My D.I.Y. (Dollar Store!) Sensory Boxes

Sensory Box Decorative Header

We LOVE our sensory boxes. We even posted in early Instagram history that the boxes sometimes even enticed dads, older siblings, and other people who wouldn’t normally be involved in my play time with the “littles.”

When I started traveling with sensory boxes, I only planned time to use them with my kids 4 or younger. I expected the bigger kids I watch (6 and 10 at the moment) to tell me that the texture tubs were “too easy” or “for babies,” but as soon as they found the first box of water beads in the backseat, they were hooked. They began asking me to make sensory boxes for them specifically, with smaller, harder to find objects and with less color.

In fact, all of my kids have asked for specific things to be incorporated into sensory boxes at one time or another, which just goes to show exactly how versatile they can be!

 Toddler immersed in corn based, animal themed sensory bin
Ms 1.5 Enjoying a box she had requested, “FARM ANIMALS!”

I buy my boxes themselves from Michaels (I usually order them online, and stock up when there is a coupon). There are plenty of other plastic bins that would be great for this purpose, but I made my decision based on the fact that they are offered in many colors, have lids that close pretty tightly, and are big enough for 2 children to play in them cooperatively, but small enough to still be portable. Many people do great sensory boxes in Flisat tables from IKEA, and if I’m ever stationary rather than traveling I may transition to the same. The food items I purchase with my normal groceries, and the small objects I buy almost exclusively at the dollar store! This keeps the cost of the boxes totally manageable within my materials budget (and of course you could buy one of mine instead of creating your own, over on etsy.com!).

Here is what goes into building a sensory box, beyond investing in a few good boxes:

The base of the box is super important because it gives a guideline to what the rest of your box should hold: will this material be wet, cold, small, flexible, squishable, stackable or breakable? Some objects will go better in a fine, soft base than they would in a cold, moist base.

For example, ping pong balls are a lot of fun in a water-bead base, because they almost always find a way to float back up to the top. Kids learn science principals while trying to bury them, just make sure that this game stays light-hearted and doesn’t frustrate them too much…

Sometimes it can also be fun to use thematic items. The box shown above features farm animals, which were requested, and feed corn. The corn is what many of those animals eat, be it exclusively or as a treat, and we got to talk about it while playing in the box. We also used that box to talk about the names of animals within a group: the male, the female and the baby. We practiced pairing the sound of each animal to the mouth that makes it, and we compared sizes and colors. We talked about where each animal would sleep, if they all lived on the farm together. (It was argued very well to me that chickens sleep on the backs of goats, although mine still never have!)

Some fillings will be better for scooping, and some fillings will be better for sifting. No matter what, trying different things and changing it up frequently is key to keeping sensory play engaging and educational.

Some Ideas for Sensory Fills:

-Beans

-Pasta

-Corn

-Cornmeal

-Snow (real or pretend)

-Oobleck

-Rice

Some bases are also more messy than others! In the warmer months I like to do sensory play outside, as that limits the clean up, but inside is good too. I would recommend playing on the floor, and a hardwood one at that. My littles have all gotten used to helping sweep up when the game is done.

The objects in a sensory bin can be LITERALLY ANYTHING. We can chose them based on a theme we are studying, or a concept we are trying to learn. We have done bugs or words that begin with “B.” We have done exclusively items of a single color, or only items that were round. You can do objects that will be easy to find, scoop, count, etc.

We often reuse items from other boxes and games, and borrow them from our daughters toy collection. When coming up with a new box, our items are generally purchased on a stroll through the dollar store.

Check out some of our examples here, but keep in mind that the items you chose can be literally anything, and you can combine as many or as few concepts or themes as you choose:

If you want to get started with sensory play but don’t know how, we’re willing to help! We will build you a custom box and send it to your door (with or without a plastic box) or help you plan it via email! We love collaborating on ideas for amazing kid enrichment, no matter who and where you are!

The last thing we love about sensory boxes is the fact that they encourage hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Having children stick their hands (sometimes even their feet or their noses!) in the boxes gives them a great tactile exploration of what you are showing them, but including objects that will use their fine motor skills will bring this to a whole new level, and allow kids to learn about the properties or various materials.

Scoops, funnels, bowls, tongs, and spoons are a great way for kids to explore the items and the fillings within their box. They will see what is light or heavy, what is buoyant or less so, what does and does not fit through a funnel, etc. Sometimes our fine-motor skill improving elements fit the theme of the box, and sometimes they do not.

We generally buy these items at the dollar store on the same trip as the objects. They can be a bit harder to find, given that it sometimes requires some thought. These tiny pails came from the baby shower section, whereas our metallic bowls were in the holiday sections, the brushes in the art section, and the mini spoons and ladels from the kitchen aisle.

Measuring cups can also make a great scooping object, as can smaller bowls, cups, etc! Kids can also be interested in objects that they can color match to their bowls or cups, or being able to see vs. hide an object within a container. The container can even include sections to organize the objects into, but this is totally optional!

Sample Sesory box;  corn meal fill and various scoopers and objects

Sensory boxes are great versatile play for children of many ages. They are engaging and educational, and can be used to tie many other activities and principles together.

Fall themed sensory box from 2019  - beans, pumpkins, broomsticks and pine cones

We hope you and your children give sensory box play a try, and we would love to see what you come up with! Tag us in your games on any social media platform, or send it to us directly so we can share it for you on ours! Happy Educational Play Time!!!

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