When I decided to start a “sensory bin” with Lewis when he was 5 or 6 months old, I was really disappointed with the lack of ideas I could find that were truly safe for young babies. Unfortunately, a lot of the “traditional” sensory materials such as dry rice, beans, sand, and paint just are not safe for young babies who use their mouth as their main way to explore the world. A lot of ideas I found seem to revolve around just putting toys, kitchen items, etc. in a bin for baby to explore. This is fun a few times, but eventually it becomes just another bin of chunky plastic/wooden/metal items. Where was all the messy truly full-body sensory play for babies?
As I’ve continued to search the web and engage Lewis in various types of play I’ve come across many more ideas and also come up with a few of my own. The main thing I’ve realized is that if baby is going to put the materials in their mouth, you need to use something that is truly edible. Food. (Yes, play with food can be controversial and I know some people are not comfortable using food in play for a variety of reasons. I am not going to go in depth about that here, but if you are interested I highly recommend the Child’s Play 101 – Fun with Food post over on Train Up a Child.)
I’ve decided to compile a list of sensory play ideas for babies, to help out all those other Mamas like me who want to use some sensory play with a young baby but don’t quite know where to start. Remember, these are just suggestions to get you started and spark some play. Don’t feel that you have to recreate another mother’s activity in the exact way that she has done it. Just have fun!
Why Use Sensory Play?
Besides the fact that it is just plain fun, sensory play is incredibly important for children of all ages. Children (and adults!) learn best when using their senses – the more senses that get involved the more information will be taken in and retained. Sensory play is play with materials that involve the senses in many ways, but especially through touch and experiencing different textures. It is often messy, and that is part of the fun and also the benefit of it. When a child is allowed to experience slimy mud, sticky paint, or even just water from head-to-toe they really are learning and experiencing with their full body.
For babies, sensory play is a great way to begin learning about their world. When you are a baby, everything is new to you. Every new texture, smell, taste, every object you interact with helps fire up the neurons in your brain and form connections that will be with you for the rest of your life.
Through sensory play a baby can learn about the textures and properties of different materials- how is water different from dry pasta or jiggly jello? Interacting with materials will help develop both large and small muscle groups throughout the body. Using food materials in play can help baby become comfortable with a variety of tastes and textures, and lead to better eating throughout life. Sensory play also helps a child begin to discover math and science concepts through scooping, dumping, mixing, pouring, etc. The learning really never ends with sensory play, all while the child feels like they are just having a good time.
When starting sensory play with an infant it is important to keep things simple. A big bowl or plastic bin with your sensory material in it is really all they need to start exploring. I like to give Lewis a couple of toys or tools (spoons, scoops, etc.) just to give him the opportunity to explore in a different way but more often than not these objects are simply ignored. If you get too complicated and provide too many options of toys baby can feel overwhelmed or it may just draw their attention away from the actual sensory material.
A few notes on safety: While many of the items on this list are safe for babies of any age, please use your own judgement. You know your child and their abilities best, so please do not give them anything that you are not comfortable with them putting into their mouth. Lewis is now 9 months and I am including some items which I am just starting to feel comfortable giving to him. Also, please ALWAYS supervise your child during sensory play. Your baby will do things and get into situations that you never expected, and it is important to be there both for their safety and comfort. Many of these materials can make the floor slippery if spilled out of a sensory bin (or if the child decides to crawl through them.)
- Give baby some water in a bowl, plastic bin, or even on their high-chair try! Baby will love splashing with their hands. Bath time is also a great time to play with water. If the weather is hot take it outside. Childhood 101 has a great post on starting out with water play for babies.
- Add ice cubes to the water. Lewis loves scooping up the ice cubes with his hands and sucking on them.
- Add some color. Use a little food coloring in the water, the ice cubes, or both! Train Up A Child had fun putting colored ice in their play pool.
- Add some bubbles to your water. Plain Vanilla Mom did a fun Bubble Pool with her 9 month old. (I’ve given Lewis small containers of bubbles to play with, but he does try to eat them.)
Dry Materials: Dry materials are great because they can be saved and re-used over and over, minimizing waste.
- Oatmeal. Lewis had fun exploring some oatmeal while I was baking cookies one day.
- Dry Rice. This won’t hurt baby if they put a bit in their mouth, but it is not good to eat a lot. I haven’t felt comfortable giving it to Lewis yet because I know he is very oral with his materials. Play Create Explore put together a bin with rice and dry noodles.
- Cheerios. Once baby begins eating Cheerios as a snack, why not give them a bin full to run their hands through?
- Cornmeal. Train Up a Child shares some cornmeal play in this post on baby sensory play.
- Salt. (Most babies will take one or two tastes and decide they don’t like it.)
- Large dry pasta. Plain Vanilla Mom used large pasta shells for a first sensory bin.
- Dried out used coffee grounds. (This is what Lewis is exploring in the picture at the top.) I first saw this idea on Creative With Kids.
Cooked Materials: Many of the sensory materials that you would use with an older child an be cooked to make them soft and safe for baby. Using leftovers from dinner is a great option, especially if your family is not good about eating up leftovers.
- Cooked Pasta. Pasta is great because it comes in so many different fun shapes. Add some color or any kind of gooey sauce to add another element of interest. You can even use it in a tub of water. Growing a Jeweled Rose did a great sensory bath with colored spaghetti and alphabet letters. Larger toys could be added in for a younger baby.
- Cooked rice.
- Cooked or canned beans. Learn with Play at home had fun squishing and snacking on baked beans.
- Cooked vegetables or fruits pureed. Or just use some jarred baby food! Hands On As We Grow shared about some fun messy play with jarred peach baby food.
- Cooked fruits or vegetables cut in small pieces.
- Mashed potatoes.
Gooey Things: You can give baby a big bin full and let them squish their hands through. Or use just a small amount, maybe with some food color added and allow them to “paint” with it. Some of these aren’t exactly healthy, but eating a bit while playing isn’t going to hurt baby.
- Jello. You can make it healthier by using plain gelatin and making your own flavors using fruit juice. Train Up a Child made a rainbow Jello bin with lots of colors.
- Yogurt. Fun and healthy. Train Up a Child adds another sensory element by including dried spices for “Yogurt Spice Painting.”
- Whipped cream. Play At Home Mom posted about a body-parts game using colored Cool Whip with baby.
Fresh Produce: These are fun and healthy if baby eats them, but not as cost effective as many of the other options. Be smart about what you are giving baby, and don’t throw away money on expensive fruits and veggies. Buy things on sale. Look for the cheapest option. Use something you already have on hand that is past its prime.
- Melon balls. This great idea is from Play At Home Mom.
- Shredded vegetables, such as carrots. I did this with Lewis and he had fun exploring (and throwing!) the shredded carrots.
- Banana, cut or mashed up.
- Pumpkin guts in the fall.
- Cooked sweet potato.
- Corn kernels, fresh or cooked. (Not dried.)
Recipes: There are a lot of fun sensory materials that you can make using ingredients from your kitchen.
- Baby-safe paint. There are a lot of recipes out there for edible paint, including this one from Train Up a Child.
- Play dough. Read about using play dough with infants on Play At Home Mom. There are tons of recipes for homemade play dough all over the web. It is easy to make your own and know exactly what you are giving baby.
- Oobleck. Train Up a Child wrote about oobleck play with both babies and older children.
- If you are making bread, pie crust, etc. give a small piece to baby for them to squish and explore. (Obviously don’t share cookie dough or anything with raw eggs in it. Also watch out for honey with babies under a year old.) I recently posted about experimenting with playing with a different kind of dough with Lewis.
- Use Kool-Aid powder with a little water for some fun sensory painting. Growing a Jeweled Rose did this with paintbrushes, but a younger child would have fun just smearing with their hands.
- Cloud dough. Learn with Play at home shared a cloud dough recipe. Use cooking oil in place of the baby oil and it is fully safe for baby.
Add-Ins and Variations: Remember that all of this is just suggestions. Play around with your materials and try out new combinations.
- Try freezing a material. Baby will have fun exploring the changing texture as it thaws. The Imagination Tree had fun with frozen Jello. (They added sparkles which obviously should be left out for a baby.)
- Add food coloring.
- Add some ice cubes. Play will change as the cubes melt into the other material.
- Mix two materials from different categories. You could put one material in each end of a bin or in two bins side by side, and let them become mixed as baby plays and explores. Yogurt and cooked rice. Oatmeal and flour. Applesauce and cornstarch. If you are mixing two things that also means you would need a smaller amount of each, which is great if you are using leftovers.
What kind of sensory play have you enjoyed with your baby or young toddler? Did this post help inspire you to try some new materials?