any container can become the home of sensory play.  I usually use an underbed plastic storage bin.  It seems to be a good size, has a lid, and can slide under the guest bed or even the couch when we’re not using it.  For messy days (like water), we put it in the bathroom.

I know some folks have 10 plastic tubs and prep 9 boxes in advance.  I don’t know where in the world they store these!  I do have a box in Matty’s closet that has ziplock bags and small boxes of manipulatives.  I also have a few containers of base (keep reading for more on that) in the pantry.  They key to any idea working is to make it hassle-free, and 10 giant bins in my house doesn’t seem hassle-free to me.  So yes, you can do sensory boxes with a cardboard box, a bag of rice, and some toys from the toy box!

Step 2: Bases

There are many, many options for bases.  This is what takes a box of “stuff” to the next level. Read: hours of fun!

  • Uncooked rice
  • Pasta (pretty much any shape)
  • Water
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Mud
  • Sand
  • Pebbles
  • Cotton Balls
  • Dried beans
  • Dried corn (would be great for a Farm box)
  • Oatmeal
  • Coffee beans (or grounds!)
  • Unpopped popcorn

Of course, don’t forget to incorporate some sort of scoop, cup, or spoon, some tongs or tweezers, or other hand tool.

Will this increase the mess? Yes.  But we don’t give kids enough credit.  If you expect them to make a mess, they will.  If you expect them to keep it in the box, and explain this, they will.  If Matty gets even a little water or a few grains of rice on the floor, he asks for help cleaning it up. And yes, the bases can be reused!  Just store in airtight containers.  Perhaps if you have multiple kiddos or recently had a sickness swing through the house you’ll want to toss it, but generally reuse!

Easy Beginning Concepts

Sensory bins are so easy to use with babies who are just sitting up and crawling, or older kids (I’m talking 8 years old here).  Just vary the concept and sensory manipulatives to make it more complex (and probably avoid adding a base for bambinos).

  • Rough/Soft (cotton balls, silk pieces, minky fabric)
  • Colors (do a different color each time, and voila—8 different boxes)
  • Shapes (again, a different shape each time)
  • Holidays (just toss all the little décor knick-knacks in a box)
  • Nature
  • Cold (ice—or freeze small toys in ice cubes)
  • Animals (house pets, farm animals, bugs…)

Can the manipulatives get expensive? It could, but it doesn’t have to.  For the Color boxes that we’ve been doing recently, I didn’t buy a single thing.  We already had colored blocks, colored plastic cookie cutters, and other random toys of various colors.  Dig through the toy box (Fisher Price Little People, balls, or sets of things that may be missing a piece or two can be repurposed), look through the kitchen cabinets, or repurpose trash (tp tubes, Sunday’s newspaper).  A quick trip to a Dollar Store can add tons of play manipulatives for just a few bucks.  Try to include things that can be used in different ways, as well as a variety of textures and sizes.  When possible, include other senses–how does a tambourine sound when rice is poured through it?

Taking it to the Next Level

Getting your kid engaged may be as simple as putting it out.  Or they may need a little direction, such as pointing out a few manipulatives or showing how the rice can be poured.  But once they catch on, they’re hooked.  So then maybe you want to take it to the next level?

  • Try colored rice or pasta
  • Read a book about the concept, or visit the library to let them find books that relate
  • Take a “field trip” (for example we have a trip to the aquarium planned, with an Under the Sea box planned for after)
  • Add a few drops of essential oil to the base (for example, lemon oil for a Yellow box)
  • Design a box around a complex concept your Littles are interested in, such as Construction (complete with mud and play bulldozers) or Dinosaurs (complete with fossils and chisels)
  • Take it outside–the same sensory play from last week is all new in the yard, in the garage, or in the driveway

There’s no set timeframe for how long to leave out a particular setup.  Some of our activities have lasted just one afternoon (like water-based play), and some have gone on for two weeks (like rice play).

So, in the upcoming week or so, I’ll be sharing some of the Sensory boxes we’ve done around here, as well as additional theme activities, like books and crafts that relate to the  concept.


  • Do you do Sensory boxes?
  • What’s been your Little’s favorite so far?
  • If you don’t do them, what’s your biggest hang-up?

4 Responses to “Getting Started With Sensory Boxes”

  1. ahealthyhappyhome March 22, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Love sensory boxes! The Love Nugget really likes his beans and dry macaroni but I’d say the beans are his favorite. We did them yesterday and it’s fun to see him growing with his imaginative play. He used to just scoop and dump, but now he talks about how he’s making things like pancakes or muffins. So fun! I love the idea of doing colored themes. I’ll have to add that in!

  2. JulesJ March 24, 2013 at 12:57 am #

    We love sensory bins too! Although I don’t do them very often because my little one tends to make a mess. Right now she thinks it is funny to do something that she specifically knows she shouldn’t be doing. We do color themed baths…colored water with the same colored toys, we are currently attempting to learn colors. She doesn’t seem all too interested yet. Love your blog and you are inspiring me to get out the bins more often! =)

    • Ashley Niehaus March 24, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      Thanks! We recently did a popcorn box and my little guy WOULD NOT keep it in the box. I’ve been meaning to try colored baths, so maybe we’ll give that try soon!


  1. Color Theme: Purple | This Girl's Canon - April 16, 2013

    […]              Getting Started with Sensory Boxes […]

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