Sensory Bins: Encouraging New Pathways

by | Jan 27, 2022 | Educators, Parents

Sensory bins are a common tool in childcare. They are an inexpensive way to allow children at many stages of development to enjoy the delights of a multitude of colours, textures, and even smells or sounds. A container filled with hidden or submerged objects can be used to stimulate the senses. They provide opportunities to play and grow in surprising ways.

Making Memories, Enhancing our Experiences

We make sense of the world not just through our eyes, but by smelling, touching, tasting and listening to things around us. When we talk about these experiences we build vocabulary, and we are more able to recall information from multi-sensory experiences. The smell of food cooking in your grandparent’s kitchen, the refreshing cool of a summer’s breeze, sand between your toes: these are the ingredients for rich experiences and memories.

The more we use our senses, the more we reinforce pathways in our brains that encourage development; so sensory play is especially beneficial for children on the autism spectrum, or for any other neurodiverse individuals with sensory integration issues. People of all ages get more enjoyment out of life when all the senses are activated.

A simple bin filled with objects can be used as an opportunity for many kinds of learning. When children have their senses stimulated they are more likely to be able to recall information later, making Sensory Bins a rich opportunity for building language and vocabulary, promoting social interactions, and developing motor skills. It can also be used as a calming activity, supporting independent play in a fun therapeutic way.

How to Make a Sensory Bin

  1. Start with a container. You can use a storage tub, cardboard box or cooking tray big enough for children to manipulate contents without spilling.
  2. Fill the container with a uniform filler – one main ingredient to use as a medium to submerge objects in.
    • Dry filler ideas:
      • sand
      • dry rice
      • uncooked pasta
      • potting soil
      • shredded paper
      • uncooked beans
      • un-popped popcorn
      • buttons
      • beads
    • Wet filler ideas (if you have time for a more involved clean-up):
      • water
      • gelatin
      • shaving foam
      • clay
      • playdoh
  3. Choose a multitude of other objects to submerge in your medium; using things with different colours, textures, shapes, and sizes.
    • You can use scented items or objects that make noise to stimulate many different senses at once.
    • You can provide a variety of mixes, and theme them around the children’s interests skills.

Safety First

  • First and foremost, be aware of the child’s developmental stage, and if they are still exploring objects with their mouths be sure to use pieces large enough to avoid choking hazards, as well as non-toxic ones.
  • Even if this is a solo, calming activity, you will need to supervise.
  • Each child has their own needs and limits, avoid overstimulation.

How Sensory Bins Enhance the Learning Experience

Special Needs

  • A special need can provide barriers, but sensory stimulation is still important.
  • Sometimes the self-stimulatory behaviors (stimming) that we see with neurodiverse children, like hand flapping, spinning and shaking – though not worrisome – may indicate that the child is seeking to control and understand sensory input.
  • If a child dislikes Sensory Bins, start slowly and offer lots of encouragement.
  • The experience can be altered for children with different learning needs.
  • Children who are oversensitive might get more benefit while wearing gloves at first.
  • For children who need more stimulation to stay engaged, consider adding scents, background music, and a greater variety of sizes, colours, or textures – and make it a game!

Improve Vocabulary and Language Skills

  • Ask questions about the objects the children are feeling, talking about texture, colour, sounds, and shapes.
  • Hide letter shapes to sort and spell when they are found.

Support Cognitive Development

  • Sort shapes by size and colour.
  • Engage precursors to science skills by making predictions, following up with observations.
  • Conduct small experiments using things that squish, sink, support, and float.
  • Play games that involve memory or problem-solving, finding things, and putting things together.
  • Count different objects and hide number shapes.

Build Social Skills

  • When Sensory Bins are used together you can practice taking turns, team work, cooperation, and communication.
  • Just being close to one another takes us closer to interaction.

Improve Motor Skills

  • Tactile interaction with objects, interpreting things by touch alone, is an essential skill for all children
  • Manipulating objects teaches us how our bodies work, helping us to process and interpret the world.
  • Children can explore with their hands, but can also used tools, like tongs, to increase hand strength.
  • Incorporate spoons, shovels, and scoops to encourage grasp patterns that are also used for writing and feeding utensils.
  • You can focus on strengthening the same muscles that are needed for daily life.

Sensory Bins help children discover, over and over, the objects and sensations they like and will help you to identify how they learn best. You will find out what calms them and what excites them, as well as learn some things about your own preferences. When we engage our senses we activate what’s most enjoyable about being human, relishing in the richness of our bodies and the world around us.


Shea Proulx spent her twenties going to forest-raves, becoming over-educated, and making tiny copies of herself and her husband, Ryan. Shea returned to Calgary, the land of her birth in 2013 and started spending every hour she could scrounge away from childrearing to make books. Alice at Naptime and ABC Monstrosity were both published by Renegade Arts and Entertainment and you can learn more about them and her other projects at Shea’s work is a nerdy trip, where memories and observations co-mingle to form sweet psychedelic spaces, and visual narratives steal the show.