Safe Sensory Play For Babies

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!

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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.

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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.)

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Water Play:

Dry Materials: Dry materials are great because they can be saved and re-used over and over, minimizing waste.

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.

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.

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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.

Recipes: There are a lot of fun sensory materials that you can make using ingredients from your kitchen.

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?

Baby’s First Sensory Bin

Maybe it is the preschool teacher in me, but when Lewis recently started seeming bored with all his toys one of my first ideas was to start introducing a sensory bin into his daily play.

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He has a ton of these plastic links, so they seemed like a good starting place for his first sensory bin. A lot of the things I would normally think to use for an older child (rice, beans, dry pasta, cotton balls, shredded paper…) are not things I feel safe giving him, since his main play style is still to explore through putting everything in his mouth. He tasted the links, even though he has played with them often before, and explored by pushing and pulling the pan and dumping it on the ground.

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He also had to check out the pan with his mouth, since this was something he hadn’t encountered before and he hasn’t gotten a ton of experience with metal objects.

Using the cake pan was a quick fix since I wanted to get started with this, but I have since picked up a plastic bin to use. It is roughly the same size/shape as the cake pan which is perfect for him. Small enough and shallow enough that he can easily reach in and none of the toys are out of reach, but big enough to put several toys into. When he is older and more mobile we will upgrade to a much larger bin.

The links worked well for a sensory bin, and we played with this for three days. Ribbons would work well too. Water is another option at this age, but since he likes to push, pull, and DUMP things I will save that for a day when I am in the mood for a mess! I did see a genius idea in the comments of a blog to pour the water directly into the highchair try so it can be splashed in but not dumped, so I may give that a try. (I believe that was suggested in the comments here.)

I also plan on doing some bins that are more of a discovery bin/treasure basket sort of idea. I’ve started us off with a themed bin on the color red.

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Included in this bin:

  • Several red links
  • A tiny red ribbon (the only red ribbon I could find)
  • Red and white pipe-cleaner heart
  • Red and white funnel
  • Red lid to a sippy cup
  • Small piece of red/silver wrapping paper
  • Red and white plastic kitchen scraper thingy
  • Red and white football toy

I introduced this yesterday afternoon and he kept busy for fifteen minutes of solo play while I did some cleaning. When I saw he was getting restless I sat down to play with him. He reached out to be held, and then kept busy for another ten minutes sitting on my lap while playing. It was interesting to see how he played differently with me holding him. Playing on his own he explored all the bigger objects and the wrapping paper and ignored the smaller things. He also seemed to like the funnel the best and spent a long time gumming it. After I joined him he explored the other toys a little bit but also seemed less focused on one thing and instead practiced picking up and putting down everything over and over.

I plan to make this a daily part of our play, probably bringing it out around the same time of afternoon each day so it becomes a routine. (And possibly sometimes in the evening if he wants to show Daddy.) I think each bin will probably last us for around 3 days, but I just plan on paying attention to his cues and switching it up once he seems to be getting bored and unfocused. I plan to continue doing color themed bins for a while. Most of his “usual” toys have a million different colors on each, it’s hard to focus on any one color. I think isolating a single color will help it feel less chaotic and also help him learn to recognize the different colors separately. Play At Home Mom also has some great ideas for using color themes in other play, such as in the bath.

One more type of bin I’d like to try with him from time to time is the Heuristic Treasure Baskets as described on The Imagination Tree blog. The idea behind these baskets is to give baby things to play with that include natural materials and every day objects in a variety of shapes, colors, textures and materials. One of the big focuses of this is to avoid plastic which I think is great when so much of today’s baby toys are made of plastic, plastic, and more plastic. I am trying to keep this in mind when creating his themed bins and including some objects of different materials, but it would be fun to try to make some bins using zero plastic.

I am looking forward to seeing how his play grows and develops as we continue with this, and excited that as he gets older I will be able to safely introduce more and more different objects for him to explore!