Homemade Sensory Bin 101

Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on sensory bins by any means.  The idea is all over the internet and I have no clue where it originated, but L&L are sure glad that someone somewhere came up with it!    

I created our first bin about a year ago when Luke was a young 3 and Lilah was 21 months.  They loved burying things and digging in it mostly.  Now that Luke is a young 4 and Lilah is 2-1/2, they really love the imaginative part of creating scenes and acting things out.  

One of our current bins.  The filler is rice.  Toy additions are pirates from a Toob, a plastic palm tree, shells from the beach that double as scoops, sand dollars, and a fossilized shark’s tooth.

But, let me start at the beginning…

What is a sensory bin?
A sensory bin is a homemade creation designed to give your children fine motor practice while using their senses to experience different sights, sounds, and especially textures during play.  It’s also great for the imagination and will likely keep them interested for decent periods of time.  The bin is usually some sort of container with a lid. There is normally a movable filler (like dried rice or beans) and some sort of toys, often themed.  The contents of the bin can be rotated or changed out to keep it interesting to the child.

L&L with their very first bin in May 2011.

Why make a sensory bin?

They are loads of fun!  Not only that, they’re educational, too.  Kids can practice scooping, pouring, spooning, finding things that are hidden (buried), practice control keeping the materials in the bin, and use their imagination!  Kids definitely use most of the senses when they play with a sensory bin!  Sensory bins are also great to pull out when you need to occupy your children for 10-30 minutes.  (You will probably need to provide at least a little supervision, but I find my 4 and 2-1/2 year olds can use this responsibly now with only minimal observation on my part, so I can prep dinner or do other in-the-general-vicinity tasks while they play).  Other good reasons for making a sensory bin?  They’re pretty easy to do, you probably have at least some parts for creating a bin already so it’s a fairly thrifty project, and your kids will most likely LOVE it — especially if you base it on their current interests!

Luke playing with one of our current bins.

Now, like I said, I’m no expert on sensory bins, but these are my notes and observations based on the year or so we’ve used our original bin, and on my creating of 2 additional bins in the last week or so:

Notes about containers:

  • If you have something that will work already, I’d go with that versus buying something — at least until you find out if your child is interested.  Even a bucket or a cardboard box lined with plastic wrap would probably be just fine.
  • If you have one or if you are going to buy a bin, I think a clear bin is best because it doesn’t block the light so the inside of the box stays bright.
  • Make sure the container is deep enough to hold an inch or two of filler at least — burying and digging in the filler is lots of fun, regardless of what theme you go with!
  • If you anticipate that keeping the filler in the box might be somewhat difficult, go with a container with higher sides.  Older kids can probably be responsible with a container with lower sides.
  • Decide how many children will be playing at once and get a container sized accordingly.  A single child could use a container as small as a shoe box, but that would probably be too small for two children…

Notes about fillers:

  • The items you put into the box to “fill” it are likely to be choking hazards.  Please supervise your child and make sure they are out of the I-like-to-put-everything-in-my-mouth-stage first!
  • Stress to your child that the filler stays IN the box.  
    • My rule is that if I see filler on the floor, I ask the kids to clean it up.  Sometimes I set a timer if a gentle reminder isn’t enough.  “I’m setting the timer for 1 minute.  If there’s still rice on the floor when you hear it beep, I’ll clean it up but the bin will be put away for now.”  If it’s not cleaned up at the end of the time and I have to clean it up, the bin gets put away until the afternoon or for the rest of the day.
  • I have found that if I explained my expectations before play, supervised really well, and was strict on my rules for the first few times they played, that they pretty much were able to use the bins without any major issues from then on.  
    • Occasionally they get too excited (mainly my 2-1/2 year old) and filler starts going everywhere, but a gentle reminder usually helps.  Either that, or I realize it’s time to move on to a different activity. 😉

Okay, enough about rules and regulations!  On to the fun stuff!

Ideas for fillers:

  • *rice — plain or colored/dyed
  • *dry beans — a single kind or a mix
  • *sand
  • *pebbles
  • *rocks
  • *dirt
  • *bird seed
  • *dry grains
  • *shredded paper
  • *small blocks
  • *glass “stones” (smooth, round, sometimes used in fish tanks)
  • *marbles
  • *real or fake leaves
One of our new bins.  The filler is dried pinto beans.  The theme of the bin is cooking and most of the toys are from L&L’s play kitchen.  They play with this one on a fleece blanket and are allowed to set up little food stations on the blanket if they want to — with the understanding that the beans are supposed to stay in containers!
Ideas for themes:
  • *transportation
  • *pirates
  • *knights and castles
  • *cooking
  • *sight words
  • *farm
  • *monster trucks
  • *ocean life
  • *princess
  • *based on a book
  • *based on a movie, video, or TV show
  • *seasonal/holiday
  • *bugs
  • *birthday
  • *animals
  • *outer space
  • *animal habitats
  • *doll house
  • *alphabet
  • *numbers
  • *the possibilities really are endless!

Ideas for toys/additions to the box:

  • *plastic figurines (we really like Toobs; also try checking Dollar Tree)
  • *kitchen items: measuring cups or spoons, spoons, funnels, jars with lids, colanders, chop sticks
  • *play kitchen items: bowls, plates, pots, pans, cups, tea pot
  • *plastic trees or scenery
  • *nature items you collect: shells (big ones make good scoops), sand dollars, sharks teeth, rocks, fossils, leaves, gum balls, pine cones, coral
  • *paper print outs (laminated or on card stock) — book characters, sight words, letters of the alphabet, animals, etc.
  • *foam letters or numbers
  • *Hot Wheels or other small cars
  • *dollhouse furniture and people

If you need some more ideas, here is my post on our first sensory bin.  I’ll also be posting about the two new bins I made and plan to do new posts as we change out the contents.  If you need other ideas, just type “sensory,” “sensory bin,” or “sensory tub” into Google, Google images, or Pinterest for LOTS of ideas.  I have seen some REALLY impressive bins out there.  I honestly don’t think ours are very cool in comparison, but don’t tell L&L that.  They think they’re awesome! 🙂

Have you made a sensory bin?  
I’d love to hear about it! 🙂

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Genny Upton

A former teacher turned stay at home mom to two preschool aged children. Creator (and writer) at In Lieu of Preschool and Parent Teach Play. Currently publishing my first children's picture book!

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