How to Introduce Sensory Bins to Your Toddler

Sensory Bins- definitely a buzz word/item right now. And Speech Pathologists love them. But introducing them to a toddler is a whole other story. Toddler are by design MESSY. Adding another tool for them to make a mess with? That just sounds crazy. But here are a few tips to slowly build your child’s understanding of sensory bins (and what they are and are not used for).

Teaching a child to clean up should start from infancy. Children LOVE “put in” tasks from a very early age and we should capitalize on that! If your child doesn’t understand “clean up”- hold off on introducing sensory bins because there will be a mess at times and you should NOT be the only one cleaning it up. We use the common song “clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere, clean up, clean up, everybody do your job” while we clean but there are tons of song cues out there to encourage. The goal with clean up is to be consistent and make sure your child has daily opportunities to practice this throughout your home.

Limiting size creates a scaffolding of teaching affect. First we provide a small container with a small amount of the filler for them to explore. This teaches them that they can put their hands in and pick up and move around the filler. It still provides those sensory opportunities because you can use a variety of items. And because the container is so small if/when they spill, you both have less to clean up.

Then move to the big container, but limit the amount of filler. This provides more room for exploration and objects but still limits the potential for mess.

Finally, when your child can handle the small amount of filler you can increase the amount of filler. This will allow you to put more objects in the bin and get more creative with play. But it also has the most opportunity for a giant mess. Make sure your child can handle each phase, and respond appropriately to being told to clean up, BEFORE starting with the big, full sensory bin.

There are so many things you can use for filler- the possibilities are truly endless. But I find when starting a child with a sensory bin, it’s best to start with big filler items and slowly work your way down.

My favorite big filler items are: blocks, scarves, and packing peanuts. These are great because they are easily moved around but also big enough for small hands to pick up. And the bigger size means fewer pieces in a contained space (or all over your floor…).

Once they are okay with larger filler items you can move your way down. But I still urge you to think of items that will not destroy your carpet or end up everywhere in your house. Some of the items we love are: Pom Poms, Water Beads (but these do bounce), and Dried Beans. These items can definitely make a mess but they won’t ruin anything.

If you use filler like dirt, water, mud, jello….great! Just go outside or setup a towel underneath!

We all want the beautiful sensory bin filled with all the materials. But WAIT! While you are teaching your child what a sensory bin is and how to use it, slowly introduce materials. Start out with only one item in the bin and work your way up. This will help keep your child from getting overstimulated from all the choices….which will ultimately lead to everything everywhere.

My final tip is to know what the typical attention span is for your child’s age. For instance, my 21-month-old can only handle 2-3 minutes at a time before things start flying. Knowing this I pay attention to the time and take the activity away, or at least check in on her. With that said, I’m not saying to only use this sensory bin 1 time for 2-3 minutes. Leave it out or bring it out throughout the week. For my Using Every Day Objects For Language series I typically create 1 bin for the entire week and allow access to it every day (sometimes multiple times a day).

I hope you will use these tips to teach your child how to use a sensory bin. While they can definitely make a mess, children LOVE them. If taught the right way with firm rules in place, they can provide unlimited learning opportunities in a play setting and pave the way for independent play.

Check out how we use sensory bins in our Using Everyday Objects for Language Series:


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