A Year of Sensory Bins

A sensory bin is any container filled with small items for an activity.  Often, they are themed.  A sensory bin can be a fancy pre-made bin that fits into a table.  It can also be any tub or container.  Having a fitted lid allows you to store your sensory bin and use it for quiet play (a.k.a keeping the kids busy while you are busy with other tasks).  You can make mini bins out of plastic shoe boxes or pencil cases to keep hands and minds occupied during travel or when you need to stay put and wait.

Sensory bins can be…..duh…used for sensory exploration (shaving cream, water beads, rice, beans, etc.).  But, they can also be a means of fostering organized or pretend play, working on fine motor skills (stirring, pouring, scooping) and building language.  Objects in the bin can be labelled, sorted, categorized, counted, compared and described.  These are all language tasks.  Sensory experiences can be calming and help with self-regulation.  New an varied sensory experiences provide opportunities for expanding play and flexible thinking….new experiences builds new neurons in the brain.

I have a sensory bin in my office and its contents change every 2 weeks.  The kids love it and they always check it when they first arrive to see what is there.  I like sensory bins because they allow for controlled play….there are boundaries and a finite number of objects.  They are good for practicing independent play, expanding attention to task (staying at the bin for a given amount of time, utilizing whatever is there) and language work as I join in the play for questioning, modelling and language expansion.  Its easy to find books that pair with the theme for continued language learning.

So, here is a year’s worth of themed ideas for your sensory bins at home:



 Snow and snowmen

Small snowmen made from socks or purchased.  (wind up toys, resin snowmen from decorative village collectibles, mini stuffed animals, Playmobil are all options).  Add a shovel and a small toy sled.  (A mini frisbee can be a disc sled.  The snowmen can take a ride!)

Add snow:  instasnow (Wal-Mart, Amazon or craft stores), homemade snow (baking soda and shaving cream), cotton balls or packing peanuts.

Arctic Animals

Replace the snowmen with polar bears, seals, whales and penguins.



red and pink things

In honor of Valentine’s day, fill the bin with red and pink….pom poms, Mardi Gras beads, plastic jewels, Legos, stringing beads, blocks, tinsel, bouncy balls, flamingos, cardinals….the ideas are endless.  Have your child do a scavenger hunt around your house to find things for the red and pink bin.


Find a selection of toy penguins (Orientaltradingcompany.com has some).  Use the cubes from and old “Don’t Break the Ice” game, or use some other white blocks.  For temporary added fun, use real ice cubes!



Bugs and Butterflies

Fill the bin with plastic bugs and butterflies from the dollar store.  Include a bug catcher, a magnifying glass, a net and a set of large kids’ tweezers or tongs.  Use Easter grass, green noodles, green rice or potting soil.


Create a farm by filling the bottom of the bin with unpopped popcorn.  Add a rake from your beach toys collection along with a tractor or two.  Complete the farm with farm animals and a barn.


grass       ducks

eggs and spring 

Hide tiny toys in plastic Easter eggs.  Include decorating grass for hiding small eggs.  See my last post for details on this fun spring bin.  0newordatatime.wordpress.com/…/a-fun-spring-activity

Your child will love opening the eggs to find the treasures inside.  Sort eggs by color or by size.  Practice counting and prepositions


Fill your bin with an inch of water and add rubber ducks.  I have a collections of ducks from old Lucky Ducks games.  Make it a pond with plastic leaves.  Work on comparing and contrasting the ducks and verbs as the ducks swim, dive, jump, flap, walk, fly, etc.




Make your bin into a tool box with wooden blocks, Lincoln logs and plastic tools.  This is enough for hours of play, but if you want to take it a step further add large screws with nuts and bolts which are great for fine motor practice.  Keep a plastic hard hat nearby for your little one to wear while building.


Move your bin outside on the warm spring days.  Fill it with water and add plastic fish.  (Bonus if you can find wind-up fish that can swim when activated).  Make a stop in the aquarium section of Wal Mart or a pet store and pick up  plastic aquatic plants and aquarium rocks to add to the mix.   Use a toy fishing rod (or craft your own with a stick, string and a pipe cleaner hook).  Then, spend your afternoons fishing without leaving home.  (And no smelly fish to clean).



ice cream

This year, I’ll be filling my June bin with a Lego ice cream set and plastic cones and scoops of ice cream from toy food sets.  I even found some ice cream shaped “Easter eggs” that I’ll add.  These can be opened and closed and tiny toys hidden inside.  I’ll toss in a lightweight ice cream scoop and we will be ready to set up our ice cream shop!  There is so much vocabulary that can be reinforced when playing with ice cream….colors, flavors, fruits, candies and counting terms.  There is also the opportunity to work on sequencing and pretend play.  I’m sure there will be some real ice cream for some of my kiddos who come for social skills groups or for feeding.


When we’ve had our fill of ice cream (is that even a thing?), I’ll put a couple inches of water to the bin and add toy boats.  There are lots of kinds of boats, so a boat themed activity is good for describing, comparing and contrasting as well as vocabulary expansion (canoe, kayak, tug boat, yacht, dinghy….you get the picture).  Getting a little sprinkling of wetness is also fun as the days of summer begin to grow warmer.


ocean pic        beach

beach and ocean animals

Keep your summer themed bin changing by adding new things each week.  Start with some shells (available at dollars stores, craft stores or beach stores) and some sand.  I like glittery craft sand.  Toss in small balls, drink umbrellas, pieces of cloth for towels and miniature chairs if you can find them.  Shells are good for counting, sorting and comparing.  There are so many new words that are associated with the beach (waves, shore, lifeguard, surf, seagulls, sand bar, whirl pool….the list can go on and on).  To change things up, add a plastic bucket and shovel for scooping.  Shells make a great sound when they are scooped and dumped into a bucket!  Another twist would be to replace the sand with kinetic sand for castle building.

When you have exhausted all of the shell and sand play ideas, add animals….crabs, seals, fish, birds, lobsters, octopuses, sea stars and sea horses.  Add some water or blue water beads for underwater play adventures!  Again, there will be many opportunities for new vocabulary and descriptive play.  Find books about ocean creatures and use the toys to act out the book.




August is my favorite therapy month of the year.  I have a fun collection of pirate books, toys, puzzles and games.  And my bin is always filled with pirate treasures.  I have a small plastic treasure chest and loads of plastic gold coins, jewels and shiny trinkets.  These are all things that can be found in your jewelry box, a thrift store, a craft store or dollar store.  I always toss in bandannas and eye patches so the kids can dress the part while playing.

Use a sharpie to write letters on the gold coins.  Have your child search for a particular letter, find the letters to spell their name or spell a word from a the letters on a handful of coins.  You can also use the coins for counting, adding and subtracting.




September comes with more structure to our days, particularly if your children are starting preschool or school.  For a new kindergartener, a bin of buses and people can help them role play riding the bus to and from school to make that new task easier for them.  Filling it with craft supplies (crayons, paper scraps, decorative scissors, stickers, glue sticks and stamps) can help ease the transition back into structured learning and it might even come in handy for those beginning-of-the-school-year-all-about-me projects.



Fall is my second favorite time for sensory bin fun.  Fill your bin with a variety of dried beans for the sensory play of scooping and pouring.  I like to use a funnel to talk about sizes and shapes of the beans….not everything can fit through the small opening of the funnel.  Then, add items to represent signs of autumn such as plastic pumpkins and apples.  I especially like the small plastic pumpkins designed to hold treats…they are great for filling with beans.

Later in the month, add in plastic spiders and any other Halloween themed toys you can find.  Hide spiders in the beans for the kids to find.  Pair play with fall and Halloween themed books.  Keep the books in or near the bin for matching and role play.



Find a friend with an oak tree and offer to collect the fallen acorns for your sensory bin.  Believe it or not, acorns last a long time.  I’ve been using the same batch for 5 years!  Most have lost their caps, but that’s ok because now we sort acorns and caps and try to fit caps on the acorns by determining their sizes.  You can have a nice nature lesson by talking about how many animals collect and store nuts for their winter hibernation (a great vocabulary word by the way).

Later in the month add colored leaves as you talk about how leaves change in the fall.  Use real or artificial leaves.  Leaves can be sorted by size, type or color.  They can be used to make crayon rubbings or  or preserved between pieces of waxed paper with an iron.



The beginning of December is for gingerbread houses.  Since you will be very busy with all things holiday related, make a bin for your child to keep him/her busy while you are busy.  Cover a small bird house with Velcro dots.  Then, add Velcro dots to pom poms, pieces of shaped fun foam, and plastic candies found in the floral section of your favorite craft store.  Your children will love making and re-making gingerbread houses.  To add a learning component, make several samples and take photos of them.  Print the photos and have your child decorate a house to match the photo.

As Christmas rolls near and the activity in your house ramps up, fill the bin with sensory toys.  The opportunity to engage in sensory activities can be calming in the midst of chaos and can be an outlet for stress or overstimulation.  Suggestions:  jingle bells, tinsel, sparkly pom poms, water beads, plastic Christmas decorations, rice and glitter, packing peanuts, bubble wrap, colorful ribbons or scarfs, the contents of your junk drawer….anything really that is novel and fun to look at an hold.

I hope that you try a sensory bin in your home and enjoy the sensory, education and fun benefits and it that it helps your children learn one word at a time!





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