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  • This Type of Play Builds a Better Brain (and 30 Minutes of Peace for Mom!)

    Sensory bins get kids to work with their hands and explore their environment.
    by Kitty Elicay . Published Nov 21, 2018
This Type of Play Builds a Better Brain (and 30 Minutes of Peace for Mom!)
PHOTO BY @alfieangelica/Instagram and The Learning Basket
To read this story in Tagalog, click here.
  • Parents want their children to start learning various skills at a young age. And kids learn when you let them explore. They’re always curious about how the world works and learning how to navigate it is essential for their emotional, social, and physical development. But what you have quickly realized is kids in their toddler years have a very, very short attention span. They need constant engagement with new activities to fuel their interests. 

    One way to nurture this is through sensory play, or “any activity that stimulates a young child’s senses of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing, as well as anything that engages movement and balance,” according to Goodstart, Australia’s largest provider of early learning and care. This type of play fosters brain development by helping build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, which enables their ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth.

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    The best part is you don’t even need to step out of the house to start engaging your kids this way. You can create sensory bins, a plastic bin or tub filled with materials that stimulate the senses, using materials you can find at home. And you bet it will keep your toddler occupied for a long time, making it the perfect alternative to screen time.

    Sanne Unson, one of the moms behind the blog The Learning Basket, shares that she immediately fell in love with sensory bins. “I saw how it encouraged independent play, focus, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills in my daughter as she scooped, touched, and played her heart away in the first sensory bin that I made for her,” she writes in their blog.

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    How to create your own sensory bin

    1. Pick a taste-safe sensory base.


    Initial worry parents might have is that at the exploration stage, kids love putting things in their mouth. Susie Allison, a former preschool teacher turned stay-at-home mom and who runs the blog Busy Toddler recommends picking materials that are “taste-safe.”

    Her personal favorite is uncooked rice. “It’s edible, not chokeable and really fun to work with,” she writes in her blog. “It pours, dumps, spreads, smooshes. It’s perfect for a first sensory bin.”

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    Other materials you can use are flour, corn flour, cereal, and pasta. You can also use food coloring to make the base more vibrant — we’ve seen bins containing grains in rainbow colors. One post that we saw on Instagram had one mom using crushed graham crackers, shredded wheat, and marshmallows.

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    If you have older kids, you can use other materials like sand (kinetic sand is a popular choice), colored pebbles, or even just plain water. Sanne suggests a DIY cloud dough made from flour and baby oil, or “instant snow” made from baking soda and shaving cream. Paper is also a good choice!

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    2. Choose a bin.

    You want a container that is big enough to hold your materials so your child can explore without moving the contents out of the bin. Clear storage containers work well — choose one that’s large, wide, and deep.

    If you’re planning to make a couple of sensory bins with different materials, smaller containers work, too. You can use a foil pan, baking dish, and cardboard boxes. It’s better to choose containers with lids, so you can store them properly when not in use or take with you when traveling


    Also consider this option: a table with built-in storage. With the announcement that an IKEA store will soon open in the country in 2020, you can add their Flisat table on your must-buy list.

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    3. Fill the bin.


    A sensory bin has endless possibilities! Add in scoops, rakes, shovel, buckets, cups or spoons which they can use to fill and move the base material around. The stuff they can bury, like plastic animals, cars, trucks, rubber toys, balls, and other tactile toys make great sensory bin fillers.

    Beach toys make great additions to sensory bins.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of The Learning Basket
    Mom Alfie Saniel buries wooden letters inside a sensory bin and asks her daughter to “rescue the letters.” She says it’s “good 30 minutes of silence for mommy!”

    Will sensory bins make a mess?

     With all the materials you’re putting inside, yes, you can expect that it will make a mess. Breathe and be patient — it’s all part of the fun, learning, and development of your child!

    One thing you can do to corral the mess is to set the bin on a large blanket or on a playmat, so it’s easier to clean up after. Have a small dustpan and broom in the room and encourage your kids to help clean up —  not only will it help them develop their motor skills but it will also teach them independence and responsibility.

    Sanne Unson of The Learning Basket encourages outdoor play with materials that may be hard to clean indoors like sand and water. But you can use a big blanket to contain the mess when playing indoors.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of The Learning Basket
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    When playing, lay down the rules and teach your kids to “keep it in the bin.” Whenever they start taking the materials out, redirect their hands back into the bin. Steer their pouring over the bin and help them scoop up the mess. “Say ‘Uh oh! Let’s put it back in the bin.’ They will catch on,” says Susie.

    But don’t dictate how your kids will play with the materials. “The magic of sensory play is in how it inspires creativity in our children,” shares Sanne. “It is open-ended, allowing our kids to play with it the way they want to play with it.”


    Have you created your own sensory bin? Take a photo and share it with us in the comments, our Facebook Messenger or email it at smartparenting2013@gmail.com. We’d love to have more ideas!


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