Sensory Exploration With Young Children

Taylor Keating

Children, especially young children, learn through their senses. It’s not always easy to engage them this way. One great tip for getting your children to explore the world around them is through sensory play. Sensory bottles are a great option, especially if you’re hoping for very little mess and ease of bringing it wherever you are. You can either make the sensory bottle ahead of time or do it together.

Nature Sensory Bottles

What better way to explore the world around you than by getting right in it. Nature provides a great experience because it truly is every single sense. You can taste it, smell it, feel it and have many different textures, see all different colors, and hear the sounds that might occur. I definitely recommend for making nature sensory bottles to collect the items—it really adds to the entire outcome.

Over the summer, we went outside together and gathered nature items. I let my son take the lead since he’s a toddler and generally likes being in control. We first sought out various colors. I’d ask for yellow and he’d come back with a dandelion. I’d ask for green and get grass, brown and get rocks, etc. This is great for older children.

Lincoln was the gatherer and held the bottle as we filled it up. We were able to add into our large bottle various flowers found, grass, bark from a tree, small stones, a rock, leaves, and wood chips. I added seltzer for the bubble effect and closed it tight.

Both kids LOVED flipping the bottle around, trying to get the bubbles to move the items inside and generally just loved pointing out the different nature items we had found. Here are some other ideas for different seasons…

Fall: find all different colored leaves, acorns and nuts, pine cones, pumpkin or pumpkin seeds, cinnamon or apple items, orange, red, and brown things.

Winter: Branches, bark, twigs, rock, buttons, carrot, snowman items, blues and browns and whites.

Spring: Flowers, water, green buds, leaves, river/lake items, mud, eggs, yellow, pink, and green things.

Water and Soap Exploration

You will never find a toddler or infant who doesn’t like to play in warm water. Yes, some may not like taking a bath but that’s completely different than water sensory play. I love using Dawn soap because it’s gentle and has a nice blue color that makes the water look great. If you don’t have some sort of sensory table, you can use your bath or a large sink or a bucket or any sized storage bin.

This is so engaging because it’s sort of a mess and toddlers love messes! They can be rambunctious and splash around, or they can be gentle and do an activity like washing babies or animals. There are so many different themes and activities that can come from soap and water in a large bin. Here are some ideas to try at home!

Animal or baby washing. Get those creatures all muddy or painty. Check out my painting post for ideas there. Once you have some dirty animals or people, plop them all in the tub. Your child will love washing them up and seeing the paint or mud be washed right away. With animals, you can mimic sounds and work on dramatic play. It’s really endless. With babies, you can identify body parts and play a head shoulder knees and toes game.

Tools are another great way to engage your child in sensory water play. Sponges are a favorite and so are different brushes. I like to add different sized and shaped sponges because you can see water drain when you squeeze them. Talk about an applicable cause and effect station! The brushes are great as well because they provided a very different texture that is rough and scratchy. Plus, you’re teaching your child to use a tool appropriately.

Sorting with Recycled Containers

A co-worker used to make these busy containers for her classroom and during quarantine I tried to make a few with my kids and fell in love. These are all inspired by her! If you have littles I’m sure that you have an abundance of containers, whether it be old formula tins, puffs containers, or anything else. Save them for about a month and I’m sure you’ll have a stock pile. I never really realized how many of those damn puffs tins I went through until I began to save them.

Take the top off and poke some holes in them using a really sharp pencil or a screwdriver. I name these two instead of a scissors because they make perfect sized holes for standard straws of popsicle sticks. Trust me, you want them to fit well and not frustrate your child more. So yes, make a bunch of holes, but not too many.

One way to make it harder is to color the holes so that only certain colored straws should go in each one. You can also make them different sized so there are two different ways to make the straws fit in. I suggest doing a standard sorting container first so you get the idea of how it’s supposed to work.

Boom. Have your child sit and slowly put straws or pipecleaners or popsicle sticks into the container. Like I said above, you can do it based on a specific color or size or just let them practice their fine motor skills and focus to sit and place each one in one at a time.

Treasure Baskets

These are a great way to introduce familiar, real world items in a new way. I swear, I can put any item in a treasure basket and my children will act as if it is brand new. They love trying to come up with the theme. Our favorite so far has been the musical treasure basket. Here is a list of treasure basket ideas…

  • · Music
  • · Kitchen tools
  • · Winter clothes
  • · Swimming
  • · Nature
  • · Baby
  • · Farm/Jungle/Zoo/Domestic Animals
  • · Any colors
  • · Baking
  • · Farming
  • · Car
  • · Cleaning items
  • · Bath time
  • · Sports
  • · Balls
  • · Art tools
  • · Space
  • · Birds
  • · Meal times
  • · Lego
  • · Family

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An early childhood educator at heart, now raising two toddlers with big feelings and writing about mom life through a real lens.

Ridgefield, CT

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