Your toddler or young child’s brain is an amazing place. It’s constantly growing—adding 1 million new neural connections every second—and learning from the environment as your child discovers the world around them.
That’s why it’s so important for your child to explore all their senses, so they can stimulate that growth. In addition to playing and speaking with them, you can help by providing your child with sensory play, which is play that stimulates your child’s five senses (touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, and hearing). Here are some ideas for sensory play, and why it’s so important to your child.
Why Is Sensory Play Important for Brain Development?
Young brains are driven to seek out new experiences and learn new things. New sensations and experiences are fuel for brain growth. One of the best ways to encourage brain growth is simply by speaking to, playing with, and caring for your child.
“Nurturing a child by understanding their needs and responding sensitively helps to protect children’s brains from stress,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “Speaking with children and exposing them to books, stories, and songs helps strengthen children’s language and communication skills, which puts them on a path towards learning and succeeding in school.”
Sensory play, which is play that stimulates your child’s five senses (touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, and hearing), also boosts brain development.
Here’s why sensory play is so crucial for your child’s brain development:
- Combining the sense of touch with vision, hearing, taste, and smell helps build cognitive skills.
- Young children learn by using multiple senses simultaneously.
- Sensory play is the foundation of all the skills children will use in school as they learn to read, write, and solve math problems.
You don’t have to spend much—if anything—to create fun and enriching sensory toys or activities for your children. Here are free or low-cost ideas for sensory bottles, tables, and other activities for your child.
28 Sensory Items and Activities
Check out these homemade play items, sensory activities, and ideas for encouraging your child to explore senses:
1. Make a sensory bin. Sensory bins can help children explore new textures and stimulate their senses. You can find steps for how to make a sensory bin, and ideas for what to include, here.
2. Explore the five senses. Get this free downloadable guide for some ideas to help your child explore their senses.
3. Play hide and seek with a sensory twist. When it’s your turn to hide, gently use a bell or shaker to help your child find you by hearing where you’re hiding.
4. Play with playdough. Whether homemade or store-bought, playdough can be a relaxing and stimulating activity for children and adults alike. Roll it, squeeze it, shape it into something fun—you can’t go wrong! We like this recipe for homemade playdough.
5. Sort by textures. Use this downloadable guide to help your child categorize different textures like “bumpy” or “cold.”
6. Make sensory balloons. Fill standard balloons with rice, cornstarch, sand, or other materials. These squishy balloons encourage tactile (or touch-based) play, as the different fillings give a unique texture to each balloon. Get directions here.
7. Explore sensory letters. With cardboard and some puffy paint, your little one can explore touch while learning about the letters of the alphabet. Here are instructions for puffy paint tactile letters.
8. Have fun with easy-to-make foam slime. Here’s a basic recipe for fluffy slime you can make with ingredients you probably have around the house.
9. Make tin can telephones. This fun craft is a classic, and it can also help your child explore their sense of hearing.
10. Play with kinetic sand. Kinetic sand is a favorite of children. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to buy, but you can also make it at home. Get directions and some ideas for activities here.
11. Learn about animal senses. Download I Wish I Had Ears Like a Bat, a free printable book, and think about how animals use their amazing senses.
12. Put together some primary color squishy bags. These bags help children explore how colors mix, and squishing the colors together offers a fascinating tactile experience. Check out the instructions here.
13. Go on a dinosaur discovery expedition! Is your child wild about dinosaurs? Tap into that with this frozen dino excavation game using a plastic dinosaur toy.
14. Make texture sticks to explore touch. Use a hot glue gun to stick things like feathers, pom poms, macaroni, and more to popsicle sticks. Then, have your child describe what they’re feeling when they touch one without seeing it.
15. Go magnet fishing. Magnets are fascinating, and this easy magnetic fishing activity uses refrigerator magnets in a tub full of water to encourage play. Hand your child a magnet and have them fish out the other magnets. You can mix up the difficulty according to their skill levels; for instance, you could have them only fish out blue magnets, certain letters, or circle-shaped magnets.
16. Play with water beads. These squishy playthings can fill a tub and provide lots of fun sensory play. These squishy, soft beads are non-toxic (but small enough to choke on, so parents should always monitor play). Water beads can be multi-colored, and they make for a great filling for sensory bottles.
17. Make a sensory table. Sensory tables can be expensive, but most people can make their own for much less money. Find directions here to make a sensory table for children of all skill levels. For hot days outside, here are directions for a water play table.
18. Explore taste at snack time. Turn snack time into a taste test and help your child explore their sense of taste. Here are some ideas to get you started with your junior taste tester.
19. Stay engaged during car rides with audiobooks. Long car rides or restful time at home are perfect for listening to stories. Audiobooks are great because they let your child’s imagination fill in details with vibrant storytelling while you’re driving or cleaning. Find where to download free audiobooks here.
20. Play in the snow. If you live in an area with snowy weather, that’s a perfect opportunity to go out and have some sensory fun in the snow (and warm up with a hot cup of cocoa afterwards). If snow is a rarity for you, you can always make your own. Get directions on how to make snow for sensory play here.
21. Guess that smell. With this fun activity, your child can put their sense of smell to the test. Stretch a pair of opaque tights over the top of a plastic cup you’ve filled with a strong-smelling object (like onions, coffee beans, peppermints, oranges). Then, let your child describe what they smell and guess what the object is.
22. Play the “draw on my back” game. This simple game is a favorite of kids, and it helps children explore the sense of touch. Invite your child to draw a picture on your back with their finger. Try to guess what it is. Swap places (you can start with easy shapes first, then get more difficult) and keep trying to stump each other.
23. Plant a garden. Gardening is a great hobby for all ages, and kids will enjoy digging in dirt and sorting through seeds. You can make a sensory garden with plants full of different sights, smells, and textures. Find out more here.
24. Explore your senses outside. Nature provides plenty of sensory discovery for children. Going outside—even if it’s just the backyard or nearby park—can be a rewarding sensory experience. Get some ideas for exploration here.
25. Make a bubble wrap road. Bubble wrap is fascinating to play with and easy to get. Make a bubble wrap road with some wrap and tape for your child to drive toys over.
26. Make a “Feel ‘n Find” box. A cardboard box and a few familiar objects are all you need for this sensory exploration idea. Your child can reach inside and try to guess what an object is by how it feels. If you don’t have a cardboard box handy, you can also do the same with brown paper bags.
27. Make squishies. With a few round makeup sponges and a permanent marker, you can make these homemade squishies.
28. Make a weighted lap pad. This weighted lap pad uses sequin pillows to create a fun and soothing sensory object that young children will love to play with.