Have you taken the sensory play plunge yet? Children learn so much through play activities that ignite their senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, balance and movement! If you have been following this series on loose parts play, you can probably already imagine the multitude of ways in which sensory play and loose parts go together like peas and carrots. And if your brain works like mine, you probably also just jumped to the multitude of ways playing with your peas and carrots can incorporate the concepts of loose parts play and be a sensory activity at the same time! Ok, I’m [mostly] joking about that one…
I am excited to be back today to share some simple loose parts sensory play activities to integrate elements of loose parts and sensory play in your home, classroom or outdoor space. Rest assured, this won’t be a costly or time consuming process. In fact, if you are already exploring either of these philosophies at home, you’re exploring them both! Let’s delve into some creative ways to implement loose parts and sensory play in combination:
Loose Parts Sensory Play Activities
Just Add Water
Water play is a phenomenal sensory activity. Most homes come equipped with a great location for that to happen while minimizing clean up: your bathtub! Summer is a great time to take water play outdoors. For very little ones, buckets, bowls and bins of water combined with teething toys, colanders, measuring cups, funnels and other items for grasping, fishing, pouring and collecting can be great fun. Let’s not forget water in other forms as well, like ice and snow! Freezing some small loose parts or toys in containers of water can make for a great excavation project on a hot afternoon. Snow can be explored in the winter months using a collection of manmade or natural loose parts for scooping, designing, shaping and more.
What’s In the Sensory Bin?
Sensory bins and small worlds are a conveniently portable and containable setup. You can invest in a sensory table or create your own using a storage bin or basin you have at home. Historically, sand and water have been two of the most popular sensory table fillers. I love the extension ideas on the blog “Sand and Water Tables!” However, when it comes to bin fillers, the list of options is extensive. Dried beans, rice, lentils, oats, popping corn, pasta, flour, or potato flakes can create a great sensory experience that is taste safe for children who may mouth materials. There are a variety of non-food filler options as well. Check out this free printable list of 50 Non-Food Sensory Bin Fillers.
Combining a filler material and some loose parts allows play and exploration to evolve to a whole new level! To begin with, I always say that less is more. With a sand bin, I might start with just a few containers and scoops or perhaps some rocks for burying and paint brushes for dusting them off.
When children are busy playing, they don’t realize how much they are learning! You can explore the science of magnetism with a collection of magnetic objects and non-magnetic filler, such as dry pasta. You can encourage dramatic play by combining small toys and loose parts with your sensory bin filler, like in this Frog Pond Small World.
You can foster fine motor development with this whimsical Ice Cream Shop Sensory Bin, in which colorful pom poms are combined with ice cream scoops, plastic spoons, recycled containers and cardboard tube “ice cream cones.”
Think Outside the Bin
Sensory play outside is a great way to allow for messier play while enjoying easy access to nature’s abundance of loose parts. I think a mud kitchen is a fabulous way to encourage sensory and loose parts play in combination for all ages. You don’t need much more than a large bin, some thrifted or old pots and pans, a few metal spoons and cups and, of course, dirt and water. Older children might explore the processes of mixing dirt and water into mud, filling, pouring and transferring concoctions. Very little ones might explore their sense of sound as they bang away at tins and pots.
Dough and Other Recipes for Loose Parts Sensory Play Success
Play dough is as versatile as it is beloved! You can buy it or you can make it. Adding in loose parts like beads, pipe cleaners, seeds, dried beans, mosaic tiles or recycled applesauce pouch caps can take that play to new heights. Last summer, my older son was fascinated by robots and he loved this Robot Play Dough Invitation with a collection of shiny and interesting loose parts.
And why stop at play dough? Clay requires even more muscle strength from growing hands while offering the option of preserving a creation as a work of art or returning it to the container for later use.
There are so many recipes available online for making your own doughs, slimes, sands and sensory concoctions. And don’t forget bubbles! Loose parts, especially recycled items, make for some wonderful bubble blowers!
Shadows and Light
Light tables are a great investment, but a simple white sheet and flashlight are all you really need to explore fascinating shadows and light with loose parts. Translucent items like magnetic tiles or plastic party cups will reflect light while opaque items will create unique shadows. My children love exploring glow sticks with the lights off, too!
Practical and Playful
I often like to move our sensory table into the kitchen while I am cooking. This might include using water as my sensory material and vegetables to be washed along with some sponges as my loose parts. And after a messy activity, soapy water in the sensory bin is a fun and functional activity! You’re not being lazy, you’re being practical!
Now, let’s talk cleanup–a topic I haven’t covered until now. I’m not going to lie, sometimes sensory bins and loose parts play gets messy! We strive to have a “clean as you go” policy, but I am frequently reminded that children do need to be shown how to clean up materials and given access to what they will need to do so. Keeping a dustpan and brush, towels, rags, smocks and aprons at child level can help facilitate independent cleanup. An old shower curtain, tablecloth or sheet can be used as a dropcloth. This can help minimize your own cleanup efforts and at least some of the anxiety around messy play at home.
I hope that this gives you some helpful ideas about how to use what you already have as you nurture your children’s curiosity and critical thinking skills through sensory and loose parts play. Check out some more great Sensory Play Activities for Kids and join me next month for a series finale post about using loose parts in art!