Sensory play. It sounds more intimidating than it is, I promise.
While it might make you think you will have to create some impressive playscape that does all kinds of special things, I assure you that anyone can do this. You probably already have done this.
First of all, what is it? Sensory play is simply play that enhances the senses and lets your child self-direct their play time. So many toys don’t allow for the creativity that kids need to create and imagine, and sensory play does that and more. Instead of sitting down with a toy train that does little but be a train (not that there’s anything wrong with trains!), a sensory play box or tray lets your child control what each item does. It lets them manipulate the pieces, connecting all the sensory pieces — the feel, texture, sounds, shapes, and more.
I’m no expert in sensory play, but I’ve made up several trays for the boys and I’d love to share what I did.
Preparing Your Trays
Pretty much anything goes, so long as it is safe and age-appropriate (think: not a choking hazard) for your kids. Plastic dish pans are perfect for sensory trays, as are small plastic containers with lids. I am using clear plastic trays that are actually lids to disposable foil serving pans. They aren’t as sturdy as I’d like, but they’ll do for the time being.
I have three different things that I use in the trays: brown beans, white beans, and rice (actually, mine is orzo pasta…I bought it and never used it and it’s the same size as rice). I like to switch them out because the different textures, sizes, and weights make things more interesting for the boys.
Filling Your Tray
This is where you can get creative. You can make up themed trays (by color, shape, holiday/season, or something like Farm or Things That Go) or just a nice mish-mash. I’ve done lots of different variations, which keeps it interesting for the boys.
Here are some of the things I have set aside from our house to be used in sensory trays.
There are little cups for pouring (one is a Slim Fast scoop!), tiny animals, a makeup brush that you can use like an archaelogical tool to excavate, a magnifying glass. Seriously, almost anything goes. Look around your house for little items that aren’t currently needed for anything but might be fascinating to your little ones, especially in the context of creative, sensory play. Once you get started, you’ll keep finding little trinkets to add to your stash. If it looks or feels interesting, why not?
Bonus Play: I saw this great idea for taking the letters out of one of those foam alphabet puzzles (you can get them at any dollar store) and putting the letters in a sensory tray for the kids to find and complete the puzzle.
This is the easy part! Just let them play!
I will note, however, that for those of us who have a hard time letting our kids make a mess, you might want to put down something on the floor or table to catch messes OR have them play outside. I prefer to have the boys play with their trays outside on the patio. Any stray beans that don’t get put back into the tray can be swept into the yard. I don’t lose my mind finding pasta, beans, or rice all over my floor, and we get to enjoy the sunshine.
Storing Your Trays
I don’t have a great storage system, I’ll admit that right now. I need a room in my house for these kinds of things, clearly. But for now, this is what works for me: a large plastic tote with the plastic trays, bags of beans/pasta, and a small container for the tray items. If I were using lidded containers, I could just store them on a shelf somewhere, and perhaps we will evolve to that one day.
We have such a great time playing with our sensory trays. It’s relaxing to scoop and play with the beans, I get to hear fascinating things come out of the boys’ mouths as they play and explore, and everyone enjoys them. I’ve even had some high schoolers play with the trays for a long time! It’s okay, there’s no shame in enjoying sensory play!
My Favorite Sensory Play Resources:
- Dirt and Boogers – Sensory Trays: Why, How, and Where?
- Nurturing Naters – Sensory Bins
- Little Hands Big Work – Sensory
- No Time for Flash Cards – Sensory Tubs
- Dirt and Boogers – Sensory Tray
What do you put in your child’s sensory trays?