‘Sensory play’ is a term you will probably hear a lot as a baby/toddler mother. It’s a handy little catch-all phrase that basically means ‘activities or experiences that engage the senses.’ (I’ve shared a more in-depth description, here, if you’re interested.) It’s a term that seems bewildering in new motherhood, but that soon comes to cover all of your bases, as almost anything becomes a sensory activity. ‘We’re going to ASDA. It’s a sensory experience!’ ‘Do you want to watch the football with daddy? It’s a sensory experience!’ and so on.
There are a lot of great sensory toys on the market, but there are easy activities you can set up at home too – three of which I am here to share with you today. (Please note that all activities are suitable for babies and toddlers. However, I do refer to little ones as ‘baby’ throughout – this is due to still referring to my own toddler as baby. He will be my baby until the end of time.)
IDEA #1: CREATE A SENSORY ‘BOX OF TREASURES’
Babies are like tiny explorers, tiny scientists, and tiny unreasonable adults, all rolled into one perfectly sized package. As such, they like both variety, and the opportunity to do things for themselves. As parents, we tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to allowing such freedoms at too young an age, and for good reason. Babies are determined, yes, but they are also a danger to themselves and to others if given too much power. Enter the ‘box of treasures.’ A shoebox filled with magical, sensory wonders for baby to explore all by themselves, created by their designated grown-up. A classic ‘yes baby, you may take the lead, WINK WINK’ approach to parenting.
To create your own box of treasures, you will simply need a box with a lid, and box innards. Said innards can be absolutely anything. From small toys found in the existing toybox, to shapes from the various shape sorters likely to make up baby’s arsenal, to fabric books. Additionally, you could try homegrown ‘sensory’ pieces – think baking paper, scrunched up balls of tin foil, fabric samples, colourful paper and crinkly (clean) food wrappers.
Once you’ve obtained your box, fill it with your chosen pieces, and present it to your little one with fanfare – ‘Oooh what’s THIS? *GASP* WOW! Look at THIS!’ Place the box in front of baby, and remove the lid within their eye line, before allowing them to explore its contents independently, giving plenty of positive reinforcement should they turn excitedly at any point to show off a particular piece they’ve become enthralled with. Once baby’s interest has started to wane, repack the box, and remove it from sight – bringing it back when you next need a 30 minute, hands-off activity. To prolong the joy of the box, try rotating contents every few days – adding and removing items, and repacking in a different order.
Benefits of the box of treasures include:
- Emptying boxes and filling them back up has a multitude of benefits for babies. This includes building fine motor skills, helping in the development of hand-eye co-ordination, teaching cause and effect, and introducing the concept of gravity.
- According to Baby Sparks, playing with filled boxes serves as an introduction to maths. The box gets emptier the more baby takes out, and fuller the more they put back in, introducing their growing minds to the concept of volume. You can also use it as a counting activity, telling baby how many items they’ve removed, and what is left as a result. ‘You’ve taken 4 things out of the box, now there are 4 left!’
- It lets your baby make their own choices, in a controlled environment. Decision making is a skill we take with us into adult life, and one that helps us to grow as people. Presenting your baby with a box of treasures filled with a variety of items allows them to make their own choices about what they want to play with, and to explore, satiating their curiosity in a way you know is safe.
- A box with a lid is an added layer of learning. Your baby will spend a good amount of time trying to understand how the mechanism works, and may even take another step toward understanding object permanence – the idea that something is still there, even if you can no longer see it.
- As the title suggests, it provides an opportunity for sensory play. Allowing your child to engage their senses, and learn through play.
- Emptying and refilling the box will help your child understand that one object can go into another. Completely demystifying your handbag, and where the rice cakes and biscotti have gone. So perhaps time to invest in a bag that zips, if you haven’t already.
This activity allowed for hours of peace, and helped my little one to explore all sorts of different textures, without costing a lot of money. It also gave my husband and I a very good excuse to finish a fair few ‘family size’ chocolate bars, in the name of sensory play… The things we do for our children.
IDEA #2: MAKE YOUR OWN DIY SENSORY TUBS
As the journey into motherhood progresses, you will come across little ‘mum hacks’ that seemingly everyone knows about (seriously, did I miss a class when I was pregnant? Please tell me it’s not just me who didn’t enter motherhood with all this knowledge in the bank.) Such hacks are often designed to save a little money, whilst being developmentally friendly.
One such hack was introduced to me by my neighbour, a very talented music teacher with a little girl a year older than my son. The hack in question was DIY musical instruments, or ‘sensory bottles/tubs,’ and provided baby with a sensory activity akin to a rattle, at a fraction of the cost. And the way to put your own together is simple.
You will need:
- A clean, empty bottle or tub with reliable lid (I reused these breast milk cups, to great success)
- Tub contents of your choosing. Suggestions: dry pasta, dry cous cous, uncooked rice, water and glitter, ripped up coloured card
- Sellotape, to ensure a tighter seal if concerned about contents escaping
Simply place your chosen contents into the tubs, seal, and voila! Purse friendly toys that help enhance your child’s learning! (And that will, hopefully, buy you just enough time to drink your coffee hot… Or at least to boil the kettle. I’m not promising miracles here)
Benefits of DIY sensory tubs include:
- Sensory tubs allow children to explore items and objects that might usually be off-limits. Babies learn a lot of their lessons by simply exploring their surroundings. And although traditional baby toys are often fantastic in aiding in this journey, the discovery of items used in everyday family life can be very exciting, and an early step toward involving your child in household daily activities. Such exploration not only presents an opportunity to discover more mundane bits and pieces from around the home, but also helps children to grow their confidence, independence, creativity and collaboration skills
- And, as the name would suggest, they are a fantastic sensory toy. Engaging various senses, dependent on chosen contents.
- Quiet, slow-moving tub contents can help to calm an angsty baby. Slow moving contents can be captivating for little ones, giving them time to regulate their breathing, and gain control of their (often unruly) emotions
- And they’re inexpensive, too. A nice rattle can cost a small fortune, and is often discarded in moments. Sensory tubs/bottles, however, can be filled with whatever you have in the house, using whatever containers you already own. And once baby is bored? Just swap out the contents for something else you already have. It’s simple! It’s cost effective! It’s a lifesaver on those ‘too drained to get dressed but my child needs some new entertainment’ days. Days that we all have, by the way. Babies are hard
For my own baby, I chose to create extremely simple sensory tubs (there were a lot more than those pictured, lord only knows where they ended up) and, because they did exactly what I needed them to do, I never dipped my toe into the waters of tubs with more adventurous contents. However, if you’re feeling crafty, and fancy a Sunday afternoon naptime pursuit, there are some great ideas for fancy sensory bottles here, here and here
IDEA #3: CREATE A ‘BOX OF SCARVES’
Last but not least, another incredibly simple idea that enraptures small children – and, if your little one is anything like mine, saves you the job of stuffing baby wipes back into the packet after tiny hands have torn through them with a ferocity that is frankly quite frightening – is to create a ‘box of scarves’
Honestly the most straight forward of all straight forward ideas, all the box of scarves requires is a piece of tupperware with a flip lid (the kind you pop up to pour out cereal, I used this one) and some coloured juggling scarves. Tie the scarves together, stuff them in the box, close the lid and badda bing badda boom, your box of scarves is complete, ready for the aforementioned tiny hands to feverishly empty, time and time again
The benefits of this activity echo those of the sensory box of treasures, above, whilst also providing a multilayered activity.
After all, what better use for those scarves once they’re emptied out than a swift game of peepo, or ‘hide the toy’? Hours of fun 😉