If you’ve ever Googled or searched Pinterest for something like ‘Learning Activities for Preschoolers,’ you’ve probably seen ideas for sensory bins. They are basically large containers filled with materials and objects to create a tactile environment for engaging a child’s senses.
Sensory bins seem to be everywhere on the Internet these days: Many caregivers create bins for young children based around the seasons, holidays, or particular interests of children, so it seems that sensory bins can require a lot of materials. Some adults also fill sensory bins with specialty fillers (like DIY colored rice or homemade cloud dough), so it can appear that sensory bins require a lot of preparation time.
And speaking of fillers, sensory bins can contain a variety of wet, sticky, and spill-able fillers. So…it looks like sensory bins can also get pretty messy.
Loads of materials…lots of prep time…messy. Sounds great, right?
But, when broken down to its basic components, sensory bins can actually be simple, educational, and extremely fun for young children and their caregivers.
They also serve an important role in allowing children to explore STEM learning in a way that is play-based and creative. And sensory bins don’t have to look like the picture-perfect ones on Pinterest.
All you need is a container, some type of filler, simple household objects, and an understanding of the benefits of sensory play. There are even simple ways to cut down on the mess!
So if you’re not ready to spend days piecing together the perfect sensory bin, but you are excited to explore the learning potential of these bins for your children or students, consider these tips on creating practical (but still fun and engaging) sensory bins that promote STEM learning.
Understand How Sensory Play Supports STEM Learning
Sensory bins can provide young children with plenty of opportunities to stimulate their senses.
This is important for STEM education because, according to the Boston Children’s Museum, “Sensory exploration helps children build the basic science skills of observing what is happening and using words to describe what they sense.”
Moreover, play that engages the senses is a vital way for children to process, understand, and better retain new information. And sensory bins are also just plain fun! Kids love the freedom to touch, scoop, dig, and explore.
Because play is natural for young children, sensory bins are a great way to facilitate STEM learning through activities that are open-ended, creative, and play-based.
Use Practical Containers
While there are many specialty sensory tables and containers on the market, children can just as easily explore with simple household containers. Any container that is large enough for children to dig into (without spilling the filler out) is great for a sensory bin.
Basic plastic storage bins are a great option because they are inexpensive, durable, and easy to clean. In our house, we repurposed the plastic baby bathtub that we got from the hospital after our daughter was born for our sensory bin.
Even plastic ice cream buckets would work well!
Find the Right Filler
Yes, DIY rainbow rice is beautiful…but it isn’t absolutely necessary. Plain water, soapy water, dry beans, good old white rice, dry oatmeal, popcorn kernels, or even shredded paper are easy, convenient, and engrossing fillers that don’t require any extra preparation. Each type of filler also offers new ways for children to explore and investigate. Ask children how the filler feels, what it looks like, and what happens to different objects in each type of filler.
Use What You Already Have
Children can explore sensory bins with objects from around your home or classroom, so there isn’t any need to purchase extra or specialty items.
Children can use measuring cups to scoop, mixing spoons to dig, tongs to pinch, and funnels to sift.
These common objects are beneficial to STEM learning because they are technological tools that can help children develop their fine motor control.
They also aid children in developing early math skills by allowing them to use measuring tools and study units of measurement.
Manage the Mess
Sensory bin play doesn’t have to end in a huge mess.
As mentioned above, make sure your container is deep enough so the filler doesn’t escape as children explore.
For at-home play, take your container to the bathtub!
This contains any spills into a smaller area leaving less to clean.
If you’d like children to explore a sensory bin on a table, try putting a waterproof mattress pad underneath the bin to suck up any liquid or trap any filler that escapes the bin.
Get an “All-in-One” Kit
If you’re wanting an easy way to have all your sensory bin needs in one spot, there are now plenty of “all-in-one” sensory bin kits.
This ocean-themed kit (which allows children to explore with water bead filler, scooping tongs, and sea creature figures) has everything you need, including the container!
There are also kits for insect, rainforest, and dinosaur-themed sensory play.
Have Open-Ended Questions in Mind
Keeping a list – or just making a mental note – of open-ended questions to guide children as they engage in sensory play can expand on children’s ideas and natural curiosity.
Open-ended questions have no “correct” answer, so they can create new ideas, spark new solutions to problems, and create a dialogue about play.
This is beneficial in STEM learning because, when children investigate their sensory experiences and use language to describe them, they are engaging in the work of real scientists (who ask questions, observe, and share their findings with others).
As children play, try asking questions like:
a. What are you trying to do?
b. What do you think will happen if _______?
c. Why do you think ________ happened?
d. Can you describe how _________ looks/feels?
Now that you’ve learned some practical ways to incorporate sensory bins into your home or classroom, start soon and see how children’s investigative skills emerge as they explore. And remember, sensory play doesn’t have to be complicated.
All it takes are some simple materials, basic household objects, open-ended questions, and a lot of curiosity to reap the benefits of this fun, STEM-bolstering play.