Sensory Play: 5 Hands-On Activities for Preschool Sensory Development

A little European girl plays with beads in the colored sand.

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  • Sensory play includes any activities that engage a child’s five senses. 
  • Sensory play ideas do not have to be complicated or expensive to help kids explore learning through their senses. 
  • Sensory play activities help your child learn even when they are fun and unstructured. 

Children learn through play, and sensory activities help young kids develop their cognition, language, and social skills.

Children engage in sensory play naturally, often without knowing it. Daily activities like riding a bike, blowing bubbles, jumping in a ball pit, writing with sidewalk chalk, or making cookies all engage your child in sensory learning. 

However, you can enhance your child’s sensory engagement with fun sensory materials, toys, and activities. 

Take a look at our guide to hands-on activities for preschool sensory development for some fantastic fun ideas you can try at home.  

Activity 1. Water Play

Boy at the table with jars of colored liquid.

Playing with water is endlessly fun for children, but it can also have a calming effect while teaching them about physics and science along the way. Try this water activity:

You will need: 

  • Three clear containers, like glasses, for primary colors
  • Three empty clear containers for mixing secondary colors
  • Spoons
  • Water
  • Food coloring

How to play: 

Start with clear water in your primary color containers. Add a few drops of one primary color to each container: red, yellow, or blue. Let your child describe how the color spreads in the water. Give them a spoon for mixing.  

Next, have your child pour some red and yellow together in an empty container to make orange. Repeat with the other containers to mix yellow and blue and red and blue. Allow your child to mix the colors and add more food coloring.

For a variation on this sensory activity, dip strips of paper into the different colors to watch how the colored water moves up the paper and observe what happens to the color.   

This sensory activity develops fine motor skills, like pouring and squeezing, as well as skills like color recognition and learning about the color spectrum. 

Activity 2. Sensory Bins 

Little girl toddler playing with sensory bin with colored dyed pasta.

Sensory bins are an easy and inexpensive way to give your child a tactile sensory play experience for lots of hands-on fun. There are many variations on this fun activity, and younger kids will return to their sensory bin again and again. 

You Will Need: 

  • Box, bin, or container with solid sides. You can use anything from a shoe box to a bucket, but large, clear, plastic storage bins often work well. 
  • Sensory filler like sand, uncooked pasta, colored uncooked rice, kinetic sand, dry beans, Easter grass, cotton balls, water, or cloud dough
  • Kid-friendly tools, like scoops, spoons, popsicle sticks, or measuring cups. 
  • Sensory table or other flat surface that your child can comfortably reach and that is easy to clean. 

How To Play: 

The first step of sensory bin play is to create your bin. Give it a base with your chosen filler and then add interesting items for your child to explore. Check out these sensory bin ideas: 

Aquarium Bin 
  • Fill your bin with water.
  • Add ocean-themed toys like plastic fish, sea creatures, and boats.
  • Add food coloring to change the color of the water for added interest.
  • Give your child scoops and cups to pour with.
Dinosaur Bin 
  • Fill your bin with sand, kinetic sand, or cloud dough.
  • Bury any dinosaur toys you have in the bin.
  • Give your child a scoop, spoon, or mini shovel to find the dinosaurs.
Alphabet Bin 
  • Fill the bin with the filler of your choice.
  • Add any letter-themed magnets or puzzle pieces you may have.
  • Let your child feel the letter shapes as they play in the bin.
Sand and Shell Bin 
  • Fill your bin with sand, kinetic sand, or cloud dough.
  • Bury sea shells and pebbles under the sand.
  • Have your child dig out and count the shells.
  • Add water to the sand and help your child press them down to see what imprints they leave.

Sensory bins give your child a fun sensory activity they can self-direct. They enhance their learning through unstructured play while they have a blast exploring texture, shape, color, and sound. However, sensory bins can also pose choking hazards, so be sure your child’s play is always supervised. 

Activity 3. Sensory Walk

Therapist helping a child living with cerebral palsy successfully improve her walking ability during therapy session in a sensory room.

Children learn so much about the world through tactile activities. While they may play using their hands a lot, let them explore how things feel on their feet. Try this activity for some fun sensory exploration, best done outside! 

You will need: 

  • Several bins or containers that your child can step into, one for each texture you are using. 
  • Different sensory items to put in each bin, for example, craft poms poms, smooth pebbles, sand, feathers, cotton balls, play dough, grass, leaves, fabric scraps, and anything that would feel interesting on their feet. 

How To Play:

Set up your bins in a path. Ask your child to step into each container barefoot and describe how it feels. If you use water or shaving cream, be careful of slipping and have a towel available. 

Ask your child whether each element feels different on their hands compared to their feet. 

For another version of this activity, have your child step across leftover bubble wrap to pop the bubbles. It’s fun and loud, and it never fails to delight. 

This activity helps your child with balance, stimulates the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, and also helps with language development.  

Activity 4. Shaving Cream Alphabet 

Kids project with colorful fluffy shaving cream.

Shaving cream is a great and inexpensive sensory tool. Always keep some handy, but beware, it’s definitely not mess-free! 

This is a fun way for children to learn the alphabet. We did this with my sons, who have dyslexia. Dyslexic children benefit from associating touch with letter formation. 

You Will Need: 

  • Can of shaving cream
  • Tabletop or flat surface with a wipe-clean tablecloth
  • Smock for your child (optional)
  • Spatula for smoothing out the cream

How to Play: 

There are two different ways to play, depending on your child’s abilities.

Spray a layer of shaving foam onto your surface. Ask your child to write their name and letters or draw in the cream using their finger. Let your child explore using the spatula to make a smooth surface. 

Or: 

Give your child the shaving cream if they’re able to press the top. Ask them to write their name in big foam letters on your surface. 

The small movements of tracing the letters help with fine motor skills and letter recognition as well as stimulating the sense of touch. Large movements writing with the can help with gross motor skills.  

Activity 5. Make Your Own Musical Instruments 

Little funny girl with DIY guitar.

Music and sound are essential to sensory learning. While musical toys can be fun, showing your child how to experiment with sounds themselves is easy and fun. 

You Will Need: 

For the sound tube: 

  • Cardboard paper towel tubes 
  • Duct tape
  • Dry pasta, beans, rice, or lentils

For the box guitar: 

  • Empty rectangular cardboard box, i.e. shoe box or tissue box
  • Rubber bands
  • Cardboard tube

How To Play: 

Sound Tube: Make a sound tube by sealing one end of a cardboard tube with duct tape. Add your chosen filler and seal the other end. 

Fill a few tubes with different materials and talk about the difference in their sounds. 

Box Guitar: Make a box guitar by first cutting a hole in the lid of a shoe box. Tape the lid to the box. Stretch rubber bands across the hole. Tape a cardboard tube to one end to create the guitar neck. 

Talk about the different sounds the rubber bands make and why. 

This is a brilliant early STEM activity as well as a way to stimulate your child’s interest in sound.  

Essential Components of Sensory Play

Toddler girl plays with beads and multicolored buckets.

Sensory play includes activities that engage the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These activities aid cognitive development, language skills, social skills, and motor skill development. 

According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic11. Cleveland Clinic. What Is Sensory Play? The Benefits for Your Child and Sensory Play Ideas. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/benefits-of-sensory-play-ideas , sensory play also addresses two other sensory systems: 

  • Proprioception refers to our awareness of our body in space and how body parts function together. 
  • Our vestibular sense helps us to maintain balance.

Sensory play helps with cognition and socialization, and many children also find sensory stimulation calming. It helps children learn to self-soothe, self-regulate, and process their emotions. 

Basic Sensory Materials

Creating great sensory play experiences for your preschooler doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Many toys, gadgets, and art materials are marketed as “sensory,” but you don’t need to invest lots of money in products with this label. You probably already have many items that will make excellent components for sensory play. 

Almost any household item can help create an amazing sensory experience. However, only use items that are age-appropriate, safe, and non-toxic in case your preschooler ingests them. 

Small, tactile sensory items, like pebbles and dry rice, can pose a choking risk, so always supervise your child’s play. 

Natural sensory elements
  • Sand
  • Water, including blocks of ice
  • Leaves, mud, soil, pebbles, and sticks (always use under supervision)
Manufactured sensory elements 
  • Playdough
  • Slime
  • Kinetic sand
  • Finger paints
  • Colored sidewalk chalk
  • Hair gel
  • Shaving cream
Items you already have around the house 
  • Measuring cups
  • Cardboard tubes and boxes
  • Dry rice, pasta, and beans (always use under supervision)
  • Food coloring
  • Musical toys, rain sticks, bells, and tambourines
  • Arts and crafts items like glitter, popsicle sticks, puff balls
  • Stuffed animals
  • Bubble bath
Protective gear 
  • Kid-sized smocks or aprons
  • Newspaper or wipe clean tablecloths to protect floors and furniture

Create Sensory Spaces

You’ve probably seen sensory rooms filled with expensive equipment and would love to create the ultimate sensory space for your child, but do they really need to be big and expensive?

Fortunately, you can create a small sensory space on a budget that your child will love just as much!

  • Indoor Spaces: Create a calming sensory corner. Choose a space in your living room or child’s bedroom. Cover the floor with textured and colorful foam tiles and include sensory light toys for added interest. Add a bean bag and pillows along with stuffed animals for comfort. Complete the space by adding sensory sequin fabric, textured wall decals, or chalkboard paint to the walls. Leave items out that your child likes to play with, like fabric swatches, musical instruments, or tactile toys
  • Outdoor Spaces: All of your child’s senses are engaged when they’re outside playing in nature. Outdoor sensory play helps develop your child’s gross motor, language, and social skills. It also gets them interested in the natural world, which leads to engagement with STEM activities. 
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Encourage messy play outdoors (where it’s easier to clean up!) with these ideas: 

  • Create a mud kitchen
  • Draw with sidewalk chalk
  • Create a water and sand table
  • Collect seasonal items on a nature walk in your local park, like autumn leaves and pine cones
  • Play with bubbles

Integrating Sensory Play in Daily Learning

Happy sister kids play with sand and water in sensory baskets.

One of the great things about sensory play is that your child naturally engages with it all of the time. 

Sensory learning happens when your child pets the family cat, pours water from a cup into the bathtub, makes a den out of a cardboard box, or turns their night light on and off to hear the click of the button.

For children with special needs, sensory play is important for teaching self-regulation, improving focus, and practicing fine and gross motor skills. 

Although your child will organically engage in sensory play, you can encourage their learning by incorporating sensory activities into your daily routines. For example: 

At mealtimes 
  • Describe the color of the foods on their plate
  • Introduce foods with new textures
  • Have your child help with meal preparation by measuring, cutting, and counting ingredients
At bathtime
  • Provide toys that float, pour, and squeeze
At bedtime 
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  • 𝗢𝘂𝗿 𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘁, 𝘂𝗽𝗱𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝟮𝗻𝗱 𝗴𝗲𝗻 𝗌𝗈𝗎𝗇𝖽 𝗆𝖺𝖼𝗁𝗂𝗇𝖾 𝗂𝗌 𝗇𝗈𝗐 𝖶𝗂-𝖥𝗂 𝖾𝗇𝖺𝖻𝗅𝖾𝖽, 𝗐𝗂𝗍𝗁 𝖽𝗂𝗆𝗆𝖺𝖻𝗅𝖾 𝖼𝗅𝗈𝖼𝗄 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝖾𝗏𝖾𝗇 𝗆𝗈𝗋𝖾 𝖿𝖾𝖺𝗍𝗎𝗋𝖾𝗌 𝖿𝗈𝗋 𝖽𝗋𝖾𝖺𝗆𝗒 𝗌𝗅𝖾𝖾𝗉!
  • 𝗦𝗼𝘂𝗻𝗱 𝗠𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗲. 𝖸𝗈𝗎𝗋 𝖱𝖾𝗌𝗍 𝟤𝗇𝖽 𝗀𝖾𝗇 𝖼𝗈𝗆𝖾𝗌 𝖿𝗎𝗅𝗅𝗒 𝗅𝗈𝖺𝖽𝖾𝖽 𝗐𝗂𝗍𝗁 𝖾𝗑𝗉𝖾𝗋𝗍 𝖼𝗎𝗋𝖺𝗍𝖾𝖽 𝗌𝗅𝖾𝖾𝗉 𝗌𝗈𝗎𝗇𝖽𝗌 𝗅𝗂𝗄𝖾 𝗐𝗁𝗂𝗍𝖾 𝗇𝗈𝗂𝗌𝖾, 𝗈𝖼𝖾𝖺𝗇, 𝗐𝗂𝗇𝖽, 𝖿𝖺𝗇, 𝗁𝖾𝖺𝗋𝗍𝖻𝖾𝖺𝗍, 𝗋𝖺𝗂𝗇, 𝗅𝗎𝗅𝗅𝖺𝖻𝗂𝖾𝗌 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝗆𝗈𝗋𝖾 𝗍𝗈 𝗄𝖾𝖾𝗉 𝗒𝗈𝗎𝗋 𝗅𝗂𝗍𝗍𝗅𝖾 𝗈𝗇𝖾 𝖽𝗋𝖾𝖺𝗆𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝗍𝗁𝗋𝗈𝗎𝗀𝗁 𝗍𝗁𝖾 𝗇𝗂𝗀𝗁𝗍.
  • 𝗘𝘅𝗽𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗹𝗶𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗿𝘆 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗛𝗮𝘁𝗰𝗵+. 𝖳𝗈 𝖺𝖼𝖼𝖾𝗌𝗌 𝖾𝗏𝖾𝗇 𝗆𝗈𝗋𝖾 𝖼𝗈𝗇𝗍𝖾𝗇𝗍, 𝗂𝗇𝖼𝗅𝗎𝖽𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝗌𝗅𝖾𝖾𝗉 𝗌𝗍𝗈𝗋𝗂𝖾𝗌, 𝗆𝗈𝖽𝖾𝗋𝗇 𝗅𝗎𝗅𝗅𝖺𝖻𝗂𝖾𝗌, 𝗆𝗂𝗇𝗂 𝗆𝗂𝗇𝖽𝖿𝗎𝗅𝗇𝖾𝗌𝗌 𝗆𝗈𝗆𝖾𝗇𝗍𝗌 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝗆𝗈𝗋𝖾, 𝗀𝗂𝗏𝖾 𝖧𝖺𝗍𝖼𝗁+ 𝖬𝖾𝗆𝖻𝖾𝗋𝗌𝗁𝗂𝗉 𝖺 𝗍𝗋𝗒! 𝖲𝗎𝖻𝗌𝖼𝗋𝗂𝗉𝗍𝗂𝗈𝗇 𝗌𝗈𝗅𝖽 𝗌𝖾𝗉𝖺𝗋𝖺𝗍𝖾𝗅𝗒 𝗂𝗇 𝖺𝗉𝗉; 𝖿𝗋𝖾𝖾 𝗍𝗋𝗂𝖺𝗅 𝗂𝗇𝖼𝗅𝗎𝖽𝖾𝖽.
  • 𝗦𝗺𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗡𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗟𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁. 𝖥𝗎𝗇, 𝖻𝖾𝖽𝗌𝗂𝖽𝖾 𝗅𝖺𝗆𝗉 𝗐𝗂𝗍𝗁 𝗂𝗇𝖿𝗂𝗇𝗂𝗍𝖾 𝖼𝗎𝗌𝗍𝗈𝗆 𝖼𝗈𝗅𝗈𝗋 𝗁𝗎𝖾𝗌. 𝖯𝖾𝗋𝖿𝖾𝖼𝗍 𝖿𝗈𝗋 𝖻𝗈𝗒𝗌 𝗈𝗋 𝗀𝗂𝗋𝗅𝗌. 𝖨𝗅𝗅𝗎𝗆𝗂𝗇𝖺𝗍𝖾 𝗍𝗁𝖾 𝖼𝗋𝗂𝖻 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝖼𝗁𝖺𝗇𝗀𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝗍𝖺𝖻𝗅𝖾 𝗍𝗈 𝖾𝖺𝗌𝖾 𝗇𝗂𝗀𝗁𝗍𝗍𝗂𝗆𝖾 𝗂𝗇𝖿𝖺𝗇𝗍 𝖿𝖾𝖾𝖽𝗂𝗇𝗀𝗌. 𝖬𝖺𝗄𝖾 𝗍𝗁𝖾 𝖽𝖺𝗋𝗄 𝗅𝖾𝗌𝗌 𝗌𝖼𝖺𝗋𝗒 𝗂𝗇 𝗒𝗈𝗎𝗋 𝖼𝗁𝗂𝗅𝖽’𝗌 𝗋𝗈𝗈𝗆 𝗐𝗂𝗍𝗁 𝖺 𝖼𝖺𝗅𝗆𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝗀𝗅𝗈𝗐.
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References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, March 18). What Is Sensory Play? The Benefits for Your Child and Sensory Play Ideas. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/benefits-of-sensory-play-ideas
Sensory Play: 5 Hands-On Activities for Preschool Sensory Development


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