Sensory bins. Pinterest is overflowing with them. Seasonal bins. Color-themed bins. Alpha-based bins. Shape-based bins. You name it. There is a sensory bin linked on Pinterest for that!
Of all the activities I find on Pinterest, sensory bins are the ones that sadden me the most – because my son just can’t play with them.
So, I’m starting this series off with tips for creating and using sensory bins in ways that make it safer and more adapted to the needs of a child with delays or sensory aversions.
This Pinterest screenshot shows a sample of the variety of sensory bins you can create. Most of these are unsafe for a child who still mouths everything.
Why sensory bins may be a challenge for children with special needs
- Small parts are a choking hazard for child who still mouth everything.
- A child who has a tendency to throw things across the room will create a huge mess, but may also hurt/ damage other people/things, or even himself.
- Sensory overload is an issue for children with sensory integration issues! While we want children to be exposed to different sensory experiences, some of the bins we find have so much going on that they may cause a child with special needs to shut-down completely.
- Bins may be too deep or too difficult to reach into for a child in an adapted chair.
- Some bin themes do not meet the developmental level of the child with delays.
- Children with special needs can rarely play with this type of activity unattended. Because of the nature of the contents, you cannot just leave a sensory bin out for free-play like we see so many of the kids on Pinterest images do.
- Attention span is often an issue with children with special needs – especially when something like a sensory bin just doesn’t make sense to them.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for sensory bins
Hopefully, these will trigger some ideas for you. The suggestions are also meant to help you comb through Pinterest to locate activities that are completely doable for your child – because there are many that are.
- Choose your container wisely. If your child can play with a bin while seated on the floor, the depth might not be such a big issue. But, if your child is seated on his adapted chair at a table, be sure not to select a container that is too deep. Ideally, sensory bins should be wide and shallow. Having a container with a lid is ideal if you want to reuse the bin for several weeks.
I started with a laundry basket and some variety of paper for tearing and crunching. While a laundry basket is deep, this is a great one to use for children who can sit on the floor as it can easily be tilted without everything falling out.
- Begin with one sensory element at a time. The whole point of sensory bins is to help your child develop tolerance for different sensations. Even one object can have a ton of things going on like color, texture, and size. Imagine what an overload it can be for a child if there are a tons of different items in one bin! Over a span of time (days or even a couple of weeks), add one more element and, then, yet another. I wouldn’t use more than 3 different categories of items in total.
This is a small bin I have as part of a shelf unit. It’s small and it’s shallow. I added a silk scarf and some textured balls. Two categories of items make for a simple sensory bin.
- Select large-sized objects to fill the bin with. Usually, there is a base element in a sensory bin. Pinterest is full of ideas for tiny things like pebbles, rice, or popcorn kernels. Avoid those completely unless you know your child is able to work with these items safely. I suggest using large materials like newsprint paper, tissue paper, flannel sheets, fabric, large sheets of sandpaper, and silk scarves as base elements. For play-objects, think of the largest items your child can explore safely. Large wood chips, or large stones (not for throwers) are some possible fillers.
- Use familiar objects first. What’s the point of placing objects your child already plays with in a bin? The novelty of having his wooden blocks sitting in a box surrounded by tissue paper is incredibly motivating for a child. It allows your child to take the first step of reaching in and grabbing what he likes. He’s intrigued by the object the knows, and he’s just tackled the skill of pulling an object out of a container. When there is more than one item in there, he may get that additional sensory experience of touching two textures or hearing two sounds.
Colorful tissue paper and colorful irregular shaped wooden blocks – familiar toys among novelty.
- Eventually introduce new objects in the bin. Sensory bins are exciting because they’re new and different from your child’s usual play routine. When you pull out the container at a specific part of your day, you will most likely get your child’s attention immediately. Get creative with the objects you use from around your house that you know are safe. Some additional suggestions besides toys are: child-sized utensils, tools for daily living like a comb, toothbrush, hairbrush, brushes of different kinds, etc.
- Build language skills. There are tons of opportunities for building language skills with these bins as there are a limited number of items but an unlimited number of words to go along with them. Besides the obvious labeling of objects (which helps build receptive language), you can use verbs in a verbal routine like: “Crunch, crunch, crunch the paper!” or “Tap, tap, tap the blocks” or “Rolllllllll the ball.” After a while, you will connect some of the activities you do daily with the verbal routines you use during sensory bin-play (and vice versa).
Anything can be used as a container. I emptied my son’s drum, which has a lid, and added large sheets of fabric: felt, cotton, satin in a variety of colors.
- Use the communication tools your child already uses. If your child is non-verbal and uses ASL (signs) or PECS or other AAC, then incorporate that into the sensory play. Sign and teach him the signs for the names of the objects. For PECS you may need advanced planning for photo-taking and laminating. You can have the 2 or 3 categories of words on the cards to either hold up or have him select as he plays along with the sensory items.
- Build excitement and success. For more language play, vary your own excitement level as you introduce the objects or entice your child to find or touch certain objects. “Ooh! You found a ball! YAH!” or “Find ball. You found it!” or “What’s that? A block! WOW!” If your child is able to locate objects upon your request, you need to reward him with lots of praise. “You did it!” works miracles for my son. I just need to say that phrase that and he inevitably requests MORE.
- Aim to target as many senses as possible – over a period of time. You certainly don’t want sensory overwhelm by having items that target all 5 senses at once. But, do keep the 5 senses in mind when you don’t know how to plan the contents of a bin. Once your child gets the idea of what sensory bins are all about, you could combine two elements like touch and smell (add a drop of essential oil on newsprint paper), or touch and sight (tissue paper and colored blocks), or sound and touch (rattles of different textures). You will find your options limitless. I would stay away from taste for sensory bins because you don’t want to confuse your child who already may mouth objects.
- Keep it short. Don’t expect your child to sit for hours with sensory bins. If you are just introducing these bins, start with 3 to 5 minutes. Build to 10, 15, then 20 minutes. And, really, if all your child will ever do is 5 minutes, celebrate that!
This was a winter-themed bin I prepared. It contains large cotton balls and a few of my son’s construction trucks. I have to say, because of the smaller size of the balls, I watched my little guy like a hawk. However, because he didn’t care for the texture much, he never once tried to mouth them!
- Use different body parts. If your child cannot use his hands, what about his feet? Place a sensory bin at his feet and have him shuffle around in there! In that case, you can use just about anything without having to worry about him mouthing the items since they’re far from his face. You might consider having him squish about in pudding or dirt or even cooked, but cooled spaghetti! Oh! The sensory experiences are endless!
- Build a box that matches the developmental level of your child. If the ideas above are just too easy for your child, by all means, bump it up! I believe that children of all ages can benefit from sensory bins. Older children may be more interested in scientific items, or water-play (that’s a sensory bin too – only if you deem it safe for your child), or play with dirt, sand and flour. I didn’t specifically discuss ideas for older children with more advanced levels because you’d probably be able to use the sensory bin ideas you find on Pinterest without a problem.
This is an example of a sensory box with a lid. Last spring, I prepared a farm-based theme using straw (which can get messy enough to warrant a lid when storing) and farm animals. While I worried about the raffia, my little guy never placed them in his mouth. This indicates to me that I can continue using this as a base from time to time.
It’s important to note that no matter how advanced your child is, you should always supervise your child while playing with sensory bins.
Have more adapted/ modified ideas? Share them! How do you play with sensory bins?
If you’re looking more ideas for sensory activities for your child beyond sensory bins, I offer consultations to homeschooling parents of children with special needs. I’d love to connect with you.