Sensory play can be extremely beneficial for a child’s development: it can refine motor skills, encourage cognitive thinking and can help calm an anxious kid. Materials with interesting sensory attributes (think: sticky, cold, bumpy, scented or snappy) can help children make observations about the world, all while entertaining them for longer than traditional toys or crafts. Read on for a collection of fun sensory activities to tackle with your family during your next free afternoon.
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Use this basic slime recipe to mix up a few batches, then let kids customize with color and glitter at will. Slime provides a great medium to investigate color mixing. Start with a set of primary colors (red, yellow and blue) and challenge children to mix new shades. Slime produces an auditory stimulus too; it’s super smackable when kneaded, which most kids love to hear.
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If you have an aspiring scientist or two at home, consider conducting this little kitchen experiment. You can create your own "living painting" using just milk and food coloring. Little ones will love watching the colors swirl and mix like magic right before their eyes. For more careful crafters, try pressing a blank sheet of paper to the painted milk to capture the design.
Pro tip: higher fat milk is the best base for maximum swirling and color movement.
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Soak a pile of pom poms in a plastic storage bin, then freeze overnight. Break out the bin and place on top of towel for exploratory playtime. As the ice melts, more pom poms are loosened for wet, squishy fun that stays dynamic and interesting. Don’t forget the towel; things get wet and messy quickly with this activity.
Pro tip: give kids paint brushes, wooden spoons, or plastic sand shovels to manipulate the slush and pom poms without freezing their fingers.
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Using just a few basic groceries, you can create fully edible, colorful fingerpaints. Be sure to cover the entire surface in preparation for this activity as it can get quite messy. Kids, as young as toddlers, can dip hands into the goopy paint and apply to sturdy paper. These colors are vibrant, but won’t dry like traditional paint, so it’s best to photograph your little one’s artworks in order to treasure them forever.Continue to 5 of 19 below.
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For a scented, colorful play experience, mix flavored gelatin powder, warm water and dish soap. Spin the mixture through the blender for a foamy, bubbly texture. Mix up a few different colors, then add them all to a plastic bin. Keep a close eye on little ones during playtime, though, the sweet smells of these flavored foams are tempting but are not safe to be ingested.
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Cornstarch makes the perfect, squishy filling for a homemade stress ball. Inflate a balloon partially, then carefully funnel in the powder. Kids can help decorate (permanent marker is perfect) and finish the stress ball. The filling process here can get a little tricky and is best left to the adults. Send one to school if you have an anxious student. This bit of tactile sensation can be really comforting during a tricky test.
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This activity couldn’t be easier to set up: simply freeze a plastic dinosaur in a bowlful of water overnight. Once frozen, slide the ice chunk out and into a lipped pan (to cut down on the mess), then challenge kids to excavate the dino with table salt and kitchen utensils. Little ones learn early science lessons as they observe how the salt helps melt the ice, and their attention won’t wane until the dino breaks free.
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Your little ones have surely created original jewelry using it (macaroni necklace, anyone?), so why not incorporate it into playtime too? Boil a huge batch of long noodles (fettuccine or spaghetti work well), rinse with cool water, and dye with gelatin food color. Throw the pasta into a bin, then let kids get messy swirling and twirling it through their fingers. Practice arranging the noodles in rainbow order by using 7 different shades.Continue to 9 of 19 below.
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Fill a large plastic tub with shaving foam, then dump in toy cars and plastic letters. The more variety in shape, size and color of your objects, the better. Arm kids with a spray bottle of water and challenge them to find certain items. (“Find two red things” or “Find the letter that makes the emm sound.”) Then rinse them clean. Or better yet, pair kids together and encourage them to test each other. They’ll love racing the clock to locate the most hidden items.
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Reach for a clean plastic bottle to DIY a relaxing, soothing sensory toy for children. Remove any labels from the bottle, then fill with glitter glue, water, hand soap, and even more glitter. Kids can customize their own relaxation bottles with shiny beads, sequins, or food coloring. In a pinch, clear hair gel works in place of handsoap. The more soap or hair gel, the slower the bottle’s contents move, so experiment with varying recipes to find the best combinations for your child.
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Jumbo balsa craft sticks are the perfect base for identifying different textures. Hot glue assorted objects to the tips of the sticks (think: feathers, velcro, pom poms or silly putty), then challenge kids to describe what they feel. Once little ones get comfortable with the sticks, encourage them to create their own. For a fun game, toss all the sticks into a paper sack and kids can reach in and guess which ones they touch.
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Get kids involved in the setup of this activity; it’s simple and fun to observe the colorful transformations. Separate batches of uncooked rice into freezer bags, then drop in a few squirts of gel food dye. Smush the food coloring thoroughly through the grains of rice, then bake to set the dye. Pour the colorful rice into a plastic tub, and kids can create illustrations, build towers or mix and then separate the grains.Continue to 13 of 19 below.
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Bring the joy of experiencing a totally new texture to your little ones with kinetic sand. A little bit smooshy, a little firm and a lot of fun, kinetic sand can be 100 percent homemade and sculpted into most shapes. Combine fine grain sand (available at most craft stores) with cornstarch, water and soap for a sculptable, pliable material. Regular sand toys are great accompaniment when making and exploring with kinetic sand.
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Incentivize learning letters and numbers through gamification with this clever activity. Again, a plastic storage bin keeps everything together for this learning experience, so fill one with a couple of inches of water, toss in magnetic letters and encourage kids to fish for specific sounds, colors or values with a handheld magnetic wand. For little ones beginning to read, encourage them to spell simple words with letters “fished” from the bin.
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Little else captures kids’ imaginations like a sticky, weird, brightly-colored substance. Somewhere between slime, putty and syrup, oobleck changes its viscosity with the amount of pressure applied to it. That means kids can smoosh it into a ball, then release it into a puddle. It’s simple to make, too: just combine water, cornstarch, and food coloring. Oobleck is super fun to sieve through empty fruit containers, swirl with other colors and mold into simple sculptures.
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Raid the recycling bin for this quick craft. You’ll need a clean, empty water bottle with its label completely removed. Fill the bottle with water and colorful rubber bands (or beads or buttons or any other bauble), then use a hot glue gun to permanently attach the cap. Kids, as young as toddlers, can entertain themselves twisting and turning this fascinating, mesmerizing DIY.Continue to 17 of 19 below.
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Recycle used gift boxes, cardboard shipping containers or old shoe boxes into this easy teaching tool. Cover each side in a different fabric or texture, then add to the toy chest for playtime. When working with kids older than toddlers, involve them in the creation of this easy do-it-yourself toy.
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Kids can take part in every stage of this indoor snow project, from the making, to the playing, to the cleanup. Hand mix baking soda and shaving cream in a large bowl, then add glitter until your desired level of sparkle is achieved. Form snowballs, igloos or mini-snowmen with your faux snow, then wash it all away when playtime is over. This easy activity brings all the fun of a snow day indoors and doesn’t require bundling up.
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Use a piece of cardboard, plywood or even foam board, as a base for a make-your-own sensory board. Attach things that roll, things you can push, fuzzy things and bouncy things. Challenge kids to find different household items to attach to the board themselves, then add the completed board to the playroom for lots of easy entertainment.