During the dark days of Covid lockdown, we had to stay home with our unvaccinated toddler. Worried about her development during the pandemic, my innate ‘tiger’ mum-sense kicked in – which was when I discovered sensory play activities that I could do at home, to help stimulate learning and development through a child’s senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight.
Besides fostering and building gross and motor skills, sensory play also encourages concentration, coordination, scientific thinking and learning. Children’s unending curiosity about the world around them makes these activities ideal for encouraging imagination and creative ideas, along with logical thinking and problem solving.
Incorporating sensory play activities at home is ideal, as the various items in the house is all you need in making it exciting, quick, cheap and easy! Here are some easy and inexpensive ideas for your next sensory play session:
1. Homemade playdough
If your child likes to grab and squeeze anything they get their hands on, try making your own playdough with food ingredients. Playdough is an all-time favourite that not only develops fine motor skills through moulding and shaping, but also encourages hand-eye coordination and creativity. Playdough recipes utilise pantry ingredients, are cost-effective and are readily available for play. You can use this for the learning of numbers, letters, shapes and colours.
2. Sorting beans and nuts
Children are naturally drawn to sorting activities due to their curious minds making sense of the world around them, through identifying objects and even people. You just need a variety of beans (soy, red or green beans) and nuts (macadamia or cashew), and mix them up in a big bowl. Allow your child to take the lead by sorting them, either by colour, shape, size or texture, with you supporting them in their ideas. Younger children may sort with their fingers for some sensory stimulation. As they get older however, you can throw in some spoons, tweezers or grabbers to further develop those fine-motor skills.
3. Sink or float water sensory bin
If your child is like mine, they love anything water-related – so why not introduce them to the basic scientific concept of density and buoyancy with this activity? Set up this low-prep activity outdoors in the garden or the balcony (or alternatively, in the kitchen sink or bathtub indoors).
Open the refrigerator or pantry space and pick up some household items, placing them in a big container. The list of items to include is endless; you can use utensils (metal or wooden spoons, ladles, straws), fruits (peeled or whole fruits will give a different result), or vegetables. Once they get the hang of it, you can let them put anything in the bin and explore to their hearts’ content.
4. Elastic band wrap around
We will always have some rubber bands lying around the house, and these can be used for some exciting play that stimulates fine motor skills. The kids can wrap the rubber bands around some muffin pans, empty tissue rolls, Lego bricks or wooden plate holders – the list goes on. Besides pinching, gripping, pushing and pulling on the rubber bands, you can even help them learn counting, colour-matching and even sound differentiation (based on the sounds that the rubber bands make, when hitting the respective items).
5. Icy melts
This is one of the easiest activities to set up as we always have ice blocks handy in the freezer, especially in a hot, humid Malaysia! Just grab a few from the freezer, place them in a wide basin or bowl, along with some spoons and a cup or jug filled with water. Let your child explore the cold sensation that the ice brings on their hands.
You can also give them spoons and see them clumsily try to scoop it up and balance the slippery blocks. If your child likes pouring water, they will soon learn that ice melts faster when it comes in contact with water. This self-entertained open ended play is great to learn about the properties of water, temperature difference and will be accompanied with a lot of happy oohs and ahhs! You can try freezing them in different shaped containers and add in some food colouring to make it more interesting.
6. Rice sensory bin
Sensory bins can be filled with fun things to touch and feel. Rice is one of the easiest options, being a staple in every Asian family. Throw in some rice into the container and let the little ones touch and feel the rice with their bare hands, before adding in some bowls, cups or ladles for some fun scooping. It will amaze you to see how engaged your child can be – even the sound of rice being twirled around in a bin can heighten their senses! You can also make some rainbow rice using vinegar and food colouring (just remember to have a broom or vacuum handy for clean ups!).
7. Pom poms
Pom poms help to develop our children’s fine motor skills and dexterity, and are some simple and easy items to have around the house. They can be used to practice practically anything; from sorting, to motor skills and craft. Let your child begin by exploring the pom poms’ textures and shapes, before using them in a myriad of play activities. Some easy examples could include pushing and pulling them through an empty bottle, water play, or sorting them by colours, alphabet and number tracing.
8. Toilet rolls
Don’t know what to do with the empty toilet rolls? They can be recycled in our children’s play in some amazing ways! Stick them against a wall or a cupboard, and let your child drop some pom poms through the rolls (they’ll learn some key lessons about object permanence through this process).
For some art and craft, fold the rolls into star, triangle, square or heart shapes, dip them into some paint and let your child stamp the shapes, making beautiful art pieces.
9. Search and rescue sensory bin
We love our walks around the park, and children love picking up colourful items along the way. Get them to collect different colourful flowers, small or big leaves and freeze these into ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop them onto a big empty tray, and let your child figure out how to melt the ice to rescue their little treasures! Alternatively, you can freeze small toy animals, sea creatures or pom poms as an interesting variation.
10. Straw cutting
Instead of wasting plastic straws by throwing them away after a single use, wash them instead, and let your child cut them up with some scissors. This opening and closing of scissors builds up their hand muscle strength, which is important for drawing, brushing their teeth, using cutleries, and getting dressed. They can then sort the straw bits by shape, size or colour. Please supervise the use of scissors at all times.
Try these activities and remember to let your child lead – before long, you’ll be amazed by how creative kids can be when their senses meet with play!
By Madeline Khor
Madeline works full time as a pharmacist, is a mother of two and loves some occasional photography stints. Life in Kuala Lumpur is as hectic and tiring as it can get with two young kids, but she still loves spending time and exploring the world with the them whilst trying to make a difference to the lives of people she touches at work.